Friday, December 19, 2008

A personal Message from a member of the New School in Exile

Rules of Thumb Learned by An Occupant of the New School in Exile

(Student's Name Deleted)

For brevity, I'm not going to give the background of the occupation.

Two great sites to learn about it: www.newschoolinexile.com; and www.newschoolinexileblog.blogspot.com/

Some of these rules of thumb can be generalized, and perhaps others cannot; nevertheless, they comment on the specific context of the student occupation that lasted two days and won important concessions from the school, including amnesty. The students agreed to continue the struggle next semester. This is only the beginning...

Besides a 20 or so core of extremely devoted students, the demographics (and actual numbers) were in constant flux. Excuse the labels, but broadly, if there were 100 students at a given moment, roughly 25 were Anarchists or Revolutionaries of some sort committed to serious (sometimes spontaneous) direct action to achieve our goals. 40 were members of the Radical Student Union (formerly Students for a Democratic Society), were loosely affiliated with them, or whose politics generally fell in line with their pro-negotiation, "Just reason it out with the authorities" attitude. This is not to say that Anarchists spurned negotiations--I did not. Or that RSU members scorned the many direct actions in the occupation--though, I must write here, from the beginning, many prominent members were against the occupation, then against staying after the first night, then against taking control of the entrance/exit, then against our spectacular midnight ruse in the last few hours of the occupation that not only linked the wild supportive demonstration outside with us inside, but also breathed vastly new energy and power into our occupation, calling many of these successful and bold moves, among other things, "Custeristic". In fact I successfully defended a makeshift barricade with the fierce help of two fellow occupants who were RSU members. I am proud to call them comrades. The lines are somewhat blurred.

Finally, 35 were left liberals who were explicitly against direct action, even though, ironically, the entire occupation was predicated on direct action. Most joined after the initial occupation, probably believing our occupied space was "just a study space," or that "the authorities were permitting us to be there," as opposed to knowing it was us who made it so. To my knowledge, none in this group was among the 20 or so core of students mentioned above. I am critical of the latter two groups, but believe me when I write that even being there was a feat in itself, and I am sincerely thrilled they were bold enough to join.

These rules are by no means definitive. While I myself am an Anarchist who was pushing for more direct actions to expand our space, insofar as we were numerically and strategically capable, I encourage healthy debate and criticism of my conclusions.

1. Limited negotiation is fine in terms of winning explicit concessions, but in order to have negotiations, you must have bargaining power, and this requires bold direct action. This belief, this mode of resistance, was the reason for our success. Despite the political inclinations of many of our well-intentioned and intelligent comrades in the New School in Exile (and despite their ever-present reluctance), it was the taking of the cafeteria, the blocking of the doors, the control of the building, that was our power. Of course, our aforementioned "political" comrades celebrated each and every direct action vigorously after the fact, realizing the terms of negotiation had just been changed in our favor, despite their initial resistance to it, saying things like "it's too disorganized; it's too brazen; it's too illegal"--it's too this or that. Even our last action, when we linked the wonderful movement outside to us inside by the opening of a fire door at midnight, changed the status of the ongoing negotiations in our favor. This was said before us by one of our own negotiators, who herself was not necessarily pro-direct action.

It goes without saying that negotiations are meaningless if you're bold enough to topple those who would negotiate with you, and this end goal should always be kept in mind for those who want a radically better world. The ultimate power of authorities cannot be abolished through negotiation.

Forgive the platitude, but you must dare to win. Confident but collected, brazen but not reckless, direct action is a primary weapon of revolt. Do not wait for the authorities to give you permission. At the outset, we did not wait for their permission, and that impatience was the engine of our progress. Before that, we were stalled. Remember: the reason why we resorted to an increasingly provocative and popular occupation was because the words, the negotiations, of faculty were meaningless. Their vote of no confidence was mocked by Bob Kerrey's comments to the New York Times that the only votes he cared about were those of his trustees. The students were not even allowed into meetings concerning the No Confidence vote. We were only taken seriously when we dared. We were only taken seriously when we barricaded the cafeteria, when we controlled the entrance/exit, when we repeatedly disrupted operations in 65 5th avenue and elsewhere, contrary to the orders of police, of New School authorities. For that, we won important concessions and further destroyed the reputation of Bob Kerrey.

For that, we continued the inspiring example of the workers in Chicago.

