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
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.
Julia Cathleen Ott
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.