NYC Student Movement: Occupy Everything!… Now?

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.


7 responses to “NYC Student Movement: Occupy Everything!… Now?”

  1. Micah Avatar

    Kate and Isaac,

    I am really excited to read more closely everything you’ve both posted since I made my comment. I scanned over your responses the other day — I’ve been running around with various errands lately and have not had much time to read them more carefully — and I think this is a great discussion which we should be having here in New York at branch at some point.

    Anyway, I’m glad we’re talking about these questions — and I’ll write a response soon!

    See you at Left Forum I hope?


  2. Kate G Avatar
    Kate G

    thanks for that!

  3. Isaac Avatar

    I partially responded to this below, but this section of a report on the European left’s protest at NATO meeting in Strasbourg is a good take, I think:

    At first I had a hard time understanding why people were tolerating the Black Bloc at all, until I understood that they are a part of the French and German left / social movement, with a long history of a sort of co-existence with the other tendencies of this movement. Some aspects of this co-existence were visible when they would provide medical assistance to people overwhelmed by gas, and when some of them attacked a post office the crowd around them booed, and they stopped. As a World Social Forum organizer explained it to me, the Black Bloc is there, they are made by society too – the question is not whether to work with them, but how.

    But more important than the Black Bloc – which is a comparatively static movement – the most interesting and encouraging aspect of the demonstration for me was the role of the French New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA).

    When the crowd was trapped between lines of police with individuals breaking off with their hands over their heads, most of the left parties and organizations also headed for the hills. It’s not our fight, they said. But in this environment the NPA stood their ground. They dismantled the pallet barricades and formed three front lines of activists with arms interlocked at the head of a retreat. Some of their leaders went on and made the hard – but completely necessary – decision to negotiate a retreat with the police. These leaders were verbally attacked for these negotiations by some in the rally, but if the crowd was allowed to remain trapped any longer the slow disintegration would put people in serious danger – the NPA realized this and made a move that showed real movement leadership. I joined arms in their lines of activists to lead the crowd out from the trap we were in. These street leader activists were uniformly young, spirited, calm, and morally disciplined. Some of these young people I spoke to had been members of the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) before it dissolved into the NPA, and some of them were new members or sympathizers of the NPA.

    The NPA acted in the interests of and as part of the social movement, and they bore a great deal of responsibility. From what I saw, they are true to their claims of being a movement based, pluralist anti-capitalist party; distinctly different from the attitudes and behaviors of a sect.

  4. Isaac Avatar

    Thanks for the thoughtful article, Kate. Especially framing your response in terms of more than evaluating political ideas, but focusing on political ideas in action.

    I’ve been fairly critical of all three of the student occupations (four, if you count the February RIT “occupation” which students actually had a permit to conduct) beginning with the New School in December. But especially given that the concessions have decreased and the punishment has ramped up, this needs to be examined. Maybe the coherence of student activists as a social group (further facilitated by internet communication) magnifies the influence of actions in a way that less often happens for union or workplace activists. So, we’ve seen several “copycat” occupations in schools – which even express solidarity with Greek student activist – but none of the Republic Window & Door factory. (Copycat has a negative connotation, but I don’t mean it that way – we want militant action to inspire more militant action!)

    First, to address claims that looking critically at the political choices made by activists (the New School occupiers, in this case) somehow takes away from our condemnation of war criminals like Bob Kerry. Of course not. It’s actually because we are politically on the same side that it’s important to have discussions of strategy and tactics. Going into dialogue with Bob Kerry – whether using the language like “Please, step down” or “WE’LL OCCUPY THIS MOTHERFUCKER UNTIL THE PIG RESIGNS” – imagines that people in positions of power will be influenced in some way by our ideas or moral outrage.

    I don’t think so. Even people who might be virtuous individuals, in a position of defending the system, cannot be “reasoned with” except on matters with low stakes. Resignation is high stakes. And to win that demand requires building a powerful movement. As an individual hundreds of miles away, I have little to contribute in the way of condemning Kerry. The best assistance I can give to that is share strategic advice based on my experience… and hope that, if it seems useful enough to deserve it, gets taken seriously.

    Linked to this first issue is a second, which is important – and I think is relevant to Micah’s point/question about “isolation of the occupiers.” On Friday morning, the occupation stopped being a potential tactical choice and became a reality. Shortly afterwards, police brutality against the defeated occupiers stopped being a possibility and became a reality. So now we have an obligation to defend them against our common enemy, the NYPD. I don’t think they did anything wrong (“trespassing” is only a crime when there’s private property, which I’m against) even if I do think they did it wrongly. Defense of people under the heel of the cops is different from political support of their actions.

