[Marxism] The battle to take back the New School
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Apr 22 12:56:36 MDT 2009
Counterpunch April 22, 2009
The Battle to Take Back the New School
By BARUCHA CALAMITY PELLER
Owing to pending legal issues, as well as continuing intimidation from
school administration towards student organizers, all the New School
students are quoted anonymously in this article, at their request. CB.
"We occupied a university building, workers in Chicago occupied their
factory, people facing foreclosures have refused to leave their homes.
Occupation is not merely a tactic to get some demands met; it is a
practical strategy for taking our lives back into our own hands. Let's
occupy everything until everything is ours.” – a student at the New
School for Social Research, NY
On Friday, April 10, in the first lights of a cool Manhattan dawn,
banging could be heard up to a block away from the four-story New School
building at 65 5th Ave, and the sound of chains scraping against metal
permeated the silent morning.
When school security arrived the entire building, which takes up a city
block steps away from bustling Union Square, had been barricaded by
students inside. A huge banner appeared hanging from the roof: “The New
School is now re-Occupied.”
Although only lasting four hours before a brutal eviction by NYPD, the
bold occupation has once again raised the stakes in the young student
movement in New York City. But more importantly, the politics that have
been bought forth from within recent occupations at NYC universities
challenge reformist solutions to atomized “issues,” and now more than
ever gone beyond focusing solely on student demands. Students are
proposing direct action, and specifically occupation, as a natural
response to the financial crisis, with a distinct anti-capitalist critique.
“The New School’s problems are symptomatic of the larger economic crisis
in whish we live, the crisis which is being dealt with by service cuts,
foreclosures, bank bailouts, mass unemployment, and layoffs,” said a
student inside the barricaded school. “We reject these false solutions.
To really fight the crisis means to take over the spaces in which we
live and work, and make them our own. And that is what we are doing.”
An escalating resistance to commodification
The April 10 occupation stepped up an already active scene of dissent at
the New School, a movement whose contagious energy continues to spread
to other universities. On December 17, New School students occupied a
large area of the same building at 65th 5th ave for three days, and
fights with authorities for the space broke out both inside and outside
the building. Among their demands was the resignation of President Bob
Kerrey and Vice-President James Murtha, as well as the Board of Trustees
Treasurer James B. Millard. Early in the month, faculty had voted
no-confidence for Bob Kerrey. The occupation ended after negotiations
with the school, but only small concessions to the demands were made,
and the administration remained.
Among a plethora of concerns, the students cite a lack of financial
transparency and political centralization as their primary grievances
with the New School administration. They say Kerrey is making the school
into a corporate entity that disregards student and faculty needs.
“We don’t have a library, the school has spent millions on a new logo,
and Kerrey is only concerned with making the school profitable,” a
student has said. “Our school is a progressive front for the corporate,
commodification of education.”
The administration themselves are shadowy characters. Kerrey, a former
Nebraska senator, is considered a war criminal for leading a massacre on
a village of unarmed civilians during his tour of duty as lieutenant in
Vietnam. According to reports, civilians including women and children
were executed outside their homes and others were stabbed.
Millard sits on the board of L3 communications, a large war contractor
whose subsidiary in Iraq, a company called Titan, was sued in May 2008
for abuses and torture at Abu Ghraib.
After winter break the movement continued. In February, NYU students,
with support from their New School counterparts, occupied Kimmel Hall
for three days, requesting that the school release a report of the
annual operating budget and grant 15 scholarships to students from Gaza.
The NYU occupation ended when police lifted the barricades at Kimmel
Hall. Students were photographed and suspended.
Meanwhile there was an obvious lack of any serious changes occurring at
New School after the December occupation. A socially responsible
investing committee was to be set up, but Kerrey called it merely
advisory. Wearing ski-masks, a student group called New School in Exile
held a February 10 press conference to announce an ultimatum: President
Kerrey must be out by April 1 or else the students will shut down the
school. Any concessions made by the school after the occupation were
considered irrelevant if the current administration remained.
Things only escalated further from there. More student groups signed
onto the ultimatum. Frequent meetings were held and at one point
Kerrey’s house was vandalized. A February teach-in on the history of
student resistance at the New School was disrupted by school security
that threatened to arrest and suspend students if they continued the
teach-in. A second teach-in was similarly disrupted in March. Using
intimidation, administration showed a flagrant disregard for freedom of
academic and political expression at the school, and tensions rose.
April 1 came and went and Kerrey remained. A heightened security detail
at the school slackened its efforts, but the students had not forgotten
On the morning of April 10 crowds of student supporters and pedestrians
gathered around the occupied building. Kerrey, who labeled the
occupation illegal and refused to recognize it as a political
demonstration, summoned the police in force. The demands had expanded
since the passing of the April 1st deadline: the resignation of the
Kerrey administration, and full control over the otherwise underutilized
building at 65 5th Ave. At the same time, those barricaded within the
building used the occupation as a call to action to other students and
non-students and as a model of resistance.
