Occupy New School?

Growing out of the broader Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, a bit uptown, at the New School, there was another occupation. It began on OWS Global Day of Action, November 17th. About one hundred broke away from a march from Union Square to Foley Square. The march was a part of a city-wide student strike in solidarity with OWS Global Day of Action. The breakaway group occupied a student study floor on 90 Fifth Avenue. The headlines of The New York Times about the action captured how many of us at the New School understood it: “Once Again, Protesters Occupy the New School.” I was quite skeptical about this action. I didn’t understand why The New School was a target. But initially, I didn’t simply oppose. I thought that there was a real possibility that New School President David Van Zandt’s accommodating approach to our occupation might open up space for creative activity.

Unfortunately, things didn’t develop that way.  As time progressed, the aggression that the tactic of occupation of university space is, defined the action more and more, while the opening in public life that OWS has provided took a backseat. Once again, for me, Hannah Arendt’s insight that in politics the means define the ends was confirmed. The object of my concern is most readily perceivable by the photos of the graffiti on the occupied space accompanying this post. The damage to The New School facilities is disturbing, but I find the content of some of the slogans even more serious. In addition, there were reports of some students having worries about their safety in the occupied space as events progressed. Instead of the space being open and inviting, some rather perceived and experienced it as hostile, disinviting and dominated, due to the some of the occupiers’ tactics and politics. There were also the very reasonable concerns of many students about losing access to the space for their studies.

It is with these factors in mind that I signed the following letter, composed by my colleague, Andrew Arato, to The New School community in support of President Van Zandt’s approach to the challenge, an approach that led to a relatively peaceful, to this point, end of the occupation.

Monday, November 28, 2011

To the New School Community

Dear Friends:

We need to express our strong appreciation for the way our president, provost and some of our faculty members handled the unfortunate occupation of a part of the New School. They were right not to call in the police, and to be conciliatory, ready to negotiate until a full democratic vote of those present could be taken.

They were also right (letter of November 23) in calling attention to the destructive and undemocratic practice of a minority that initially refused to leave in spite of the vote. This act of firmness also facilitated the favorable outcome.

Some of us, probably a relatively small minority of students and faculty, may think that it is acceptable to occupy the New School whether or not there is any school specific contentious issue at stake. Let us note however, that as against the recent past, the leadership of Van Zandt and Marshall (not to speak of the faculty mostly enthusiastic about OWS) has provided no conceivable excuse for this action. On the contrary, it was all extremely hospitable to the movement and its reasonable demands for time and space. We are aware of possible motivations why the New School was selected: namely our very tolerance and liberalism made us a much easier and less defended target than the real enemies of the movement. But the existence of opportunity is not in itself a justification for anything.

Whether any of us do agree with the occupation of a part of our place, we are sure none of us can accept the fact that the occupiers have deliberately caused serious damage to the facilities. $40,000 dollars is mentioned as a figure. That is quite a sum. Just to pick an example of alternatives, the equivalent of 10 graduate assistantships will go for renovation instead, at a time when we already cannot reward at all some of our best students.

We are not calling for the punishment of the students concerned by the University. This would be counter-productive. But we do think that any serious movement-to-be has the responsibility to police its ranks, and discipline its membership by excluding those who violate democratic rules and engage in random violence.

Again the president and the provost need to be offered our sincere thanks. Had someone else been in their place, the results could have been tragic, and not only for the short term. The long shutdown of universities from Greece to Uruguay and Mexico has happened in the past initially for equally fortuitous reasons. It is our job here, faculty and students, to make sure that this cannot happen to the New School.

Signed by,

Elaine Abelson
Andrew Arato
Jay Bernstein
Emanuele Castano
Doris Chang
Alice Crary
James Dodd
Federico Finchelstein
Carlos Forment
Laura Frost
Teresa Ghilarducci
Jeffrey Goldfarb
Eiko Ikegami
Elizabeth Kendall
Marcel Kinsbourne
Benjamin Lee
Arien Mack
Elzbieta Matynia
Joan Miller
Edward Nell
Julia Cathleen Ott
Christian Proaño
Vyjayanthi Rao
Janet Roitman
Jeremy Safran
Willi Semmler
Ann-Louise Shapiro
Rachel Sherman
Ann Stoler
McWelling Todman
Robin Wagner-Pacifici
Terry Williams
Eli Zaretsky
Vera Zolberg

