Why is NYU punishing dissent?

February 23, 2009

Hannah Fleury reports on NYU's attempt to exact revenge against students who organized an occupation--and the fight against this crackdown on campus activism.

THE OCCUPATION at New York University may have ended, but students aren't going to let the administration get away with its bullying tactics.

After a 36-hour takeover of a cafeteria on the third floor of the student center, known as the Kimmel Center, campus security detained the remaining students on the afternoon of February 20, ending the occupation. The 18 students have been suspended pending disciplinary hearings that could result in their expulsion.

But more and more people in New York and around the country are speaking up to demand amnesty for everyone who participated.

The occupation began on the evening of February 18 as the latest stage in a two-year-old effort by the activist coalition Take Back NYU! to make the university more democratic, transparent and progressive.

The occupiers won support on campus and from around the city. But the administration responded with threats and attempts to intimidate the occupiers.

NYU officials refused to discuss the occupiers' demands, and the next day set a 1 a.m. deadline for activists to end their action, or face expulsion and criminal charges of trespassing. As the time approached, the support demonstration outside the occupied building swelled to more than 500 people, with demonstrators taking over the street at one point in defiance of police, who used pepper spray and batons against them.

Supporters rallied outside during the NYU student occupation
Supporters rallied outside during the NYU student occupation (Vanissa Chan)

Administrators relented, and the occupation continued through a second night. But by the next morning, the numbers of students had dwindled to less than 20. NYU officials cut off power and Internet access to the cafeteria.

Around noon, five students left the cafeteria after an apparent offer from NYU to begin negotiations. The five were detained by security, along with another student who went out after them. Security then entered the cafeteria and detained the rest of the students. All were informed that they were suspended. They were transported to their dorms, immediately evicted, and taken to temporary housing to be picked up by their parents.

"Robust dialogue is a customary, normal and expected part of the interaction between students, faculty and administration at NYU," claimed NYU Senior Vice President Lynne Browne in the administration's statement after the occupation ended. "But it is not appropriate for it to take place while there is an ongoing violation of university rules."

Those words about "robust dialogue" ring hollow considering that the school refused at every point to even discuss the students' grievances--and evicted the detained occupiers from their campus housing without a trace of due process.

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].

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

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.

"This is despicable," said Caitlin, one of the occupiers. "They want to make us look unreasonable, but they didn't bother to even dignify us with a response to the letter we sent them back in September with our demands."

CLEARLY, NYU administrators took a hard line out of fear of allowing another student occupation to succeed after a string of victories for activists in recent months at New School (part of the same consortium as NYU), the University of Rochester and Hampshire College--as well as actions in Britain and other countries that inspired students in the U.S.

The support rallies outside the Kimmel Center also showed the spirit of resistance. Despite bitterly cold temperatures, supporters of the occupation kept up a constant presence. As the university's deadline for the students approached on Thursday night, the rally grew to more than 500 people, with other students and members of different organizations uniting around a wide range of issues.

There was plenty of debate over what the next step should be for the occupation, but also at other universities in the region. The next day, as campus security moved in against the occupiers, Ryan, an SDS member and spokesperson during the University of Rochester occupation earlier in February, arrived with a few other UR students with a message of solidarity. "We need this to become a mass movement," he said. "That's how change always comes."

The NYU occupation took up a number of questions that are more and more pressing for students everywhere in a time of economic crisis and war.

In their list of demands, the occupiers called for open accounting of the NYU operating budget and investments; university recognition of GSOC, the graduate student employees union; and tuition stabilization.

The students also demanded that NYU to divest from war profiteers--in particular, companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The occupiers asked for NYU to commit to establishing 13 scholarships each year for Palestinian students and donation of excess school supplies to the Islamic University of Gaza.

Driving this and the other occupations is a sense that there is finally a chance to act and win on some crucial issues on campuses--divestment from war profiteers, more democracy for students, reversing the corporatization of education and more.

Now that NYU has cracked down, however, it will be important to organize a defense campaign to stop any disciplinary action against the students--and to keep momentum on the side of campus activism.

Supporters of the students who were suspended will rally at a demonstration and press conference outside Kimmel Center on February 24 at 7 p.m. In addition, faculty members have begun several initiatives aimed at demanding full reinstatement for the students and supporting the occupation's demand for more democracy at NYU.

Meanwhile, the coalition New York City Labor Against the War has issued a statement calling on the NYU administration to grant amnesty to the occupiers, and to take up the students' demands. Among those who sent messages of the support during the occupation was left-wing author Noam Chomsky.

As campus security detained the students on Friday, New York City Council member Charles Barron was among the protesters outside. He tried to speak with NYU administrators and was denied entry to the building.

"The students should get amnesty," Barron said. "All they want is to be able to talk to the administration. They have been campaigning for two years with very reasonable demands, like financial transparency. What is NYU hiding? The students have a right to know where their tuition is going, to know what it is funding and where it is invested. They also deserve stable tuition, especially during this financial crisis."

Jonah Birch, Gina Sartori and Matt Swagler contributed to this article.

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