Letters to the Editor

Too Privileged to Protest?

May 21, 2017

To the Editor:

In "Why the Yale Hunger Strike Is Misguided" (May 9), Amy Hungerford takes issue with members of Unite Here Local 33, a union composed of graduate teachers from eight Yale departments, undertaking an "indefinite fast" in protest of the institution’s refusal to negotiate with them. Hungerford’s qualm is apparently less with the substance of their protest than with its means. The Yale teachers who fast are doing so, according to Hungerford, without the moral authority bestowed on righteous fasters of fame — Gandhi, Irish Republicans, César Chávez, etc. — and thus suggesting a continuity between their action and that "of those who have used it in the gravest circumstances." One wonders about the efficacy, indeed ethics, of shaming a labor union by deriding their attempt to find "false equivalence" with labor activists, freedom fighters, and conscientious objectors. What are these forms of political imagination if not demands for equivalence?

The claim that the strikers are "misguided" depends on the designation of Yale employees as too privileged and powerful for a form of protest based in self-abnegation — just as their work is too rarified to be called labor. That privilege is not relative to the Yale administration, which has refused to recognize the union, nor is it relative to the Yale undergraduates taught by the strikers, nor is it relative to the other graduate employees and university staff who are not engaged in the hunger strike. This position from which it is inappropriate to so protest is relative to subjects of imperial rule, to bodies who are marked not only by their encounter with power but also by race, ethnicity, and class: The Yale teachers, it would seem, have appropriated tools that Hungerford would like to sequester as weapons of the weak.

At the end of her essay, Hungerford writes, "And if we are to be faithful to what we know about the history of protest, we must safeguard the symbolism of a tactic — the hunger strike — whose power belongs, by right, to the political prisoner, the victim of torture, the hero of an oppressed people in an occupied land." So, let us be faithful to the history of protest. Let us recall that Gandhi, before coming to global visibility as the emaciated figure of anticolonial resistance, first embarked on a hunger strike in India in 1918 in support of textile workers demanding fair wage in Ahmedabad. He wrote, "The laborers are dissatisfied with their lot. They have every reason for dissatisfaction. They are being taught, and justly, to regard themselves as being chiefly instrumental in enriching their employers." The Gandhian program of satyagraha (which he translates as soul-force) saw political independence as inextricable from sarvodaya, welfare for all. The tactic of fasting — for Gandhi, for Chávez, for those whose protest does not come to be so storied — is not mere symbolism and not a commodity. It would appear it is Hungerford — not the strikers — who rhetorically coopts the symbolism of protest and, with it, the memory of dissident, colonized, criminalized bodies.

Referring twice to the string of lights under which the protesters have camped (a sign, apparently, that they do not suffer so much that they cannot appreciate beauty or whimsy), Hungerford contests what she sees as their undue claim to historical and symbolic intimacy with true victims of oppression. It is a baldly exceptionalist argument in which protest is only rightfully enacted by those outside the protective bounds of the liberal democratic space and the cloistered grounds of the Ivy League.

It suggests that true victims of oppression do not live here and that claims for economic justice by those who don’t map onto Hungerford’s scale of suffering are frivolous. We do not have to agree with the tactics of Local 33 to dispute Hungerford’s appropriation of third-world politics of protest against her own students and teaching colleagues. If there is something to be said about fair use of the history of protest, it is perhaps that it ought not be used to shame, marginalize, and dismiss the politics of now.

Poulomi Saha
Assistant Professor of English
The University of California at Berkeley