Students fight back

Amanda Ocasio

A DISorientation reader and a postcard

“Enrich minds, not administrators!” read one sign at a protest held this past August by students at Cooper Union.

Cooper Union students have been fighting since 2011 against a proposal which would require students to start paying tuition last year. In October,2014, several Cooper student groups held a public meeting to update people on their fight. According to Ben Degen, an alum who made the first remarks of the evening, “Cooper Union has been infected by bad decisions, bad management, and mediocre ideas.” When Degen finished speaking, the event organizers projected “Ivory Tower” up on a large screen. “Ivory Tower” chronicles the experiences of Cooper students, but also shows how what's happening at Cooper is just a symptom of a disease that is plaguing most institutions of higher learning. Students also handed out “DISorientation readers” which chronicled their plight, and challenged students at other schools to think about how they could affect change on their campuses.

A DISorientation reader and a postcard

Amanda Ocasio

A DISorientation reader and a postcard

The spirit of resistance found at Cooper Union can be found at schools all over New York City. Everywhere, college students are rising up and fighting back against rising tuition, inept administrators, and the militarization of their campuses.

At schools all across the City University of New York (CUNY) system, students have been organizing meetings, hosting teach-ins, and circulating petitions. CUNY was created to provide educational opportunities to New York City's working class. In Spring, 1969, Black and Latino students went on strike and occupied a building at City College in an attempt to win open admissions and increase diversity on CUNY campuses. The students were victorious, but in 1976 CUNY implemented tuition for the first time in the system's history. Over time, students would see CUNY do away with remedial classes. According to Alvaro Franco, a student activist who worked with “People's Power Movement” (PPM) at City College till he graduated in 2014, the Board of Trustees is now moving forward with a “neo-liberal model of education” that turns campuses into assembly lines, and students into products. “They're not really prepared,” Franco says of CUNY students.

Fast forward to November 2011, the Board of Trustees at CUNY approved a tuition hike which would raise tuition by $300.00 a year up till the 2015-2016 academic year. Students responded by storming Baruch College where the vote on the tuition hike was to take place. Fifteen students were arrested. “We basically wanted to show our outrage even though we knew they were gonna pass that tuition hikes,” says Emily Wynter, a student activist at Queens College.

CUNY administrators might be making every effort to suppress dissent, but students have refused to be silenced.

At City College, the Morales-Shakur Center (MSC) is a physical space that represents all that students are fighting for. The space was won in a 1989 struggle by student activists involved with Peoples Power Movement (PPM). That year, PPM led a group of 20,000 students to take over Wall Street in response to a tuition hike instituted by then governor Mario Cuomo. “It was a very autonomous space,” says Alvaro Franco, an activist and City College alum who has remained involved with the student struggle. Activism on campus really died down till around 2010, when students campaigned for 24 hr library hours. “It took that small group of students to revitalize MSC,” says Franco. Since then, the MSC had been used as a “home base” for students opposing the presence of the ROTC on campus as well as those protesting retired general David Petraeus' faculty appointment. Unfortunately as the anti-Petraeus protests escalated, CUNY decided to shut the center down. This has not stopped students—who have continued to organize “pop-up MSCs” in the Rotunda or on the Quad. “New waves are educated,” says Franco, “ Once students see that the gov is going to keep imposing tuition hikes, hopefully they will become agitated enough to take direct action.”

PPM has also been active at LaGuardia Community College since Spring 2013. That semester, Kim Morales, one of the lead organizers with PPM had transferred to LaGuardia from Brooklyn College. On May 1 (“May Day”) of that year, PPM organized a banner drop and a “pop-up speak out” in the lobby of one of the buildings on campus to discuss education and labor rights. They dropped a banner from the second floor of the building, listing 7 demands directed not only at campus administrators but also the government. The administration ultimately shut them down, but the group moved outside and continued to meet over the Summer to discuss strategies for organizing students and making their concerns known to CUNY administrators.

Earlier last year, PPM-LaGuardia joined with PPM-City College to prepare and deliver a petition to Governor Cuomo, challenging the most recent CUNY tuition hike. "The Governor is the one that we need to be putting pressure on because he's making all of the decisions," says Morales.  Granted, the students didn't get a chance to speak to Cuomo that day, but as PPM-City's Alvaro Franco notes, "We did get the conversation started."

The group at LaGuardia kept the conversation alive on their campus with “Student Power”--an event featuring student performances which were meant to invoke CUNY's rich, activist heritage and inspire students to take action once again! "A lot of it was education--educating people about the fact that CUNY was free," says Morales.

