Saturday, December 20, 2008

Notes from the Outside

When I got to the graduate building at 5pm on Thursday, I knew that the ID
thing would be a problem. I lost mine recently, and I'm on a leave of
absence so I'm not technically in the computer. I spent two hours trying
everything - I showed the guards my transcript, my passport, I went to the
ID office (which was closed) to prove that I'd done what I could, I had my
professor tell them that I needed to go in with him to take a final, I
tried the side door, and all I actually managed to accomplish was making
sure that Mr. Illicedo didn't like me. He didn't like me anyway; two years
ago he picked me up and threw me into a wall for singing Utah Philips.*
I'm still not sure what his actual position at the university is (some
security higher-up, I think), but he's a swell sort of guy, really.

Which brings me to a point about security, which has become rather
contentious. They are workers, they are doing their jobs, they are messing
with us, do we defend them or are they enemies? The line is pretty blurry.
In my experience at the New School, I've encountered two types of security
personnel. There's the basic watch-the-door guys, who are generally really
nice and sympathetic to student causes. I've seen them help distribute
fliers, retrieve personal items for students who get escorted out of one
location or another and leave things behind, hang out after actions to
talk about unions and administration.

Then there are their bosses, who are not stationed at the desk by the
building entrance, who wear suits instead of uniforms, and who call the
shots in terms of things like the situation at the graduate building this
week. To be sure, they were instructed to jack up security from the
administration, but they chose to enforce it in such a manner as to
prevent New School students, even those with valid IDs, from entering
their own university. They chose to have students forcibly removed if they
did get in. Most of the security personnel that was at the graduate
building door consisted of people from this group, or people who had these
bosses breathing down their necks.

I don't doubt that there are overlaps, but in general, I'm substantially
more annoyed with the guy who drags me out the door in a three-piece suit
than the reluctant guy who happens to share his department. Everyone has
some degree of agency, even the lower-level guards' actions are their own
and they can choose how strictly they follow protocol. But again, very few
of them were at the fifth avenue door.

Anyway, so they didn't let me in and then they stopped letting anyone in,
we banged on the door so they had the cops come and form a line to block
the entrance, it was a charming affair. We shared food, we talked, we
chanted, we were cold. We looked at the number of people standing outside
and had an idea.

We were going to try to take 55 w. 13th street as a secondary occupation,
but we would need everyone who was out there to come with us. At first, we
could only get 20 or so people, and they entered politely, signed in as
guests, and picked a floor to set up shop in. The news went out over the
New School in Exile blog, and I went out to get more people. The problem
was that not many people were into it, and the Tompkins march wouldn't be
arriving for an hour. I got a call from the people inside the building
saying that they needed more bodies, and were also thinking about moving
to another space, namely the Parsons building further down fifth avenue.

I tried to convince people to hold the space so we wouldn't get shut out,
but I wasn't there, and if people don't feel comfortable, they have every
right to hit the road. They left the 55 w. 13th street building, and we
began a scouting mission for an alternate space.

This is where it gets kind of ridiculous. As soon as the protesters left
the 13th street building, all of the buildings went on lockdown. We asked
the guards why, and they said that they'd heard about another occupation
happening and couldn't risk it. We were pretty stunned - we had managed to
shut down every single New School building simply by not actually
occupying one of them.

There are obviously some pretty serious downsides to all that - it's
finals week, the computer lab should be open 24 hours and I'm pretty sure
the Parsons building is supposed to be open late as well. Our intention
was never, ever to shut students out of spaces they needed to work. We
thought we would have a presence in solidarity, but hoped to disrupt the
building administration without making students' lives too much harder.
I've seen occupiers be blamed for the excessive force brought down on
them. Come off it - if you get robbed, your neighbors don't get mad at you
for having such a nice laptop, to use a more relevant example.

But what I want to emphasize is that, that night, the powers that be at
the New School felt so threatened by the idea of peaceful dissent that
they would sooner shut down everything and deal with frustration and
fallout along with it than face even the possibility of another
occupation. They were scared of their own students entering a building
that was open anyway.

There is power in numbers, definitely. But apparently, there is also power
in suggestion. Bob Kerrey likes to say that he is "embarrassed" when
students engage in loud and creative protest, but it's clear to everyone
with a brain that he's more nervous than anything else. He should be -
he's about to be unemployed.

*fine, so the Utah Phillips thing was in the middle of a Newt Gingrich
speech, but the incident in question occurred outside the auditorium and
the point remains that it hurt.

-Thanks for the letter and keep them coming.
The New School inExile.


  1. To whoever wrote this:

    I'd like to strongly encourage you to submit this entry as an editorial in whatever student news forums are available. You articulate some very, very important points regarding the security policies at the New School, and the disparity between the security guards and their rather aggressive bosses.

    I think that more students in the university would benefit from reading about your experiences.


  2. Thanks Jacob,

    We passed your message along and we too hope that the author follows through with your idea.

    The New School in Exile