'On Strike! Blow It Up!' : Code Switch Fifty years ago, a multiracial coalition of students at a commuter college in San Francisco went on strike. And while their bloody, bitter standoff has been largely forgotten, it forever changed higher education in the United States.

'On Strike! Blow It Up!'

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Just a heads-up. There's some foul language in this episode.


Fifty years ago, a bitter strike upended one of America's biggest cities.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS #1: (Chanting) On strike. (Unintelligible).

DEMBY: It wasn't a standoff between workers and bosses, though. It was a standoff between college students and college administrators.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS #1: (Chanting) On strike. (Unintelligible).

MERAJI: It was a multiracial fight. Hundreds of students at a mostly white commuter college in San Francisco, Calif., refused to go to class until more people of color were admitted. Strikers were also calling for a radical innovation at the time, a college of ethnic studies where all students could learn about brown and black communities in the United States. And I think it's fair to say things got ugly.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: They just started beating him. And they didn't even bother with him to arrest him. He was - 'cause he wasn't doing anything. They just left him to lay in the corner here. You can see his blood.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The police were angry that the white students would even support us. Everybody was under attack.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I just saw brutality I never want to see again.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I spent my 19th birthday in jail.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: All for what? Black Studies, ethnic studies?


DEMBY: This is CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. And a lot of our listeners have probably taken an ethnic studies class in college. They look different everywhere, but they're usually a deep dive into the history, sociology and literature about all the people usually relegated to a single chapter in a high school history book.

DEMBY: If that. Right? Like, sometimes just a few paragraphs, a few chapters apart.

MERAJI: Right. And while there are ethnic studies courses everywhere today, what made that possible was this months-long bloody struggle at my alma mater, San Francisco State University, back when it was called San Francisco State College. And today we're talking about what student organizers and activists did there that changed higher education forever.


DEMBY: OK. Goody, goody, goody, goody.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: I have a lot of questions for you, Shereen, about the student strike. Like, for starters, why does this stuff always happen in the Bay? Like, what is it about the Bay?

MERAJI: Yay Area.

DEMBY: You have all this activist energy all the time. And why, in particular, did this student strike pop off?

MERAJI: I haven't said this on the podcast recently but, Gene, it's complicated.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Is it?

MERAJI: (Laughter). The short answer is it popped off because of the suspension of a grad student, named George Murray, in the fall of 1968. Murray was teaching intro English classes to incoming freshmen at San Francisco State, and many of his students were black on a campus that was decidedly very white.


MERAJI: People point to a whole bunch of reasons for why George Murray was suspended, but his stance on the Vietnam War was a big one.


GEORGE MURRAY: Our statement was that the war in Vietnam was racist. It is the war that crackers like Johnson are using black soldiers and poor white soldiers and Mexican soldiers as dupes and fools to fight against people of color in Vietnam who have never called black people n*****. And...

DEMBY: Crackers like Johnson. I mean, so he's referring to LBJ, right?

MERAJI: That's right. And that audio we're listening to is from a televised press conference. George Murray's rocking an afro. He's got very dark sunglasses on. And what I haven't told you yet, Gene, is that he was a member of the Black Panther Party, which was founded about two years prior to the San Francisco State strike, across the Bay in Oakland, Calif. And George Murray is the Black Panthers' Minister of Education.


MERAJI: Here's his story and Jason Ferreira.

JASON FERREIRA: Summer of 1968, he travels to Cuba, participating in a very famous conference and with a very famous organization, called the Organization for the Solidarity of the Peoples of Asia Africa and Latin America, OSPAAAL. And he basically there gives the Panther analysis, you know, that the struggle of black people is tied to the struggle of all Third World peoples.

MERAJI: Jason's been researching this strike for years. He's done about 50 oral histories of the people involved, and he's writing a book about it. And he told me that George Murray talked about supporting the National Liberation Front, also known as the Viet Cong. And that got the attention of the Republican governor of California, Ronald Reagan, who, I don't know if I have to say, but, he was already not a fan of the Black Panthers.

DEMBY: He was not.


MERAJI: That's a whole 'nother CODE SWITCH episode.

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: But anyway, Reagan and the board of trustees at San Francisco State, they wanted Murray out. And this press conference we're listening to is George Murray defending that statement he made in Cuba supporting the Viet Cong.


MURRAY: We are calling for victory of the National Liberation Front because of our political stand, which is our right, our constitutional right. We're being attacked by the power structure of this college and the state of California.

