Power never takes a back step — only in the face of more power. —Malcom X
--Hungry for Justice
It is all too easy to dismiss the hunger strike as extreme, unnecessary, or ineffective. But the fact is that student actions have had a direct impact in changing not only the processes but also the outcomes of administrative decision-making. On more than one occasion, administrators have insisted they tried every possible alternative - but when pushed, they found ways to enact more egalitarian measures. The Hardship Fund, which came directly out of negotiations between strikers and administrators last spring, is one example.
I believe it is important to remember the ways in which dialogue is restricted at Vassar. I am referring not only to the centralized distribution of power and lack of transparency that make it difficult to have a two-way conversation, but also to the construction of what constitutes an "acceptable" way to communicate. I hope that in the future, groups and individuals will continue to make their voices heard and will engage in dialogue in many different ways.
Reflecting on the second hunger strike of my Vassar career, I think it’s important to remind myself, as well as others, that the college cannot admit to bending to a hunger strike without implicitly encouraging its use as a legitimate tactic. That’s the best explanation for the tone and content of Dean Roellke’s less-than-flattering letter to the campus. In my opinion, the combination of the pressure of the hunger strike and the pressure of the unions created the necessary atmosphere to achieve justice for workers. My refusal to nourish my body for 89 hours was an expression of my lack of power and lack of options, as well as a physical demonstration of my commitment to the people who make our campus run. My greatest disappointment about the hunger strike was the staggering number of students who essentially told us that we were not allowed to question or disagree with those with authority/education/age. In that way, my decision to participate in a hunger strike was also an assertion of what I believe to be my place in the college -- a place of involvement. I hope that, at the very least, a conversation has been opened about critique, and that now all members of the campus will be viewed as people with valid critiques to make of the college. I hope that we will now be seen as people to be listened to.
A hunger strike is seen as an extreme action, and it is. No one can deny that. But, I balked, at first, at the portrayals of those of us who chose to not eat as extremists. Extremists brings forth images of men and women with explosives strapped to their chests, or people in cults committing mass suicides. But then I realized that if I agreed that a hunger strike is an extreme action, then I must agree with the designation of myself as an extremist in some way or another. Extreme in that I risked my body, for my convictions. With nothing left of a voice, no decision making, I control the only thing I have left, my own body.
People thought that we weren’t willing to dialogue, that a hunger strike isn’t a form of communication. I disagree. We stopped, once an agreement was made. We were only worried about gainful employment for members of our community. A strong stance was taken, because how else do you create the tension for favorable negotiations? Neither we nor the administrations would publicly bend, and yet we both did. The unions were satisfied, and we did our best.
People accuse us for not thinking, or being misinformed. Or of thinking in black-and-white. I’m a believer in dialogue, but power must be equal between participants. I’m also a fan of critical thought, and I’d hope that all of us would seek a critical participation in campus affairs. Full of questioning, and seeking.
I think the hunger strike was a good learning experience in so far as it opened up dialogue between the administration and us from the pressure it put on them. Once we were noticed by the school—which includes administrators, union members and fellow students—progress began to appear in the form of a rescission of a layoff and continued talks into the matter. Being at the center of a serious demonstration, we received valuable information from various sources, such as union leaders, faculty and administrators, which revealed a bigger picture within this long-running issue.
As a striker, I also experienced from my classmates extreme antagonism, some of which I thought were unwarranted. There were a few instances of classmates talking rather loudly about food. For example, I remember someone taunting us with cheese burgers and another exclaiming that he apparently just had a delicious steak (ironically, most of us are vegan/vegetarian).
But I also witnessed first hand how kind others were. Some students and workers asked if we wanted anything or directly gave us Gatorade, apple juice, water or even blankets and a mattress pad. We received considerable praise from students and workers who believed in our cause, and I wish to thank them tremendously for that. We also invited students to hang and we explained to number of them what was going on. Overall, the hunger strike not only resulted in satisfying our demand of having more workers gainfully employed and set a tone for further actions in the spring semester, but also greatly motivated my efforts for this cause.
--Daniel Bruce Wong
Yesterday in our meeting with President Hill, Dean Roellke, and friends and members of the CWSG, we raised concerns about the governance of the college and methods of decision-making that undermine the priorities and voices of many people on campus. While Hill and Roellke may not understand our methodology, it is becoming clear to me that they are not the ones principally undermining our efforts, nor we theirs.
Rather, I feel our actions have reinforced our need for them to do their jobs well; not simply to make decisions, but to get to know our institution. During our time in the lobby of main, CWA and SEIU members and representatives let us know that the strike was valuable. On our third day, we were told that several people who were laid off had finally been given a means of gainful employment. To reiterate Sarah’s statement, student protests are effective, whether in the sense that they produce discourse or lead to concrete egalitarian change. Without tension and criticism, decision-making suffers and discourse narrows.
The conversation is not over; two positions are still in need of attention, but we feel the hunger strike achieved its goal of giving the unions more leverage in negotiation, and what was “not possible” became reality. Obviously, reshuffling positions is a fraction of the work that needs to be done. However, financial sustainability can be achieved in a variety of ways. We refuse to believe that the Board of Trustees, composed largely of corporate elite, represents the only valuable source of knowledge in this process. We hope students will continue to fight for information, to make their own voices heard and to instill in the culture of this school a sense that we value more than economics.
