Breaking it Up: Student activism runs amok at NYU

Last month's protest at NYU; photo courtesy of Flickr user Peter Spande

Last month's protest at NYU; photo courtesy of Flickr user Peter Spande

In his essay on civil disobedience, Henry David Thoreau wrote of the government to which he refused to pay taxes, “I saw that the State was half-witted…and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it.” Thoreau–followed by generations of non-violent protestors–argued that an essential part of civil disobedience was following one’s own ideals while accepting often hypocritical dictums imposed by the ruling order. The theory is that all punishment shows the problem with the system itself–which is why we cannot be quite sure of what we are watching when we see a video of students who claim to operate by “democratic consensus” milling around a cafeteria full of security guards, shouting vague phrases at one another, and refusing to hand over their identification in favor of reaching a communal decision about whether or not they are about to be arrested and disciplined (they are). Such actions make us question exactly what a protest is and what it can achieve.

Private universities, it turns out, are private institutions. One enters into them, or one does not. In 1969, over 400 students occupied the Administration Building at the University of Chicago to protest the University’s practices of hiring and tenure review, which they claimed were unfair to liberal faculty. The occupation lasted fourteen days, and 800 more students gathered on the main quad while the students inside the building hung an “Under New Management” sign from the building. Yet, by the end of the year, forty-two students were expelled and eighty-one were suspended. The University’s class of 1972 had a forty percent attrition rate–only sixty percent of the students who entered with the class ever graduated from the UofC. Students reflected their dismay at the practices of the administration with their feet and their tuition money.

Last week, student activists brought a controversy to the campus of New York University by turning a cafeteria into a site of protest. On February 18, members of a group that calls itself “Take Back NYU!” (TBNYU!–don’t dare forget the exclamation point!), used the Marketplace at the Kimmel cafeteria building to throw a dance party. But unlike a run-of-the-mill student fundraiser, this dance party ended with the impassioned students barricading themselves in the cafeteria space. A list of thirteen demands was read out by students over a megaphone, and around eighty protestors turned over tables and chairs to block the entrances to the dining hall area–presumably to keep protestors from leaving and security from entering, but also effectively disrupting the operation of the facilities themselves.

Such barricading made it “our space,” they claimed–though technically, excluding the students from other schools who decided to “take back” an institution that wasn’t their own, most of them had paid the student activity fee and so, in a way, could already call the space their own. Maybe I’m being too harsh, but communal space is communal so that everyone can use it, not just one hundred self-declared radicals. And perhaps protests should be enacted at the site of the problem itself.

The ensuing protest lasted for over thirty-six hours. By 1:30pm on Friday, February 20, the last students were removed from the building by security forces. What was supposed to have been an act of civil disobedience and collective bargaining was, as far as reports show, thoroughly bungled both by the administration and by the student activists themselves, who failed to understand the core conceits of nonviolent protest. The students obstructed property and disrupted operations, broke locks, and displayed something of a muddled ideology–what were demands about workers’ rights and socially responsible investment doing alongside tuition stabilization and giving student groups priority in reserving NYU space? What does general public access to NYU’s Bobst Library have to do with “full compensation for all employees whose jobs were disrupted during the course of the occupation”?

The implication is, of course, that the latter demand, along with the first request on the students’ list, amnesty for all TBNYU! students for their illicit use of the space, would be best achieved by the simple action of not taking over a public space where many hourly wage-earners worked in the first place. In general, peaceful occupations of, say, the administration building, which have been effective at campuses (including the University of Chicago) in the past, entail the added bonus of actually allowing confrontation with the administrators–the people who make decisions regarding investment–rather than shutting down a useful public space.

Let us return to the University of Chicago. While not necessarily a hotbed of student activism, the UofC has had several interesting student protests in recent years–protests, one might note, for causes as disparate as those heralded by TBNYU!. While groups like STAND (Students Taking Action Now Against Darfur), the Kick Coke Off Campus movement, and SOUL (Students Organizing United with Labor) might have overlapping membership and generally advocate consensus-based democratic decision-making, they also provide different platforms for dealing with different issues, rather than an umbrella idea of ideological movement. Students are not forced to support a broad range of issues with muddled wording–and more importantly, the groups at the UofC often emphasize education and knowledge as much as action.

Not so with TBNYU!. During the protest, TBNYU! also revised their statement of “nonviolence and property destruction.” They noted (posting updates to their blog throughout the occupation), “Though we realize that this choice to revise our original policy may undermine ideological consistency of this action, we feel that reacting to the changing situation of the occupation is more important than adhering to any dogma, even our own.” According to reports from “the occupation,” the changing situation of the occupation that they referred to seemed to include students who wanted cigarettes, students who wanted their friends to break the barricade to bring them vegan food, and students who didn’t exactly know what “nonviolent civil disobedience” really means. Perhaps it was the latter camp who wrote, “We busted their fuckin’ doors and we’re out there! We’ve got a banner we want you to see” on the TBNYU! website.

It’s hard to feel a lot of pity for these radicals, and the one-week suspension the remaining eighteen protesters were stuck with. As Thoreau noted after being released from his own brief stint in jail, “The night in prison was novel and interesting enough.”