Saturday, February 21, 2009

With the New School and NYU Student Occupations

With laudable exceptions, the myopic mainstream replied to the occupations in The New School and NYU in December and February, respectively, with scorn and dismissal. Four primary cables supported the convenient network of complaints submitted by these sycophants of prevailing power structures: First, the occupants are the sons and daughters of privilege and are therefore ungrateful, unworthy. Next, the push for amnesty as a salient non-negotiable demand proves that they are not dedicated revolutionaries. Third, the demands made by the occupants were unrealistic. Last--and most infuriating--the rejection of the proper channels of student participation is not only evidence of the occupants’ hatred of democracy, but of their recklessness and irrationality.
The first armchair critique is simply weird. A strong number of the students who were inside are spiraling deep into debt since the bank, and not their parents, pays their tuition. Others were only able to attend university because of good scholarship packages. If this is not good enough for those more concerned with identity than action, many of the organizers in the occupations were from low-income communities--a good portion of these were of color. But let us pretend that this is not a distraction and that all the students inside were tremendously privileged. Is there any substance to this point besides the understandable visceral reaction against people of privilege? Those who greatly benefit from the prevailing order are especially trained to wield its tools for self-advancement. This was precisely the opposite of what happened in the occupation, a decidedly anti-establishment action; those students of privilege had every reason to use the tools already in place as opposed to making their own. All that remains is the point that since they are privileged, they are not risking anything--they can always “call daddy.” If this is true--which it is not, since many students face suspension and others criminal charges--is the only solution for a privileged student whose blood boils for true justice to hang her head and pout, doing nothing in the face of a rotten institution? Anyone who is not hurling insults for its own sake can see the absurdity of this claim.
The second critique is connected to the first in that it questions the drive and seriousness of the occupants. There is a Christian ring to it: if you do an action that disrupts the normal flow of an institution, you should drop to your knees and accept your punishment or else self-flagellate because you have sinned--if we are even to accept that a righteous action is a sin! Punish me! the students should scream if they are committed enough. For those minimally concerned with winning a long struggle, why would you not build an exit strategy into a single action? When dealing with a private university whose administration is reluctant to involve the police for PR reasons, the amnesty demand becomes more relevant. Since the power of security guards is fragile at best, their bosses will be more likely to sue for peace and cave in.
The complaint against amnesty implies that the students were cowardly. No further reasons for this are issued because no facts support it. It is roundly untrue! When facing violent security guards, threatened expulsion, a pathetic food supply, dwindling energy, and the constantly stated assurance by the administration that if they just left all would be forgiven, the occupants held fast as one! Show me a mainstream journalist who dares suggest these students were cowards, and I will show you a face that belongs in the dictionary under “gutless”!
Two of the loftier demands: “That the university donate all excess supplies and materials in an effort to rebuild the University of Gaza; that NYU signs a contract guaranteeing fair labor practices for all NYU employees at home and abroad. This contract will extend to subcontracted workers, including bus drivers, food service employees and anyone involved in the construction, operation and maintenance at any of NYU's non-U.S. sites.”
The third cable’s lack of imagination is crippling and self-defeating. The Take Back NYU! demands were not at all in the ether, but again let us play with the critique by accepting its furrowed brows: Why not demand the moon? It is inspiring and empowering to aim for the intangible, working to bridge the impossible with the possible. An occupation itself is impossible. This is shown by the astounding amount of press that both occupations received when each lasted less than two days! An occupation, in challenging authorities in ways to which they are not accustomed--in ways which challenge their very existence--opens vistas previously unseen by the most astute activist. In the first night of both occupations, spirits and numbers were low. Defeat was painted on the walls. No one imagined the strength the next day would bring. For both, it brought more occupied space, incredible media coverage, large influxes of students, and solidarity protests and actions outside that shut down entire city blocks! What leverage might the day after that bring the next occupation? Personally, I am in favor of seeing an occupation as a victory in itself, perhaps not even making demands--instead listing grievances--as the collective attempts to expand the occupied space and reclaim it for grassroots power. But this is hardly a break from those who explode the possible through unrealistic demands.
Finally, the proper channels are those means by which subordinates are permitted to affect the general goings-on. Rationalized privilege, apathy and subjugation to custom aside, there is little doubt as to their true nature. In democracy, they are the brilliant constructions of those in power. All of these channels begin, end and course through the orifices of the ruling elite. They are co-optation manifest--genius because reform is indeed possible through them, but only reform which does not threaten or disrupt business as usual. These power-serving organs through which the lowly voice must be heard in order to be “democratic,” “moral” and “righteous” (according to the conventional wisdom) are, by definition, choked by the powers that grip them. Those who want total transformative change through these appropriate channels find their efforts so diluted and compromised that by the time victory is declared, either they themselves are at the helm of the same unjust order they were originally battling or else reviewing a list of accomplishments that are so watered down the ink displaying them has run and smeared unintelligibly across the paper.
“The majority” cited by the obedient as being alienated by direct action is a mere weapon of the status quo. In this vile social order, our senses are colonized by the fear (the hatred!) of thought and action that truly charts its own channels. Indeed, on a macro level, this explains why many who find little benefit in the preservation of the present order will be reluctant or even spiteful of those efforts that disregard the typical ruts.
When a movement questions the unquestionable, travels beyond the worn routes, then the subconscious and conscious--the deceived and sincere--preservers of the old order must rail: “Don’t alienate the majority! Don’t go too far! What about a broad base? What about the long arc of progress?” Some of these preservers might even masquerade as radicals.
It is necessary to clear the air of these typical pollutants, but it is also crucial to advance, just as in many ways the NYU occupation amplified the empowering echoes of the earlier one in The New School. The indifferent, the doubters, the seated radicals, the contented liberals, must be cast aside as we fearlessly charge for the unattainable horizon, revealing evermore humane, free, terrains of struggle.
The scene made my eyes glassy. Early in the second morning of the NYU occupation, hundreds of restive protestors in solidarity with those inside chanted, sang, danced, shouted, and, at the height of the chaotic crescendo, pressed against the barricades of the heavily armed NYPD--who were protecting the entrance to the building--in a brazen effort to join the occupation. Police batons cracked and pepper spray spewed in streams, but they were not deterred, continuing to push forward without deference for badges or titles. It wasn’t until the cops started arresting and violently wrenching protestors over the barricades that the crest was broken. When the crowd reverted to singing and dancing and simple mischief, you could see--feel!--their simmering power if you squinted hard enough.
We are the strengthening enemy of channeled order. We are the new ground that will allow an infinite diversity of pathways. We are building a revolutionary situation.


  1. You're bulding a revolutionary situation. Splendid. How situationist! Detourning the University. Derive through the library. The People must ask: when will art be called into the service of revolution? Where are the slogans? Where is the graffiti? You are correct to scorn the bourgeois idea of democratic consensus. You are the avant-garde, the knowledge elite. The earth trembles before you. The simmering power of the crowd has the minions of the Establishment up late at night, worrying, pacing, plotting, scratching in unmentionable places. Oh what fun we will have, now we are six.

  2. seems to be down. Anyone have info?