DEMBY: OK, Shereen. So all these students went on strike because this one dude, this one teacher, got fired?

MERAJI: From what I understand, that was the final straw. But tension had been building between students of color on campus and the administration for many, many months. And the early agitators were members of the Black Student Union.


JERRY VARNADO: How you doing?

MERAJI: Hello.

VARNADO: I'm Jerry.

MERAJI: I'm Shereen.

VARNADO: You didn't see my...

MERAJI: Nice to...

VARNADO: ....My doorbell?

MERAJI: Do you not like the knocking?

VARNADO: No. I normally won't answer.


MERAJI: Hello.

I went up to the Bay to speak with some of the original strikers and organizers. That's Jerry Renato opening the door to his home in Oakland, Calif.

VARNADO: I'm Jerry Varnado. I am still alive.

MERAJI: And he was there with James Garrett.

JAMES GARRETT: I used to be called Jimmy Garrett. Or sometimes I still am.

MERAJI: Jimmy ended up at San Francisco State in the spring of 1966. He had family in the Bay, and he was looking for a college to enroll in to avoid the draft. As we know, the Vietnam War is ongoing. He left campus before the strike kicked off, but he was instrumental in organizing the student group that started it, the Black Student Union.

GARRETT: I'd been involved with the sit-ins and freedom rides. And most of that student movement had come out of historically black institutions. Question then became, could you do the same thing at predominantly white institutions which where there was a kind of a trickling-in of more and more black students?

MERAJI: And he told me that he was shocked by the tiny clusters of black activism that were already at San Francisco State. He figured, you know, he'd have to start his organizing from scratch. But, no. There were black fraternities and sororities, Black Panthers, a Negro Students Association that Jerry Varnado was a member of. Jerry's originally from Mississippi, but also had family in the Bay and was at San Francisco State on the GI Bill.

GARRETT: Jerry, people who knew him trusted him. They didn't know me. He had already been there for several years when I got there in spring of '66.

MERAJI: Jimmy and Jerry helped organize these disparate groups into the first Black Student Union in America.

DEMBY: The first?


DEMBY: Ever?


DEMBY: So he, like, grabbed all these groups and created, like, a Negro "Voltron." And no one had ever done this...

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: ...Before, ever?

MERAJI: They would have said black "Voltron."

DEMBY: Yeah. You're right. Sorry, elders.

MERAJI: And they rallied members of the Black Student Union around this idea of using their education to not only help better their circumstances but those of the entire black community. BSU members went out to black neighborhoods in San Francisco. They went to Hunters Point. They went to the Fillmore. And they recruited high school kids to come to San Francisco State. They wanted to create what Jimmy referred to as a critical mass of black students on campus to change the campus, to change, really, all of San Francisco, to change the world. They had, like, these very big ideas. But Jerry says it was really hard convincing parents that this was a good idea.

VARNADO: People were scared to go out to a white college campus. You were not welcome. And see, we could be identified by color. And you had to convince them that nothing bad is going to happen to your children, we're going to take care of them.

MERAJI: So members of the BSU, Jerry and Jimmy, they're out recruiting in black neighborhoods. They're tutoring kids in those neighborhoods, and they're tutoring students they recruited once they got onto campus.

DEMBY: Right. OK.

MERAJI: And on campus, they're doing more organizing. They're demanding work-study jobs. They're getting the black fraternities and sororities access to the same campus amenities that white fraternities and sororities had access to. Here's Jimmy.

GARRETT: All of those things, many black students didn't see they had a relationship to. So then we had to show people that they could have an ownership relationship. Not to the institution, but to whatever the institution used as support mechanisms for other students.

DEMBY: All right. So just to make sure I follow - you got Jerry, you got Jimmy. You got all these other black students organizing, you know, other black students on campus. Then they're organizing in a local black community. And they're also pushing the administration to treat those black students equally to the white students, who make up most of the campus.

MERAJI: And on top of all that, they're also pressing hard on campus administrators for more black students to be admitted, and they are winning. They get the president at the time to guarantee admission to about 400 more blacks.

DEMBY: What? That's crazy. That's amazing.

MERAJI: Here's Jerry again.

VARNADO: That meant that you gave us your name, your telephone number, and your address and maybe your Social Security number. And that was the application process. Then you were sent a letter of admission. You know, all this getting a letter from your high school instructor and all that is just trash. Danny Glover was one of the people we brought in.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: All right. So two questions there.


