Among academics like me, this month is very significant not just because of the presidential election, but also because it marks the 40th anniversary of the multiracial mass student strikes at San Francisco State University (SFSU) which lasted for several months and eventually resulted in the creation of the country’s first Ethnic Studies (including Asian American Studies) program in the U.S. To commemorate this anniversary and to provide a detailed chronology of the strike’s significant moments, the San Francisco Chronicle has a story that reflects on the strike’s legacy 40 years later:
Critics of the strike said some of its goals did not justify the violence. But ethnic studies experts and historians say it brought positive change to the university, particularly the creation of its College of Ethnic Studies, which includes Asian American Studies, Black Studies, La Raza Studies and Native American Studies. . . .
“Did their 15 demands justify the bombings? Hell no,” he said. “They placed a bomb in the administrative offices while school was in session. They were setting fires in the library. They were putting people’s lives in serious danger.”
But Laureen Chew, now associate dean of the College of Ethnic Studies and one of nearly 700 students jailed during the strike, said the battle was necessary. As an Asian American, she had faced racism in high school and from customers of her parents’ laundry shop who called her father a “stupid Chinaman.”
As a scholar whose work and life centers largely on Ethnic Studies and Asian American Studies, I feel a lot of complicated and perhaps even contradictory feelings over these events that took place 40 years ago, long before I was even born.
On the one hand, I generally do not subscribe to a “the ends justify the means” approach when it comes to protests or demonstrations. While I was not there 40 years ago and can’t confirm the tactics that the student protesters may have used that put people’s lives in danger, I will say that committing violence to make a point and purposely putting innocent people’s lives in harm’s way is not the answer.
At the same time, I am pretty sure that the violence that the student protesters endured at the hands of the police was far worse than the violence that the students perpetrated against innocent bystanders. With that in mind and paraphrasing Malcolm X, protecting yourself against brutality is not being extremist — it’s basic common sense.
And ultimately, I do agree with Professor Chew’s sentiments that there comes a time when enough is enough — when you or your community endure so much systematic discrimination, inequality, and injustice that everything reaches a boiling point, at which time you must stand up and assert your basic human rights as an American.
Suffice it to say that I probably would not have the job I have now if it weren’t for this strike at SFSU 40 years ago and other student-led movements that paved the way for the creation of Ethnic Studies and Asian American Studies programs around the country.
But even beyond that, the SFSU strike stands as an inspiring example and reminder to all who are marginalized that learning about justice and equality is just the first step — the point is to turn that knowledge into action.