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Our University: On Police Violence at CUNY

[Image via The GC Advocate] [Image via The GC Advocate]

This past Monday, I was one of a handful of faculty and staff among a group of CUNY students standing in the lobby of a building at Baruch College in Manhattan. We had all entered with our CUNY i.d. cards in hand. Our intention was to attend a public hearing called by the CUNY Board of Trustees to discuss proposed tuition increases. Among us, it should be noted, were students who had signed up in advance to speak at this public hearing. I was surprised—although, given recent events involving police violence at the University of California and throughout New York City, I should not have been—to find myself facing a phalanx of campus security with their truncheons drawn, positioned in a line between us and the turnstiles leading to the elevators that in turn led to the small room on the fourteenth floor where the public hearing was being held.

What happened next proceeded differently for different people in our group. For me, it involved being violently, and essentially without warning, pushed by campus security, using their batons, towards the exit; being told that if I did not leave the lobby immediately, I would be arrested; receiving no explanation when I asked repeatedly what the grounds would be for arresting a member of the CUNY faculty simply for being in the lobby of a CUNY building where a public hearing was being held, until one member of campus security blurted out, “Because it’s a riot!”; and, finally, being forcefully shoved out of the lobby via a glass revolving door, the only remaining exit, since the violent response of security had succeeded in blocking the main exit.

For several of the students among us, things were much worse: for them, these events involved being forced face-down onto the ground, held down by several security guards, tightly handcuffed, and charged, surreally, with “trespassing” at their own university. At least a dozen students were cuffed and detained, and five students were subsequently placed under arrest and brought to a New York Police Department precinct, where they were held for hours (in some cases, overnight), and currently face charges ranging from criminal trespassing, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct to attempted grand larceny (for trying to "steal" a billyclub that was twice pummeled into the student's ribs). The remaining students received summonses for trespassing and disorderly conduct. (Student journalists from Hunter College, one of whom was arrested, have reported, and have photos that support their claim, that members of the New York Police Department were also inside Baruch and involved in the events. If this is true, it would contradict the claims of CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, who has stated: "While there were New York City police officers outside of the college building, CUNY chose to use its own public safety officers inside the building.") 

I don’t want to dwell on my own experience. Anyway, you are probably tired of hearing English professors recounting their violent treatment at the hands of police, like Berkeley Professor Celeste Langan describing being pulled by the hair and forced to the ground while taking part in nonviolent protest, or her colleague Robert Hass, the seventy-year-old former Poet Laureate, telling of being struck in the ribs by police officers. I can’t compare with the example of their colleague, the poet Geoffrey O’Brien, who had his ribs broken by a police beating, or with the beautiful fury of UC-Davis Assistant Professor (untenured, it should be noted) Nathan Brown, whose words of outrage against the brutal beating and pepper-spraying of nonviolent student protesters has led nearly 100,000 signatories to join him in calling for the resignation of UC-Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi.

I do, however, feel the need to include the words of two students who were arrested for the crime of standing in the lobby of a CUNY building while attempting to attend a public hearing. Here is Conor Tomás Reed, a graduate student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center and a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Baruch:

As I write, my wrists are still bruised from repeatedly applied zip-ties and handcuffs, and my senses swim from the first real meal in twenty-four hours….During the insane security billyclubs melee, a guard unzipped my backpack and emptied its contents onto the floor, including a notebook with my students' grades and a CUNY library book. As I shielded myself and others, I was grabbed by several guards and thrown to the ground, pinned down with my shirt ripped and glasses broken, and had zip-ties placed around my wrists so tightly that I couldn't feel my hands. Only half an hour later…were my ties loosened. Many other detained CUNY students similarly experienced this tight cuffing and rough handling, and were otherwise in tremendous pain at the whim of a frighteningly disorganized and cocky security force. The decision for who to ultimately arrest and "put under" was based on racial profiling and confidence in the face of authority. All five of us were CUNY students of color (four men and one woman), with me also in the peculiar position of being charged with trespassing on the campus where I teach. One CUNY security officer sexually harassed the young woman in custody….Another important detail to emphasize is that it was these CUNY security officers, not the NYPD, who processed us through fingerprinting, paperwork, and even the transfers from Baruch to the 7th precinct to 100 Centre Street. We had no idea that CUNY’s security apparatus was so thoroughly trained and embedded in NYPD operations, and yet this perhaps explains their having little clue how to treat protesters yesterday evening.