DEMBY: Danny Glover, Danny Glover?


DEMBY: Like, I'm getting too old for this s*** Danny Glover?

MERAJI: Famous Danny Glover was a San Francisco State alum. He was also very involved in the strike. Sadly, he did not respond to our request for an interview. (Laughter).

DEMBY: OK. And so the other thing they're saying is that you didn't have to, like, go through the whole rigmarole of applying...

MERAJI: That's right.

DEMBY: ...The way we think of it now. No SATs. No - like, none of that stuff.

MERAJI: None of that. You give them your name, your Social Security number, your address. And you're in.


MERAJI: Amazing. I know.

DEMBY: Crazy.

MERAJI: Back to Jerry. So Jerry says this happens, and then they get 200 more admissions slots for another semester. And when the Latino and Asian-American students hear this, they want in. So they go to the administration, and they ask for admission allotments, too.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: And, according to Jimmy and Jerry, they're told by the administration to ask the black students to share theirs.

DEMBY: (Laughter) So wait. Wait. The administration is like, OK, all y'all brown kids, we gave y'all some slots. Just divvy them joints up.

MERAJI: That's how the story goes.

DEMBY: Oh, man.

MERAJI: And Jerry and Jimmy, they weren't having it.

DEMBY: Right.

GARRETT: We're not in a position to be giving away anything. (Laughter). You know? We're not the administration.

VARNADO: Everybody got to carry their own weight up in here.

GARRETT: Yeah. You've got to go in the bell.

MERAJI: Leaders of the Black Student Union suggest that the other students of color, Third-World students, get together in a solidarity group to go into battle alongside the Black Student Union. And this group calls itself the Third World Liberation Front. And for those of you who are rolling your eyes the term Third World...

DEMBY: Uh-huh.

MERAJI: ...This is how activists back then referred to oppressed communities. And the term Liberation Front is directly from the Vietnamese National Liberation Front. So if you put those two things together, you get Third World Liberation Front.

DEMBY: OK. So now all of these brown students, obviously, are like, let our powers combine, at this point.

MERAJI: Yes. It is black and brown "Voltron."


MERAJI: And we know there's power in numbers, and black students made up about 4 percent of the campus back then. So they needed some help. Here is historian Jason Ferreira again.

FERREIRA: These other students of color - Chicanos, Asian-Americans - were dealing with the same issue that black students had been struggling with, you know, four or five years prior, before Black Power, before Black Consciousness, right? They were running around trying to be white, looking in the mirror and wishing they looked different.

LAUREEN CHEW: My name's Laureen Chew, and being involved in the Third World Liberation Front opened up a whole new world in terms of explaining my sense of belonging and becoming in this country.

MERAJI: Laureen Chew grew up in San Francisco's Chinatown.

CHEW: By the time I got to college at San Francisco State, I was angry - you know, angry at my parents not wanting to share stories and angry with the fact of how they dealt with racism when they were confronted with it, particularly, I think, my father. You know, he had - because they grew up in an era where - you know, during Chinese Exclusion, your whole thing was about survival and never, never being caught. You know, losing somebody's sock at the laundry that we had, and he would get cussed out by being called a stupid Chinaman - whatever. And I would be in the back trying to listen to how he dealt with that, and he usually, basically laughed it off.

And that's how I entered the Third World Liberation Front, with that mental frame - I am pissed off. I don't get this.

MERAJI: So before this strike started at San Francisco State, the longest student strike in U.S. history, you've got the Third World Liberation Front pushing the administration to admit more students of color, fighting for courses that reflect their experience in this country, taught by people who are not white, and then the BSU, which is a step ahead, they have a few black studies classes, and they're pushing for an entire black studies department. On top of that, Gene, you have white anti-war organizers and activists on campus, too, affiliated with the SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, who end up joining forces with the BSU and the TWLF.

DEMBY: So you got all this activist energy churning on campus and off campus.

MERAJI: Right. The BSU and members of the TWLF are volunteering, they're tutoring, they're organizing where they live - in Chinatown; the Mission, which was predominately Latino; the Fillmore and Hunters Point, which are black neighborhoods at the time. And Jason says it's also really vital to remember the backdrop that this is all happening against.

FERREIRA: The Vietnam War was ongoing. Dr. King had been assassinated. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. Malcolm had been assassinated. Panthers were being shot and killed all over the country, thrown into jail.

