Published by the Internationalist Clubs
at the City University of New York
The following article is based on remarks at a January 20 Internationalist study group by two CUNY Internationalist Clubs comrades who participated in the New School sit-in.
For 38 hours, beginning on the evening of December 17, 2008, student activists carried out a widely-publicized sit-in at the New School, a prestigious private university in lower Manhattan. Blockading themselves into the cafeteria of the historic 65 Fifth Avenue building, they declared that they were inspired by the recent factory occupation by workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago, together with protests against police brutality in Greece. The occupation took place shortly after the faculty voted “no confidence” in the New School’s high-handed President Bob Kerrey, who had just fired the fifth university provost in seven years.
Protesters demanded the resignation or removal of Kerrey, Vice President Jim Murtha, as well as Treasurer Robert Millard, whom they had discovered to be the chairman of a military contractor (L-3 Communications) directly linked to the U.S.’ torture prison at Abu Ghraib.
As one Internationalist comrade noted in a discussion of the occupation:
“The New School is a very privileged place, and this did have effects in the course of the struggle, but the fact that there was an occupation was very exciting to a lot of students at the City University of New York and elsewhere, and quite a few of us went down to join in, participating both inside and in support activities outside. The fact that the sit-in occurred in the midst of exam week was quite significant, as this means maybe you’ll flunk or have other serious problems. So the occupation electrified a significant portion of students in New York City….
“We have some background regarding the New School, for two reasons. About ten years ago we did a lot of intensive work in a union organizing campaign among undocumented Mexican workers in the delis right around the New School. We were on picket lines at two delis right across the street from the 65 Fifth Avenue building. At one of them, a friend who is a union organizer was bitten and had his skin broken by one of the thugs the employers’ association had hired to intimidate people.
“Not long after that campaign, it was revealed that the new president of the New School, Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic Party senator from Nebraska, was a war criminal. As an officer in the Navy SEALs, a terrorist death squad of the U.S. armed forces, he had personally led the annihilation of many of the inhabitants of the village of Thanh Phong in the Mekong delta during the Vietnam War. And we crashed out a leaflet, ‘Drive Out War Criminal Bob Kerrey,’ and spent a hell of a lot of time down there, trying to get the faculty and students to take action against this unspeakable man. So when the students took over the cafeteria there, we were excited that one of their demands was that finally this war criminal Bob Kerrey had to go.”
Just getting rid of the top administrators would not in itself change the nature of the university, but the link to war crimes from Vietnam to Iraq was one of the most political aspects of the struggle, with the broadest significance and appeal beyond the bounds of the New School itself. Then there were demands relating to relatively narrow issues of “student space,” not unimportant for people who need to study there, but a lot less significant from a broader standpoint. Others included disclosure of investments, and a number of liberal nostrums like “the creation of a Socially Responsible Investment committee” and appointment of a student as a voting member of the board of trustees – an empty figurehead position that has long existed at CUNY and other schools. Kerrey himself appointed 26 out of the 60 trustees at the New School – and we made the point that there, as at other universities, you can’t even begin to talk about a genuinely democratic way of running things until the board of trustees is abolished and replaced by an elected student/faculty/worker self-administration of the school. Further, to fight the private universities’ role as bastions of class and race privilege, they should be nationalized, with open admissions and no tuition.
The Primacy of Politics
In the course of the occupation, there was a series of struggles over what direction it should take. These were reflected in part in tensions between the occupation’s more political demands and those more narrowly focused on the relatively small change of “student space” and campus governance. On the second day, it came to a head over the question of Kerrey’s war crimes. The debates over these differences that arose are not just a sideshow, but come out in any hard-fought struggle. It’s important to understand why this is so, in order to be able to draw lessons that are crucial in the heat of struggle and can help us achieve real victories in the future.
Among the New School activists themselves, there were significant political differences. Some of the most vocal were from the Radical Student Union (formerly the New School chapter of Students for a Democratic Society), who with some exceptions had been markedly reluctant to launch the occupation. Others were student government bureaucrats narrowly preoccupied with campus governance. And then there were a fair number of anarchists, with different shades of opinion amongst them, some of whom were quite serious and militant while others pretty much had their heads in the clouds.