“There are two aspects of our struggle,” said a student inside the
occupation. “The first revolves around the crisis at our university,
which is symbolized by the corrupt and authoritarian President Bob
Kerrey. The second, and more important aspect is rooted in the general
struggle against capital, as well against all hierarchical power
relations. The solution we propose is a means without end. Our
occupation of 65 5th Avenue is a small model of our proposal, which is
for workers, students, and dispossessed of all kinds to collectively
occupy the places where they live, work and circulate through.”
Huge banners were dropped from the roof of the school: “Occupy Everything.”
As morning pedestrians began to swarm the sidewalks outside the
building, wondering what was happening, people fell silent and heads
turned upwards toward the roof, where a dozen occupiers appeared masked
and waving a black and red flag. The scene was striking- against the
backdrop of a grey sky, the masked occupiers began to read a communiqué
from a bullhorn. “…When we delve below the surface appearance of
everyday life, it becomes clear that a generalized critique of society
based on the twin logics of capitalist accumulation and hierarchical
domination has everything to do with our struggle to redefine our school.”
The students went on to critique capital and the commodity form to the
constantly swelling gathering of press, police, pedestrians, and student
President sicks NYPD on students
Shortly after the occupiers disappeared back into the building, NYPD
appeared in their place on the roof, and began a calculated operation to
remove the student occupation and hinder outside support by barricading
the perimeter of the school and shutting down over a block of 5th Ave.
In a move that would later be heavily criticized by both faculty and
students, Kerry gave the go-ahead to the NYPD to remove the occupiers,
without offering negotiation from the administration.
In an absurd reaction to the occupation, Kerry actually went as far as
to compare the students to Al-Qaida, saying, “Some of us still remember
9/11 around here.” Kerrey, who at one time termed his students as
“customers”, later called the students who occupied “terrorists”.
In the late morning, the occupiers attempted to leave the building
through a side door. When the door opened, police reached inside and
heavily pepper sprayed the students, and then closed the door,
preventing them from peacefully retreating from the occupation. Outside
the door, police attacked supporters, arresting three and leaving one
student with a concussion and scrapes and bruises across his face. The
NYPD denied the use of pepper spray on the students until a video
surfaced on the Internet clearly showing the brutality at the side door.
The occupation ended when scores of police sawed through the front
entrance. Inside, occupiers unlocked the second door and sat in three
lines and 19 people were arrested without resistance.
Appalled by president Kerrey’s response that led to the incidents of
police brutality at the occupation that day, an angry crowd of 200
masked students from various schools descended on Kerrey’s house in
Greenwich Village late at night. They shouted his name and broke some
car windows while barricading the street from approaching police.
Faculty have heavily criticized President Kerry’s calling in of the NYPD
as an executive unilateral decision reflecting his general lack of
accountability to other existing powers at the New School community.
Historically, school administrations hesitate to use police to settle
student demonstrations on campus. It was no small deal in the 60s when
Columbia University sent the police in to evict an occupation, and after
words, several faculty members resigned in protest.
“We can see no justification for the administration’s resort to police
force against the occupiers of 65 Fifth Avenue…in our view, (Kerrey’s)
statements evince no understanding of longstanding traditions of
university autonomy vis-à-vis state power and protection from
apparatuses of repression.” wrote two prominent professors, Nancy Fraser
and Eli Zaretsky. “His action appears to have been taken in ignorance of
the specificity of academic life, its values, traditions, and historic
A Global Context for Unrelenting Students
President Kerry should consider himself lucky that New School students
are only going after buildings. A few days before the latest New School
occupation, students in Orleans, France, held their school president
hostage, with a motto that reflects sentiments of students in New York:
“education is not merchandise.”
As the December occupation was greatly inspired by the insurrection in
Greece and the wave of occupations there, students in New York continue
to connect their experiences with others across the globe, specifically
in Europe where students are concerned with an unstable job market and
university reforms that serve capitalist interests. Since December,
letters of solidarity from student occupations from Greece to Italy and
Spain have been pouring into New York, and students scour the web for
communiqués from their anti-capitalist “comrades” overseas. Clashes
between police and students have swept Italy and France for months.
Despite the administration’s continued efforts to repress dissent
through threats of expulsion and disciplinary action, the students at
New School continue to organize and escalate: holding assemblies,
encouraging direct action, and writing intelligent communiqués to
articulate their every move and counter naïve charges that they are
merely “political thugs,” or that occupation is an act of violence.
Students from schools around the city have come out in support of the
New School demonstrations, and are planning actions at their own
schools. Pressure from faculty led the to the temporary lifting of
suspensions on students involved with the recent occupation.
Last week, Kerrey’s house was visited once again by a mob of students
reminding him that they want him to leave, and Fifth avenue was
blockaded in front of the school. “Occupy again!” The crowd shouted.
“The students are determined,” said a student yesterday. “The school
cannot continue doing this, because we wont back down. Occupation is a
powerful experience- to take back space and make it your own. Now that
we have had a taste, we know what is possible.”
Barucha Calamity Peller is a writer and photojournalist, high school
dropout, and rebel-rouser. For years she has worked within and reported
on social movements from Mexico to Europe. She can be reached by email
at macheteyamor at gmail.com
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