Everyday Extremism Part III: A Brief History of Student Radicalism at the Claremont Colleges

This is the third of a three part series on historic Claremont student racial group activity.
Unrest on Claremont’s campuses during the ‘90s took on a different form than that of the 1960s and ‘70s. Student demands were made by fax, and the antiwar slogans of the ‘60s and ‘70s were replaced by posters decrying racial inequality. However, student protesters of the ‘90s took a lesson from demonstrators of Claremont’s past, namely resorting to active measures, such as building takeovers and demonstrations, to accomplish their demands. The two-day siege of Pomona’s Alexander Hall in February 1993, perhaps the most memorable incident of student radical activity in Claremont’s recent past, seemed “kind of like a time warp,” according to Armando Navarro (CMC ’70), a longtime Latino activist and professor of ethnic studies.

The Alexander Protests, as they are known, started with the formation of the student group Liberation Through Education (LTE), consisting of students from all five colleges. According to a February 5, 1993 article in The Claremont Colleges Collage, the group was formed to protest alleged discriminatory practices and institutional racism at the Claremont Colleges. In response to these practices, on Monday, February 1, 1993 at 6:45 am, 40 students affiliated with LTE locked themselves in Alexander Hall, an administrative building on Pomona’s campus, refusing to allow anyone else inside. Pomona President’s at the time, Peter Stanley and his staff stood outside the building, surrounded by students carrying signs with slogans such as “This building closed due to racism” and supporters passed out a list of demands.

Included in this list were demands including the reopening of the search for a Black Studies/Pomona English Department position and the inclusion of Sue Houchins, an African-American candidate, on the list of three candidates to fill this position. Additionally, student activists demanded that money be allocated from the existing budget for the immediate search for a tenure-track Spanish/Chicano Studies position at Scripps College, and that other issues of diversity be addressed by the administrations. Isaac Mitchell, who was a Pomona senior at the time and a member of LTE, explained that “this protest was sparked by Sue Houchins, but it’s all about the general lack of commitment here towards minority students.”

At 10:00 am on that infamous morning, these demands were articulated in a “speak-out” on the front steps of Alexander Hall. By noon, the L.A. County Fire Department, Paramedics, and an ambulance arrived in response to the collapse of Scripps sophomore Megan Dotson, who fainted from fatigue. By 3:00 pm a crowd of hundreds of journalists, administrators, professors, and students had gathered and negotiations began between student leaders and college administrators. According to Mitchell, despite immense exhaustion, student protesters remained in Alexander Hall and refused to “leave until [they] could talk over the issues with the presidents and get negotiations with their demands.”

For obvious reasons, the presidents were compliant. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times entitled “Students End Demonstration; Colleges Vow Diverse Hiring,” over forty hours later, Yusef Omowele, a Pitzer sophomore, who was one of the student negotiators, announced the results of the negotiations to the crowd in a fiery speech. “There is only one thing left to say,” he said. “Victory is ours. Those of us on the inside have chosen to leave the building on our own terms. We took this building from you. We have chosen to give it back. There is no reason to send your fascist pigs [the police].”

The agreement reached between the protesters and the administration included a declaration of commitment by all five colleges to aggressive affirmative action programs and a promise to work to increase enrollment for minority and low-income students. Other points in the agreement included a pledge by Pomona, Pitzer, and Harvey Mudd to develop an Asian-American studies program, and a promise by Pomona to increase the number of tenure-track faculty of color by 50% by 2000.

In reflecting on the Alexander Protests, Kiana Burleson, who was a Pomona sophomore at the time, justified the takeover: “I don’t know how many petitions I [had] signed,” explained Burleson. “They [didn’t] respond to us if we’re quiet and polite. We [had] to get their attention,” and “get their attention” they did. Just as the Alexander protesters looked to the tactics of student radicals in Claremont’s past, perhaps future Claremont student radicalism will be modeled after the infamous events of February 1993.

Sara Birkenthal is a senior at CMC majoring in International Relations and Middle East Studies.

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