Against the Current, No. 35, November/December 1991
IN THE EARLY morning hours before dawn on Monday, April 8, 1991 a group of about thirty-five students at New York’s City College of New York (CCNY) prepared a surprise for the roughly 60,000 students, faculty and staff who were returning from spring recess. They silently went through the New Academic Complex (NAC) building, a huge mall-like structure that houses over 80% of CCNY’s classes, put glue in locks, chained doors shut, seized offices, telephones and other communications equipment, blocked off the underground entry tunnels shown in the building blueprints they had obtained, called up the local Pacifica radio station WBAI and declared the university liberated.
For most students who arrived that Monday a campus occupation was no surprise; virtually everyone knew it would happen, the question was when. Every year for the past three years the governor’s proposed budget has called for more and more drastic cuts at the City University of New York (CUNY) system. Every year there have been attempts to raise the tuition and roll back the open admissions policy that guaranteed every New York City high school graduate the right to attend college. Every year has seen a struggle that started with lobbying and demonstrations and ended with rebellion and campus occupation. People jokingly refer to this tragic tradition as the rites of spring.
This year the proposed cuts were qualitatively more brutal: $92 million in cuts (over 10% Of the operating budget); a $500 tuition hike to be added to the $200 tuition hike that had been summarily imposed between semesters coupled with a $400 reduction in state aid, affecting approximately 50,000 students, mostly people of color, the elimination of virtually all state scholarships; and an end to open admissions.
For many of the 250,000 students who attend classes at the twenty-one CUNY campuses, a CUNY education is their only ticket out of dead-end minimum-wage jobs. Many of the students are recent immigrants, over half have family incomes below $20,000 a year, quite a few are homeless, and a large majority is people of color who have had educational opportunities systematically denied to them at every level of the public education system. Between higher tuition and a move towards new requirements for entrance that project eventually only 20% of New York high school graduates being eligible for admission to CUNY, vast numbers of working class New Yorkers will be permanently shut out of higher education.
With changes like these in the works since February many campus activists around the city spent the winter and spring feverishly trying to build a fightback to save our university. Letter writing campaigns were initiated, teach-ins were held, lobbying trips made, culminating in a notorious March 19 not at the state capital when Black and Latino student caucuses rioted in response to the governor’s silence. Furniture was smashed, the governor’s offices were overrun, and students squared off against not police after using desks as battering rams to attempt entry into the governor’s private office.
For most of the 250,000 CUNY students, however, a kind of paralyzing desperation set in. With budget cuts, layoffs, givebacks, and all the other forms of austerity being imposed at every level, there was the feeling that little could be done to save CUNY. With the university being rapidly dismantled, most students were more worried about finishing up than fighting. Between the defeats of the previous three years and the fact that a two-year wait is often necessary to take courses required to graduate, most students felt pretty beaten down and helpless.
It was in this climate of desperation where CUNYwide rallies were drawing fewer than a hundred people, which activists decided to take buildings. Campus occupations had won open admissions in 1969, enabling thousands of Black and Latino students to enter the then mostly white CUNY system; occupations had touched off the CUNY-wide rebellion of 1989 that brought 20,000 students into the streets in an all-day six-mile march, which disrupted business as usual all over downtown and midtown Manhattan and helped win a withdrawal of tuition hikes and put the brakes on $18 million dollars of proposed budget cuts.
It is unlikely that anyone expected that level of support this year, with the low level of struggle, hope, and consciousness present, but something ours was being stolen out from under us and something had to be done.
Dynamics of the Occupation
CCNY was the first school occupied. This was also the case for the occupations of 1969, 1975, 1978, 1989, and 1990. CCNY, located in the predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhood of Harlem, has always been able to count on heavy support for its struggles from community activists, merchants, local churches and neighborhood residents. It is a neighborhood school with many students organized into radical campus clubs and ethnic societies with strong social bases in the community. Once an occupation has started at CCNI students on other campuses know that they can count on help and protection in their attempts to seize their own campuses.
This year was no exception. With a leadership that was predominantly African-American and Latino, the occupation of CCNY drew on the support of a wide variety of political and social groups such as the Dominican Communist party, the Black Consciousness Movement, the Young Communist League, the Puerto Rican Independence movement, the Ecuadorian Students’ club, and many other ethnic and political organizations. This April, when students showed up to find the NAC building closed, a sound system blasting Reggae music onto campus, and occupying students peering out between gaps in newspaper-covered windows, there seemed to be heavy support for the efforts of those inside the buildings.