A comrade described the situation at the outset:
“The first night of the occupation was extremely interesting. As supporters of the Internationalist Group and CUNY activists we were outsiders there, but like others from CUNY we became a real part of what was going on inside. There was a lot of political debate on that first night. One of the things we proposed was that they call on students to send letters of solidarity to the Vietnamese village of Thanh Phong. And they adopted that. We also got a statement from our comrades in Mexico [appended to this article], who had been part of the huge student occupation of the National University (UNAM) in Mexico City. This had a big impact, as students were really excited to get support from abroad.
“People were staying up all night, in an intense atmosphere of political debate. We argued against the illusion that capitalist exploitation (i.e., investment) can be made ‘socially responsible.’ There were debates with anarchists about the differences between Marx and Bakunin, and the Kronstadt uprising of 1921, and the Spanish Civil War. We asked some of the more sincere anarchists questions like this: ‘If you're against all authority, let’s apply that to this situation. You’ve taken over the cafeteria. What are you going to do if anti-strike people want to come in here, are you going to keep them out?’ Hell yes, they said. ‘And what if you succeeded in taking over the whole campus, would you let strikebreakers in?’ Hell no, they said. ‘Well, isn't that exercising authority?’ They were nonplussed. ‘And what if workers took over the whole city?’ So we went back to some of the basic points made by Engels in his article ‘On Authority’ , where he challenged the anarchists.”
There was comic relief: some of the anarchists called themselves the Autonomous Faction of Non-cooperation Against the Division of Labor. Our comrade remarked, “It reminded me of a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where King Arthur comes across some peasants who say ‘we’re an autonomous anarcho-syndicalist commune, and we don’t recognize the authority of the king,’ at which point the king can resolve the question rather quickly by cutting their heads off.”
Together with several other CUNY activists, we emphasized that the success of an occupation at any campus depends on broadening the struggle, to mobilize other forces. This is even more crucial when the protest breaks out at a small, élite campus like the New School. Of immediate importance were links to CUNY, the largest urban public university in the country, where students, adjunct faculty and others are fighting tuition hikes, budget cuts and layoffs. We also sought to bring in support from sectors of the powerful New York labor movement (see appended appeal). In the wake of the Wall Street meltdown, many sectors of workers are looking for a way to fight. But to link up with them in real class struggle, you need a revolutionary party rooted in the working class.
Two Small Lessons in Class Struggle
Given the “consensus model” of decision-making, even the simplest tactical decisions often took a dangerous amount of time. As one participant wrote, “deliberation often took hours when there was an immediate concern at hand” (Tim H., “Rules of Thumb Learned by an Occupant of the New School in Exile,” 19 December 2008). Even something so simple as posting people to defend the cafeteria’s side entrance could not be “consensed,” and we joined anarchists and others in taking this kind of measure despite agitated cries of “Why, why?!” from some of the liberals.
On the first night, one of the most hotly debated issues was the claim that the New School security guards were “friends” and “allies” of the student protesters. This was pushed heavily by reformists, who reacted angrily when we and some of the anarchists challenged this absurd and dangerous idea. Some “learned” pseudo-Marxists piped up with disquisitions on how “the security guards are paid an hourly wage, so they are therefore members of the proletariat” – sheer nonsense, as what cops and security guards “produce” is repression in the service of the bosses, as shown anew in every workers’ strike or protest against racist police terror.
Soon enough, social reality clashed head-on with liberal illusions, when the security guards violently assaulted students in an attempt to break up the occupation, slamming them against walls and hurling a Latina woman activist from CUNY to the ground. Then they called in the NYPD to tear down part of the barricades and try to smash their way into the cafeteria, arresting one protester and brutalizing others.
As “Rules of Thumb” notes:
“Some of the RSU members were friends with [one of the security guards], buddying up with the guy and even inviting him in at points. But what happened on the last night when we propped open a fire door and let in scores of supporters and students? This very same security guard who was ‘just a fellow worker’ was seen tackling students trying to get on the right side of the barricades.”
Some protesters learned from this experience, while others stubbornly refused to allow social reality to interfere with their cherished liberal illusions.1 This underscores the importance of clearly understanding who your real allies and real enemies are, in any struggle. Illusions get you hurt, and can bring defeat. And political debate is crucial in order to clarify these and other vital issues.
