UCLA Student Hunger Strike
Author, Bruce Glasberg
While driving home from work in Los Angeles several years ago, I was listening to the community radio station KPFK. There was a news story about a protest at UCLA; several Latino/Chicano students and a professor were on a hunger strike. They were trying to force the university to adequately support ethnic studies on campus. This news report sparked my interest because my girlfriend at the time was a Mexican American (Chicana) activist.
When I arrived home, I told her about the radio report. After a little persuasion, she agreed to go to UCLA; a decision that changed our lives. We drove to the campus, and eventually found Murphy Hall, the main administration building. Across from Murphy Hall was a large central courtyard, which was filled with protesters, tents, banners, and television news crews. I was overcome with a sense of excitement to witness this struggle between a small group of minorities versus one of the most prestigious universities in the country - UCLA.
The night was warm, with an electrifying energy in the air. We spoke with volunteers, who informed us there were nine protesters on a water-only hunger strike. The strikers included five UCLA students, two siblings of students, a renowned UCLA medical school professor, Dr. Jorge Mancillas, and the elder of the group, a community activist/Aztec dance leader, named Pastel. He lead an Aztec dance group that was part of the protest. The group performed traditional Aztec war dances, day and night, in support of the protesters.
We walked through the courtyard. In one area, near the hunger strikers tent, there were two people in indigenous clothing who set up a traditional Mayan alter. The Aztec dance group circled around the alter. My girlfriend immediately gravitated to the alter to learn about it. The two activists took a liking to her, and taught her how to maintain the alter. She soon became the keeper of the alter.
One piece of literature I read stated Chicano students at UCLA have been trying for twenty years to establish an independent Chicano studies department. The current protesters believed the existing interdisciplinary Chicano studies program was second-rate as compared with an independent department that can hire its own professors and control its budget.
The hunger strike was initiated when UCLA Chancellor, Charles Young, commissioned a study to determine the need for an "independent" Chicano studies department. He announced the results of the study on the day of Cesar Chavez's funeral. Cesar Chavez was the greatest Chicano civil rights leader of our time. He founded the United Farm Workers union, and worked tirelessly for the rights of immigrant farm workers. Chavez died while on a hunger strike. Chancellor Young concluded there was no need for an "independent" Chicano studies department; the current program, in his opinion, was adequate.
After Youngâ€™s announcement several students initiated a protest at the campus faculty center, and occupied the building for several hours. The police were called and a dozen students were arrested for trespassing. A decision was made after these arrests to wage a hunger strike in honor of Chavez.
The hunger strikers had three demands(1) creation of an independent Chicano Studies Department, (2) no funding cuts to any ethnic or gender studies program, and (3) an agreement to drop trespassing charges against the students who were arrested for occupying the faculty center. There were four pillars of support to sustain the proteststudent support on campus, community support, support from two prominent politicians (Tom Hayden and Art Torres), and continuous press coverage.
One afternoon I listened to a conservative radio talk show host interview some of the hunger strikers. The interviewer went up to Dr. Mancillas and asked him"is the cause for a Chicano Studies Department really worth dying for?â€ Dr. Mancillas answered in a soft voice"it is a given fact that we are all going to die someday. It is how we choose to die that is important."
Each day I would look at the hunger strikers; they kept getting thinner
and more frail. After three weeks, all but one of the hunger strikers were
in wheel chairs. Only Pastel was able to keep walking. He actually danced
with his Aztec group every day for the first three weeks of the hunger strike.
Chancellor Young refused to meet with the hunger strikers. He had other administrators negotiate with the mediators (Tom Hayden and Art Torres) and the strikers. The parents of some of the hunger strikers did meet with Chancellor Young. They begged him to compromise and spare the suffering of their children. He refused.
Community support for the hunger strikers grew. Television crews were constantly
interviewing the hunger strikers, and getting updates from Mr. Hayden and
Mr. Torres. The urgency of the situation grew by the minute, as the hunger
strikers grew weaker. The L.A. Times began regular coverage of the protest.