Nearly 1000 students spent the day sitting in front of the NAC building in support of the occupiers. Students helped take other buildings; the faculty, students, and dean of architecture seized their building; and the president, Bernard Harleston, declared CCNY closed.
As students all over the CUNY system started seizing buildings on their campuses, it became clear that this was a movement with which people were generally in sympathy, in spite of the few anti-occupation students interviewed by the media who paraded around by the chancellor’s office. The problem, however, remained what to do next. The many students who milled about outside occupied buildings on the first day of an occupation had little idea of what they could do to support those inside. The students inside buildings were not sure how they could use the support of those outside, and the question asked inside and out was: Where do we go from here? How do we win this?
A Nasty New Order
Before any discussion could be generated, answers reached or programs for mobilization implemented, students found themselves smack up against a force they had never dealt with before. This force was the administration of the new austerity chancellor, Ann Reynolds. An outsider who had been brought in by the state to gut CUNY the way she had previously gutted the University of California system, Reynolds is a scabherder who specializes in administrating the theft of working-class people’s right to an education.
In 1989, when students had rebelled against the budget, the chancellor of CUNY was Joseph Murphy, a man who has always been portrayed as a social democrat, a friend of the students, and an ethnic New Yorker who speaks Gaelic and Yiddish and has friends in the African-American community. Although Murphy did little to support the student struggles, he did nothing to impede the strikes. In fact the morning of the first occupations of April 1989 he was heard saying “This is great, maybe we will get more money for the university.”
Ann Reynolds has no friends in the CUNY system. And she reacted swiftly and immediately to subdue students and protect the state’s austerity plans. Immediately she suspended all those suspected of occupying the buildings, declaring that this gave her the right to bring in the police to arrest students for trespassing. She publicly demanded that New York City Mayor David Dinkins bring in an army of police to clear out occupy-mg students. Dinkins refused, probably in fear of a general rebellion and possible riots at CCNY and in the surrounding neighborhood, but he allowed limited police actions in which weaker occupations were forced to battle police on their own campuses.
Reynolds initiated a campaign to create fear and dissension among the students. She threatened to cancel the semester with no refunding allowed; she refused to talk to students, and paved the way for use of university resources to mount counterdemonstrations (all very small and ineffectual). The few students opposed to the strike were paraded before the media. For the first time in their three-year battle over the budget, students were under siege in their own community.
Students inside buildings became more and more embattled and isolated. Increasingly they were forced to view their situation in military terms—how to hold buildings—and they had less and less ability to make political decisions. As the occupations dragged on support started to dwindle. People became discouraged and had no sense that any part of the battle was winnable.
Many rightly observed that these tuition hikes would go through, no matter what, and that this would probably be the last time in their lives that they could attend college, and now even this semester was being denied to them. In spite of a modestly successful demonstration in which about 5000 students marched for three hours in lower Manhattan, the occupations were degenerating into a few (sometimes less than ten to a campus) hardcore occupiers and people bringing them supplies. Essentially they were trying to shame the state into giving back $92 million by holding aging real estate.
Activists Face Isolation
At the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), a vocationally oriented commuter school of 17,000 students located in the New York City financial district, a two-week occupation ended in a horrendous defeat At a school located in an area where no students live, outreach and student support must necessarily be difficult When students seized the campus a sign was put up by the administration, proclaiming BMCC closed and encouraging students to go home.
The problem of support and outreach was so serious at BMCC that CCNY and CUNY coalition forces had to organize rallies and send them down to BMCC, because the students there had been unable to mount any campus rallies. In a show of solidarity among students at schools from different ends of the socio-economic spectrum, the very radical and activist Barnard/Columbia antiwar coalition adopted the BMCC occupation and organized support teams. But none of this essential support was enough to change the balance of forces at BMCC.
The occupying students were such a small group on campus and had such a small social base that they were easily routed out by counterdemonstrators. The administration organized about 200 largely female student nurses, by manipulating their very legitimate fears that if the school remained occupied their nursing certifications would be delayed (preventing them from getting jobs in the spring or keeping them at uncertified salaries until the fall). Led by their professors and administrators and followed by Chancellor Reynolds, the student nurses stormed the building and ended the occupation.
Reynolds, who was present when the school was reopened, proclaimed it a triumphant day for women and said “this makes me proud to be a woman.” Soon afterwards, when they realized they had been used, many of these nurses made a public apology to the strike committee. The damage, however, had been done.
The events at BMCC point to the larger question of how well connected these occupations were to the mass of students. But similar battles between students organized by the administration and occupiers occurred at Hunter College, The Graduate Center, New York Tech and other campuses.
