Youth in Action

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UC Berkeley Students Occupy Campus Building

By ADAM RITSCHER

On April 14, students at UC Berkeley responded to ominous moves against the Ethnic Studies program on the campus by occupying Barrows Hall.

After a 10-hour occupation, during which banners were hung from the balconies and a crowd of students gathered in front of the building to protect the occupiers, campus police stormed the hall. Forty-six students were arrested, and one was hospitalized after having his ear partially torn off by police.

Thus began an active fight to defend Ethnic Studies, which was won 30 years ago during the 1969 Third World strike at UC Berkeley.

In a statement issued to Chancellor Robert Berdahl and others, the protesters stated: “The strike (the 1969 Third World strike) was a form of resistance against Cal’s discriminatory policies toward people of color. … Now, 30 years later, we find ourselves in a state of repression. The vision and hope of those students who unselfishly put their academic careers on the line and their safety in the hands of a violent police force and administration has been shattered. Today Ethnic Studies is near extinction.”

Following the violent arrest of the initial protesters, six courageous students responded by going on a hunger strike. Existing on a liquid only diet, the example they set elicited the support of hundreds upon hundreds of Berkeley students, faculty and staff, as well as from students on other campuses, such as San Francisco State University.

The faculty union at State, which is itself engaged in a bitter struggle with its administration, passed a resolution expressing their solidarity with the hunger strikers.

Twenty-four days after the April 14 occupation of Barrows Hall, and after an arduous eight-hour negotiation session with the administration, an agreement was reached after Berdahl backed down and agreed to funding, faculty, and office space for the Ethnic Studies department. The hunger strike was then ended and victory was proclaimed.

This struggle took place in the context of growing racist assaults on past gains made in the California education system. For instance, in 1998, following the repeal of affirmative action in UC admissions, only 1000 Blacks were admitted statewide into the UC California system. At the same time, the state has 46,000 Black men incarcerated.

What is important to learn from the fight to save Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley is that when we mobilize in numbers we can and will affect change.

We also need to take note, though, that this victory was primarily a defensive one. It was a reaction to the growing assault on the standard of living of working people in general, and on the quality and type of education available to working-class youth in particular.

Youth for Socialist Action applauds all of the students who participated in the Berkeley fight, and at the same time we urge our fellow youth to join with us and commit themselves to taking the struggle on to the offensive. Together we can not only defend the gains of the past, but we can achieve for the future things that we have never seen!

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