MERAJI: And speaking of Black Panthers, it's time for a reminder that the party's minister of education, George Murray, a grad student teaching freshman English at San Francisco State, is suspended in the fall of 1968.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: Jerry Varnado remembers him as a soft-spoken, thoughtful guy who just put on a tough act. He says George Murray liked to keep his afro a little unkempt to make people uncomfortable.

VARNADO: That was supposed to project the image that he was an unruly person, and he would pull lint in his to make it more provocative.


VARNADO: Because see, he's the very first person that I ever met when I came to San Francisco State. We were standing in line behind each other. The very first black person that I ever met, and I felt lonely. I was out here by myself.

MERAJI: George Murray was well-liked on campus, especially by the students active in the BSU, and they wanted him reinstated.

VARNADO: When that didn't happen, the strike kicked off.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #2: (Chanting) Fix our campus (ph).


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Unintelligible) All pigs - kill the pigs (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: Why are the police needed?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #3: Why are police needed?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: Why do you need policemen here?

DEMBY: Wow. So it's about to go down, then.

MERAJI: After the break. Stay with us.


DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.



DEMBY: OK, so 50 years ago this week, the longest student strike in U.S. history came to an end.

MERAJI: It started at San Francisco State College in California's Bay Area, and it was a multiracial battle for more students of color and a college of ethnic studies.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #3: (Chanting) Strike, strike, strike, strike, strike.

DEMBY: All right, Shereen, let's just remind everybody where we left off. So there's all this activism happening on campus prior to this explosion.

MERAJI: Mmm hmm.

DEMBY: There's a black student union, and they have a coalition with other groups of ethnic and racial minorities, other people of color. They call themselves the Third World Liberation Front. And they're pushing the administration really hard to change the climate on campus. And all of this is happening against the crazy-ass backdrop of the Vietnam War, a bunch of high-profile political assassinations and just general social upheaval in America.


MERAJI: The strike started on November 6, 1968. The BSU had 10 non-negotiable demands, and the Third World Liberation Front had an additional five, and here are some of the highlights.


MERAJI: The BSU demanded that a black professor named Nathan Hare, head of a Black Studies Department, and that George Murray be reinstated. They also wanted 20 full-time teaching positions in Black Studies and normal admission requirements waived so more black students could get into college. The Third World Liberation Front demanded a College of Ethnic Studies that would provide relevant education to the communities it represented, and they wanted it to have four departments - American Indian Studies, Asian-American Studies, LARASA Studies and Black Studies - and they demanded that all applications of non-white students be accepted in the fall of 1969.


MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: That is a very radical list, right?

MERAJI: And that is the short list that I gave you.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Right. I mean, the stuff they're asking for is, like - I mean, it's saying, like, change the way you admit people entirely.


DEMBY: And also, add a bunch of new curricula to the college, and do that by next year.

MERAJI: That's right.

DEMBY: That's a lot.

MERAJI: Oh, yeah. And they went hard on Day 1 (laughter). According to local news accounts, 400 students gathered in front of the administration building calling for George Murray to be reinstated. Students paraded through buildings chanting, on strike; shut it down. BSU members interrupted classes to discuss their demands and encourage other students to join the fight.

LISA RAY GUTIERREZ: So they went into one of my classrooms and made what I thought was a very moving speech or two about why it was important that everyone support them.

MERAJI: That's Lisa Ray Gutierrez (ph).

GUTIERREZ: Guzman now because I married later, and I added his name. But my maiden name is Lisa Ray Gutierrez.

MERAJI: She was 18 and a freshman when the strike started. She says she was shy and quiet and kind of confused about her identity. Her dad was Filipino and black, and her mom was white, and she came from a pretty conservative working-class family. Her grandma saved money to pay for her first semester at State.

GUTIERREZ: So I started going to all the demonstrations that were on campus, but I didn't stop going to class right away because there were enough demonstrations that were held at noon on the speaker's platform or picketing around the campus that I kept myself busy and I was supporting the strike. But then a week later, there was a demonstration to march up to the administration building. The president at the time was this guy named Smith, Robert Smith. We must have been at least 3- or 400 people that day - multiracial. His representative came out saying that he had more important things to discuss.

He convinced me to go on strike, the president. When he said he had more important things to do, I thought maybe I don't agree with all the demands of the strike - because I still was searching it out myself - but I know that this is important. I know that minority students need to get into college if they want to have jobs that require college.

