The twLF Hunger Strike: A Critical View–On Tactics and a Broader Mission

Against the Current, No. 83, November/December 1999

Jared Sexton and Frank B. Wilderson III

THE MAY 7 “victory” for Ethnic Studies needs to be recognized not as another radical milestone at UC Berkeley, but as a series of political events in which it became a disturbing priority to suppress dissent, concentrate decision-making power, and enforce law-and-order within the twLF movement itself.

It was important as a moment that brought political actors back into the public space and exposed, yet again, the willingness of the administration to use police violence to maintain an unjust status quo. But equally important are the lessons we learned about how we often restrain our own most radical potential for change in action.

The vibrancy, openness and invigorating collectivity spurred by the initial Barrows Hall takeover was effectively sacrificed on the altar of Chancellor Berdahl’s negotiating table, in other words, to assure that nothing essential was changed.

Some recent history on the struggle is necessary for context here. When students on April 14 occupied Barrows Hall, the “home” of Ethnic Studies, a list of demands was issued to the chancellor including provisions for increased faculty positions, funding for research and recruitment, expanded space, a student center, a mural and, perhaps most importantly, full amnesty for students who might be arrested for exercising their First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly in a public space.

When the police did eventually sweep down on students, arresting them with the use of pain holds and wrist locks, tearing one student’s ear and punching another in the face, charges were placed upon nearly fifty students for trespassing. Everyone was cited for this charge and several others (seven in all) received additional charges for allegedly resisting arrest.

Two other students, not coincidentally both Black males, were subjected to even harsher criminal charges (there were only half a dozen Black folks out there and two ended up the most severely sanctioned).

At that point it was noted, publicly, that neither students nor faculty would even consider negotiations if amnesty was not guaranteed in advance—a basic principle of solidarity among those who realized that you simply cannot afford to leave anyone behind.

Following the Barrows Hall takeover were rallies, marches, and even another brief sit-in at Campbell Hall. This rush of activity was based on a collective commitment to non-negotiable demands.

It was said (in group meetings and public rallies) in no uncertain terms that the university would either unilaterally recognize these (admittedly humble) demands or it would have to contend with a student-led campaign that was becoming a principled nuisance, a wrench in the works of the university machine. The motto at the time was “no more business as usual.”

It bears remembering that the emergence of the “first” Third World Liberation Front in 1968 was based on the collective recognition that people of color (“oppressed nationalities,” in the parlance of the time) and progressive whites had no choice but to build political solidarity with one another if they intended to sustain a meaningful movement.

Unfortunately, once the hunger strike had crowded out all other forms of struggle, the “updated” version of the Third World Liberation Front paid little if any attention to outreaching, organizing, and conversing among the different elements of the student (as well as faculty and staff) population, who not only had vested interests in the struggle that was being mounted, but who had much to offer in the way of insight, resources and commitment to the notion of a more radically democratic campus.

The political action that condensed into the twLF did not have any definitive starting point or specific agenda. Those who have their ears to the ground will remember hearing about students wanting to take action regarding the release of admissions numbers for students of color in late March and early April. The focus at that point was about access to education, probably connected to the “affirm with action” walkout/teach-in from the fall (Octoer 1998).

Beyond that, students eventually heard about the $300,000 budget cuts in Ethnic Studies and basically opened a can of worms about the slow death of the department.

This crisis of Ethnic Studies was discussed at different points during the graduate student/faculty joint meetings of fall 1997-spring 1998 and, subsequently, during organizing meetings for “Crossing Over,” the strategy session that marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Ethnic Studies program here at Berkeley on April 9th-10th.

Norma Alarcon, professor of Ethnic Studies and Chair of the Women’s Studies Department, during a panel entitled “The Future of Ethnic Studies” (at “Crossing Over”) coined the phrase about the “starvation” of Ethnic Studies, a phrase that students then utilized in formulating the hunger strike strategy.

While this sort of political quotation is important, it should be noted that Professor Alarcon was very clear in her presentation, in her discussions with the authors of this piece and her subsequently released letter to the community, that a piecemeal approach to transforming Ethnic Studies was going to do very little good.

She clearly made the point that something more significant and fundamental needed to happen (i.e. connections with other departments, community groups, etc.) in order to generalize the critical confrontation with the powers-that-be at this place.

As mentioned, this vision was actually present in the early meetings after the Barrows Hall takeover, despite the fact that the issued demands were extremely circumscribed by a narrow focus on budget allocation and FTEs (full-time equivalent faculty positions).

Folks asserted that the demands as such were only the strategic first step in reassessing the institutional agenda of UC Berkeley and holding its administration accountable to a revitalized public (on and off campus).

To that end, the large group of students (and faculty and staff) that had gathered around these issues, for various reasons of course, voted overwhelmingly to support this approach and planned to conduct a series of actions on campus.