It remains that the layoffs threaten the livelihoods of thirteen people, and I feel that the hunger strike drew much needed attention to this fact. I am of the opinion that what the first consideration of the college decision-making process should be is not financial necessity or competitiveness, but the human cost of any and all actions. Vassar, as an institution of higher learning with a history of social responsibility, should take measures to seek new and innovative solutions to financial problems. While layoffs are one way to go about fiscal cuts, they rob workers of the means by which they feed their families. This is significant given the current economic climate: it would be difficult for workers to find jobs after being laid off. Thus, layoffs threaten more than just individuals, but the families that depend on Vassar workers to provide for them.
What I felt the hunger strike did was to show the visceral threat of layoffs. Symbolically, by not eating, we hunger strikers sought to show how some of the workers being laid off might be unable to feed their families in the future. Our desire was that the college take further steps to seek out alternative solutions to fiscal problems, rather than settle on layoffs as being the only solution.
In our three and a half days of not eating, significant progress was made in terms of our goal. Perhaps our full goal was not met, but we were able to meet significant benchmarks in regards to the job security of those laid off. Regardless, we were able to establish a meaningful dialogue with administration about how we feel and make a statement about our beliefs as students of Vassar College who are concerned about the college’s future. It is my personal hope that the members of the college community come together and engage in joint, collective dialogue so that a measure like the hunger strike does not become necessary in the future.
Vassar Hunger Strike Continues
December 11, 2009.
Poughkeepsie- After 3 days, the 3 students at Vassar College who began hunger striking at 11:59 pm on Tuesday, December 8th are still refusing to eat. The strike is gaining momentum. On Thursday, December 10th, another student joined the hunger strike, and two more students are participating in 48 hour solidarity fasts with them. The students are maintaining a constant presence in the front lobby of the Main Building at Vassar, with many community members stopping by and expressing support.
The hunger strikers will not eat until the administration ensures them that all 13 employees whose jobs are in danger will be gainfully employed in 2010. Though administration has previously stated that they will not cancel the layoffs despite the hunger strike, it seems likely that progress is being made.
This is the second time in eight months that Vassar students have a held hunger strike to protest the treatment of members of our community as interchangeable and disposable parts. Last spring, five students did not eat for five days in protest of the laying off of employees over the summer months. This resulted in a temporary Hardship Fund. This year, strikers have simplified their demands and believe that they can be met.
Enroll 1 additional student next year.
I bet you can think of something too! Seriously, think of another way to save $42,000, and post your idea as a comment.
In our struggle for responsibility, we fight against someone who is masked. The mask of the adult is called “experience.” It is expressionless, impenetrable, and ever the same. The adult has always already experienced [erlebt] everything youth, ideals, hopes, woman. It was all illusion.—Often we feel intimidated or embittered. Perhaps he is right. What can our retort be? We have not yet experienced anything.
But let us attempt to raise the mask. What has this adult experienced? What does he wish to prove to us: This above all: he, too, was once young; he, too, wanted what we wanted; he, too, refused to believe his parents, but life has taught him that they were right. Saying this, he smiles in a superior fashion: this will also happen to us—in advance he devalues the years we will live, making them into a time of sweet youthful pranks, of childish rapture, before the long sobriety of serious life. Thus the well-meaning, the enlightened. We know other pedagogues whose bitterness will not even concede to us the brief years of youth; serious and grim, they want to push us directly into life’s drudgery. Both attitudes devalue and destroy our years. More and more we are assailed by the feeling: our youth is but a brief night (fill it with rapture!); it will be followed by grand “experience,” the years of compromise, impoverishment of ideas, and lack of energy. Such is life. That is what adults tell us, and that is what they experienced.
Yes, this is their experience, this one thing, never anything different: the meaninglessness of life. Its brutality. Have they ever encouraged us to anything great or new or forward-looking? Oh, no, precisely because these are things one cannot experience. All meaning—the true, the good, the beautiful—is grounded within itself. What, then, does experience signify?—And herein lies the secret: because he never raises his eyes to the great and meaningful, the philistine has taken experience as his gospel. It has become for him a message about life’s commonness. But he has never grasped that there exists something other than experience, that there are values—inexperiencable—which we serve.
Why is life without meaning or solace for the philistine? Because he knows experience and nothing else. Because he himself is desolate and without spirit. And because he has no inner relationship to anything other than the common and the always already-out-of-date.
We, however, know something different, which experience can neither give to us nor take away: that truth exists, even if all previous thought has been an error. Or: that fidelity shall be maintained, even if no one has done so yet. Such will cannot be taken from us by experience. Yet—are our elders, with their tired gestures and their superior hopelessness, right about one thing—namely, that what we experience will be sorrowful and that only in the inexeperiencable can courage, hope, and meaning be given foundation? Then the spirit would be free. But again and again life would drag it down because life, the sum of experience, would be without solace.
