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Student Tactics That Are Best Left in the History Books

November 05, 1995|Ruben Navarrette Jr. | Ruben Navarrette Jr. is author of "A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano" (Bantam) and editor of the forthcoming newsletter, Reconciliation

SANGER, CALIF. — The University of California has stumbled into a time warp. In recent weeks, the continuing debate over affirmative action has assumed the tenor of a 1960s folk song. Black-and-white photographs of college-age protesters lying dormant on the pages of history books have suddenly reappeared in the morning paper in full-color images of marches, walk-outs, even hunger strikes. A new generation of activists, outraged by last summer's decision by the UC Board of Regents to raise standards and end affirmative action in admissions, hiring and contracting, wants the regents to reconsider their action. Toward that end, the new activists--most of them, Latino--took up the political tactics of their predecessors. What a shame.

It was not the first time that modern-day Latino activists borrowed a page from their father's political playbook. Two and a half years ago, at UCLA, 89 students were arrested when a campus protest over Chicano studies digressed into a disturbance. Then, too, a small group of Latino students resorted to going hungry to pressure UCLA's chancellor to elevate the program to full department status. They were largely unsuccessful, though there is now something called the Cesar Chavez Center for Chicano and Chicana Studies on campus.

Oddly enough, the ghost of Cesar Chavez again hovered above the most recent wave of affirmative-action protests. The five Latino students who went on a liquids-only hunger strike at UC Irvine, beginning Oct. 17, were imitating Chavez, who twice fasted to draw attention to la causa and its grape boycotts. And, similarly, some history might have been repeating itself when about 5,000 UC Berkeley students, faculty and staff walked out of class for an afternoon of protest at Sproul Plaza last month. Maybe the protesters were thinking of the fabled East Los Angeles school walkouts in 1968. For a new batch of Latino activists seeking to accomplish new goals and, at the same time, resurrect the spirit of a lost icon, boycotts and hunger strikes are the natural, if nostalgic, weapon of choice.

Loyal proponents of in-your-face politics contend that is precisely the point. The reason that direct action never goes out of style, they claim, is because it works. Admittedly, in the 1960s, some of it did work, and worked especially well, in securing and expanding civil rights for African Americans. And it is the African American example from the '60s that Latino activists emulated then and, to a lesser degree, now.

But the coin of history has another, often ignored, side. The celebrated hunger strikes of Chavez, while dramatically highlighting the grape boycotts and the plight of farm workers, did not completely accomplish their broader goals. They were too self-indulgent and narrowly focused in their objective for that. Few growers were enticed or shamed to the bargaining table as a result of Chavez's fasting. Few of the wage increases and improvements in the working conditions of farm workers, rightfully attributed to the United Farm Workers, can be traced to the grape boycotts, which growers have consistently maintained were largely ineffective.

It can be argued, moreover, that the tactics of confrontation did as much harm as good. Essentially "us vs. them," they helped polarize the people of the San Joaquin Valley into opposing racial camps--a horrible consequence that has lasted nearly 30 years. Meanwhile, behind the scenes and away from the cameras, the unsung heroes of the UFW--Jewish lawyers, Mexican farm workers and Mexican American negotiators and labor organizers--did the crucial, if unglamorous, work necessary to secure what became monumental progress.

Last week, after their release from custody, the four remaining Latino hunger strikers followed a familiar spirit up the road to Sacramento, where they rallied at the Capitol and then led another protest at UC Davis. Given all the talk about today's young people being apolitical, one had to admire their courage, passion and conviction. All the more unfortunate, then, that they chose such a divisive and, in all likelihood, ineffective way of showcasing it.

In Sacramento, the students were greeted with signs that the times have changed; some previously sympathetic to direct action as a tactic expressed their dismay at what they now saw as a temper tantrum. In fact, UC Regent Ward Connerly, who led the regents' charge to abandon UC's affirmative-action programs, used precisely that phrase in referring to the hunger strike. Bluntly comparing it to a child threatening to hold his breath until his demands were met, Connerly vowed that the university would not be bullied or blackmailed by students who "resort to these sorts of methods when they do not get their way."

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