However, this grander, more ambitious and more dedicated approach was cast aside. The democratic vote was overturned by a small group, whose rationale for this was not political analysis but the hue and cry: We’re graduating this semester and we want to go out with a “win.” We’re going on this hunger strike despite the democratic vote and you all will just have to follow us into the world with your mobilized support.

Thus we arrived at the tactic of a hunger strike short-term, high intensity, narrowly focused. And in the end, the priority of amnesty for arrested protesters was subordinated to a concern for the meager departmental changes as outlined in the demands, and abbreviated to meet Berdahl’s “standards.”

It seems ironic that as Professor Alarcon cautioned that more proposals (to Berdahl et al) would be ineffective, we ended up moving from non-negotiable “demands” on April 14 (when amnesty was a precondition to a “settlement”) to a joint (twLF/faculty) “proposal” for the chancellor on May 7, a proposal which was substantially based on the chancellor’s compromise offer of four days earlier.

The hunger strike began with an apology (from the hunger strikers themselves—after they had gone on strike!) to the twLF for subverting the democratic decision making process in the group. It ended with a similar apology as the larger group was never consulted after negotiations. Instead, the victory celebration preempted a crucial group discussion.

The good news, however, came in the aftermath of the hunger strike. After a month of open mass meetings, the twLF was able to come to some political consensus, if not around our analysis of the events between the April 14 Barrows Hall takeover and the May 7 end of the hunger strike, then at least over our common vision and articulation of political desire.

To this end we agreed that the sacrifice of seven comrades (those with criminal and university charges still pending, as well as 150 folks with letters of reprimand still in their files), was an unacceptable mistake that had to be rectified.

We drafted a letter to Chancellor Berdahl calling for his immediate dropping of all of the charges and began plans for a series of campaigns and direct action, which would ensure his compliance by the end of the semester—or precipitate the escalation of events in fall 1999. (At the time of this writing the latter has become necessary.)

The second evidence of a political reassessment that grew out of frank debate and soul searching was our drafting of a Mission Statement, which serves two purposes.

One, it makes coherent and translatable the political desire which prompted the militancy and uncompromising mobilization of the Barrows Hall takeover (not to mention that of the initial TWLF of thirty years ago).

Secondly, it provides us with theoretical and ideological direction, to guide and, above all, sustain us in future actions when the temptations of liberal compromise and sophistry seep in to test our mettle.

We would like to close with the Mission Statement’s text in full:

“The third world Liberation Front (twLF) emerges from an understanding of the university as an oppressive institution in its organizational structure and its essential functions. In our view, the university is not confined to the campus, but spreads out to affect nearly every dimension of social and political life locally and globally. It is both produced by and productive of larger forces of injustices.

“Therefore, we begin with a deep commitment to stop the agenda at the University of California through a broad-based collective effort including students, workers (including faculty), prisoners, and community people while recognizing our different degrees of complicity with its power and privilege. This agenda includes but is not limited to the privatization of public spaces, the downsizing of academic departments in the social sciences and humanities, the mass incarceration of poor and people of color, the creation of technocratic managers, the research and development of weapons of mass destruction, and the manipulation of biotechnology and intellectual property rights for corporate interests.

“We are dedicated to exposing and severing the strategic alliances between the university, private industry, the military and the growing police state. Our struggle reflects and is supportive of larger, interdependent struggles against capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, and disrespect of the essential symbiosis between humans and nature.

“Together in the spirit of our many histories of resistance, we demand critical education (as opposed to mass schooling) that empowers the people and promotes radical social change.”

