The fight to take back NYU

February 20, 2009

Jonah Birch reports from the occupation at New York University--the latest flashpoint in a growing protest movement on U.S. campuses.

UPDATE: February 20, 1:45 p.m. EST
New York University administrators moved in against student occupiers in Kimmel Center on Friday, detaining the remaining students and suspending them.

In the early afternoon, campus security detained the few students who remained on a balcony attached to the occupied cafeteria. More than 100 supporters--among them, City Council member Charles Barron, as well as students from the University of Rochester, who held a victorious occupation earlier in the month--were gathered outside the building to show their solidarity.

Earlier, with the number of occupiers down to less than 20 by the end of the night, administrators cut off electricity and Internet access to the third-floor cafeteria.

Around noon, a group of five occupiers left the space thinking they would be negotiating with NYU officials--they were detained and told they were suspended, as was another student who came out after them.

Security then moved into the cafeteria to detain most of the remaining occupiers, who had decided to cooperate, based on legal advice. After being pinned to the ground by the campus cops, the students were taken out and also suspended. The four occupiers who remained on the cafeteria balcony--in view of a large number of media cameras--were also detained.

DOZENS OF New York University (NYU) students occupied a cafeteria on the third floor of the school's student center, known as the Kimmel Center, in an effort to force the administration to agree to a wide-ranging list of reforms.

As an administration deadline to vacate the building approached on Thursday night, there were as many as 50 people inside the occupation.

Outside, a crowd of supporters who rallied in the cold all day swelled to some 500 people. Around midnight, the demonstrators took over the street in front of the Kimmel Center, chanting and singing. Police reacted by attacking the protesters, using pepper spray and batons.

As the 1 a.m. deadline for leaving Kimmel Center passed, the administration was continuing its threats to have the occupiers arrested and to expel the NYU students from school. Late on Thursday, school officials finally agreed to negotiate with the occupiers, but they had little offer. The talks continued past the deadline, and the administration apparently backed down from an attempt to clear the building.

Outside the Take Back NYU! student occupation at New York University
Outside the Take Back NYU! student occupation at New York University (Brian Jones | SW)

The occupation began with about 65 activists on Wednesday night. Although some trickled out during the first night, on Thursday, a little after noon, 25 more students were able to evade a security cordon on the student center's third floor to join the first wave, giving the occupation a new sense of optimism.

The NYU students were buoyed by the participation of students from Barnard College, William Patterson College in New Jersey, Hunter College and the New School in the sit-in, as well as the ongoing rally outside.

The occupiers--who received solidarity greetings from universities in the U.S., England, France and South Africa--see themselves as part of a burgeoning international student movement. "What I hope is that in doing this, we're setting the stage for more student empowerment generally," said Frank, an NYU junior.

In contrast to this support and solidarity from around the world, university officials responded with threats from the start. Not only did the administration refuse to negotiate for an entire day, but it tried to lock the students out of a balcony connected to the cafeteria.

What you can do

E-mail and call NYU officials and call for the student occupiers to be given amnesty and not suspended. Call President John Sexton at 212-998-2345 or e-mail him at [email protected]. Email the Office of the Provost at [email protected] and the Office of the Vice President at [email protected].

For more information about the issues at NYU and to read the occupiers' blog, see the Take Back NYU! Web site. The Web site also has the occupiers' list of demands.

You can also sign a petition in support of the NYU students.



THE OCCUPATION is the latest step in a nearly two-year-long campaign by the activist coalition Take Back NYU! to make the university more democratic, transparent and progressive.

The occupiers, including both undergraduates and graduate students, issued a list of demands, including: open accounting of the NYU operating budget and investments; university recognition of GSOC, the graduate student employees union; a socially responsible finance committee composed entirely of students, with full control of NYU's investments; re-imposition of a recently lifted ban on Coca-Cola products, as a protest against Coke's complicity in the murder of Colombian trade unionists; tuition stabilization; and public access to NYU's Bobst Library.

The students are also asking NYU to divest from war profiteers--in particular, companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine. In addition, the occupiers are asking for 13 annual scholarships for Palestinian students and donation of excess school supplies to the Islamic University of Gaza.

The NYU students were inspired by a wave of student occupations in England and the recent sit-in at the University of Rochester in solidarity with the people of Gaza, as well as the successful campaign by activists at Hampshire College to force their school to divest from companies profiting from the oppression of the Palestinians.

As Olivia Rosane, a senior at Barnard College put it, "A year ago, I didn't think it was even possible for students to occupy a university in the United States."

One of the strongest features of the occupation is the sense of solidarity among participants, as students connect issues and bridge divides between different struggles.

Peter Wirzbicki, a third-year history PhD student and GSOC organizer, said he thought the sit-in demand for recognition of the union was evidence of a substantial increase in undergraduate support for the graduate student employees, who were defeated in a strike in 2005-06. "The response of the undergrads has been much better," he says. "There was some tension during the strike. That's not the case anymore."

Wirzbicki suggested that undergraduate and graduate students are beginning to recognize that they have a common enemy in the reactionary and undemocratic administration of NYU President John Sexton. "The uniting factor is making NYU a small "d" democratic place."

For other students, the issue of Palestine was the major factor motivating them to participate. A Palestinian flag hangs from one wall of the occupied space, and the students are surrounded by banners expressing solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. "Fund schools, don't bomb them," says one; "Solidarity with Gaza" proclaims another.

Glen Pine, a second-year Sociology PhD student, pointed out the connection between the demand for openness in NYU's investments and the struggle to free Palestine. "The fight for transparency at NYU is part and parcel with the movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel," Pine said.

Whatever happens, NYU should become another example for students fighting for justice across the country and across the world.

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