Hunger Strike Against SB 1070

Some students at UC Berkeley have been engaging in a hunger strike against SB 1070 since Monday of last week. The students have asked the President, Chancellor, and Vice Chancellor of the university to denounce SB 1070 and address racial issues on campus that they believe make UC Berkeley, and to a larger extent the UC system, susceptible to similar legislation and policing in the future. They also requested that the university become a “sanctuary campus” in which undocumented students would be safe to both attend and seek refuge if they were attending other schools.

In response, Chancellor Birgeneau, who was out of town, condemned SB 1070, assured students that no one was being investigated for previous immigration rallies on campus, and asked that students turn their attention toward teachable moments rather than risking their health to make a statement. He also raised concerns that making Berkeley a sanctuary campus would actually draw negative attention to Latin@s on campus and increase the potential for covert surveillance of them by authorities. Historians will note that radical and even moderate social justice students, particularly those interested in racial and gender equality, have been the targets of such covert operations in the past and that Berkeley has been a particular hotbed for conflicts between government agencies and students. He also reiterated that Vice Chancellor Breslauer had his support in meeting with students and trying to clarify their requests.

While Chancellor Birgeneau comments from afar focused on the issues raised by the initial call for a hunger strike while questioning the methods, UCPD was not so interested in support for immigrants’ rights or students’ protests. When one student called for medical attention during the weekend, UCPD showed up instead. Students went to twitter to alert everyone that the police had been called despite no confrontational politics or illegal activity on the part of students. They raised concerns about how students’ attempts to care for themselves, as instructed by the Chancellor, seemed to be directly thwarted by campus and local police.

In response to police action and what students’ believe is the failure of the Chancellor to officially meet with them, 3 students are going on a “dry strike” (ie no food or water) while at least 10 others will continue the “solidarity hunger strike” (juice and water ok).  They have also modified their list of concerns and needs for the university:

  1. Public denouncement of SB 1070 (presumably including some connection to why similar legislation would not be ok in California)
  2. recruitment, retention, and safety for students of color espec. undocumented students & a commitment that UCPD will not report suspected undocumented workers or students to ICE (this replaces a call for a “sanctuary campus” originally demand #2 in a circulated list during the beginning of the hunger strike)
  3. changing the student code of conduct so that the maximum sanction for students engaged in social justice protests is community service, not suspension, expulsion, and/or potential arrest; suspension of the code until it is applied fairly to all groups on campus
  4. the rehire of laid off service workers, all of whom are people of color
  5. a commitment from both Chancellor and Vice Chancellor that they will engage solely in non-violent methods to address protesters on campus and an apology for the police brutality some students experienced during previous protests

Supporters of the strikers applaud the ongoing political commitment of UC Berkeley students in the face of ongoing oppression of students of color on and off campus. They point to the ways that Berkeley students are drawing attention to SB 1070 while addressing how a climate for state sanctioned discrimination must exist before legislation can be enacted. In other words, by pointing to key issues on Berkeley’s campus, they are highlighting how ideas of illegality and criminalization of people of color is the starting point for legislation that publicly sanctions racial profiling and makes it into law. They are also drawing attention to how the university system in general is implicated in both the exploitation of undocumented workers and reaping economic benefit from undocumented workers and students while failing to take a unified stand against anti-immigration elements.

Others have expressed concerns about the students’ methods and message. Some believe that instead of acting in solidarity with students in Arizona, the hunger strike has in fact shifted needed discussion and energy away from SB 1070 in order to center issues in California. Instead seeing a larger narrative of policing and erosion of civil rights for Latin@s in this country, cast as immigration issues, they see Berkeley students’ piggybacking their own issues onto the SB 1070 law with little effort to raise knowledge, create discussion, or organize around SB 1070 itself. Some have also pointed out that the hunger strike is “only a handful of students” while other efforts that actually are circulating concrete information about SB 1070 and organizing discussions, actions, and rallies to repeal it and prevent its spread to other states represent much larger efforts on campus. Finally, some have simply called the hunger strike “ridiculous” given that neither California voters nor California schools had anything to do with SB 1070 and that the action is undermining any credibility that students have to represent these complex issues.

No matter which side you fall on, it seems that once again SB 1070 has had far-reaching impact Arizona legislatures likely never considered. As the tide continues to turn against them amongst academic circles, negative views of the state and Arizona schools continues to spread. While some have flocked to Arizona’s defense in an act of white entrenchment solidarity, the slow ripples of disdain for state sanctioned legalized racial profiling and discrimination are extending outward in larger and larger circles. From academics to sports personalities to politicians and organizers, Arizona is starting to feel like the next “Sun City.” And in that sense, we should all remember that it was organizing at Berkeley that helped turn the tide toward national level divestment from places with legalized inequality and discrimination.

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