Revolution#112, December 16, 2007
Interview with Columbia University Hunger Striker
“Our fight on this campus…is connected to fights all across the country and across the world”
Between November 7 and November 16, seven students and one professor at Columbia University in New York City went on a hunger strike, raising four demands: “a core curriculum that sufficiently covers non-Western societies and global systems of power; an administration more responsive to hate crimes on campus and student concerns; a responsible expansion into West Harlem that respects the community and its residents; more faculty and financial support for Ethnic Studies programs.” By the end of the strike, the university administration agreed to meet many of the students’ demands, including major funding for changes in the core curriculum, expansion of resources towards the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Intercultural Resource Center, and hiring new faculty for Ethnic Studies. The struggle around Columbia’s expansion into West Harlem continues.
This strike, and the movement that coalesced around it, was a breath of much-needed fresh air at a time when David Horowitz and others are moving aggressively to increasingly push critical thinking out of academia. And it came in a semester at Columbia which has seen a noose hung on a Black professor’s door, repeated appearances of racist graffiti on campus, the high-profile visit of the President of Iran to the campus—all while the University tries to finalize its plan to expand into West Harlem, which would push thousands of people, mainly Black and Latino, out of the neighborhood. In the days following the strike, Revolution sat down with Bryan Mercer, one of the strikers. Below are excerpts from that interview. To learn more about the strike and its demands, visit cu-strike.blogspot.com.
Revolution: Could you talk about what the strike was in response to?
Bryan Mercer: In an immediate sense, the strike came out of a string of racist incidents on the campus: the hanging of a noose on a Black professor’s door, the spraying of swastikas on doors, and the President of Iran was brought to the University and was basically called an “evil, petty dictator” by the President of the University. And many people found that inappropriate and found the entire atmosphere around that alienating. People really saw these recent events as not disconnected from the everyday of Columbia and previous events. Four years ago students were out protesting on the steps against racist incidents, two years ago people were out protesting on the steps about racist incidents. Twelve years ago there was a hunger strike around these things. And at every one of those turns, what students were demanding of the administration was never realized. I think that combination of things really brought about the strike. And I think there was a third factor of an urgency of not just sitting in meetings around these things anymore...
Revolution: This fall there’s been a whole spate of nooses and racist incidents around the country, including at college campuses, and this came about right after the massive protests to free the Jena 6. How were you and other people involved in the strike looking at that?
Bryan Mercer: A number of us that were involved in the strike were also part of a walkout around the Jena 6 that happened on October 1 as part of a national call. What we saw and what we learned from the growing movement around freeing the Jena 6 was that we all live in Jena. And with the string of incidents on our own campus, we saw that we really do live in Jena. And we found it necessary to take response to that. And so what happened nationally around the Jena 6, I think served as an inspiration, as something that folks saw our work as connected to. And so we could look at our own history on the campus but then also look at what’s going on around the country to identify what we’re doing and why.
Revolution: One of the things that I think was powerful about the strike was the way that Ethnic Studies and a lot of the things you talked about were things that were partial victories in the ’60s that people fought for, and that since then in a lot of cases these things have been gradually taken away. And now you have this right-wing movement on campuses with people like David Horowitz who have been fighting to get rid of Ethnic Studies professors and programs. How are you seeing that?
Bryan Mercer: Yeah, it’s 2007, and not a whole lot changed. I think a big thing has been keeping that history there, remembering what we’ve done and why we do it—and I say “we” because, you know, I identify with what folks were doing in the ’60s on this campus because I wouldn’t be here on this campus if it weren’t for their work. I think there is a right-wing movement, and I think it’s really important you bring that up. Because one thing that we’ve seen on the campus is that social justice issues get framed as a mere issue of “tolerance,” or debate gets framed as “you have to have all sides” and the “proper position” is the “moderate position”—and there’s a real eroding away of ideals, ideals that people at this very university in the ’60s really fought for, and by eroding away those ideals has said, “oh well, we need to have an ‘Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week’ because the voice of the right, which is the voice of reason, is getting lost” or something like this. And really, these are just excuses for racism and to continue exploitation and domination. And I think it’s important to remember our history because it helps draw the principles that we’re actually trying to fight around from that history.
Revolution: It seems like part of what the strike addresses is: here’s an elite campus where people are being trained to occupy certain positions in society, and are they gonna know about this whole history of white supremacy and racism or not. How do you think the strike spoke to the broader student body as far as what their relation is going to be to the world?
Bryan Mercer: I think it was really mixed. The response we got from a number of people was that they came out to the vigils and began joining support for what we were doing. And students from communities across the board—students of color, white students, students of faith—felt it was important to know this history because they felt something was missing from their education, something was missing that didn’t allow them to find direction in such a complicated and often-times messed-up world. Those were the people who really sustained what we were doing and made it what it was. On the other hand, I think there were a number of people who, as soon as they heard that we were talking about racism or as soon as they heard that we were talking about Ethnic Studies or the expansion, and that was the purpose of our hunger strike, it was dismissed. There’s a Facebook group on campus now called “I do not support the hunger strike,” and it may sound trite, but most of the people on that Facebook group are white, and I think that’s indicative of how easy it is not to know that history or how easy it is not to really deal with race in America or race internationally if you’re coming from a privileged background. And I think that also proves the need for what we were doing—so that people have this knowledge and can start from that point, rather than starting from the notion that modern civilization began with Homer.
Revolution: On the whole question of Columbia University’s expansion, gentrification is a huge thing across the country and in NYC in particular, pushing poor people and oppressed people out of their neighborhoods. Columbia’s been doing this for a while and has a whole history of this in Harlem, including bulldozing over the ground where Malcolm X was killed. And this is the latest wave of it. The hunger strike made this a huge part of its demands. Could you speak to that?
Bryan Mercer: For myself, it was the most important part of the strike. It gave the strike its meaning, because we can do a lot on this campus, but if we’re not questioning our relationship to the rest of the city, and people who aren’t in the position of being behind these gates, then I’m not really sure what we’re questioning. If we aren’t building relationships that redistribute resources and create different forms of power, like the power that can come out of students and community members working together, then I don’t know what we’re fighting for...
This is people’s neighborhoods, this is people’s homes. While the University itself doesn’t have a relationship with the community, while many students do not build this relationship with the community, one thing our struggle really clearly did was show and strengthen that relationship that’s there, with people from the Coalition to Preserve Community, with people from the Harlem Tenants’ Council, with people who run community gardens in the area, do youth programming... And I think that’s really important, because it shows that: one, our struggles are really connected and dependent on each other, and two, that we’re doing what the University as an institution can’t, which is build lasting relationships with the community and mutual interest.
Revolution: Anything else you wanted to say or think is important that people hear about?
Bryan Mercer: Yeah. We fought a very local fight, we fought a fight on our campus around particular campus issues, but I hope that it has some impact on things beyond this campus. Also, our fight on this campus, especially around this expansion, is connected to fights all across this country and across the world on what development looks like and what say communities have over how capital operates in their backyards. One thing I would like to put out there is my solidarity and love for people fighting around these things across the world, because any victories around changing the neo-liberal pattern of “destroy-and-leave” capital is a victory here too.
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