Hunger strike continues despite chancellor’s offer to meet

A hunger strike by a small group of UC Berkeley Chicano/Latino students and their supporters went into its ninth day today (Tuesday, May 11), despite a plea yesterday by campus administrators that the protesters end it that evening in exchange for a meeting today with Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. This afternoon, about 60 people held a rally in front of California Hall in support of the strikers and their demands.

The main catalyst for the protest has been the passage into law of Arizona bill SB1070, which allows police to check immigration status in ways that many people anticipate could lead to a surge in ethnic/racial profiling.

Yesterday, the strikers packed up the encampment they’d kept in front of California Hall since Monday, May 3, after being told to leave or be arrested. They then blocked entrances to California Hall, demanding that Birgeneau meet with them. More than 100 protesters marched in the evening to University House, where the chancellor was hosting a senior class gift celebration for about 200 students. Dozens of campus and local police officers were at the scene. The group left the property around 8 p.m. after their representatives and campus officials were unable to come to an agreement.

Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer said that despite several meetings between administrators and students this week, a meeting with the Chancellor will not proceed as long as the hunger-strike is in effect.

“We remain distressed about the potentially severe, possibly permanent, impacts on the health of the individuals involved,” Breslauer said in a May 10 statement issued to the faculty. “It was our sincere hope that participants would cease their hunger strike in response to the reassurances and actions we have taken this week.”

Medical and counseling staff from the Student Health Center have visited the protesters each day to provide them with educational materials and advice, and the UC Police Department has sent officers to check repeatedly on the safety of the hunger strike participants.

Distressed by the new Arizona law, the strikers sought reassurance earlier in their protest that UC Berkeley leaders would take a stand against the law and ensure protections for undocumented students on campus. On May 7, Chancellor Birgeneau issued a very strong condemnation of SB 1070 and also assured students of campus policies and practices that protect undocumented students here.

Since that time, the strikers have given the administration a number of other requests as well, including that the campus drop all charges against protesters cited during the November Wheeler Hall protests. Campus leaders, however, said they cannot preempt the Student Code of Conduct process by mandating an outcome before an informal resolution or hearings began.

Campus leaders said their talks with representatives of the protesters have resulted in useful exchanges of views and clarifications of misimpressions. But while common ground was found on a number of issues, the protesters’ list of demands included requests that the administration could not meet.

“We also could not accommodate their request that we hire back all the workers that have been laid off as a result of the deep cuts to our state budgetary allocation,” said Breslauer.

Campus leaders said their main concern is the students’ health and safety.

“We have made every effort, during a long week, to bring this to a close,” said Breslauer. “We look forward to continuing to work with students from diverse backgrounds to advance our common goal of making UC Berkeley a fully welcoming and equitable community of knowledge-seekers.”