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Hunger Strikers at UCI Protest Regents' Policies : Demonstration: A Claremont student joins four from Irvine campus in supporting affirmative action programs and seeking lower tuition.

October 18, 1995|MARTIN MILLER and RUSS LOAR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

IRVINE — Five students began a hunger strike midnight Tuesday at UC Irvine, declaring their fast would not end until the UC Board of Regents reinstate and expand affirmative action programs and substantially reduce university fees.

The students--four from UC Irvine and one from the Claremont Colleges--announced their demands at a noontime rally attended by about 60 students.

"Today, we mark a new civil rights movement," said Cesar Cruz, a hunger striker and a 21-year-old UC Irvine senior. "We know for 200 years there has been Anglo affirmative action. . . . I've made a choice to put my life on the line because I believe everyone has a basic right to receive an education."

The students, who also demand an increase in financial aid programs, said they will only consume liquids. They will forgo classes and reside directly across from the UC Irvine administration building in a makeshift camp--a small, fenced-in concrete slab with air mattresses, blankets, lawn chairs and a tent. The Claremont student, Angel Cervantes, a graduate student in history, joined them in a gesture of solidarity.

The regents voted in July to eliminate race and gender as factors in admissions, hiring and contracting. The strikers--all Latinos--said the decision is the latest in a series of attacks designed to erode minority gains over the past three decades.

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UC Irvine officials said they would not immediately interfere with the protest, but may do so after 10 days for health and safety reasons. In the meantime, the vital signs of the strikers are being monitored at least twice a day by medically trained volunteers.

Chancellor Laurel L. Wilkening said in a statement that she respects the strikers' right to protest, but she does not believe the action is "an effective way of changing the policy of the regents, and may in fact have the opposite effect."

But the strikers disagree. They believe the spectacle of students starving themselves will gain sympathy from the community and will ultimately shame UC officials into negotiations.

"Even the most conservative, most right-wing person has a heart," said Cruz, who is majoring in Spanish, history and women's studies.

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Specifically, strikers want the regents, in addition to rescinding their vote on affirmative action, to lower students fees by 135% over the next five years. Also, strikers demand the regents bolster recruitment and retention programs for minorities.

The strikers' rally seemed to win over some passers-by.

"I sympathize with them," said Martice Mills, a 20-year-old African American student majoring in electrical engineering. "If the regents allow these people to starve themselves to death rather than change their little law, then we know we are dealing with an unjust system."

UC Irvine graduate student Randy Baxter said the regents have caved in to political pressure.

"They're afraid of political pressure from the right," said Baxter, 32, who is white. "This is dividing the community into haves and have-nots a lot more. I have a lot of friends who are Mexican and black, and I don't want to see them discriminated against.

"It makes me look bad as a white male," Baxter added. "I also know discrimination myself as a gay man. One group gets it one day and the next group gets it another day."

The strike's organizers, a campus group called the United Front, are disappointed with the lack of diversity among the strikers. But the strikers enjoy broad-based support among students of all groups, United Front members said.

"This isn't just a Latino thing," said Adrian Neri, 19, a spokesman for the United Front. "Of course, we wish we had other ethnicities joining us."

Organizers placed a "Solidarity Tent" next to the main encampment, where students can stage their own fast for 12 hours or more to support the hunger strikers.

"We are hoping to raise a lot of consciousness," said Neri, a biology major. "This isn't Disneyland."

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