ATC 83, November-December 1999

1 comment

  1. Neocolonialism and The Third World Conference at UC Berkeley

    The revisionist neocolonial elite at UC Berkeley are celebrating the forty years since the Third World Strike to establish Black and Ethnic Studies. While the theme is decolonialism, it appears from the program outline that the black students and faculty who led the struggle for human rights at UCB have been marginalized and all other ethnic and gender groups are playing a major role.
    While we know blacks have indeed been marginalized at UCB in general, we would not expect an event to celebrate the struggle for human rights would exclude them so blatantly as to downplay the significant and critical role black students played in awakening ethnic and gender consciousness at UCB and nationwide in academia.
    After blacks initiated the struggle for academic liberation by calling for the establishment of black studies, other ethnic and gender groups joined in and rode the bandwagon to gain a foothold in white academia. Yes, other ethnic groups were along side blacks as they spearheaded the fight, but the black role in igniting radical consciousness was critical and fundamental. To celebrate without them is like having a party without inviting the cook to join in, leaving her/him in the kitchen.
    It has always been my view that blacks will find themselves on the bottom rung of the multicultural ladder when uniting with their socalled third world comrades, thus I maintain a nationalist position first, any other unity is secondary. Otherwise we shall end up diluted, polluted and excluded, as we see at this socalled Third World Celebration to supposedly continue the push for the decolonization of the university.
    We know that reactionaries have had forty years to entrench themselves in ethnic studies, to gain tenure and exclude radicals from representation in departments they struggled to establish. This happened nationwide, so UC Berkeley is not an isolated case. But even the reactionary blacks have been outflanked by other minorities, whether Native American, Latino, Asian, Gay/Lesbian, Women, handicapped, etc. These other minorities have conspired with the administration to eliminate or incapacitate black or African American studies. They have sided with the administration or led the charge that Afro-centrism was a bogus concept without academic merit. San Francisco State University is an example.
    Having worked at UC Berkeley as a reseacher in the School of Criminology under Dean Lohman,1964, and lectured in Black Studies, 1972, we are fully aware of how the university purged radical scholars in black studies and brought in handpicked uncle toms to dilute any semblance of radicalism. Although academically qualified, Miller Lite scholars have been present ever since the Bill Banks running dog black studies department replaced the original radical scholars.
    It is laughable to hear talk of decolonialism when reactionary professors have had forty years to truly implement an ideology of black national consciousness in academia. Instead they drifted into the otherworldism (Dr. Nathan Hare term) of Pan Africanism and Diaspora Studies, clearly a diversion from the original mission of focusing on the problems of North American Africans, though this is not to be unconcerned with our brothers and sisters throughout the diaspora.
    It is to make clear the original mission. With the mission aborted, we see the consequence with the abysmal lack of black males in academia, yet the prison population is full to capacity with them. The cost of housing them in prison is more than it would cost for them to Attend UCB, Stanford, Harvard and Yale.
    No doubt it was stress and the disconnection from community that caused the untimely death of three brilliant professors at UC Berkelely, namely Barbara Christian, June Jordan and VeVe Clark. UC San Diego lost professor Sherley A. Williams. When Sherley transitioned, Dr. William H. Grier, co-author of Black Rage, told his son, Geoffrey, to tell me Sherley died from the hostile environment at UC San Diego. Indeed, Sherley used to complain to me often about the stress she was under dealing with her racist pseudo-liberal white women colleagues in the English Department.
    But we know the stress of collaborating with the colonialists can cause disease, especially when persons have cut off their connection with community. Of course, whenever the crisis reaches a critical point, they reach out to community for help and recite the original mission of black studies–to be integrally connected and directed from community.
    The marginalized conference on decolonialism is remarkable in its exclusion of African Americans, but having been conscious of the progress on campus since we were employed there in 1964, it is indeed sad to see blacks disappear yet other minorities replace them in great numbers. Of course we credit the supreme reactionary Ward Connolly for part of the dearth in the black presence. But again, Ward had his predecessors in reaction and they must be archived as such, led by Dr. William H. Banks, as much a sellout negro as Ward Connolly.
    Perhaps the nature of the celebration is simply the chickens coming home to roost. And being an old farm boy from Fresno, it doesn’t make me sad. We don’t expect any substantial decolonialism under the present circumstances. Indeed, we have created a new colonial elite of ethnic students who obviously have a form of myopia that has not allowed them to include the founders of radical student struggle at UC Berkeley and elsewhere.
    We should blame their elders, not students who have a revised history of academic struggle, if not the black liberation struggle in general, either by the sin of ommission or blatant disregard for the facts on the ground. It is indeed an insult to those African American students who struggled at UCB. I’m thinking of BSU leaders such as Frank Jenkins, Umtu (Gerald Rice, RIP), Fahizah Alim, Nisa Ra, Sonny James, Betty Bromfield, Carl Mack, Lothario Lotho, et al.
    Further, if it were not for the literature of the Black Arts Movement, there would probably be no ethnic literature in academia, for BAM awakened the consciousness of other ethnic and gender groups, yet where is BAM literature taught in a substantial manner? When Amiri Baraka read at the UCB Holloway Poetry Series, the Asian student who introduced him was totally ignorant the Black Arts Movement had a key West coast component with myself and Ed Bullins as founders of Black Arts West Theatre, San Francisco.
    The decolonization of the university cannot happen when the students themselves are yet colonized or shall we say neo-colonialized, for we were the first group of domestic colonials to enter major white universities. We made an attempt to dismantle the university/corporate complex, but as with the liberation movement in general, that effort was aborted. So the task awaits this generation to either execute the plan or collaborate with the reactionaries within their own ranks and within the university/corporate complex.
    –Marvin X

    See Teaching Black Studies at the University Of California, Berkeley: A Case Study Of Marvin X and the Afro-American Studies Program by Dr. J. Vern Cromartie, Contra Costa College Abstract.
    See also What Happened to My Black Studies Department, Cecil Brown, retired UCB professor.
    The archives of Marvin X are in the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

Comments are closed.