We no longer understand such questions, however. Do we still lead the life of those unfamiliar with the spirit? Whose sluggish ego is buffeted by life like waves against the rocks? No. Each of our experiences has its content. We ourselves invest them with content by means of our own spirit—he who is thoughtless is satisfied with error. “You will never find the truth!” he exclaims to the researcher. “That is my experience.” For the researcher, however, error is only an aid to truth (Spinoza). Only to the mindless [Geistlosen] is experience devoid of meaning and spirit. To the one who strives, experience may be painful, but it will scarcely lead him to despair.
In any event, he would never obtusely give up and allow himself to be anesthetized by the rhythm of the philistine. For the philistine, you will have noted, only rejoices in every new meaninglessness. He remains in the right. He reassures himself: spirit does not really exist. Yet no one demands harsher submission or greater “awe” before the “spirit.” For if he were to become critical, then he would have to create as well. That he cannot do. Even the experience of the spirit, which he undergoes against his will, becomes for him mindless [geistlosi].
That when he becomes a man
He should revere the dreams of his youth.
(Friedrich Schiller, Don Carlos, IV, 21, lines 4287-4289)
Nothing is so hateful to the philistine as the “dreams of his youth.” And most of the time, sentimentality is the protective camouflage of his hatred. For what appeared to him tin his dreams was the voice of the spirit, calling him once, as it does everyone. It is of this that youth always reminds him, eternally and ominously. That is why he is antagonistic toward youth. He tells young people of that grim, overwhelming experience and teaches them to laugh at themselves. Especially since “to experience” [Erleben] without spirit is comfortable, if unredeeming.
Again: we know a different experience. It can be hostile to spirit and destructive to many blossoming dreams. Nevertheless, it is the most beautiful, most untouchable, most immediate because it can never be without spirit while we remain young. As Zarathustra says, the individual can experience himself only at the end of his wandering. The philistine has his own “experience”; it is the eternal one of the spiritlessness. The youth will experience spirit, and the less effortlessly he attains greatness, the more he will encounter spirit everywhere in his wanderings and in every person.—When he becomes a man, the youth with be compassionate. The philistine is intolerant.
Presents for our various wintry holidays.
Warm holiday meals.
Christmas-themed music on malls.
So why am I hunger striking?
Last semester our president, Catherine Bond Hill, said that the layoffs that are happening now would make what was going on last semester "look like peanuts." And she stayed true to her word.
I could say something about how the actions (and discourse) of Vassar's administration has made me lose my appetite. But that isn't true at all, and if only it was. The problem is that I could easily stomach the firings of members of my community, and that's what makes me sick. How easy it could be for me to be apathetic, to not give a shit, or worse: to go focus on bigger issues.
So I find myself prepared to put my body where my mouth is. What is all that theorizing for without praxis.
I'm not eating until I know people can celebrate their holidays without worrying about putting food on their families' plates.
December 9, 2009.
Poughkeepsie- An autonomous group of Vassar students who resist the corporatization of their college began a hunger strike at 11:59 pm on Tuesday, December 8th. The hunger strikers will not eat until the administration cancels the layoffs of 13 members of the Vassar community, who have been notified that their jobs will no longer exist come Christmas break. The administration has refused to engage in direct negotiations with the unions on campus.
This is the second time in eight months that Vassar students have a held hunger strike to protest the treatment of members of our community as interchangeable and disposable parts. Last spring, five students did not eat for five days in protest of the laying off of employees over the summer months. This resulted in a temporary Hardship Fund. This time the hunger strikers will not accept temporary fixes or band-aids. They refuse to nourish their bodies until jobs are restored.
WHO WE ARE
We are an autonomous group of Vassar students who resist the corporatization of our college. We resist the transformation of members of our community into interchangeable and disposable parts. We resist the centralization of decision-making and the obfuscation of information which leads to a spiral of disempowerment.
We believe radical and structural change is the only way out of this cycle. We seek more horizontal and participatory modes of decision-making. For this we demand easy access to information. What information are we talking about? Everything that we can legally look at.
We are some uppity motherfuckers.
WHAT WE BELIEVE
We believe that to create radical change we must take radical action. That is action that attempts to reach the root of the problem. We do not mean violent actions, but actions informed by critical thinking, questioning, and problem-solving, though we acknowledge a diversity of tactics as a beautiful thing.
We refute the notion that mass is the only way to organize. History has shown that small groups of people can make a difference. We refuse to believe that we need a monolith to stop a monolith.
We neither feel nostalgia for a Vassar that never existed, nor do we subscribe to a notion of progress that says that things have to get better. We recognize that every positive change that has made Vassar more egalitarian has come from a struggle between those with institutional power and those without.
WHO AND WHAT WE ARE NOT
We are not: the Campus Solidarity Working Group, the VSA council, liberals, or nice little boiz and grrrlz.
WHAT TIME IS IT?
It is time for action.
It is not time for niceties.
People are losing their jobs.
Some Uppity Motherfuckers
- Our side of the story
- Latest press release
- A viable solution
- Royce on WVKR
- Slumber Party!
- Solidarity with Hunger Strike
- Walter Benjamin, "Experience" (1913)
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- ▼ December (10)