The pedantic “discourse” of academic quasi-radicalism proved equally hollow when it came to approaching the actual workers who were scheduled to report to work in the cafeteria on the morning of the second day. Some students said, “If they come in, we should invite them to be part of our struggle, and then they can decide not to be exploited, and to give away food for free!” After explaining that having a boss means that you can’t just “decide” to do things like that on the spot, we asked if the cafeteria workers have a union.
A comrade related what happened next:
“Not a single one of these radicals, anarchists, supposed Marxists and so forth knew whether they did or not [have a union]. So we got on the phone to a union organizer at 1:30 in the morning, who told us that workers from the same food contractor [Cartwell] are unionized on some campuses. When the first cafeteria worker arrived that morning, one of the more quasi of the quasi-radicals sidled up and muttered, ‘You don’t want a bunch of kids asking you about unions, right?’ That got a predictable shrug of the shoulders in response.
“So with one of the most serious guys, who did press work for the occupation, I went over and said, ‘How are you this morning? We wanted to know if you guys are in a union.’ Turned out the answer was ‘yes,’ UNITE-HERE Local 100. ‘Do you have a shop steward?’ ‘Yes we do, I’m the shop steward.’ We asked, ‘What can we do so the workers have some kind of protection so they don't have to work in here during the student sit-in?’ He said, ‘It's no problem. We have a clause in our contract, we don't have to cross a picket line.’ When we reported this to the students, they were jubilant. Problem solved – by a little thing called class, class struggle and class organization.”2
In this way, a lot of things began to become more concrete. The second evening was interesting, because many people from the New School, CUNY, NYU, Columbia, as well as neighborhood residents and others, came to a big demonstration outside 65 Fifth Avenue. Things heated up as a large part of the crowd surged into the street, ignoring the NYPD’s odious steel “protest pens.” Comrade Aubeen from Bronx Community College started a chant, which totally caught on: “Labor and students, shut the city down!” “Soon hundreds of people were marching from Fifth Avenue onto Fourteenth Street, chanting that slogan, which reverberated with the Republic Windows occupation, the protests in Greece, Spain and elsewhere – and somebody managed to get a side door to the New School open. So a bunch of us rushed inside and re-joined the sit-in.”
That night, it became clear that a political shift was underway. As a comrade wrote in an on-line posting:
“On the second night, both outside and inside the sit-in, some of the organizers began to literally ‘shush’ mentions of Kerrey's war crimes and try to drown out chants about it. This led to a big but ultimately inconclusive debate on why that was happening. In the end, priority was given to issues of ‘student space’ and campus governance, which were much less politically charged, especially at such an elite and exclusive school. This decision, never explicitly justified or voted on to my knowledge, had a real social and political content, as did shifting attitudes to the active participation by people from CUNY who quite literally put bodies on the line to defend the sit-in.”
At one point Kerrey appeared in the hallway right outside the cafeteria, and we were told to stop chanting “War criminal” – “that’s not the issue right now.” A young New School student came up, asking “What's going on? I want to know more about this.” He got up on a chair and said, “Do people want to know more about Kerrey being a war criminal?” Most said “Yes.” So a discussion started about this, but some of the RSU organizers quickly shut it down. The International Socialist Organization (ISO) had a few people there, and one of them became very vocal in demanding that the discussion on Kerrey be reopened. But when our comrades started to talk about it again, we were shut down right away.
As the hours went by on the second night, the administration and campus cops escalated their pressure tactics. Heat in the occupied cafeteria became sweltering, the NYPD brought in more loads of cops ostentatiously showing their plastic “zip-tie” handcuffs, and a line of goons in blue, headed by the smirking chief of New School security, sealed off the toilets inside the building.
In the early hours of the morning of December 19, student negotiators and other leaders of the sit-in (which like any protest did have leaders, despite pious claims to the contrary) began pushing hard to end it. It is by no means clear that the sit-in could have continued for much longer, but the way and political basis for its ending were significant. No more endless discussions on “process”; no more three-hour debates on details. They decided to ram through a “settlement,” and did so in about twenty minutes flat.
