At 7:30 a.m, a young man majoring in psychology climbed to the top of the student union building at San Francisco State University with an electric guitar and an amp. The student played until noon, selecting songs by The Beatles and other classic rock bands heard in 1968 to honor four students on campus who have been fasting for the past 10 days.
The four students, including an 18-year-old freshman, say they launched their indefinite hunger strike on May 1st to save the university's ethnic studies college. The students have 10 demands, including an $8 million budget allocation for the upcoming year that would allow the college to expand its programs and fill a number of positions, including two professors approved for hire in the Africana Studies department.
The students have been sleeping outside the university’s administration building for the past week, dealing with rain, police, and sprinklers going off the middle of the night. Temperatures have dipped into the low 50s with dense fog and a mist they say makes it feel like they’re walking through rain. The weather conditions, combined with not eating and sleeping on the ground, have already hospitalized one striker. Julia Retzlaff, 19, was hospitalized late Monday after she complained of chest pain but returned to the camp and continues to only consume liquids—water, coconut water, and chicken broth.
“I had enough of the rallies that weren’t getting us anywhere, so I started thinking about the options,” said Ahkeel Mestayer, 20, the student who propose going on a hunger strike. The San Francisco native grew up with a Nicaraguan mother and grandparents in the city. Mestayer said he’s lost at least 15 pounds since he started preparing for the hunger strike.
Mestayer said studying ethnic studies has prepared him to challenge patriarchy, imperialism, and white supremacy. When asked to define what those academic words mean to him, he took a deep breath.
“Justice means my younger brothers who are darker than me won’t feel ashamed of who they are just because of their skin color,” Mestayer said in an interview in one of his ethnic studies professors’ office.
“That’s the ultimate cruelty of the society that we live in. It teaches women, people of color, gay and trans people to not value themselves,” Mestayer said as tears began to well up in his eyes.
The students Mestayer recruited to join the hunger strike are all Bay Area natives who grew up in and around the first dot-com boom and bust of the early 2000s and are now witnessing the current wave of tech companies thriving in San Francisco. Growing up, they were politicized by simply seeing their friends’ faces disappear as more buses leased by tech companies picked up workers in their neighborhoods.
“I have had so many friends move out. I’m not stupid. I know why that happens, because all my friends who came from more marginalized socio-economical backgrounds have been pushed out of the city,” said Julia Retzlaff, 19, the third student to join the hunger strike and the only woman fasting.
Mestayer plays percussion in a band, and he’s the type of college student who can engage anyone in conversation. On the first day of the hunger strike, he wanted to wear something that represented San Francisco, so he wore a brown MUNI vest that the city’s bus drivers wear. On the day of this interview, he wore a shirt he found at a train station, rainbow suspenders, a green jacket he bought for $4 at a local thrift store, and his grandfather's glasses, complete with the bifocal lens prescription.
While there are only four hunger strikers fasting on a college campus of 30,200 students, the university community has come out in support of the students, who are calling themselves Third World Liberation Front 2016 in homage to the 1968 strike. The students are currently in finals week.
Some 200 students and faculty members visited the hunger strikers at a rally on Monday. Actor Danny Glover praised the students at the rally. His ties to SFSU’s ethnic studies program go back to his days there as a student in the late 60s, demanding ethnic studies programs and equal educational access. Former SFSU President Robert A. Corrigan awarded Glover the Presidential Medal in 1999. It’s the college’s most prestigious award, given out once a year usually at the graduation ceremony.
By all accounts, the Ethnic Studies College has always been the school most likely to fight back against budget cuts. The college was founded in 1969 after a year-long student strike that included violent police confrontations. The Ethnic College has a program that students can major in called “Race and Resistance Studies,” which examines how institutions like education and penal systems can “oppress communities of color” and how communities resist that oppression, according to the college’s website.
The professors who teach resistance studies have devoted their lives to community organizing and the study of movements, and now they’re seeing their students finish the year by taking lessons into action.
"Every day that we’re out there we’re building community and raising awareness," said Mestayer, the 20-year-old student who proposed the hunger strike.
The students say their strike is indefinite but also warn their tactics will escalate.
Professors in the College of Ethnic Studies who spoke at a press conference Monday said the funds the college receives at the beginning of each fiscal year are not sufficient enough to meet the requirements set by California state law.
SFSU President Dr. Leslie E. Wong said the issues being raised by students are relevant and that he is committed to the long-term success of the College of Ethnic Studies. Wong on Tuesday evening pledged to "work through" the demands and asked the students to end their hunger strike immediately.
“There is no plan, and has never been any plan, to cut the budget of any of our academic colleges for 2016-17, including the College of Ethnic Studies,” said Jonathan Morales, a spokesperson for the university, in a statement sent to Fusion.
“The College of Ethnic Studies has received a budget augmentation for the past four years and is has a commitment from President Wong to receive that augmentation again in 2016-17,” said Morales.
Budget summary documents reviewed by Fusion show the College of Ethnic Studies planning budget for the current academic year totaled $4,685,276 to pay for staff salaries and benefits. But leaders in the Ethnic Studies College say the actual budget they received was closer to $3.6 million, with an additional $500,000 coming in last minute to cover shortfalls. The university disputes those numbers.
“The university administration is paying a lot of smoke and mirrors with the numbers to be able to say that they are paying for things when that may not be the case,” Dr. Andrew Jolivétte, professor and chair of the college’s American Indian Studies department, told Fusion.
“[The administration] says that we’re overspending when the reality is they have slowly drained and underfunded our budget,” said Jolivétte.
Jolivétte said underfunding the College of Ethnic Studies affects students across campus, because all students can register for many ethnic studies classes to fulfill general education requirements. Jolivétte said some 80% of his department’s courses fulfill some type of graduation requirement.
As a result, the college of ethnic of studies classes have some of the highest teacher-to-student ratios on campus.
Professors and department chairs from across the university have expressed their solidarity with the college and the hunger strikers by sending letters to the university president urging him to take the students’ demands seriously.
“The College of Ethnic Studies transcends bottom line cost-benefit rationales and represents our university societal commitment to providing opportunities to all people, and especially those who have been historically depreciated and neglected, to become constructive, creative, and socially responsible,” read an open letter sent to the university president that was signed by 18 department leaders in the College of Liberal and Creative Arts.
The students say they’ll continue camping out in the center of campus, under a grove of Monterey Cypress trees present long before the university was founded.
“The hunger strike already worked, because we’ve had more people engaging in dialogue about ethnic studies and funding since the proposed budget cut,” Mestayer said.
“There’s more fire under the administration than there has been since the proposed cuts,” said Mestayer.
The author of this story graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Latino/a studies from San Francisco State University’s College of Ethnic Studies.