[Marxism] The battle to take back the New School

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Apr 22 12:56:36 MDT 2009


Counterpunch April 22, 2009
"Occupy Everything"
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 
their ultimatum.

“Occupy Everything”

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 
supporters below.

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 
rights.”

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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