MERAJI: Lisa remembers being very put off by the aggressive police response. Police were on the scene from day one. The tact squad, is what she called them - the tactical squad. They wore face shields, and they wielded batons.

GUTIERREZ: I mean, I saw cops beating people, and I saw cops on horses chasing after people.

MERAJI: Just a few weeks into the strike, the president of San Francisco State, Robert Smith, is confronted by protesters using loudspeakers, and a striker asks him why they're beating students, and here's a part of his response.


ROBERT SMITH: There have been more police brought on campus, as the concern for safety and personnel...


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #4: Whose safety, yours or the students'?

MERAJI: (Laughter) Gene, can you hear what they're saying there?

DEMBY: Whose safety? Whose safety?

MERAJI: Yes, they're yelling, whose safety, yours or the students'? You can hear someone repeating, bullshit, over and over again in the background.

VARNADO: The police would just wade into crowds and just start beating people with their nightsticks.

MERAJI: Jerry Varnado told me the police were so brutal they turned apolitical students into strikers.

VARNADO: They sprayed mace on people. They kicked people. This went on day after day after day after day, and it went on both on whites, blacks and other ethnic groups. Everybody was under attack.

MERAJI: Now, Gene, there are news accounts of students throwing rocks...

DEMBY: Mmm hmm.

MERAJI: ...Carrying lead pipes, cursing out police officers and administrators kicking over chairs in classrooms, breaking windows.

DEMBY: So it was just chaos.

MERAJI: (Laughter) On the first day, there was an account of a stack of school newspapers being lit on fire and a bomb going off under a stairwell but nobody getting hurt.

DEMBY: I'm sorry.


DEMBY: So, like, one of the things - I mean, you see this, like, in op-ed pages or, like, in columns and essays all the time about, like, how uncivil college campuses are today, right?

MERAJI: Mmm hmm.

DEMBY: You know, because somebody, like, shouted down some person who was, you know, saying black people are stupid or something, right? (Laughter) I'm just, like - if you look back then, OK, you had a bomb going off on this campus, right? There were - there was bombings at the University of Wisconsin, at Bluefield State - which you and I visited once - there were unarmed students getting shot by U.S. soldiers at Kent State and shot by police at Jackson State. It's just weird to hear people talk about how wild college campuses are now and how uncivil they are today when, back then, people were, like, literally almost at war.

MERAJI: All the strike vets I spoke with said some version of, those were crazy times. You're never going to believe what happened.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Yeah.

MERAJI: And it's really hard to believe.

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: It's really hard to believe that things were that nuts.


MERAJI: But one thing they also told me is that they were really disappointed with the way the media portrayed them as violent militants, without reporting on the issues they were fighting for and, really, without reporting on how violent the police were toward them.

DEMBY: Mmm hmm.

MERAJI: And all of this was way too much for Robert Smith, who resigned less than a month after the strike started as president of the college. And he was replaced by a man named Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa. He went by SI Hayakawa. He was born in Canada to Japanese parents, and he was an English professor at San Francisco State.

DEMBY: So these students are now squaring off against a person of color.

MERAJI: Yes, that is right. And Hayakawa made it very clear to these students that he was not playing around.


SAMUEL ICHIYE HAYAKAWA: Until these demonstrations, strikes, raids and other disruptive acts are ended, I will continue my policy of asking police assistance to maintain the security of this campus. If any of the dissenting groups really want to talk about the issues or about anything else, all they have to do is to knock off the trouble.

MERAJI: S.I. Hayakawa had the support of the chancellor's office. He had the support of California Governor Ronald Reagan, the chief of the SFPD. And there were also students on campus, too, who really did disapprove of the strikers' approach. There was a group on campus called SMART, the silent majority against revolutionary tactics.

DEMBY: So I guess that kind of makes a lot of sense, right? So it's November 1968 when this whole thing starts - the strike starts - which is the same time that Richard Nixon is elected president of the United States. He ran as the so-called candidate of the silent majority. And we tend to forget this now, but, you know, there were all sorts of white protesters on college campuses around the country who were protesting from the right and facing off against groups like the Third World Liberation Front.

MERAJI: But there was a ton of white student support on campus for the strikers who were out there getting beat up by the police, too, as you heard from Jerry Varnado. So Hayakawa was also facing hardcore opposition and - not only from the striking students, who like to call him a puppet and a Japanese Uncle Tom, but also from faculty who were members of the American Federation of Teachers union, who also joined the students out there on the picket line.



