By Laura Schreiber
PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 16, 2007
The hunger strike that has waged on for more than a week ended Friday night following a request made by the Coalition to Preserve Community for the strikers to pull their final demands off of the table.
At the strikers’ 9 p.m. vigil, about 70 students and community members in support of the strike gathered as the four striking students and Barnard professor Dennis Dalton announced their decision and broke their fast on bread.
“When the administration told me I had to stop [the strike] because of my health, I was totally unwilling,” Bryan Mercer, CC ’07, said. “Hearing from the community their concerns and seeing the administration make no move forward on the expansion demands meant that it made a lot of sense to move onto new tactics.”
A total of seven students and one professor have engaged in the hunger strike at various points since November 7 in opposition to University policies regarding academics, administration, and the proposed Manhattanville expansion. Following a series of initiative proposals made Wednesday by administrators, the strikers removed all demands from the table except for those regarding the expansion.
“It’s the best resolution because we end the strike out of victory with the administration and respect from the community,” Victoria Ruiz, CC ’09 and one of the strikers, said.
Ruiz thanked all those who supported the strike as well as a small group of students nearby the vigil holding signs against the strike reading “650+ Columbia students disagree.” “We get to work and community build until those signs don’t exist,” Ruiz said.
An anti-strike movement has questioned the hunger strikers’ commitment to representing all student views, claiming that their demands should not be prioritized by the administration when many students disagree with them.
Strikers emphasized that their protest of the expansion will persist despite the end of the strike.
“The day after the revolution is just as important as the revolution itself,” Emilie Rosenblatt, CC ’08 and one of the strikers said. “Our work is just beginning.”
Community members present also said they had strong faith in the students’ continued support in their opposition to the expansion.
“We await for them [students] until after the land use proposal to stand with us and with the Harlem community in front of the bulldozers,” CPC member Tom DeMott said.
“This is the end of phase one of student activism to demand changes necessary to make them not only 21st century professionals but 21st century citizens,” Community Board Nine member Dr. Vicky Gholson said. “I was very disappointed that Columbia could not collectively come together and give the students demonstrative and tangible signs complying with demands in relation to the Columbia expansion.”
The CPC lauded the strikers' success in publicizing their concerns about the expansion, but said they believed that the students' health would become at risk before Columbia would agree to the requested changes in the expansion.
"We do not want the students' health and welfare to be sacrificed in waiting on Columbia to engage in an honest dialogue and negotiation with the community on the rezoning application," the CPC statement said.
The strikers demanded that Columbia immediately recall of expansion plan 197c and revise it until it met with local community approval, as well as pull eminent domain off of the table regarding the expansion.
"They [the strikers] have done a great job bringing the true nature of Columbia's eviction plan out in the open, but we have all seen over the past five days that Columbia is stonewalling them, as it has stonewalled the community, on this issue."
The CPC's statement also noted that the Coalition requested that the strikers' remove the withdrawal of the 197c plan from their demands on November 11, but that the students refused at that time.
“Five days ago we were prepared and ready to let them [the strikers] off the hook because we saw the handwriting on the wall,” DeMott said. “We did not want them to waste their energy for too long in futile negotiation.”
The coalition in support of the strike has organized a day of silence on Monday “in solidarity with the members of the West Harlem community whose voices have been silenced by the University.”
“Since I arrived here in 1969, there has been a glass wall between the campus community and wider Harlem community,” Dalton said. “We must continue to unite to break through that wall in any way we can nonviolently.”
Dalton also described the rally of several hundred in support of the strike Wednesday night as a defining moment of student activism. “Of all the moments I’ve had on this campus that has to rank at the top,” he said.
“You are building a spark of hope in a world full of atrocity and I’m deeply grateful for the wonderful things you’ve done here,” Aubrey Brown, a graduate student at the time of the 1968 protests who was arrested, told the strikers.
In light of the strikers' demands, Columbia has committed to several Academic initiatives. These include, subject to faculty approval, the shift of Major Cultures to a seminar-style class, and "unprecedented" student input in the faculty hiring process for the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. Additionally, a review of the Office of Multicultural Affairs will include the consideration of creating a Multi-Cultural Affairs office in the Arts and Sciences.
Columbia's administration also issued a joint statement with the strikers on Friday. "The administration recognizes the deep seriousness of the student strikers' commitment to institutional changes that will reduce the marginalization experienced by some of our communities and enhance inclusiveness for all," it said.
"The students recognize the strength of the administration's commitment to advancing change through the channels that represent the interests of the whole Columbia community."