And here is Anne Zhou, an undergraduate student with a double major in Media Studies and Chinese at Hunter College:

When the police began to push people against the wall, I was stuck and shoved despite having no space to move. At one point, I felt like I couldn't breathe because there were just so many people squished together. I saw a bench beside me so I stood on the edge of it, and a kind student held onto me in order to keep me from falling down. I started to kneel down and put myself in a fetal position in order to avoid being hit. One cop told me to step down, and when I tried to move and leave, he grabbed me and threw me violently on the ground. Everything happened in the spur of the moment and I couldn't see who it was. I was pinned down with my face flat on the floor. I said I didn't do anything and that I was here as a reporting student and told the police to let me go, but they told me not to resist, pulled my arms behind, and cuffed me with zip-ties…. I didn't know then, but looking at the video now, there were three cops on top of me. Mind you, I am a 5 ft female….Afterwards, I was taken to the fourteenth floor where I was placed in a room with more than a dozen other detainees…. A student next to me felt like he was losing circulation in both his hands. At one point, around 30-45 minutes later, we had our cuffs taken off by a woman, who seemed to recognize how much pain we were in. However, later on, another police officer demanded our cuffs to be put back on and re-cuffed us again.

I encourage you to read the press release issued by students and faculty on Monday evening describing these events, and to view the video links included with the press release, as well as other videos that have subsequently been posted.

You may watch these videos and think: what I am seeing here is not as bad as what I saw happening at UC-Berkeley and UC-Davis. There was no pepper spray used at CUNY, and I did not personally witness any campus security raising their truncheons in order to strike students. But to find ourselves in the realm of such comparisons—campus police “only” used physical force, not potentially deadly chemical agents, to disperse nonviolent student protesters gathered on the grounds of their own university; officers “only” used their nightsticks to shove peaceful students, not actually strike them—is obscene. There is no such thing as “acceptable” violence used or enabled by a university against its own students. Even the threat of violence, which is quickly becoming normalized, must be declared completely unacceptable. Professor Corey Robin, at Brooklyn College, described the scene on his campus on Monday:

I wasn’t at the police riot at Baruch College yesterday. Instead, I attended a Brooklyn College General Assembly. It was student-led, peaceful, and electrifying. I listened to young people, all of them women, many of color, talk about their desire for education and their difficulty in getting one….They had gathered in front of Boylan Hall, one of the main academic buildings on campus that houses various humanities departments as well as some administration offices. Standing between the students and Boylan Hall was a phalanx of police. It was a perfect tableau of our times: students talking passionately—intelligently, caustically, inventively—about their education; cops standing between them and that education. I didn’t need to be at Baruch College yesterday to see the crude show of force; it’s everywhere. Administrative officials and politicians will claim that they are defending humane values from a violent horde. But anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear knows on which side stands humaneness and which side violence.

Such shows of force on our campuses, as much as the actual acts of violence themselves, need to be declared completely unacceptable. They are designed to prevent students from exercising their right to protest and, indeed, their very right to pursue an education. As a colleague so justly noted, the response of university officials, that they are attempting to protect “university business” from being disrupted, portrays students themselves as the threat to CUNY education, rather than the efforts of the Board of Trustees to undermine CUNY. Another colleague recently told me that at Queensborough Community College, where faculty and students were planning a teach-in, a student insisted that faculty get campus security officials to state that they would not come into the room and arrest students; otherwise, the student did not feel safe taking part in such an event, planned and advertised simply as an open discussion. The acts of police violence, as well as the threats of police violence, that we are seeing at our university campuses should be called by their rightful names: acts of terror and intimidation by universities against their own students.

Why would university administrators and officials engage in such actions? How, in the age of camera phones, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, do they imagine they can carry out these attacks on students and not face an uproar? I don’t pretend to know, but I can take a guess. The official response by CUNY officials contains—I am choosing my words carefully here—a number of outright lies. These are carefully refuted by the press release I noted above, and visually refuted by the video testimony. But there is one point in particular that must be underlined, as it may provide a clue as to why university administrators across the country are currently enabling violent police attacks upon their own students.