Some further explanation

This was our third occupation in four years, but was quite different from the previous two, when Bob Kerrey was the university president. The issues then had much more to do with the tension between Kerrey, on the one hand, and the students and the faculty, on the other. The local and national contexts were also very different. Now the New School occupation has occurred at the time of the broad social movement that is Occupy Wall Street. While President Kerry called in the police, to the deep consternation of The New School community, David Van Zandt, was much more open and understanding. His first response as reported to the Times: “As long as they’re not disrupting the educational functions of the university they can stay… It’s a tough time for students right now, and we’re aware of that. These are big social issues.” And he followed with a series of additional statements in which he sought common ground with the occupiers, attempting to avoid conflict. Yet, perhaps inevitably, there was conflict and controversy. The different perspectives are illuminating.

The occupation was from the outset planned and executed by the “All City Student Occupation.” This is an overarching body of the NYC university students. They are not necessarily representative, but are linked to all the individual school assemblies. They posted a series of statements throughout the course of the occupation.The New School General Assembly reposted from there and at its own site. These sites provided a student view of the occupation, until a fateful General Assembly in which the pressing issue was whether to accept or reject an offer by Van Zandt of moving and limiting the action. A telling majority accepted the offer. A committed minority questioned the legitimacy of the decision and stayed.

At the GA: there were about 150 people. The vote accepting the Van Zandt offer was about 90 yes and 25 no. The vote wasn’t completely clear, though those in favor clearly prevailed. The discussion at some points was civil and reasonable, at other points, not.

Then things became difficult. In the night of Nov 22, a group of the “no voters” decided to stay. Most of the participants by then had vacated 90 Fifth. They left or moved to the Kellen Gallery. The remaining 90 5th Ave occupiers opened a new blog and published statements there.

The students, both activists and non-activists, were split on the occupation. Although they overwhelmingly are, along with the faculty, very supportive of OWS, the occupation of The New School was not as broadly supported. Among many of the faculty, including me, there was the additional factor: strong support for the way David Van Zandt has handled the crisis, always supporting the mission of the school, which includes its traditional openness to progressive social, political and cultural expression and action, coupled with a strong commitment to its various educational divisions and programs.

In the end, my ambivalence about the occupation turned to opposition, not understanding the justification of occupation, being appalled by what some did in the occupied space, supporting the President’s response, wanting to minimize the negative impact of the occupation on my intellectual home, while still supporting the project of OWS.  I think this was the conclusion of many, probably most, of my colleagues and students. I look forward to further informed reflection on the issues involved here, which are far from settled at The New School, and beyond.

  • Guest2

    The paternalistic tone of the letter was disquieting but knowing the integrity of the work of so many of the signers I would imagine trying to give them, it, the benefit of the doubt. This is beyond facts. Its form vastly overshadows the merits and flaws of argument. Try as I might, reading the comments has left me bereft. How can professors at The New School for Social Research take such a deeply problematic tone and in public, no less with students? Have you lost all touch with the ethical nature of the position that you occupy? You mock their fear, you ransack their beliefs with careless ease, use authority and skepticism to close down dialogue. These students pay your salary. These students face mountains of debt that they incur to work with you. The occupy movement, for all its flaws, served as a point of hope that this might be otherwise. That education, in the future, might not cost so very much. I’m ashamed to be part of The New School and to think that I’ve shared, even in imagination, a sense of communal code as a professor with the signers of this letter.

  • Friem066

    Ross- As a Milano Student who was alternately engaged and repelled by the occupation, I find your comments heartening. For the record, there were absolutely strategic mistakes and destructive actions made by the occupiers. But Arato’s letter on this post disturbs me by many orders of magnitude more than anything the occupiers did. Not only is the substance of Arato’s note completely devoid of any greater social and political context-thereby completely ignoring or impending ecological and social breakdown- but his tone was arrogant and condescending. I do not consider myself a radical by any means. But he has done far more more to enrage me then any right winger ever could. I appreciate you being able to articulate much of what I was feeling in a more respectful manner. To the tell you the truth, I still find it difficult to read Arrato’s post without getting sick to my stomach. Additionally, his arrogance is confirmed every time he responds to criticism with belittlement and derision.

