Inside the Student Movement: Undeterred by Crackdown, Activists Around the Country Gear Up for Bigger Actions

originally published on AlterNet

by Manissa McCleave Maharawal

Today, Monday, is not only a day of action against university budget cuts in New York City but also around the country, at places like UC-Davis, where last week students were violently pepper sprayed during a peaceful protest. Here these same students are courageously calling for a student strike that will shut down the campus and in which rallies and teach-ins about budget cuts, police brutality and non-violent action will replace normal campus activities. At UCLA there are planned protests at the Board of Regents meeting in order to force that body to change their agenda to better reflect student concerns like increasing tuition and decreased funding for the entire UC system. These actions will be done with the solidarity and support of students around the country, from Tufts University in Massachusetts to the rural Kentucky-based Owensboro Community and Technical College. These actions also occur in the context of a global student movement: for weeks in Chile protesters, spearheaded by students demanding more affordable education, have been expressing dissent against President Pinera’s capital market reforms. In solidarity with these protests students around Latin America, in Argentina, Columbia, and Peru have come together to demand education reforms and stand in support of the Chilian students. Earlier this month, students in Ireland, Italy and the Phillipines staged massive protests and walk-outs over increased tuition.

Let me start by being very clear about who I am and what I do: I am a graduate student at the City University of New York in the Anthropology Department and I teach Anthropology 101 at Baruch College twice a week on Monday and Wednesday evenings. My students are younger than me and older than me. They are impressively diverse, they are mostly women of color, they work all day long and then come to class in the evening. They are tired by the time they sit down in my class and I respect this tiredness, I respect and understand that many of them have to leave early or get there late because of their job or their family and because I, just like them, am a student and a worker in a public university system.

The public university system that we are in is the third largest in the country and one that has had  values of free education, accessibility and inclusivity in its inception and embedded in its history. I want to be very clear about this because in many ways our histories create our visions for the future and the history of CUNY is a history of struggle that gets to the core of what we think higher education is as well as who we think higher education should be for. Founded in 1847 as the Free Academy, the City University of New York was explicitly created to educate the poor and working class of New York City. Students fought for open admissions in 1969, a struggle that was about forcing the University to accept more non-white students and create Black and Puerto Rican Studies Departments. This struggle was won. In 1976 the University, amid years of student protests against it, imposed tuition for the first time since its foundation. Since then almost every year has been punctuated by protests over increasing tuition and proposed budget cuts. This year is the same.

But this year is also not the same. In the context of the Occupy movement, the student movement has taken off. Our movements are connected and stronger because of these connections. They are connected because they are fighting to articulate the same disconnect between power and people and to show the same connections between where our money is spent and where we want it to be spent, they show the connections between dissent and the way this dissent is violently repressed around the country and the world. In New York City and the United States Occupy Wall Street has provided the student movement with inspiration and supportIn this way Occupy Wall Street has, as Zoltan Gluck writes here:  “already begun to shift the very terrain of other struggles. For student organizing it has provided a whole new framework through which to organize collectively and horizontally.”

And organizing collectively and horizontally we have been: through weekly All-City Student Assemblies and General Assemblies, through a burgeoning student debt refusal movement that is calling for a million students to pledge to refuse their student debt in response to the fact that: “the student debt crisis and the dependency of U.S. higher education on debt-financing from the people it is supposed to serve. (Read more about this campaign here: http://occupystudentdebtcampaign.com/ ) And this has been happening through the very real, urgent and intensifying struggle over the current CUNY budget, a budget that calls for tuition increases every year for the next 5 years alongside cutting adjunct health insurance while simultaneously requesting millions more for security throughout the CUNY system. Fighting against this budget is the way I have translated the space for activism that Occupy Wall Street has opened up into being part of a organized on-the ground protest movement that has very real demands. This is part of how and why I was at Baruch College last Monday November 21st.

