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Hunger Strikers Rally in Capitol : Protest: The four students are rebuffed by a Wilson spokesman and an assemblyman over demand for restoration of UC affirmative action programs. A fifth abandons his fast for health reasons.

November 01, 1995|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Four student hunger strikers wheeled their protest to the state Capitol on Tuesday in hopes of pressuring the University of California to restore affirmative action programs slashed over the summer--but ran into a stone wall of rejection.

The strikers, hunkered in wheelchairs as they entered the 15th day of a liquids-only fast, were rebuffed in their efforts to meet with Gov. Pete Wilson, who was out of town, and engaged in a vitriolic debate via telephone with an assemblyman who authored anti-affirmative action legislation.

A fifth hunger striker dropped out Monday because of health and family reasons, strikers said. But the others remained undaunted as they rallied on the steps of the Capitol.

"Why is [Gov. Wilson] afraid of four students in wheelchairs?" asked Cesar Cruz, a 21-year-old UC Irvine student participating in the hunger strike. "You know why? Because he does not care about higher education, he does not care about the people of California."

A spokesman for Wilson accepted a written list of demands from the hunger strikers, all of whom are Latino, but rejected the notion that Wilson or the UC regents would backtrack on their July vote to eliminate race and gender as factors in admissions, hiring and contracting in the 162,000-student system.

"The taxpayers can't be held hostage," said Paul Kranhold, Wilson's spokesman. "These kinds of things happen every day. They're doing this of their own will. And I don't expect it will sway the governor's decision."

Kranhold said the regents' vote came only after a tortured debate.

"We think the voters support it," he said. "Should the taxpayers be subsidizing an admissions policy that makes decisions not solely on the qualifications of the candidate but instead on their race? The answer is no."

Ward Connerly, the UC regent who pushed the affirmative action ban, suggested that the students' hunger strike was akin to "a temper tantrum."

"It's like a kid saying, 'I'll hold my breath and turn blue unless father and mother give me what I want,' " said Connerly, an African American conservative. "The effect of that is zero. We're not going to be stampeded and blackmailed by a handful of students who resort to these sorts of methods when they don't get their way.

"If we were to be held hostage to this kind of behavior, we might as well disband the Board of Regents," added Connerly, a Sacramento businessman. "It makes a mockery of the Democratic process."

The hunger strikers didn't fare any better when they tried to debate Assemblyman Bernie Richter (R-Chico) during a telephone conference call.

Richter, who was in his district when the four young men arrived at the Capitol, expressed concern that the strikers were endangering their health. But the assemblyman said he was personally "willing to die or go to the ends of the earth" to do away with preferential policies and quoted Martin Luther King's vision of a colorblind America as he rejected their demands.

The strikers were left rolling their eyes and shaking their heads in disagreement.

"I want to do away with preferential treatment that has occurred over the past 200 years," Cruz said. "We know Anglo males have historically been the ones who have received preferential treatment."

Their day in the Capitol punctuated a busy week for the hunger strikers. On Sunday, the protesters were arrested as they held vigil at UC Irvine.

The arrests over the weekend drew national attention to their protest. Campus police clad in riot gear arrested the strikers after they failed to honor an agreement with university officials to abandon an encampment set up in front of the administration building. They were cited for misdemeanor charges of failing to obey a police order to shut down the encampment, booked in Orange County Jail and released the same day.

By Monday, one of the young Latino men--Manuel Galvan, 21, a biology major at UC Irvine--decided to quit the strike for health and family reasons.

Pledging to continue their fast, the remaining strikers--three UC Irvine students and a fourth from Claremont Colleges--on Tuesday boarded an early morning flight for Sacramento.

Seemingly emboldened by the media attention their protest has generated, the strikers Tuesday called for a statewide day of protest today at universities throughout California.

"If we have to shut down the campuses, we will do so," Cruz said Tuesday during a noon rally on the steps of the Capitol attended by throngs of mostly Latino students. "That is what will make the legislators care. That is what is going to make the governor react."

After their trip to the Capitol, the hunger strikers headed for UC Davis for an afternoon rally.

Throughout their ordeal, the strikers' medical condition has been extensively monitored. One of them, UC Irvine student Juan Cazarez, 21, has slipped into the early stages of a condition that could lead to serious liver and kidney damage.

The other strikers are Angel Cervantes, 23, a graduate history student at Claremont Colleges, and Enrique Valencia, 21, a business and Spanish major at UC Irvine.

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