Setting the Record Straight: A Statement from the New School in Exile
April 14, 2009
We would like to set the record straight about a few things.
In a series of messages to the New School community by President Bob Kerrey and others, the occupation of 65 5th Avenue on Friday, April 10th, is being painted as violent, and student protesters’ commitment to non-violent demonstration is being questioned. We can debate all day about rhetoric and what has been written by individual students ostensibly involved in the December occupation, or we can look at the actions themselves.
On Friday, protesters entered a building, peacefully escorted a maintenance worker off the premises, and barricaded themselves inside, refusing to comply with the NYPD’s demands that they leave, until several hours later when they opened the locks at the request of the NYPD. The NYPD’s own footage shows that when the police entered the building the protesters were sitting peacefully on the floor in the lobby. They allowed themselves to be handcuffed one by one, not resisting arrest in any way.
Allegations that the protesters “broke into” the building are false, the only serious damage to property was committed by the police when they broke through the front entrance. So in what way were the protesters supposed to have been violent? The only instance of “violence” cited by Bob Kerrey is a scuffle with a security officer who was trying to open a door from the outside and reportedly hurt his leg as it got caught in the door when the protesters shut it. Any injury he incurred was accidental and unintended. Kerry released a statement that this man went to the emergency room at Saint Vincent’s. The implication of Kerry’s statement is that the man was seriously injured and admitted to the hospital. This is false. Witnesses saw this man walking and running around the area for the entire morning and the New School Free Press reports that Saint Vincent’s has no record of him ever being admitted.
The official response to the occupation, on the other hand, was in no way peaceful. The use of pepper spray against those inside the building when they attempted to leave was violent. Forcibly clearing student supporters from the surrounding streets was violent. Footage on the New York Times website shows, and eyewitnesses have described, one protester being wrestled to the ground, and another, who appears only to be speaking to the NYPD, being jumped on by several police officers and screaming as he was held down and brutally beaten. This protester, a New School student, sustained concussion and serious wounds to his head and face that were only treated when he was released from jail the following day.
Apparently, the peaceful occupation of a building by a small number of people warranted the massive spectacle of police violence we witnessed on Friday, with entire streets blocked off, more than 100 police vehicles on the scene, and riot police being called in. Bob Kerrey has stated that the occupation could not be handled by New School security and that the NYPD needed to be called in. He argued that because the occupation was illegal, it was not a demonstration. Although the Demonstrations Policy is ostensibly meant to “protect the rights of demonstrators”, Kerrey decided that the occupation could not be considered a demonstration and was “not political”, despite explicit indications to the contrary on the occupation banners and blog. On what grounds did he determine this? Who gets to decide what is or is not a demonstration? Were other members of the university administration, such as the Provost, consulted, or was this a unilateral Executive decision? And even if those who occupied the building were not considered demonstrators, what about the violations of the rights of those who were demonstrating in solidarity outside the building?
The demonstrations policy states that “absolutely no form of physical violence or intimidation can be tolerated” on the part of demonstrators. But mobilizing the massive repressive apparatus of the riot police (or massacring an entire village in Vietnam) are apparently okay.
As for the action itself, people have claimed that the intent was unclear. This is baffling. The banners and the blog and the “Occupation FAQ” that were circulated that morning made it explicit—even though the action spoke for itself. The purpose of an occupation is to occupy. To fill a space, to change its use, to reclaim it. There is no space in the New School right now that could reasonably be called a student space—one that doesn’t need to be reserved, that meets students’ needs, where students can freely express themselves peacefully, or that they can even decorate.
Occupation as a tactic is not antithetical to efforts for reform within the university. On the contrary, this action was a response to the lack of truly democratic outlets for effecting change within the university that we have seen since the December occupation. The changes that have been presented have minimally satisfied the need for immediate democratic process within the university—minor concessions such as these simply serve to quell student and faculty grievances rather than solving them. And these changes have been accompanied by policies and actions on the part of the administration to intimidate protesters and dissenters into silence. This occupation if anything is reinvigorating a critical discussion of change at the university and the need for Kerrey’s removal.
Whatever your views on tactics may be, it is still necessary to reflect on what led people to this in the first place. What are students to do when there is no avenue on campus for expression without being threatened if the administration doesn’t like what you’re saying? A peaceful teach-in a few weeks ago was taken over by security guards and students were threatened with expulsion and arrest, even though no classes were disturbed and no exits were blocked. Our Demonstration Guidelines, suddenly dusted off in the wake of the first occupation, are an insult to anyone’s intelligence. To have to apply for a permit to hold a peaceful demonstration makes a mockery of what a demonstration is. Any demonstration so circumscribed is a lamentable excuse for a protest.
To argue that the police violence was necessary is to argue that the course of Friday’s events was inevitable. We are not so lacking in imagination. Imagine, instead, if the NYPD had not been called in; if protesters had been allowed to stay in the space and open the doors and let others in; if 65 5th Avenue, instead of sitting empty and taunting us with all that unused space while the administration keeps changing its mind as to what to do with it, had become, however briefly, a space where students could meet and gather and study and celebrate and make art together.
Better yet, imagine a university in which students didn’t have to fight for these things in the first place.