MERAJI: And if that wasn't enough pushback, Hayakawa also got major pushback from the black community in San Francisco. Here's Ruth Williams, a community activist from Hunters Point, at a rally right in front of the college.


RUTH WILLIAMS: When I rise up, just about the masses of Hunters Point rises up, too. So I am...


WILLIAMS: I am supporting the Black Students Union, the World Liberation group 100 percent.

MERAJI: Eloise Westbrook, also from Hunters Point, told the crowd she's a grandmother with 15 grandchildren and wants a college she can be proud of.


ELOISE WESTBROOK: I only have but one life to give children. When I die, I'm dead. And you better believe it. But I'm dying for the rights of people.


DEMBY: All right. So at this point, the BSU, the Latinx students, the Asian-American students are all joining forces with the white students who were against the Vietnam War. And you got the instructors on campus who don't like Hayakawa. Like, they're protesting, too. So basically, everyone is in open revolt at San Francisco State.

MERAJI: Even a group of black police officers from the SFPD calling themselves Officers for Justice refused to work the San Francisco State strike.


MERAJI: Yeah. But Laureen Chew says this did not sway S.I. Hayakawa from his law and order stance. He made it clear he'd hit back hard if they staged another rally on campus.


MERAJI: The student strikers organized an on-campus rally anyway on January 23, 1969. The strike was in its 79th day, and Laureen remembers being in the library, hiding books to make it harder for students who refused to go on strike to study.

CHEW: I went out of the library, and I was at the fringe of this huge - hundreds of people gathering for this rally. And all the sudden, out of, like, I didn't know where, there was these horses that were huge. And, like, they just, in a split second, surrounded the entire group. And because I was at the edge of the crowd, I just saw brutality I never want to see again. Some people I knew were getting hit by bayonets with their heads bashed in, blood all over the place. They fell, pushed to the ground, and still getting hit when they were on the ground. And they were pushing back, so I was just kind of numb, you know, because I was just waiting to be arrested.

But then after that, I started to worry about what my mother was thinking. In fact, the policeman who were - who booked me looked at me, and the first thing that came out of his mouth with a smile was, young lady, what is your mother going to say?

MERAJI: Lisa Rae Gutierrez was arrested on that day, too. She says she was charged with three misdemeanors.

LISA RAE GUTIERREZ: Illegal assembly; disorderly conduct, I think; and failure to disperse, I think were the three, if I remember right. My dad had to pick me up at the bail bondsman. Don't perish in jail. Call Barrish for bail (laughter). His name was Barrish. He was the one that's in charge. That very night, my mom had a car accident because she was so traumatized by the fact that her little daughter had gotten arrested - her firstborn - and didn't see a car that kind - that came at her. And she got hospitalized, so I got blamed for the accident.

MERAJI: Four hundred and eighty-three students were arrested that day, including Black Student Union leader Jerry Varnado. Laureen, Lisa and Jerry all ended up doing time. Laureen Chew pleaded not guilty, was found guilty, appealed and was ultimately sentenced to 20 days.

CHEW: I spent my graduation going to jail.

MERAJI: Lisa Rae Gutierrez told me she, quote, "copped a plea" and did 30 days.

GUTIERREZ: And that was really traumatic because I spent my 19th birthday in jail.

MERAJI: And Jerry Varnado took a deal, too.

VARNADO: I did a year. Other people did more.

MERAJI: Here's historian Jason Ferreira again.

FERREIRA: This is the other element of the strike that I think people need to realize - the level of sacrifice that this generation - that they went through. You know, people did time. Relationships were stressed to the point of crumbling. Word would come back to members of the Third World Liberation Front or the Black Student Union, in particular, from the police, saying, we have bullets with your name on it. This is the type of stress, this is the type of pressure that was put on student leaders - all for what? Black studies, ethnic studies?


MERAJI: Two months after that mass arrest, the strikers reached a deal with the administration.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: The strike caused by the Black Students Union and other members of the Third World Liberation Front, and strongly supported by the revolutionary black - white students, ended today, March 20, 1969.

