The Hunger Strike Is Starved of Logic

In the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike, prisoners banded together to protest what they considered to be inhumane treatment by the state. Though the strike was technically a failure – it ended after prisoners began starving themselves to death – it still attracted international attention and had a significant domestic political impact. This is because, when performed correctly, a hunger strike is the perfect symbol of the oppressed minority laying a tragic and haunting guilt trip at the feet of the heartless oppressors. But as recent developments at UC Berkeley show us, when performed incorrectly, the hunger strike becomes little more than a glorified twelve-year-old holding his breath until his parents buy him an Xbox.

The Berkeley strikers’ first and largest demand was that the University of California publicly denounce the controversial new Arizona immigration law. Already the students have made a mistake. I can certainly applaud them for feeling so strongly about the oppression they believe the law creates that they need to take action, but they must also consider the identity of that oppressor. The Irish Hunger Strike was so powerful because it was a struggle between the prisoners and the state, the incarcerated citizens refusing to eat the institution’s food in the institution’s house. In Berkeley we have students who feel that Hispanic Americans are being discriminated against by the United States, and so they are demonstrating against the University of California? The protest is simply too far removed from the alleged ‘bad guy’ to carry the desired emotional weight.

Even more importantly, the idea that the UC would publicly denounce another state’s immigration law, or our own state’s laws, or any laws should be absolutely absurd to anyone that pays tuition here. The mission of the University of California is to instruct and educate, as well as to facilitate further research and development in various academic fields. Urging it to express a political opinion on anything is dangerous because it opens the door for a political opinion on everything. Suddenly students are protesting for the University to back a particular presidential candidate or express an official stance on gay marriage or abortion. The simple fact of the matter is that not all students are ever going to agree on such hot-button political issues, and for the UC to take your money and misrepresent you politically is completely unethical. These protestors should have targeted Arizona lawmakers with their hunger strike, not a UC president with a few other problems to worry about right now.

The next problem with the hunger strike comes as we move down the list of demands. Specifically, that there are more demands. Yes, many other hunger strikes have had multiple demands, but these demands always fall within one easy category, such as prisoners’ rights. In the case of the Berkeley strike, that category seems to be Arizona immigrant rights, and also more student representation for immigrant issues at Berkeley. And stop on-campus job pay cuts. And it would be nice if you dropped charges against previous student activists. And hey, let’s make some changes to the student code of conduct while we’re making demands. Simply put, there are just too many disparate demands to make up one cohesive and sympathetic plea for change.

As mentioned above, one of the (many) demands of the strikers was that the University “stop cuts to low-wage workers on campus” and “rehire all AFSCME service workers and UPTE union activists and Cal performances employees.” This is closer to reality, because at least the students have picked something within the UC ballpark this time, but still the choice of hunger strike to protest this fiscal decision seems odd. If the implication is that this will benefit immigrant rights, this certainly isn’t enumerated in the demands. Indeed, no justification is given for this demand in the email released by the strikers, so onlookers are forced to file this with all of the other standard budget cut complaints that every self-respecting UC student has heard by now. This is not exactly groundbreaking protest material.

Finally, there are the many, many miscellaneous demands, such as establishing committees to review immigrant rights at Berkeley, and amending the student code of conduct to extend free speech rights. Certainly the protection of immigrant rights at Berkeley is the closest the protestors have come to anything resembling an actual need for a hunger strike at the campus, but the fact that they can’t identify anything immediately wrong and need a committee to expose these alleged hardships really weakens their position. And as for the code of conduct — it’s tough to feel support for a demand that essentially only serves to ensure the protestors don’t get in trouble. Almost as tough as it is to imagine the rules governing free speech at UC Berkeley aren’t already fairly liberal.

The strike ended last Wednesday when Chancellor Robert Birgeneau agreed to denounce the Arizona law and committed to one of those vague committees the students requested. All other demands were taken “under advisement.” Did the protest yield results thanks to the dedication and commitment of the students? Absolutely. Did it embody the minority power and moral superiority that any hunger strike should strive for? Absolutely not. The Berkeley strikers lumped a variety of random demands together with little forethought about the feasibility and meaning behind each request. For these Berkeley students, the actual issues sadly took a backseat to the glamor and novelty of the protest.

Jeremy Moore is a second-year English major. He can be reached at jsmoore@uci.edu.