Film screening review: Irum Shiekh’s On Strike! Ethnic Studies 1969-1999 and Hunger Strike, directed by Jon Silver

Roots of the Struggle Ethnic Studies Film Series continued last Wednesday with the screening of Irum Shiekh’s On Strike! Ethnic Studies 1969-1999 and Hunger Strike, directed by Jon Silver.

             Hunger Strike, an 18-minute long film produced by the Migrant Media Education Project in 1982, is a record of the hunger strike put on by the Third World And Native American Studies Support Coalition (TWANAS) at UCSC in 1981. Setting up tents outside of McHenry Library, 25 students fasted until their demands for Ethnic Studies faculty and funding were met. The film opened with a series of speakers, standing on a bench outside of McHenry library, who called for an end to compromise, and the need for “speaking our best English, and trying to be as middle-class as possible, when we [talk] to these administrators.” Students participated in a sweat before the fast, for strength. During the strike, over 600 supporters marched with signs, singing songs like “Which Side Are You On?” and “Solidarity Forever.” In student interviews, students discussed their concerns. One student questioned the use of hunger striking as a method of action, saying it was using the enemy’s weapon against oneself, as a Third World person. Another addressed the concern that people in the sciences do not take responsibility for the impacts of their research: “if research is not solving humanity’s problems, then there is something wrong with science.”

At the end of the strike, overjoyed protesters heard from negotiators with faculty that their demands had been met: 1 tenured and 1 half-time professor for Asian American Studies, and 1 tenured and 1 half-time professor for Native American Studies, as well as additional funds for one full-time position.

On Strike! Ethnic Studies 1969-1999 documented the struggle to maintain the Ethnic Studies Department at UC Berkeley, when it was once again under threat in 1999. The film began with clips of the original battle at Berkeley in the 1960’s, led by the Third World Liberation Front, and culminating in the formation of the Department after a 10-week-long strike. The documentary featured interviews from members of TWLF, including Jeff Leong, LaNada Boyer, Richard Aoki (Black Panther and leader during fight for Ethnic Studies in the 60s), Harvey Dong, Vina Nguyen Ha, and Jose Palafox.

In the early 90s, severe budget cuts to the university began, continuing a trend of detriment to the Ethnic Studies department. In an interview clip, Ling-Chi Wang, Ethnic Studies professor, described how the administration targeted Ethnic Studies. He said, “We were told to merge, consolidate, and downsize.” Meanwhile, Propositions 187, 209, and 227 passed, demonstrating the gaining momentum of backlash against immigrants. In response, there was a string of actions, including the California Hall Takeover in 1993 at Berkeley, the Affirmative Action walkout in 1995, Sproul Hall takeover in 1997, and demand for a Third World College in October of 1997.

As attacks on Ethnic Studies escalated, so did student resistance. As Laura Perez, Ethnic Studies professor described, there was “a growing blindness to the destruction of the department, and administrative channels were blocked.” On April 14th, 1999, Barrett’s Hall at Berkeley was occupied, followed by the Campbell Hall protest, a protest at the New Student Orientation, and finally a hunger strike outside of the Chancellor’s office at Berkeley on April 29th.

Only 5 students were fasting outside of the Chancellor’s office, but hundreds of supporters were present throughout the 5-day strike, demanding that Chancellor Robert Berdahl address student demands.

On May 4th, the 5th day of the action, at 3 am, the Chancellor ordered the campus police to clear out the camp, bringing empty buses to take away arrested protestors. Supporters were forcibly dragged away, some lying in front of the buses, and even the bus drivers allegedly did not want to be involved in removing the protestors. Campus police arrested over 80 people that night, but the next day a thousand came out in support at a post-arrest rally. The Chancellor finally began negotiations, while outside, supporters sang “We Shall Not Be Moved.” A TWLF member described in interview how the Chancellor refused the protesters demand for amnesty for all arrested persons, saying “The Chancellor slammed his hands on the table, and declared ‘This is a deal breaker.’ That was the moment when power just revealed itself, barefaced.”

Ultimately the final demands were signed without the demand for amnesty, but the action did secure 8 faculty positions for the department, a success.

After the films, our discussion began with heavy emotions—after witnessing how the struggle has changed since the 60s and even the 90s, and how our movement continues in a very different, and sometimes frustrating campus climate at UCSC, the task of creating a Department seemed daunting. But the actions of the past were also a source of energy and invention, and we began a discussion of how to use direct action in our current context, and build off of these inspirational actions.



About UCSC Critical Race and Ethnic Studies (CRES)

This blog is maintained by students throughout UCSC. We recognize that students have been working around Ethnic Studies for multiple decades and at many levels of the university. We claim no ownership over any movement or material that is produced. We ask that any materiel used from the blog is cited and used for only educational purposes. Most importantly that it is done with honor and respect for the many people who worked in the struggle for Ethnic Studies. We would also like to point out that the name Critical Race and Ethnic Studies (CRES) was created to acknowledge the intellectual development of Ethnic Studies since the beginning of this struggle. The name came from countless meetings and hours with many different undergrads, graduate students, and faculty.
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