MERAJI: Strike concessions included a college of ethnic studies. The administration also agreed to accept, quote, "virtually all non-white students" who applied for the 1969 fall semester. George Murray was never rehired, though. He ended up having to leave the Black Panther Party and is now a minister in Oakland. Jason Ferreira told me he doesn't give interviews about the strike. And the professor who the BSU wanted to chair the black studies department - Dr. Nathan Hare - he was fired by acting president Hayakawa during the strike, and he never became the chair of the black studies department. Jerry Varnado - he didn't return to campus for 30 years.

VARNADO: Such a bitter experience.

MERAJI: Really?

VARNADO: You suffering from post-traumatic stress.

MERAJI: Even though you won.

VARNADO: We didn't see it as a victory. You know, we saw it as coming to an arrangement. Too many people busted, too many people beat up - you know, I don't know whether there's any victory in violence and warfare for anybody.

MERAJI: After he did his time, Jerry went to law school, and he's a retired attorney living in Oakland, Calif. His eldest son created a scholarship in his name at San Francisco State's College of Ethnic Studies. Lisa Rae Gutierrez went on to become a teacher in the San Francisco Unified School District. She was active in the teachers union until her retirement.

GUTIERREZ: My three children also went to San Francisco State, and I remember one time that my daughter had an assignment to talk about the San Francisco State strike. So who did she get to talk to - was myself (laughter). So it has affected even me personally, rather than politically, but also personally. And even though now I'm 68 years old, I still try to do as much as I can when I can - now I have to watch grandkids - but to help continue the struggle. Yeah. It changed me forever.

MERAJI: Laureen Chew became a professor in the Asian-American studies department at San Francisco State, and she was associate dean at San Francisco State's College of Ethnic Studies from 2006 to 2012. She's happily semiretired. And historian Jason Ferreira fought for a Latino studies department on the campus of the University of Illinois in the late '80s when he was in undergrad. Those student activists won, and he went on to get his master's degree in ethnic studies from UC Berkeley. And now he's an associate professor at San Francisco State University in the College of Ethnic Studies, of course.

FERREIRA: When people ask me what the strike was about and what the struggle at San Francisco State was about, I say, well, it's bigger than a syllabus. It's bigger than the reading list that we do in our classes - right? - that it is tied to that very same impulse of what W.E.B. Du Bois might call abolition democracy, a more transformative emancipatory understanding of education. That's what black studies, that's what third world studies was intended to be.


DEMBY: I mean, listen to this, Shereen - makes you make a lot more sense to me.

MERAJI: The fact that I just walk around with my fist in the air all the time?

DEMBY: Basically, yeah.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: But also, like, you know, it's, like - we talked about this at the top, but, like, all this stuff happens in the Bay. And, like, this is where you cut your teeth. Like, it seems like you are a creature of this thing, too.

MERAJI: You know this, but our listeners might not. I did graduate with a B.A. in Raza studies from San Francisco State's College of Ethnic Studies. So yes, this is very much a part of me. And the day this podcast drops marks the 50th anniversary of the last day of the strike, so that's pretty cool.


DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. Please follow us on Twitter @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from y'all. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. Send us your questions about race with the subject line Ask CODE SWITCH. And you can stay informed by signing up to our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/codeswitch. This episode was produced by Maria Paz Gutierrez, Sami Yenigun and Kumari Devarajan. It was Maria Paz and Kat Chow who interviewed Laureen Chew. It was edited by Sami Yenigun. Our music this week is from Jay Daniel.

MERAJI: Special thanks to Jade Africa Rivera, who helps direct the Metro college program for first-gen students at SF State. She helped me coordinate the interviews. Thank you, Jade. And a shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Leah Donnella, Steve Drummond, Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido, L.A. Johnson. Our intern is Tiara Jenkins.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

OK. Hey, Gene.

DEMBY: What's good?

MERAJI: One last thing. Jerry Varnado taught me how to make an old-school cocktail, so I thought I'd share the recipe.

VARNADO: You know, because you can't just fight all the time, they had such a thing as house parties. You may not have heard of such a thing.

MERAJI: I've - yes, I have.

VARNADO: Oh (laughter).

MERAJI: I've been to some wonderful house parties.

VARNADO: They had house parties. And people would come through, and they'd bring stuff - maybe a bottle of Ripple. And - Ripple is a really cheap wine. I just thought I'd let you know that.

MERAJI: Thank you.

VARNADO: When you wanted to make what the Black Panther Party called a bitter dog, what you did is you took the Ripple and you poured some lemon juice in it. And that was a bitter dog. They had all of this kind of stuff (laughter), all this creativity.

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