    Victories, short term and long term

    Do the occupations, by the mere fact that they happened, constitute a victory? In a narrow sense, absolutely not. Much of the student movement in the US has been schooled by trainings of the Midwest Academy or other social-democratic institutions influenced by Saul Alinsky. These groups defined “victory” as a short-term goal in a schematic way: 1) organizers identify a constituency of “immediately affected” people 2) identify a target who has immediate decision making power over the issue at hand 3) win the support of allies 4) plan a series of escalating actions until #2 has been pressured to concede the demand. This political strategy sees the gradual accumulation of low-level demands as the path to… well, something. Maybe they wouldn’t call it socialism. But at least to “a better world.” A crosswalk here, a resigned CEO there – and, before you know it, these quantifiable changes have resulted in a qualitative change society as a whole.

    As I said, that’s narrow – because it ignores that all movements are a struggle for political power. For Marxists that means the development of working class consciousness (fundamentally, an awareness of shared oppression & exploitation by a common enemy that can only be overcome through political activity.) Viewed in a longer term way, something that’s a “defeat” can be a “victory” if it performs a role of political education. As a spark for broader action against shared opponents, this role as a mass political educator or “spark” has been one of the important functions of student movements (especially in the 1960s, when the postwar baby boom created huge generations of youth with a similar political experience)

    “Slamming the door”

    I’m speaking with those qualifications when I consider the failure of the occupations which, Micah’s right, seem to have been carried out largely by people who thumb their nose at broad action. A popular sentiment with students is Mao’s “A single spark can start a prairie fire.” That is true – sometimes. After a heavy rainfall, for example, a single spark will not start much of anything but just fizzle out.

    The antiwar movement includes: 1) mass political education that influences the whole population’s awareness and opinion of the wars, 2) specific organizing and educating among soldiers, military families and populations likely to join the military 3) targeted actions carried out by people who already have a high level of agreement about the need for the wars to end. For students this last part might mean divestment campaigns, counter-recruitment, or unseating a president like Kerry. But these actions should be seen as part of the fabric of a larger movement. The larger movement is on life support right now and needs patient base-building work.

    A pamphlet on the 1960s SDS that was put out by Freedom Road Socialist Organization includes a useful lesson for student activists: “Don’t slam the door behind you.” What I take from this is: be aware of more than your own mentality and willingness to take action or raise certain demands. Be aware of people who are not at the same place politically, and don’t take an action that prevents them from getting to where you are. I hope this is not the case, but I think its possible that rather than inspiring more militant actions, these occupations will be self-isolating and frighten others away from taking action.

  5. Micah Avatar


    You describe in this post the isolation of the students at the New School from the larger student movement — not to mention the labor movement and community organizations — as the product of a “security culture” which has grown up on New York City campuses in recent months as a result of repression against student organizers.

    What about politics? Is is possible that New School in Exile — as opposed to the Radical Student Union (RSU), which participated in the first, but not the second, New School occupation — simply has bad politics? And that those politics lend themselves to — or perhaps call for — political isolation from the rest of the movement and secretive, adventurist, ultra-left action by a masked few?

    They apparently take inspiration from Guy Debord and the Situationist International — they read the Situationists’ “On the Poverty of Student Life” from the roof of the (briefly) occupied building. I don’t want to sound too sectarian, but that right there suggests to me that the problem, or part of it at least, was their politics and not just a “security culture” necessitated by objective circumstances.

    Anyway, I’d love to hear your and others’ thoughts on this question.


  6. megf Avatar


    I appreciated your reflections on this current wave of student militancy given your history of activism.


  7. Kate G Avatar
    Kate G

    I 100% support the basic politics of these actions–the demand for campus democracy, workers rights, solidarity with palestine etc.I am trying to come up wiht a better word than “politics” for the framework connecting those political demands and these actions, but its not coming to me. theory?

    I think i was trying to understand that framework or theory as part of a process at work here between thought and action. the way in which i originally became an anarchist and the way in which stopped being one were part of a process like this (my failed occupation was part of it really)and that is what i was trying to get at.

    Isolation my be part and parcel of a situationist worldview, but the isolation–and really, the dominance of stitu-anarchist ideas themselves in this student milieu- happens in the world through a process and that was what i was trying to describe.

    Straight ideological criticism the NSE blog is pretty easy and, to me, kind of boring since we can go debate “on the poverty of student life” at infoshop whenever we want no matter what is happening in real life.

    Instead, i am focused here on criticizing the “objective” need for security culture i have heard activists and sympathizers describe in response to both my tactical and political criticisms because i don’t think there is actually an objective need for it to that degree, given a different theoretical, political and tactical approach. I think a different approcah would inspire and reinforce different theoretical ideas and vice versa.

    I’m also criticizing the notion which is floating around that these occupations are building momentum or somehow “winning.” I don’t think they are. Those practical debates seem to me to be the most urgent.