Each night, for hours on end, the Aztec dancers performed traditional war dances. There was beating of drums, sounds of hundreds of small bells ringing on the feet of the dancers, and the smell of sage emanating from the Mayan alter. The war dances were those used by the ancient Aztecs thousands of years ago. The alter that my girlfriend maintained was rooted in traditions dating back thousands of years. These ancient practices were at the root of Chicano culture, and provided a spiritual strength and inspiration for the hunger strikers and their supporters to endure on.
Tom Hayden and Art Torres worked day and night meeting with the administration officials, the hunger strikers, and the press. I felt tremendous admiration for these two men. They realized the historic importance of this protest, and were determined to bring it to a successful conclusion, without loss of life.
There was one student organization that supported the Chancellor's positionthe Student Republican Club. Members of the Republican Club held a barbecue adjacent to the protest area. Odors from the barbecue drifted over the hunger strikers. This sarcastic counter protest only intensified the resolve of the hunger strikers.
A fifteen mile march was planned from Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles (the heart of Chicano culture in L.A.) to UCLA. The march route was mainly along Wilshire Boulevard, the upscale thoroughfare that winds through L.A. The purpose of the march was to broaden community support for the hunger strikers, and increase the pressure on Chancellor Young.
A light rain was falling when the march started. I dropped my girlfriend off downtown, then drove to UCLA to park my car. My plan was to take a city bus heading east on Wilshire Boulevard and meet her along the march route. After getting on the bus, it took fifteen minutes before I saw the march. It had grown to several thousand people, and stretched as far as the eye could see. I signaled for the bus to stop, and wondered how I was going to find her among all the marchers. The bus doors opened, and to my amazement, there she was; it felt magical. We looked at each other, smiled, and I joined the march.
About a mile from UCLA, the march turned off Wilshire Boulevard and headed north on Westwood Boulevard. I noticed several photographers snapping away with their cameras. We eventually reached the center of campus. The central courtyard was packed with hundreds of supporters cheering us on. I felt a rush of exhilaration. It was like finishing a marathon. A powerful resounding message was being sent to Chancellor Young to settle the dispute. The hunger strike was energizing the entire L.A. Latino community. History was in the making before our eyes.
The morning after the march, we received a phone call from a friend who told us to immediately buy the Sunday L.A.Times. I got dressed and drove to the Seven-Eleven. I could not believe my eyes. On the front cover was a picture of my girlfriend and I. We were shown in the foreground of the march.
Negotiations between the hunger strikers and the UCLA administration intensified in the days following the march. Two of the hunger strikers collapsed during negotiations. All of us felt fear that one of the hunger strikers would collapse and not get up.
Midweek after the march a settlement was reached. The hunger strikers had won! Chancellor Young agreed to establish an independent Chicano Studies program. The program was to be called the Cesar Chavez Chicano/Chicana Studies program. The other demands were also met. There would be no cuts in funding to any ethnic or gender studies program, and the trespassing charges against the student protesters would be dropped pending approval of the L.A. District Attorney.
Never had I felt a sense of victory so powerful. The hunger strikers would live and not die. Our fears were put to rest. The victory celebration that night was unforgettable. The hunger strikers broke their fast by eating tortilla's and drinking fruit juice. The central courtyard was full of hundreds of supporters. The victorious hunger strikers were seated in a straight line. The Aztec dancers formed a circle around them and performed the traditional victory dance. Cheering from the crowd went on for hours.
I gazed into the eyes of each of the hunger strikers and felt awe that each of them fasted till near death, and won. They took the ultimate gamble, giving the fate of their lives to Chancellor Young. I suspect Young caved under the pressure, not only from the protesters, but from politicians higher up that told him to settle this issue quickly before it got out of hand. The L.A. riots were still fresh in peoples mind, and more unrest in the city was not welcome.
The following day, new coverage of the settlement was overwhelming. It is not often the underdogs win.