A Successful Organizing Effort
The occupation at The Graduate Center provides an example of how an occupation can be used to build support Located in an office building in midtown, an area where even fewer people live than the financial district, The Graduate Center has no undergraduates and has shown little support for student struggles in the past In fact, it has been argued that tuition hikes are to the short-term advantage of students at The Grad Center, because this means more money to hire them as adjunct professors. Indeed many favor Reynolds’ policies.
Occupiers correctly perceived the hostile environment they would confront if they seized the building. In response to this they decided to hold a daily plebiscite on whether or not to continue the occupation. Every afternoon for an hour and half arguments were heard at large public meetings (200-400 at possibly the smallest school in the system) culminating in a vote. In spite of many students’ vituperative attacks on the occupation and administration attempts to organize an opposition and pack the meetings, each vote was won by huge majorities. The opposition organized a violent entry into the building (which was easily repelled). But the strike committee realized it needed to negotiate with the administration before the momentum shifted decidedly against the strike. The committee made its recommendation to the general meeting and the vote to pursue this course of action passed by a large majority.
The administration pledged to take no disciplinary action against the strikers. They also provided the students with an office with supplies for continuing the struggle, a statement against the cuts, and a commitment to aid students in their fight. Strikers walked out of the building only twenty-four hours after having been given a large vote of support. The fact that the occupation began with a group of maybe fourteen, and ended with a well-organized group, left activists feeling they had won a small tactical victory on their campus.
Setting aside for a moment the disaster at BMCC, in a struggle in which virtually everyone supports the goals of the strikers and most people initially seemed sympathetic to the tactic of occupation, the confrontations with small groups of counterdemonstrators underscores the degree to which a militant core of activists is not enough in the hostile environment of today’s assault on our social wage by the capitalist class and their lieutenants.
As the economic crisis has deepened, it has become harder to win even small victories. Such commonplace rights as a free education, which existed for over 130 years in New York City, are now perceived as unrealistic and revolutionary. As the economy tightens further, even the right to protest may be unsafe.
Fighting For a Strategic Base
In a time when homeless people are herded from place to place and never allowed to rest, city police are used to break strikes and campus protests and the chancellor of the public university wants to cut her own budget. In short there are no safe places from which to mount flghtbacks—not even universities.
If working people are going to put the brakes on these attacks on the social wage, we have to create strategic places from which to launch our struggles. The way to do this is to win battles for control of our local situations and to create broad alliances involving huge numbers of people.
It seems unlikely that occupations will be used again at CUNY for some time. If that time comes, however, we must make sure that students in large numbers are organized and actively involved, not passive supporters milling about in front of buildings unable to enter and not sure what they could do even if they could get in. This requires clear political goals, mass education and tactics that involve everyone, not just those committed to sacrifice for the cause.
An occupation should be a tactic for building a strong student movement or using the strength it already has, neither an end in itself or a way of using buildings as another electoral strategy to lobby legislators. There are no shortcuts to building a movement.
This year’s occupations were desperate actions by activists who knew from hard experience that there was no time to build a movement against the most drastic cuts in CUNY’s history. They tried to do something when there was very little left to do.
They did not, however, totally fail. During the occupations they managed to not only mobilize 5000 students for a march on downtown Manhattan, but also to bring out nearly 4000 students to the April 30 city-wide union rally against budget cuts. This turnout for the union rally, combined with the close relationship that occupiers had with Local 1199 New York health care workers and their attempts to reach out to some of the large municipal unions during the occupations, may point to a new era of student/labor/community alliances, as students and workers realize how much they need a broader base for struggle and as the heat gets turned up by an increasingly penurious and intransigent state.
Most importantly for CUNY students, there are now networks of radical student activists that have worked together and will continue the fight. A campaign has already been suggested to try to oust Ann Reynolds, as a response to historically unprecedented attempts to prosecute student strikers. At the behest of the chancellor, police have come to the homes of strikers and arrested them.
On campuses administrations are producing propaganda for students to up occupations and demonstrations and to lobby and become involved in electoral politics. They are carefully nurturing a small but well supported and vocal anti-activist, reactionary backlash, and harassing strikers and their supporters through use of their access to students’ private files and through their control of bureaucratic procedures. It is felt that if a change in administrations could be won it would help create a center of organized student power with the right to demand loyalty by all to the student body and faculty during a budget crisis, and create a better environment in which to organize for future battles.
© 2020 Against the Current
No. 35, November/December 1991