The “Statement from the City University of New York” regarding what happened at Baruch on Monday makes the following claim: “Some of the protesters refused to proceed to the overflow room and instead surged forward toward the college’s identification turnstiles, where they were met by CUNY Public Safety officers and Baruch College officials.” This is a categorical lie. But more important, perhaps, is what actually happened minutes before the campus police began attacking students.

What happened—you can watch for yourself—is this: students were offered the unacceptable choice of going into an “overflow” room to watch the hearing (unacceptable for two reasons: first, becoming a silent closed-circuit spectator at an event whose only purpose is to allow students to voice their positions to the Board of Trustees is meaningless; second, as can also be seen in videos of the hearing, there was room for more people in the room where the hearing was being held, and among those who were denied entrance were students who had officially registered in advance to speak at the hearing). So students rejected this “option,” but they did not try to force their way in. They did precisely the opposite: they declared that if they would not be admitted to the official hearing, they would simply hold their own hearing right there in the lobby. And so they began to do so: most of us sat down and began to listen to each other’s testimonies. It was precisely at this point that the campus police moved in to violently remove us (if you watch the video below, you can see clearly that it is them, not us, who “surge forward,” leading with their nightsticks and shouting “Move, Move!”—not something that you would shout at a crowd that was supposedly surging forward, but rather to those who are standing or sitting still).

Over the past few months, around the world, we have seen how tyrants, no longer able to hide behind the empty rhetoric of “democracy” that includes neither enfranchisement nor representation, have fallen back on their only other option: brute violence. We are seeing precisely the same thing on our university campuses. University officials have become accustomed to the privilege of remaining unaccountable (at CUNY, the Board of Trustees, with the exception of one student representative and one non-voting faculty representative, are all political appointees) and simply being able to ignore the demands of students, teachers, and workers. At Baruch on Monday, students called their bluff, exposing the sham of holding a single “open hearing” on tuition increases, an issue that will gravely affect an institution that by its own admission serves more than 480,000 students, in a room holding only 300 people.

It is these unaccountable officials who have been occupying our universities, holding them hostage to agendas that have made these great public institutions more privatized, more exclusionary, more expensive, and less democratic. Tired of being ignored, students have simply served notice that they plan to re-occupy—that is, quite simply, inhabit—their own schools, which have always been theirs, by right. The tyrants, like tyrants everywhere, have shown their true faces through the violence by which they have attempted to hold on to their illegitimate power.

The weekend before the events at Baruch, I was one of the signers of a statement by CUNY faculty declaring our opposition to any use of violence against nonviolent student protesters. The statement was sparked by our outrage at what had happened at Berkeley and Davis, but we also wanted to voice, as clearly as we could, our opposition to such violence before any such actions occurred at CUNY, with the clear knowledge that students would be exercising their right to protest at the Board of Trustees meeting. Although the statement was published on Sunday, it did not succeed in preventing violence from being used against our students the very next day. It does, however, present us with a particular responsibility to now act in accordance to what we declared, and in particular, with this statement: “[We] Declare that the use of any violence whatsoever against nonviolent student protesters will never be tolerated at CUNY.”

So: first (and I speak here only for myself, although I suspect I am far from alone in these demands), I call for the resignation of any and all officials, whether at Baruch College or elsewhere in the CUNY system, who were responsible for ordering campus security to use violence to disperse nonviolent student protesters.

Second, I endorse the call, first written and circulated by CUNY students, for the immediate resignation of the Chancellor of the City University of New York, Matthew Goldstein, who, in the words of the student petition, “sat idly by through the full three and a half hours of the CUNY Board of Trustees meeting at Baruch College, on November 21, 2011, while in the same building students, faculty, and staff of his university engaging in peaceful protest were met with a violent police response and numerous arrests.” This petition states the case clearly and succinctly, and I simply endorse it and call upon readers to sign it, and to follow it with individual phone calls and emails to Chancellor Goldstein.

Third, I extend this call for resignation to include the politically appointed members of the Board of Trustees, who similarly sat idly by while nonviolent student protesters faced violence from campus police. Allow me, in concluding, to address the Board directly: In calling for your resignation, all I am really doing is echoing the words and example of those students who, locked out of your sham “public” hearing, declared that they would simply hold their own hearing. Being literally pushed out of their own school was just the latest example of the way that an unaccountable, unelected, and irresponsible Board of Trustees has attempted to deny students any control over or input into their own education. It’s their school; you are the ones who now have to go.

