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San Francisco State Strike May Have Lessons for Current Student Protestors

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How the nation’s first College of Ethnic studies came about, bringing together Latino, African American, and Asian American disciplines may offer some clues as to how to solve the nation’s current campus turmoil.

After deadline passed to end the Columbia University encampment by 2 p.m. Monday deadline, by early Tuesday morning, student protestors blockaded and occupied Hamilton Hall in a symbolic move.

Emil GuillermoEmil GuillermoProtestors did the same in 1968.

That made me think of San Francisco State University, 1968.

With breaking news at UT-Austin, Emory, and Columbia, the news was filled with call backs to practically every student protest the past six decades as arrests mounted into hundreds in nearly two dozen campuses around the country.

In 1970, the protests at Kent State were over the Vietnam War. Ohio National Guardsmen came in, opened fire, and killed four students.

Less than two weeks later that year, civil rights activists outside a dormitory at Jackson State were confronted by police who opened fire. Two African American students were killed, 12 injured.

But again, I didn’t hear anyone mention San Francisco State University, 1968.

That protest addressed all the issues of the day and more. The student strike at SFSU was against the Vietnam War, advocated for civil rights, and had as its ultimate goal the establishment of the first college of ethnic studies for Blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans in the country.

That final goal was eventually achieved, but there was violence, sparked mostly by “outside agitators,” who were confronted by police.

“People used the term ‘off the pigs’ but it was more rally rhetoric than a call to action (to actually kill police),” said Daniel Phil Gonzales, who was one of the strikers in 1968. He said there was some police instigated when batons were used on some on protestors, but for the most part, the rallies held were peaceful.

Gonzales went on to teach at what was the positive outcome of the strike, San Francisco State University’s College of Ethnic Studies, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation. Gonzales recently retired after more than 50 years as professor in Asian American Studies.

As for today’s protests, Gonzales is dismayed that the students have constantly dealt with charges of antisemitism.

“It stymies conversation and encourages further polarization and the possibility of violent confrontation,” he said. “You’re going to be labeled pro-Hamas or pro-terrorist.”

And that is happening. When for the most part, we are dealing with students.

But then, who really knows who the protestors are. People are able to join the demonstrations and mask up so identities are concealed. It’s hard to tell the students from the “professional protestors.” It’s not clear how ad hoc the whole thing is from campus to campus.

Gonzales said that was a key lesson at SF State’s strike. The main coalition driving the strike was aided by self-policing from inside of the movement. “That’s very difficult to maintain. Once you start this kind of activity, you don’t know who’s going to join,” he said.

It often led to so called “outside agitators” who surprised even the protestors themselves.

But Gonzales believes that in the current situation, there is a patch of humanity, common ground, where one can be both pro-Palestine and pro-Israel. He said it’s made difficult when if you’re against the belligerent policies of Benjamin Netanyahu, you’re likely to be labeled antisemitic.

Despite that, Gonzales is in solidarity with the protestors and the people of Gaza generally. And he sees how most of the young people protestors are in shock at what he called the “duration of the absolute inhumane kind of persecution and prosecution of the Palestinians carried out by the Israeli government.”

Students ask how did we allow it to go on? And why are universities investing in a country that engages in genocide?

Gonzales sees it as beyond a race/class issue, but as the perpetuation of a neo-colonial relationship that must end. He is hopeful for a two-state solution which he says may be the only way toward a meaningful peace.

As a victorious survivor of campus protest decades ago, Gonzales offered some advice to the student protestors of 2024.

“You have to have a definable goal, but right now the path to that goal is unclear,” he said.

If it’s divestiture, fine, he said, but the divestiture over South Africa took years to achieve.

“The student leaders at each campus need to work with the boards of trustees. They need to find allies in those positions of authority,” he added. “This isn’t going to be over in a day or two.”

Building allies and talking to the opposition, that is what Gonzales said is how student strikers at San Francisco State in 1968 got what they want.

That and being calm on both sides on whatever campus. The police don’t have to be called in if administration and protestors are talking and dealing in good faith.

Still, getting Asian American Studies under a new College of Ethnic Studies as hard as it was, is still a lot easier than what’s at stake on campuses in 2024.

Trying to end forever animosities to bring about a modern sense of peace is the top-level goal for the world. That may be what it takes to end this current wave of campus unrest.

Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. A former adjunct professor, he writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

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