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Columbia Spectator Staff

Why did I join the protest by fasting and was it worth it? Maybe one day I'll conclude that I was mistaken and the protest misguided: but not now. When I was asked by certain members of my Political Theory class at Barnard to endorse their cause, I was impressed at once by the validity of the issues and the degree of their commitment. I had seen such nonviolent direct action here before: protests against the Vietnam war in '70, for the divestment of Columbia's investments in South African commerce in '85, and for the development of a strong program in Ethnic Studies in '96. I was actively involved in each of these three protests and fasted in two of them.

Naturally, though, I had concerns about this protest because I had played no role in framing the issues or strategy. First, would a fast risk the participants' health? Second, might my example of fasting help or hinder the sort of nonviolence that had prevailed in each of the earlier protests? Third, what about the feelings or concerns of the many students who were not directly involved? Finally, why such an extreme action?

The first question was resolved by the protesters themselves. Like the other students, they are obviously intelligent, mature university undergraduates of a high quality of mind and character, surely qualified to make this personal decision themselves. They had not made their choice arbitrarily, or without consultation, but in a thoughtful manner had chosen whether to fast or to join the protest at all. As the fast continued, one of my students did in fact stop for health reasons. She, like the others, remained sensibly attuned to her condition; after she received care, she quickly recovered and rejoined the protest. The evidence was there from the beginning that the protesters are what we, the faculty, have come to trust and respect: college adults who can make choices for themselves.

The second question about my commitment depended on the means as much as the ends: would there be complete adherence to nonviolence? I read the statements issued by the negotiating team, talked or corresponded with the protesters, attended the vigils each evening, and discussed aspects of the protest with the students who openly opposed it, both in e-mails and in direct conversation. One lengthy, intense dialogue with articulate anti-protesters on the steps of Low on Nov. 15 began badly, but eventually reminded me of the need for continuing reevaluation of our methods.

The ideas and intentions of the Columbia administration remained a mystery to me. They were infrequently reported in Spectator and, in contrast to the students' statements, appeared either incomplete or confused, especially on Nov. 14. But they never sought my opinion and I did not seek communication with them, because I certainly did not wish to pretend to be a negotiator in this dispute.

At the outset, I imagined that, on the basis of my life's study of Gandhi and King, I might counsel the group around the Sundial each evening on the theory of nonviolence by reading from the relevant texts. As it happened, I would bring copies of Gandhi's writings to the vigils and then not read them because they were redundant. The values of nonviolence poured forth, connected precisely with the cause: the need for an expanded Ethnic Studies program and concern for Harlem residents. The inclusion of Gandhi, and much more pressingly of King and Malcolm X, in the Core remains a legitimate demand, but the protesters are not among those who need it most.

It's my earnest hope that after I retire next year, these brilliant leaders will be taught to all university students, and that my grandchildren, for example, will have the privilege and good fortune of learning about them as a central part of their curricula. The goal of diversity is to embrace inclusiveness, not exclusiveness, in education. Summoning the spirit of nonviolence can never be easy or simple. Now, with a nation and a campus plagued with a virus of hate speech and action, the very thought of hearing King's voice again in America seems incredible. As Bell Hooks said, "It is truly amazing that King had the courage to speak as much as he did about the transformative power of love in a culture where such talk is often seen as merely sentimental." But, she continues, people do have a need to hear such words, and, if one listened carefully at the vigils, that need was addressed.

I would be the first to admit that we protesters did make serious mistakes and the outcome could have been better, as it was in '85. At 70, I'm getting too old for this style of action, and my own speeches at the Sundial fell far short of the demand, and showed in any case that I would have made a terrible campaigner. Further, I wish that we had been more careful to insert "nonviolent" into Malcolm's famous phrase, "By any means necessary." A counterstriker told me that the repetition on the Sundial of this phrase alienated him from the protest. Following Gandhi's fine attention to language, I believe now that the term "hunger strike" was a misnomer; it should have been called a fast, for the reasons that Gandhi stressed. That termcaptures the moral tones conveyed by religions for which fasting is a common and revered practice.

The question about the protest's lack of student inclusiveness or representation was stressed by the counterstrikers. Each time I faced signs reading, "We are not striking," or "The strike does not represent us," I realized the need for more communication among all members of our community. Of course, we protesters regretted that more students did not feel included, and I fully respected their right of choice. I want to say this to members of my class especially: your decision to join or not to join me in the protest can have no effect whatsoever on your academic status, or my relationship with you as students.

Some counterstrikers demanded that there should have been a referendum or vote of some sort before the protesters could feel legitimized to undertake such an extreme action. While I am not against such procedures, any more than I oppose inclusiveness, it should be made clear that nonviolent dissent is a right in any community and does not require majority rule to be legitimate. In the history of American nonviolent campaigns for example, the Montgomery Bus Boycott would not have begun if its prerequisite was a vote of approval by the city.

Without majority support, the protesters realized that we were at a disadvantage; but, according to the right of dissent and the precedents of nonviolent protests on this campus, a referendum was not required to sanction this fast. There seems to be a basic misunderstanding over the position of the protesters about this. We did not claim to be representing all students, only to have pursued earnest negotiation with the administration.

Finally, the question of whether such an extreme action by a minority of us was required is addressed by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his "Letter From Birmingham Jail". After an eloquent defense of radical nonviolent action, identifying as extremists Christ, Amos, Paul, Jefferson, and Lincoln, he concludes: "Jesus Christ was an extremist for love, truth and justice, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists." This is the same tract that argued the need for "the interrelatedness of all communities," because "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny." The key concern in the recent protestis the urgent need to address Columbia's expansion into Harlem. Extreme action was taken by us to call attention to the giant disconnect between "us" and "them." The huge protest of '68 directly attacked this disconnect by student violence in language and action that I strongly oppose. Yet let us not pretend that some magical spirit of connection or "interrelatedness of communities" has resolved the basic problem of alienation that fueled the fires of '68.

What, then, was achieved by this protest? On that inspirational evening of Nov. 14, on the steps of Hamilton Hall, I saw, for the first time since '85, an unmistakable movement toward connection between our campus and West Harlem. I do not know how representative the two women leaders from Harlem who encouraged the protest were that night, but they certainly spoke with admirable eloquence for our common cause of community. What they said about the disconnect agreed with the views of those Harlemites who audit my political theory class, or who greeted me during their special occasion at the Apollo Theater on Nov. 11 with concern about the fast and in support of the protest. They understandably dread displacement, and they feel that the protesters have at least paid attention and given respect.

I am grateful to Spectator for inviting me to express my response to the numerous student questions raised about these issues, and also for its commendable coverage of the protest. To the hundreds of students who have thoughtfully expressed agreement or disagreement openly, not anonymously, to me, I am appreciative. To those who chose to protest, whether you share my views or not, I see you as continuing an idealist tradition of nonviolent dissent that I hope will never be lost at Columbia.

Protest Fasting Hunger Strike Gandhi Nonviolence King Counterstrikers