As Robert Hass put it, regarding students who have been protesting at Berkeley: 

“Whose university?” the students had chanted. Well, it is theirs, and it ought to be everyone else’s in California. It also belongs to the future, and to the dead who paid taxes to build one of the greatest systems of public education in the world.

This is certainly true of CUNY, another of the world’s great public education systems. It belongs to the students, the teachers, and all the other workers who make up this university. It belongs to everyone who lives in this city, everyone who has lived here and helped to build it, and everyone who will live here in the future and will become this university. It belongs to everyone except for the ones who have seized it, the ones who now must step aside. You are the occupiers, not us.

CUNY will be a democratic, open, inclusive, and free university, with or without you. You can resign and join us, or resign and move aside. There is, I would insist, room for you among us; there is nothing written in stone that insists that we must be antagonists. There are honorable precedents here; after all, it was not so long ago that CUNY’s then-Chancellor, Joseph S. Murphy, vigorously defended the policy of open admissions, declaring: “We have to give an opportunity to all our people to go as far as they as they possibly can in terms of getting an education and moving ahead or we will have a highly stratified, rigid class system and we won't have democracy." Even though you have chosen to police your side of this divide between us through the use of violence, there is still room for you. Again, there is an honorable precedent: City College President Buell Gallagher, who in November 1968 called in the police to end a nonviolent student sit-in, a few months later resigned in protest rather than implement budget cuts that would have effectively ended programs like the Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge (SEEK) program intended to expand opportunities for poorer students, particularly students of color, to attend CUNY. Gallagher’s words then resonate clearly today, and you have the chance to follow his example: “I am now asked by officers of government to stand in the door and keep students out. I shall not accede, I will not do it.”

So there is room for you among us. But first you must resign from your unaccountable positions, and join us in a truly democratic process; otherwise, you simply must go. As millions of people, from Tunisia to Egypt to everywhere, have been telling their brutal and unaccountable leaders: game over.

Your time is up. Our time has begun, and we are the City University of New York.

[Update: CUNY students, faculty, staff, and supporters will be back again on November 28 to exercise our right to protest, on the occasion of the Board of Trustees' meeting, again at Baruch College. See the beautiful trailer below for more information.] 

5 comments for "Our University: On Police Violence at CUNY"

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Get PEPT--Publicly Elected Public Trustees. The CUNY BoT overrun by appointees of the mayor and governor, trying hard to support ideology, but hardly trying to support education, has been a woeful sham at least a couple of decades, and probably longer.

Thane Doss wrote on November 29, 2011 at 02:05 AM
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Get PEPT--Publicly Elected Public Trustees. The CUNY BoT overrun by appointees of the mayor and governor, trying hard to support ideology, but hardly trying to support education, has been a woeful sham at least a couple of decades, and probably longer.

Thane Doss wrote on November 29, 2011 at 06:34 AM
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Thanks for the article. I wonder if this type of demand is only possible at a public university. I don't see these things happening at private universities.

Kevin Chamow wrote on November 29, 2011 at 02:05 PM
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NY State Penal Law, Article 35, Section 35.05(1) speaks to this incident. There was an unruly mob creating a disturbance in a public facility, Were we to expect the authorities to stand by and do nothing because it was a "peaceful" disturbance? Freedom and democracy don't give you the right to impose your plans on everyone else. The protesters violated a number of laws and the police were right to disperse the unruly mob. Their use of force was consistent with the NY State Penal Law.

Terrence J. Skinner wrote on November 29, 2011 at 06:02 PM
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Thanks to all for your comments. Terrence J. Skinner, your claim that "there was an unruly mob creating a disturbance in a public facility" is a highly dubious one, to say the least. Everyone in that building had entered with a CUNY i.d., and we were in a lobby which was not located near any classes or immediate university activity which would have been directly disrupted. The only claim that could be made was that we were making a certain amount of noise, but not necessarily more than might be heard in the hallways of any college or university between classes. Prior to their use of violence against us, authorities did not "stand by and do nothing"; they had already blocked further entrance to the building, and at no time did anyone try to move past them. All that said, I am not sufficiently cognizant of NY State Penal Law to be able to say for certain that your claim might have some legal grounding. But I have no trouble stating that your argument is morally repugnant.

Anthony Alessandrini wrote on November 30, 2011 at 08:46 PM

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