This fall, the University of Missouri has seen racial slurs hurled at black leadership, a survey saying that over a third of undergraduate senior women had been sexually assaulted, and a swastika drawn with human faeces on the wall of a residence hall.
Students demanded change.
On November 2, University of Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler declared that he was going on a hunger strike.
“I will not consume any food or nutritional sustenance at the expense of my health until either [University of Missouri president] Tim Wolfe is removed from office or my internal organs fail and my life is lost,” he wrote in a letter to Mizzou’s leadership.
As of Monday morning, Butler ended his strike.
Butler’s radical display of protest — and Wolfe’s resignation — came after a charged autumn at the Columbia, Missouri, campus.
The hunger strike “really is about the environment that is on campus,” Butler tells the Washington Post.
Mizzou’s student newspaper the Maneater detailed the tense autumn in a timeline, showing the ongoing use of racial slurs on campus, the departure of Planned Parenthood, and other charged incidents.
The tensions prompted the formation of Concerned Student 1950, a student advocacy group which has a name referencing the year black students were first admitted to the school.
After meeting with Wolfe on October 27, Concerned Student 1950 released a statement saying that Wolfe “did not mention any plan of action to address the demands or help us work together to create a more safe and inclusive campus.”
“Wolfe verbally acknowledged that he cared for Black students at the University of Missouri, however he also reported he was ‘not completely’ aware of systemic racism, sexism, and patriarchy on campus,” the statement read.
Faculty walked out. Over 30 members of the football team went on strike, drawing national media attention. Then, most intensely, came Butler’s vow that either Wolfe would leave office or his organ’s would fail.
— Blavity (@Blavity) November 9, 2015
The events at Mizzou are the latest in what has been called “The Renaissance of Student Activism” — demonstrations, mainly around diversity or sexual assault, that have popped up at colleges across the country. Last December, over 600 Tufts students did a “die in” to protest the non-indictments of the officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner. A Columbia University student carried around her mattress — all the way to graduation — no protest that the man who allegedly raped her wasn’t expelled.
Butler’s hunger strike is a particularly intense form of demonstration, with a charged history. In 1932, Mahatma Gandhi went on one to protest the Britain’s separating India’s electorate along the caste system. In 1981, Irish republican activist Bobby Sands died on the 66th day of his hunger strike. And in 2013, over 30,000 California state inmates went on a two-month hunger strike to protest longterm solitary confinement.
Butler’s strike, and the support that’s rallied around him, shows that student activism can actually reach the powers that be.
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