2. While democratic consensus should be the watchword of a revolutionary situation--it was a crucial facet of our decision-making inside the cafeteria--direct action should not always wait for mass confirmation before being initiated. In our case, deliberation often took hours when there was an immediate concern at hand; and there was the problem of the newer, more liberal elements who did not have a clear-eyed conception of the occupation. Any further direct action would have been blocked.

On several occasions, a few of us had to bolster or defend a barricade without popular consensus. When we took the entrance/exit, we did not wait for popular consensus. Our spectacular midnight ruse did not wait for popular consensus--in fact, in a vote it was shot down.

This is philosophically problematic, I realize, and I am troubled by it. All I can say is that moves should be made to ensure that the consequences of a direct action should minimally affect those comrades who do not support it, and should never put them in harm's way. Now, if your enemy does not support it, that probably means you're on the right track.

3. The physical barricades--desks, tables, dumpsters, planks of wood, etc.-are merely one of two primary components of successful defense, and perhaps the weaker of the two. The physical barricades saved us multiple times. This is fact. However, when the NYPD were committed to smashing our barricades, they did so, and quickly, like when they physically extricated us from our barricaded fire exit. The second component is outside support and solidarity that is won through dissemination of your cause and actions. The media we received garnered wide popular support from liberal faculty members in other American schools to students in Mexico to Greek anarchists who did direct actions in shows of solidarity with us. It would have been even more of a public relations disaster if the NYPD mass-arrested 150 students. Outside support was too strong; the sympathetic public eye was focused on us! In fact, for many hours our front door was not barricaded physically because we knew we were too connected to vigorous outside support to be raided. I should note here that, in addition to the direct focus of your cause, it's also critical to expand your solidarity, connect the dots, between you and other movements.

Most apparently, an important reason why the NYPD did not storm our fortified cafeteria on the last night is because of the massive demonstration outside. (A banal meta-reflection, the cameras and journalists who were inside with us filming and reporting put an immediate stop to police brutality when the cops realized they were being recorded).

4. Security guards are not on your side. We can argue for days about whether they are fellow workers--which is an irrelevant argument anyway--but despite your friendship with a security guard, or the guard not being happy with his union contract, or the guard claiming he is on your side, he is not. Sure you can crack jokes with him and talk about your common music interests, but open your eyes when the moment is not trivial. He will push against the barricades. He will tackle you. He will rip your clothes. He will call the cops on you. That is his job. I think of economic conscripts, GIs in Iraq. Yes, they might bring candy to kids in the street. They might hate President Bush. They might even hate the military-industrial complex. But when there is resistance to their presence, they will be ordered to snuff it out. In order to keep their job, they must obey. This is not to say that soldiers or security can never be on your side, but it would require them doing precisely the opposite of what is required of them.

One more comment on this. There was a security guard during the occupation who was also a student. Some RSU members were friends with him, buddying up with the guy and even inviting him in at points. But what happened on the last night when we propped open a fire door and let in scores of supporters and students? This very same security guard who was "just a fellow worker" was seen tackling students trying to get on the right side of the barricades.

5. Ever-expanding occupation is an extremely effective tactic for revolution.

9 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  2. First, I want to say that it was a pleasure to be part of this and that my following comments are not meant to attack the work that was done or anyone in particular. For the sake of creating dialogue around these issues, I am writing a response to a few points.

    I am an anarchist, a New School student, and one who supports direct action. HOWEVER, I don't believe that those who expressed concerns about the types of actions that were being mentioned last night implies that they are "anti direct action." I had serious concerns about not only the comments that were being made by a few, but also by how they were being made. I believe people's safety and comfort in these situations is extremely. important and I felt that there were many occasions in which those expressing concerns were shouted down, or silenced without respect for their legitimate concerns. Putting aside the details of the proposals being made, the process in which a few students chose to undermine the overwhelming views of the group made being there less comfortable. I, for one, had no qualms with the idea of holding out until the Board agreed to much higher demands (namely resignations of Kerry, Murtha, Millard), but I chose to respect the will of others in the room. Similarly I have been a part of direct actions that included direct confrontations, arrests, and physical harm and am not opposed to risking these things when it's appropriate. BUT, those are decisions I have made about my body and comfort level and not decisions I would make for anyone else. For that reason, the fact that others were uncomfortable was more than enough for me to respect that.