When I got to Baruch College around 5:15pm on Monday November 21st and I could immediately tell that something was wrong. The atmosphere on the street around the building was charged. I hurried over to the entrance on 25th street and students were yelling and shoving to get into the building. Something had just happened, the scene was chaotic. I saw a friend and asked: “what happened?” “We tried to go to the meeting and they beat us, they arrested people, they have David and Zoltan and Conor and others” he answered. This news sunk in, I was shocked. This wasn’t supposed to happen. We wanted to protest the budget, to have a General Assembly to highlight the contradiction between direct, street democracy and “public” Board of Trustees meetings that occur in heavily securitized buildings. We didn’t plan on arrests and violence. What had happened? Why had my friends been beaten and arrested?

My colleague Conor Tomás Reed, a graduate student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center and a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Baruch, described what happened in an email after he was released from jail the next day:

“As I write, my wrists are still bruised from repeatedly applied zip-ties and handcuffs, and my senses swim from the first real meal in twenty-four hours….During the insane security billyclubs melee, a guard unzipped my backpack and emptied its contents onto the floor, including a notebook with my students’ grades and a CUNY library book. As I shielded myself and others, I was grabbed by several guards and thrown to the ground, pinned down with my shirt ripped and glasses broken, and had zip-ties placed around my wrists so tightly that I couldn’t feel my hands. Only half an hour later…were my ties loosened. Many other detained CUNY students similarly experienced this tight cuffing and rough handling, and were otherwise in tremendous pain at the whim of a frighteningly disorganized and cocky security force. The decision for who to ultimately arrest and “put under” was based on racial profiling and confidence in the face of authority. All five of us were CUNY students of color (four men and one woman), with me also in the peculiar position of being charged with trespassing on the campus where I teach. One CUNY security officer sexually harassed the young woman in custody…”

I was not in the lobby when this happened. I didn’t see this happen. What I did do is immediately after hearing that Zoltan, David, and Conor, among others had been arrested was rush around to the other entrance to the building, swipe my faculty card in and start looking around for them, it was there in the lobby that I literally bumped into a security guard with my friend David cuffed taking him towards an elevator. I followed and caught up with them. “Where are you taking them? What are they being charged with?” The security guard in plain clothes escorting the uniformed guards started to scream at me: “You are interfering with a police investigation and you better get out of here!” I am a faculty member at this school and I wanted to know where my friends were being taken, this was in front of hundreds of students. This is the way repression works outside of throwing people to the ground and hitting them, it also works to intimidate those of us who want to know what happened, to advocate for those who have been assaulted. I was and am furious.

(To read more about what happened in the lobby read the press release issued by students and faculty on Monday evening describing these events. Also view the video links included with the press release, as well as other videos that have been posted and show the scene well.)

After they put David in the elevator and away, after screaming at me, I stood there not sure what to do. Almost on a whim I took the elevator up the 14th floor where the board meeting was happening. I suddenly so badly wanted to see the meeting whose quiet running was being so brutally ensured, I wanted to see the faces of the people who were being “protected” from us, the same people who get to make the decisions about our tuition, our health insurance, our futures. In the elevator there were two security guards who looked me up and down as I got on, I pressed 14 and it didn’t light up and when I looked confused they said:  “Oh we control the elevator” and turned a key. I stood stock still the whole ride up. I was fuming at this small securitization, this micro-point of security culture: in order for me to even ride the elevator a security guard has to turn a key. I reminded myself that I was trying to attend a public meeting and that I had every right to do so.

On the 14th floor all seemed quiet.  I signed in, took off my jacket and went through a metal detector, the bangles I was wearing set it off, as they always do, and so I was swept over by a hand-held metal detector. The door was held open for me and as I slipped in I was told to “just take any empty seat” because there are, of course, many of them. I sat down and immediately my heart fell. I don’t know what I expected to find here but after coming from the passion and rage of the street outside, after seeing David being taken away in handcuffs, this meeting room felt so…disconnected. People sat in chairs facing the front of the room where around 3 large tables the Board members sat. A podium stood in front of them, with a barricade in front of it, and someone was reading a letter opposing the budget cuts. The women reading was an adjunct, she was describing what will happen to her if she loses her health insurance and as she was reading a beeping started, she only had 10 more seconds. The beeping got longer and she sat down, tears barely held back. The next name was announced.

