Easy Heroism: A Harvard Demonstration Produces Che

Posted: May 08, 2001 12:00 AM
Good cause? Maybe. Heroes? No way. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert went over-the-top last Thursday in praising the 35 students occupying Harvard University's central administration building. Here was his lead: "You want heroes? Take a peek inside Massachusetts Hall." Since April 18, the demonstrators have sat and given interviews to adoring journalists about Harvard's obligation to raise the wages of employees who make less than $10.25 per hour. The students have received food from administrators, laud and honor from television networks, and opportunities to make up any tests they miss. The Los Angles Times reported that as one student leaned out the window, "his government professor inquired: 'Got everything you need? Books? Class outlines? Deodorant?'" Reporters and pundits eager to relive the late '60s-early '70s glory days of student protests are praising this protest. But give us a break, please. I was in college during those days, and they weren't so glorious. This month is the 30th anniversary of a five-day hunger strike that I and some other Yale students went on in 1971 as we camped outside the administration building, also in support of low-paid university employees. In return for being hungry on the first and second days -- the third, fourth and fifth weren't bad at all -- we received great coverage from journalists and great sympathy from professors and administrators. By day, we read Karl Marx. At night, we could watch the Marx Brothers, thanks to the Yale Film Society, which projected films for us. The university health service provided a glucose solution to anyone growing faint. What I could not read at that point was the story of a real hero, Armando Valladares, because he was being held incommunicado in one of Fidel Castro's prisons. Only in 1988, when Valladares testified before the U.N.'s Commission on Human Rights, did I learn what he went through as a political prisoner not for five days or several weeks, but for 22 years. He told how one of his friends, Roberto Lopez Chavez, "went on a hunger strike to protest abuses. The guards denied him water. Roberto, on the floor of his punishment cell, delirious and in agony, asked only for water ... water. The guards entered his cell and asked: You want water? They urinated into his mouth and onto his face. He died the following day." Valladares told of his own experience: "When they had me in a punishment cell, naked, my leg fractured in several places -- fractures that were never treated and eventually fused into a mass of deformed bones. Through the wire mesh that covered the cell, the guards would pour over me buckets of urine and excrement that they had collected earlier." Such abuses went on and on, through "eight thousand days of testing for my religious convictions, my faith, of struggling not to allow the hatred that my atheist guards sought to sow with their bayonets to flower in my heart." Guards sometimes showed him copies of U.S. newspapers like The New York Times with praise of Fidel Castro. Valladares testified that, one night, "a political prisoner named Fernando Lopez del Toro came to my cell. In a tone of despair, he said to me that what hurt the most, out of all of the torment, was that our sacrifice might be in vain. It was not the pain, but the apparent uselessness of enduring it that was defeating Fernando." Valladares described how "Fernando climbed up on his bunk, coiled a dirty towel around his neck and a with a sharp piece of metal tore open his skin, searched with his fingers for the jugular vein, and in one stroke cut it. He died a few minutes later. Fernando was the victim of indifference, of silence, of that terrible echoless universe in which, in this century of horrors and violations, so many good men and women die." Valladares is a hero. Lopez del Toro was a hero who could not take it any more, and Valladares' message to men like him is: "Do not take your life. Liberty will never disappear from the face of the earth." My comrades 30 years ago were not heroes. We were pampered poodles rubbing up against people who treated us kindly. We read our press coverage and were very full of ourselves. I hope today's Harvard protesters don't take their press clippings seriously.