    I agree that material gains are achieved through taking what belongs to us but I think that building community and supporting each other in situations like this is pragmatic and effective in building a longterm and broader movement.

    I appreciate that you make the point in your #3 that it is problematic to make decisions like this without support from others but I think attempting to minimize the impact of an action on those in the room that don't like it is not enough. If someone is targeted or hurt because of the actions of a few, that falls on them. The risk when 100 students are blockaded in a room was too great in my mind.

    In solidarity and looking to build an open dialogue.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I have been watching your movement and have been very impressed. We had our own student movement at New School 12 years ago, calling our 12 day long building occupation "The New University in Exile".

    But we were connected to the Guards and Staff back then. Things were different I know, and I watched in horror to see the guards roughing you guys up. But my question to you is the following: if you students are against the Guards, don't you think then you will have to be against the Maintenance workers as well? And if you are against the Maintenance workers too, then won't the clerical staff be next? And if you are against the clerical staff, then ultimately won't that also mean the faculty?

    So who are you for?

    If that is your movement, then please tell me what is positive and constructive coming out of it. In a few years as students you will have graduated and left this place. And guess who will still be there? Security Guards, Maintenance workers, clerical staff, and Faculty.

    It is important I think to leave the New School BETTER than it was when you arrived.

    ReplyDelete
  5. To mscott_carter,

    I agree wholeheartedly that the security guards should not be seen as our enemy. If for no other reason than a tactical one in which turning them against the school benefits us, it's worth it. But it goes beyond that. The guards at our school are working people and many are students. The budget cuts, bureaucracy, and capitalist agenda of the soon-to-be-former President Kerrey and his cronies affects them as much as us.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Kudos to the author of this post. As an older anarchist who isn't university material for a number of reasons, this was encouraging, and finally helped me make a connection to this action and to understand it a little better, as the demands were not immediately clear to someone not familiar with the workings of higher education. But I also didn't need to understand or connect. You were acting on behalf of your own interests and that what it's all about.

    It's not always easy to adhere to anarchist principles in these situations, but it seems like you (and some others) did your best and remained critical of yourself and the action, something that's not always easy or appreciated, especially when minor concessions have been promised.

    Your analysis of the role of security is sad, but true. The students are not "against the Guards", as a comment above stated. Like police, their job is to protect property and maintain order. Safety is just an excuse. Security guards are paid to view participants in these types of actions the same way janitors see cigarette butts. Now I'd like Gandhi to convince all the cops to put down their guns and get on the back of his unicorn as much as the next person, but I don't see it happening.
    The "friends" of security in the occupation jeopardized the jobs of the guard(s), as sure as the guard(s) jeopardized the occupation. The presence of the guard also likely was a physical danger to himself and the occupiers. Worst case scenario, the real cops and/or media, decide to label the guard a hostage. It's not impossible.
    There are plenty of neutral situations to try forge alliances with security forces or feel like "you're down with the working class" but an action like this isn't one of them.

    The game of "good protester/bad protester" is as old as protest itself. It's not winnable and liberals are almost never pleased with anarchists.

    ReplyDelete
  7. This is an inaccurate and divisive piece.

    ReplyDelete
  8. While I think what has happened at the New School has been fantastic and inspiring to say the least, I am somewhat troubled by what you seem to explain as the standard breakdown of anti-direct action vs direct action. We should always remember, I think, that a building occupation is a TACTIC, just as letter-writing or peaceful protest are tactics. They are not ends in themselves, and as such, it seems ludicrous to be always in favor of one or another. For some situations, maybe letter writing will best achieve goals, while in others, a building occupation would be most effective. I recommend Michael Albert's writings on raising social cost to elites for a more detailed analysis of the direct goals of certain tactics.

    Remember, the goal is not measured by how many buildings are taken, or even necessarily by whether the administration agrees to your demands. The goal is movement-building. How much your actions deepen or broaden commitments to or understanding of your movement for a more democratic university, and society in general are the true goals. That is seriously worth keeping in mind when tactics are discussed.


    looking on with awe,
    Matt

    ReplyDelete
  9. Dear all,

    Just so everyone knows, this was posted because we believe it to be an important discussion. The editors of the blog have been encouraging other members of The New School in Exile to compose responses for publishing as well. The Editors would like to remind everyone that this blog is for all.

    For constructive discussion and criticism,
    The New School in Exile

    ReplyDelete