Responding to on-line discussion on these events, one Hunter activist wrote:
“[U]ltimately the negotiators, who were members of the RSU, dropped the demand for Kerrey’s resignation…. It was also members of the RSU who had won many people over to light[en]ing it up on the war criminal [issue], to the objections of some other radicals, particularly anarchists, at the New School as well as some CUNY participants….
“The dropping of this demand essentially made the victory a victory of extending privilege at New School. The demands in the main won were ‘representation’ on a committee to select the new provost and ‘representation’ on another committee to invest the school’s money – this was essentially in line with the RSU’s program to have ‘socially responsible investment.’ There was no demand won which really had any universal appeal….
“So was it all for nothing? No, right now the students of the New School are in struggle about what road and way they’re moving toward in the future.”
– Freddy B., “A Critique of Practice at the New School” (26 January)
While we have plenty of disagreements with the author, an SDS member who describes himself as a “neo-Maoist,” we would certainly agree with his assessment that “Left in [and] of itself this ‘victory’ will be a defeat, another moment in which the system and Kerrey have saved face.” Thus, when various groups – notably the ISO – present the outcome as a victory in their routine, facile way, this not only covers over what actually happened, but does a real disservice to those who were fighting hard to actually win. To organize for future victories, it is essential to “say what is,” and distinguish frankly between what is and is not a genuine victory today.
La lucha continúa
In fact the “settlement” that Kerrey and the student negotiators signed consisted of empty promises that settled nothing. The struggle to drive out the war criminal Kerrey remains a crucial pending task. So does the fight to oust Vice President Murtha and war-and-torture profiteer/Treasurer Millard – together with broader and deeper struggles against the ways the New School, like virtually all private and public universities today, is ever more subordinated to the “corporate model” of education for profit.
Large numbers of students and others increasingly discontented with the “status quo” – whose true name is capitalism – were inspired by the courageous decision of New School students to carry out an occupation on their campus. (Students at New York University have followed suit – see accompanying article.) At the City University of New York, whose Board of Trustees includes some of the richest and nastiest capitalists in the city, successful tactics require systematic preparation and a winning strategy for massive, militant mobilization closely linked with the power of labor sectors that face the same vicious cuts and hikes that we do.One of the early fliers issued by some New School occupiers ended, “With solidarity and love from New York to Greece and towards the coming insurrection” (“Only the Beginning,” undated). To move towards making this real, serious activists will find that drawing the lessons of this struggle – as weapons for those to come – requires intensive, no-holds-barred debate and study of the great issues of revolutionary strategy, from the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution, and the Spanish Civil War to today. Shoulder to shoulder with you in this fight, the CUNY Internationalist Clubs invite you to discuss the revolutionary program needed to topple all the war criminals and tyrants of capital once and for all.
1 The final “Agreement with New School President Bob Kerrey” (19 December 2008), which ended the sit-in, includes the demand “Staff and security guards will be compensated for all time lost over the course of the occupation,” to which Kerrey responded, “This is not necessary. They have been compensated.” No surprise there – repression is their job.
This episode is also
related in a perceptive account of the sit-in by New School student
Let’s Get Labor Support for New School Sit-In Right Now!
18 December 2008
Delegations, as many unionists as possible should go down right away to join pickets outside the New School main building at 65 Fifth Avenue, between 13th & 14th streets.
Unionized cafeteria workers did not go in today – their contract says not to cross picket lines.
But we need to get a real showing from as many unions, immigrant worker groups, etc. down there right away.
Immigrant workers picket East Natural deli at 13th St. and Fifth Avenue, near New School during 2001 greengrocer unionization campaign.
Many of us were involved in the intensive unionization drive at Valentino’s, East Natural and other delis across the street and nearby the New School nine years ago. It was shortly after that that the war criminal and anti-worker money man Bob Kerrey was appointed head of the university.
The students have been hanging tough for a cause that helps us all. They must not stand alone. In addition to students and teachers from other campuses who have shown support, we need to bring out labor, and we must unite our struggles – against cuts, hikes and layoffs – with theirs.
Many of the students say they were inspired by the Republic Window & Door sit-down. So were we. Let's join forces.
Let's get labor on the lines to help support and defend the New School student sit-in!
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