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Columbia University

Student hunger strike against racist gentrification, attacks

Published Nov 15, 2007 9:36 PM

On Nov. 7, five students at Columbia University began a hunger strike to force the hand of school administrators. The students did so in a show of solidarity in the struggle against racism.

The youths wanted to show solidarity to oppressed people in Harlem, who are being forced out of their homes due to gentrification and face a greater assault as Columbia attempts to expand. The expansion will squeeze out 5,000 residents of Harlem, the quintessential historically Black neighborhood in the country.

In addition, the students want a more inclusive curriculum, something that accounts for the histories of people other than those from Europe, and for swifter action to be taken against those responsible for the many racist incidents that have been popping up all over the campus.

The rising racist incidents include a noose hung on the door of a Black professor, a swastika, anti-Arab slurs, and the attacks against Iranian President Ahmadinejad during his visit to the school. Yet the university is slow in response and appears callous.

At a Nov. 10 rally the students revealed their statement “Why We Strike,” which partly reads: “We are on hunger strike because we want change and because we believe that change is worth sacrifice. ... There has been tremendous unrest on campus this semester, these past few years, this past decade. And people here feel psychically hurt by Columbia’s indifference to our heartache, to our struggle, to our rumbling need for a better university. With luck, Columbia will see the starvation of our bodies as a bellwether of our growing desperation on this campus. It’s a shame that Columbia was not more alarmed when we said our minds, hearts and spirits were starving, too.”

The students, some of whom are youths of color, say that they intend to fast as long as it takes and are willing to go beyond “Thanksgiving.”

In highlighting gentrification, the youths are putting a spotlight on something that is happening in cities across the country. The expansion of Columbia, an Ivy League university, is a real danger to the shrinking Harlem community—shrinking because the people who created its culture and history are violently being driven out.

The nature of gentrification is to be violent, whether it be through the use of eminent domain, which was expanded for private use, or through other coercive methods. It is to uproot for the purpose of development that will produce greater profit. Gentrification follows aggressive tactics by the police in oppressed communities, where youths of color are especially targeted.

The hunger strike and rally are bold actions. The students say they draw inspiration from students at Georgetown University, who went on hunger strike in solidarity with low-wage workers on their campus to demand higher wages.

It is clear that their course is one that the movement against racism and war as a whole needs to take—one of sacrifice and solidarity with the oppressed of the world.