Posted April 13, 2009
I have followed with excitement the recent student occupations at two private colleges here in New York: February at New York University and December and April at The New School University. As soon as each sit-in went down, I got a quick text message from 20 different people, then immediately took the A train to the West Village to support militant students and their demands: campus democracy and transparency, the resignation of war criminal Bob Kerry, the NSU President, and solidarity with Palestinians under attack in Gaza.
On a personal level, I was particularly proud and pleased by the students at NYU; I myself was once a radical undergrad there, and had in 2003 been involved in planning an occupation to demand disclosure of NYU’s financial investments and research funding — some of the same demands that this occupation was putting on the table. In our case, following months of planning, the action had been thwarted by an accidental tip-off to the administration. The day of the action, we were greeted at our secret positions in the library stacks by an array of well-positioned and highly amused NYPD officers. We were forced to give up. Seeing students pick up where we left off — and realize our tactical goal — was thrilling.
Less thrilling was the moment when the NYU occupation ended in defeat, and it seemed that some of the main organizers were facing expulsion. I could imagine myself as one of the hapless members of the negotiating team, lured out of Kimmel Center with false promises of dialog and forced to explain to my parents why I wouldn’t be graduating in two months time after all.
Then, on Good Friday, I got the text: “New School Re-Occupied!” Two blocks from the 65 5th Ave, I was once again confronted with phalanx of self-satisfied police and couldn’t even get close to the action to demonstrate my support. I arrived just in time to get the reports of tear gas, dozens of arrests and possible felony charges for the occupiers.
War Criminal Bob Kerry, it seems, is keeping his job… for now.
Deflated and frustrated, I began to reflect on the pattern in these actions — and what I’d learned six years ago as a militant anarchist student fighting for disclosure. I asked around of who knew: “what happened?”
A distressing pattern was beginning to emerge. With each successive occupation, the tactic was becoming less successful — the first NSU occupation resulted in small concessions that could be claimed as a victory. At NYU, support for students ultimately resulted in some amnesty despite political defeat, while the latest round at the New School was simply physically and politically brutal.
Each occupation has become increasingly defined by the need for a tightly controlled “security” culture.” This isolated the planning, and ultimately the action itself, from wider campus and community input — and support. The personal consequences for those involved have ramped up from none, to frightening, to devastating. And, it now seems possible that the urgency of legal defense will become paramount for large numbers of people most directly involved in the actions and support.
What I really wanted to understand is why this was going so badly. Why now? 2009 is not 2003. Any activist with good sense now admits that “certain defeat” is no longer so certain, and that new spaces of possibility have opened up. With the success of Obama’s historic campaign and the collapse of Wall-Street’s self-satisfied free-marketeerism those of us on the far left are hardly the only ones who see the necessity of looking for new solutions.
The call to “Occupy Everything!” coming from the New School in Exile group resonates with reports of people taking housing into their own hands and with the Republic Window and Door factory occupation that was this country’s first in generations.
But this new and thrilling student militancy is burning itself out, quickly. We don’t yet have the personnel to “occupy everything” — or even, apparently, to occupy a couple of cafeterias in private universities for very long.
But I think we could. I think back to my days planning a militant occupation in a dank Brooklyn basement and remember my last sense of disappointment in realizing that not only had our action failed, but that the anti-war movement on campus had fizzled while those of us who were the most committed organizers and activists focused on tight security, u-locks and bathroom access, for months on end. We had taken a break from building relationships with students and workers on campus and citywide, and we had nothing to show for weeks of effort.
I’m worried an analogous, but much larger, opportunity is being missed now. Clearly, there are many more committed, radical student organizers now on the scene in NYC these days, and meanwhile the tuition hikes and layoffs at CUNY are affecting and infuriating the city’s largest group of students, while MTA fare hikes have most of twelve million contemplating drastic action. To me, a truly radical — and more democratic — approach involves engaging these trends and the organizations that are trying to mobilize them. Even if it means temporarily sacrificing something in terms of tactical urgency and the “security” of increasingly isolated action.
Back when we were planning our potentially dramatic and ultimately failed takeover of NYU in 2003, we spent a lot of time listening to The Coup on repeat, and their declaration in the great/silly song “Ride the Fence” that they (and we) were “pro running up in Congress saying ‘fuck it all’/but bring the people with you/that’s the protocol”
…but weren’t really hearing it. Back then, maybe we could afford the mistake, but if there is anything I most agree with the NYU and NSE radicals on, it is that the time is now , and so we have to get it right.