Suddenly I recognized this feeling, this feeling of powerlessness, of disconnect from the decisions that affect my life, my heart, my imagination, my future. This moment, sitting in the Board of Trustees meeting and feeling so disconnected from any decision that will be made there, felt the same as when I stood two blocks away from Zucotti Park on eviction night and watched them toss our things into sanitation trucks, toss what we had built together into sanitation trucks. This was the same anger, fury, rage, combined with a complete disconnect and distance. I had to fight myself not to run to the podium and grab the microphone and just yell: “Do you really think this is how decisions that affect thousands of people should be made?” And as I was fighting this impulse I realized that what this movement, both the student movement and OWS has done in the past two months: it has made me and many others feel this disconnect, feel furious about it, want to change it, and to find ways to work together to change it.

(Another way this disconnect manifests itself, talking about the arrests and brutality with a senior faculty member and administrator later in the week he says to me: “those students created a safety problem, they wouldn’t listen when told to clear the lobby, they brought that on themselves, if you come to a protest not expecting to get hurt you are naïve.”)

I didn’t rush the podium that night. I did boo when someone got up and supported the tuition increases,  I did participate in a disruptive “mic check” in which one of my colleagues got up and started reading what she had written when it seemed as if she had been skipped over to speak, I did refuse to leave the meeting when I was told I was being disruptive and was then carried from the meeting by four security guards, my body limp. This is what we could do in that moment.

Since then we have been frantically organizing for Monday’s Board meeting and protest at Baruch College. We are coordinating with the Professional Staff Congress, the CUNY Union faculty and staff union to come out to the streets. There are medical, legal, emotional support working groups preparing for tomorrow, there are outreach and media groups, there are faculty groups crafting letters of support. There are calls for a student strike and a picket line.

The Baruch College administration has responded by canceling classes in the building after 3pm and  permitting access to the building to those with “an urgent and legitimate need to be in the building” in order to:  “ensure the safety of all students, faculty and staff during the period surrounding the meeting of the CUNY Board of Trustees in the Newman Vertical Campus on Monday afternoon.” This feels like a lock out, another egregrious attempt at repression of student dissent as well as a bleak example of the administration’s priorities: protecting a Board meeting by canceling classes near the end of the semester and during the build up to the final exam period. As the press release put out by OccupyCUNY in response to this reads: “The campus lock-down is planned even though CUNY’s own legal department shows that the meeting falls under New York State Open Meeting Law and is legally required to be open to the public, including any CUNY students who wish to attend as long as the room is at legal capacity.” The full press release can be read here, along with a video rallying for tomorrow’s actions.

We are calling on our faculty to support us. We are calling on our union to support us. We are calling on students to reject the increasing privatization of what should be a public good and join us. We are rejecting the securitization of our universities, of our education, we are rejecting the commodification of our universities, of our education. We are rejecting a model that attempts to convince us that a consumer model of education, where you pay for what you get, is the best one. And in doing all this we are, again, fundamentally challenging the model of society that we are supposed to be content in. We are demanding more, we are demanding a society where education is a right, where it is free, where everyone has access to it.

And we have learned, once again, that this is a real challenge to the state, to the powers that be, to those who want to maintain education for the elite and for only those who can afford it.  Why else would we be surrounded by cop cars when we have meeting of the People’s University in Washington Square Park? Why else would students and faculty around the country be pepper sprayed and beaten when they demand a greater voice over decisions made in these institutions, when they demand affordability and accessibility? Why else would a public meeting be in a heavily securitized building, why else would the President of Baruch cancel classes in the last weeks before finals just so that a Board meeting can occur un-interrupted? We are being met with force because we are a threat, because education as a right for everyone is a threat because we are asking for more than we have been taught to expect, because we want to stretch our imaginations about what is possible by doing so.

As we marched around the block into the evening last Monday, waiting for our friends and colleagues to be released, not knowing when they would be, not knowing which side entrance they would be brought out from but wanting to be there with open arms when they were, as the night grew later and the crowd thinned, as the chauffeured cars and taxis waiting for members of the Board of Trustees started lining the block, as the cops kept marching with us, as it got colder, through all this we kept chanting, over and over again: “Whose university? Our university!”  And as we kept saying it the words became jumbled in my month and when I closed my eyes for a moment I could feel them, I could feel the ways that it could be our university, our future.

For more information about the protests tomorrow see here.

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