There have also been efforts to unify activists all across the CUNY system. The Revolutionary Student Coordinating Committee (RSCC) was formed in 2012 to unify the CUNY student movement and abolish the CUNY Board of Trustees. According to Tafadar Sourov, a student activist with RSCC, the Board of Trustees is attempting to “corporatize the university and once again start depriving oppressed communities of higher education.” According to Sourov, RSCC hopes to see the Board of Trustees abolished, and replaced with a diverse board of students, staff and community members. To accomplish all of this, RSCC starts conversations in classrooms, on the streets, over social media, in study groups, in demonstrations, via walkouts, and assorted, independently produced publications.

Most recently, RSCC has helped to organize protests and other actions in response to CUNY's very controversial decision to hire retired general David Petraeus to teach in the Macaulay Honors College. RSCC is concerned that by hiring Petraeus, CUNY is aiming to create “lackey policy makers,” not well informed students . RSCC has also spoken out against the presence of the ROTC on campus. They argue that by allowing ROTC to operate on CUNY campuses, CUNY is becoming "...part of a national stragtegy to recruit proletarian youth to join the ranks of the imperialist war machine." This past December, RSCC at Borough of Manhattan Community College held a pop-up speak-out on campus where they discussed how discourses on the militarization of CUNY campuses are related to larger conversations currently being had by activists involved with "#BlackLivesMatter."

Students have also begun to work on creating a CUNY-wide student union. Kim Morales of PPM-LaGuardia is part of a three-person team that is working to get the project off the ground. She acknowledges the important work done by many of the other student groups in CUNY. For example, she says that PPM has helped people to understand the issues and has taught students how to organize. She wants to move beyond that. “I’m trying to think beyond these set organizations. I feel it gets too restricting,” she says, “I want to organize CUNY students, I don't want to recruit for an organization.” The CUNY-wide union would afford each campus a degree of independence. Students would organize around the needs of their campus. Morales is currently surveying students at LaGuardia to try to get a sense of their needs. “Make small changes and convince students that it's effective,” she says, “then they'll want to be involved.” Amir Khafagy, another student involved with organizing the CUNY-wide student union elaborates on the idea, noting that once you have each individual campus organized, you can have something similar to what you found in Quebec during what some have said was a very effective series of student strikes. There would also be one, centralized body overseeing the work done by individual groups on each CUNY campus. The union would operate outside of the restrictive, student club framework which has been known to limit student opportunities to raise funds and meet. Khafagy echoes Morales' frustration with bureaucracy, “You should never expect for administration to support your cause...any cause that's going against the grain,” he says. He suggests using any dealings with the administration simply as a tool to get people talking and ultimately “expose people to the hypocrisy of the bureaucracy.”

Queens College student Emily Wynter is an activist involved with “Students Without Borders” (SWB). “Right now, students on that campus are not fighting back at all,” says Wynter. It isn't terribly surprising when you consider how campus administrators have taken such a firm hand with student activists. Wynter recalls one event organized by the QC president. An executive from Goldman Sachs was invited. QC's president anticipated an angry response from students, and had campus security as well as the Director of Judicial Affairs on hand to squash the protest before it even started. Wynter notes that this sort of response is disappointingly common—among both administrators and faculty. She notes that administrators have tried to cut SWB's budget and have tried to block student protest actions.

A product of a Students Withoiut Borders banner-making session at Queens College

QC Students Without Borders (Facebook)

A product of a Students Withoiut Borders banner-making session at Queens College

Wynter is holding out hope for a different response from faculty—a response where students and faculty can be on the same side. “I wish they would have an open space in their classrooms to talk about these things,” she says, “I could count on one hand the faculty members that are on our side. Those who do support can't be so outspoken. They tell us on the side, or in a meeting in their office.”

To solve these problems, Wynter wants to see students organize on campus, but also see students organize with members of the neighboring communities. “More people, more power. That's the point,” she says. She also hopes to see more communication and education about the history of CUNY struggles. “I really think that students just need to be able to talk to other students,” she says, “I think that students are just too isolated.” According to Wynter, people can only fight back once they understand what's going on.

CUNY continues to throw up obstacles for student activists, and student activists continue to knock them down! In September, 2013, students assembled to protest CUNY's decision to employ retired General David Petraeus. Six students were arrested. This Monday, February 23, students from BMCC and the “Liber8 CUNY Front” will be gathering to protest Petraeus' faculty appointment. In a post to a facebook page announcing the upcoming protest, an anonymous poster perfectly sums up the reasons why students are continuing to protest, saying, “As students struggle to pay the rising tuition and Campus Safety encroaches on campus organizing, war criminal David Petraeus continues to spread his imperialist ideology in our university.”

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