  • Eli Zaretsky

    Dear friends: I signed the faculty letter but I believe I was hasty in doing
    so. The truth is I didn’t give it the thought it deserved: I wanted the
    faculty to thank the administration and this seemed the only letter out
    there. However, I find Ross’s letter convincing, Eli

  • Aarato1944

    The Occupation of the New School as a Childhood Ailment of the OWS

    (In the memory of Vladimir Ilyich, who in spite of everything was a great political man)

    The Occupation of Wall Street has already done important things. It has put the very important issue of inequality on the collective American agenda. It has experimented in forms of direct democracy, and in ways of seriously influencing the political system outside the official channels. In my opinion it has the potential of becoming more then the forerunner, but also a key component of a new American movement for more democracy and more justice. As all movements it must confront its own worst tendencies to realize its genuine potential.

    By tendencies I mean strategies rather than people or individuals or groups. Such a negative strategy is symbolized by the slogan that appeared just before the taking of a part of the new School: “occupy everything”. I regard it as a childhood ailment not to denigrate any participants or to represent their age (they were adults!), but to indicate problems of an early, developmental phase that can be easily overcome.

    “Occupy everything” is a deeply military metaphor, incompatible with a non-violent movement aiming to raise moral as well as political consciousness. The idea of “seizing public or quasi-public spaces to make broad claims about the overall (mis)direction of our society” cannot be justified as a general right in the name of which the law is violated to transform or improve it. It is incompatible with productively addressing “the public at large”. Finally, and most clearly “occupy everything” is deeply contradictory with the creative slogan “we are 99%.”

    Occupation as against sit in is a military metaphor. It easily calls in mind the occupation of Iraq, and of the West Bank of the Jordan River. Sit in means that those who rightly belong take up space, non-violently, space where they have a right to be and to stay in civil disobedience, accepting to pay a price when arrested to bear moral witness to unjust laws the need to be changed. Occupation means the forcible taking and holding of territory. Literally speaking, while most of the events taking place over all over the country were sit ins, despite their name, a few were attempted and (mostly) failed occupations. Sit-ins can lead to only one-sided use of open force, while occupations involve two-sided violence. We can have sit ins in the space and territory of friends, but it is always the territory of enemies that is occupied.

    Words matter. While an occupation can be effectively a sit-in, and a sit-in can be an occupation, or be turned into one, when the word “occupy” is used that in itself produces facts and outcomes. The general claim made by Nancy Fraser that OWS implies the strategy (and implicitly the right) of “seizing public or quasi-public spaces” is just a slightly limited version of “occupy everything”. It means that not only the New School’s space, but that of Stuyvesant High, public schools, hospitals and offices dedicated to the administration of essential public goods and services could be rightly seized if the purpose was to elevate and open up public discussion. The very spaces of public discussion could be seized to facilitate another discussion. Such an idea leads to deep conflicts between the occupiers and those whose activities, rights and forms of publicness are being forcibly displaced. When in sit ins or in civil disobedience rights are violated, these are rights that are exclusionary and oppressive that in themselves involve the denial of rights more universal and more justified. This cannot be said about all social space, and their relevant rights holders. Rights can be calimed only to the extent that they do not violate other rights without serious reason, above all identical rights. For example, the rights that are constitutive of the public sphere and without which it cannot ultimately exist, ought not be violated in the name of the very same rights. That is why occupying hospitals, or schools or spaces of public learning or discussion are unjustified, unless it is by their own participants who are being denied important rights. But then the occupation would be a sit-in. When parts of OWS march over to the New School and occupy part of it, they are not occupying a space whose owners or holders or participants have denied them any rights. On the contrary the right to freely assemble, and speak has been granted to them over and over again by that very institution. To occupy that institution is to imagine it as an enemy, and unfortunately to turn it into an enemy. To occupy in the name of its very participants in the face of their opposition, or: without their democratic decision can never be made acceptable.

