The Battle to Take Back the New School

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@gmail.com


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