    Equally important, occupation that aggressively sets the interests and needs and opinions of people on the same level, here students and students, against one another cannot be a strategy in the name of 99%. (Even faculty belong to the 99%, I would add, though here some rhetorics have put us on the other side.) Speaking in the name of 99% is based on a fiction, but it is a productive fiction as long as the interests of 99% are rigorously kept in mind. Opening up friend and enemy relations among us means that the movement suddenly is acting in the name of a much smaller percentage than 99. If all public and quasi-public spaces can be occupied, the 99% turns into .00001% and the 1% turns into 99. A popular strategy turns into a narrowly elitist one. The results, if “occupy everything” became a general strategy would be disastrous, mostly for the activists themselves. But we would all lose the potential I am speaking about.

    It was perhaps right to use the military metaphor in the case of Wall Street (that could of course not be occupied, among other things because it is ultimately a virtual space), because that 1% itself acts like an exploitative, occupying force with respect to the rest of society. Zuccotti Park was a symbol of nearby Wall Street, and a park where few other rights were at stake. A better slogan would have been better, but we are now stuck with “occupy”. But extending the idea to everything, or all public and quasi-public space (whatever the last phrase means) is a disaster. This strategy emerged as a result of a temporary defeat, the police attack on the park. If continued the real 99% (or htose who more successfully speak in its name) will crush the imaginary and symbolic one, even if it is against some of its interests. It is by no means the only strategy available. OWS is not ultimately an occupation, that was at best a temporary strategy, but a proto movement, a potential part of a new American movement for economic justice. A movement can use demonstrations, open public and intellectual discussion, exemplary acts, forms of art and performance (politization of art, rather than the aesthetization of politics pushed by some!) and even generating new and better forms of organization and leadership to do what only movements can do: help transform the political culture and influence the direction of more formal political development.

    A childhood ailment can kill, as well as immunize. People speak of the Occupation of the New School as an important learning experience. I hope this is indeed the result.

  • Guest3

    Hallelujah! I wonder if Van Zandt got a $40,000 raise, would Arato would circulate a petition demanding it go back to students instead? Arato seems unaware of the fact that whereas it costs $30,000+ just to attend the New School, the President of the university made $1.3 million in 2009 (and presumably Van Zandt makes as much or more, given tuition has increased since- he may have already gotten that $40,000 raise).

  • Alice

    Friends and colleagues, When the faculty letter was under discussion, I participated in the discussion and defended aspects of Nancy Fraser’s dissent. In doing so, I rewrote portions of the letter hoping to produce something more satisfactory, something that thanked the administration but was in other respects different, in particular in being more supportive of the original methods of our local occupation. When my rewrite wasn’t accepted, I should have removed my name from the list of signers. I am heartened by Ross Poole’s contribution here and the discussion surrounding it.

  • Peppd886


    Sorry for the late reply, thanks for the kind words. In terms of sycophant, I know it’s a strong word, but Im trying to imply that I see that we have a greater problem in the New School than the occupiers. And I see that as a kind of sycophantic culture (also operating in greater society). One in which that kind of disposition is encouraged, or shaped, so that it becomes a prominent part of ones ‘habitus’. I have caught myself in the years of being at the New School, as acting like a sycophant, and it disgusts me. Maybe I am projecting? So I am not labeling you a sycophant or any student. I am pointing to what I see as a systemic problem where it has become standard operating procedure for students to not critically question their professors or the administration. As I mentioned before I see myself as being complicit in this problem.

    In terms of the letter, I do not think discussion is ‘stifled’. That would be too easy a problem. Its much more sinister than that. I think that it at best promotes a very limited form of discussion and knowledge. The letter, not with conscious intent, is an example of implicit social control. It in a sense uses the incident as away to direct critical attention away from the New School. And it rationalizes the existence of the New School by way of what I see as a kind of crude ‘othering’. The “real enemies” are out ‘there’ not here. I for one believe that we all have ‘real enemies’ operating within our own minds, within our institutions and in every realm of existence. What this means is that we must be constantly self critical even if it makes us uncomfortable or uncertain. I urge you to read Foucault’s discussion of Parthesia in ‘Fearless Speech’. With regard to your last question I do not think that I challenge “official knowledge” sufficiently. Nor do I think I speak my mind in a way that poses any real challenge. Once again I see myself as being part of a larger problem that I only slightly understand.


    David Peppas