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CUNY Meets Student Protest with Force, Crackdown Is Sharply Criticized

By John Tarleton
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CUNY peace officers use batons to force student protesters out of the lobby of Baruch's Vertical Campus on Nov. 21.
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A student demonstration against increased tuition was met with force by CUNY security officers on November 21, sparking larger protests the following week. CUNY’s decision to use batons and arrests to clear the lobby of Baruch’s Vertical Campus was widely criticized, and the college’s president, Mitchel Wallerstein, later said that he regretted the decision to use force.

The PSC demanded an independent investigation of the November 21 events, which the Chancellery has agreed to. “We have made it clear to the University that violent response to students who are protesting nonviolently is not acceptable,” said the union’s president, Barbara Bowen.

The confrontation occurred outside a public hearing of the Board of Trustees, at which students unanimously opposed the plan for tuition increases that will add up to $1,500 over five years. In the hearing and at the rally downstairs, students said the increases would cause many to go further into debt, delay their degrees or drop out of college altogether. The hearing also included testimony on adjunct health insurance and revisions of CUNY Bylaws.

STANDOFF

When the trustees reconvened at Baruch on November 28, a thousand students and PSC members demonstrated in support of the right to protest and against the tuition hike. The college’s administration sharply restricted access to the building that afternoon, canceling all classes after 3:00 pm; the PSC and others argued that the shutdown shortchanged education.

The strong turnout was in response to the treatment of protestors on November 21, where students rallied in Madison Square Park and marched the few blocks to Baruch shortly before the 5:00 pm hearing began. About 100 entered the Vertical Campus lobby where they were blocked from going upstairs by a line of CUNY peace officers standing in front of the turnstiles, holding wooden batons in front of their chests.

In response to the standoff, student organizers shifted their approach. “Since we’re not allowed in this public hearing, why don’t we have our own hearing?” one asked via the “human microphone,” a technique in which one person speaks in short phrases that are repeated by everyone else in the crowd. The proposal was met with loud applause, and the group began a discussion of the tuition protest, using the “human mic.” Most students sat down on the ground; those closest to the security officers remained standing but turned their attention to the “people’s hearing,” their backs to the officers.

A few minutes later, the line of CUNY peace officers suddenly surged into the crowd with batons outstretched, thrusting them toward students to push them out the door. Protesters jumped to their feet to avoid being trampled in the pandemonium. “I had to pull a woman in her sixties to her feet or she would have been crushed,” said Dave Sanders, a freelance photographer.

“It was a really terrifying situation,” said Conor Tomás Reed, a graduate student and an adjunct in Baruch’s English Department who was one of the protest’s organizers.

Reed told Clarion he was tripped and thrown to the ground by security officers, who wrenched his arms behind his back and handcuffed him. Reed said his glasses were broken, his shirt torn and the contents of his bookbag were dumped out on the floor. The bookbag was returned to Reed after his arrest, but a CUNY library book and a notebook with his students’ writing, grades and attendance sheets were not.

PANDEMONIUM

Tiffany Huan, a staffer for the Hunter Envoy student newspaper, said she was arrested simply for not moving quickly when ordered to leave. Video posted on the paper’s website shows what happened next: Huan was grabbed by her hair and thrown to the ground by CUNY peace officers, who then dragged her along the floor and put her under arrest. “I was in such pain at this point I was barely able to stand up,” Huan said.

Fifteen students were arrested in all, on charges such as criminal trespass or disorderly conduct. As reports reached the hearing on the 14th floor, one audience member silently held aloft a hand-written sign that read, “Chancellor Goldstein, your students are being beaten downstairs.”

A CUNY statement issued that evening said that the crackdown became necessary after students “surged forward toward the college’s turnstiles.” But online video does not support that account.

The University’s statement said access to the hearing room had been cut off because the room was “filled to capacity” and that students were directed to an overflow room with a video feed of the hearing but refused to go.

PSC President Barbara Bowen spoke with CUNY officials when the hearing room was closed to additional audience members. She pointed out that the room’s posted capacity was 300 people, and that there was still ample room for more. The reply was that a decision had been made, and no one further would be allowed in. Some students shut out of the hearing room said they had not understood that the overflow room included a video feed; others said they wanted to present their testimony directly to the Board.

A Clarion reporter and PSC video team were excluded from the hearing by CUNY officials, an action that the union protested.

Speaking at a December 1 meeting of the Baruch Faculty Senate, the college’s president, Mitchel Wallerstein, placed primary responsibility for the use of force on the CUNY Central Administration and the SAFE Team, a special squad of CUNY peace officers drawn from multiple campuses. “In retrospect,” he said, “I regret the
CUNY decision to use force to remove students.”

Three days before, protest had returned to Baruch on November 28 when the Board of Trustees voted on the tuition hikes. This time, the Vertical Campus was shut down before they arrived. A memo from Wallerstein had canceled all classes in the building that began after 3:00 pm on the day of the protest, ordering that they be rescheduled to Friday, December 2. Access to the Vertical Campus was restricted “to those with an urgent and legitimate need to be in the building.” Almost 250 classes, serving an estimated 5,000 students, were affected.

In an open letter, PSC President Bowen urged Chancellor Goldstein to rescind Wallerstein’s memo and keep the campus open on November 28. “The right of free expression does not stop at the door of the Trustees’ meeting,” Bowen wrote. “It is inconceivable to us as faculty and staff that a college would cancel its primary activity – teaching” – to prevent the trustees from being “inconvenienced or embarrassed” by public protest, she added. Bowen noted that the December 2 date would be impossible for many, due to religious observance, professional obligations or personal commitments.

In a message to union members at Baruch, PSC First Vice President Steve London promised to defend the contractual rights of those affected by the shutdown: “We will not tolerate any attempts to speed-up members’ work on days subsequent to the shutdown in an effort to make up for the loss of time.” In addition, London said that PSC would insist that any staff assigned overtime to make up for time lost in the shutdown be awarded compensatory time or overtime pay.

“I feel violated,” said Marc Dweck, a junior at Baruch majoring in finance who was prevented by campus security from entering the Vertical Campus at 2:40 pm to attend an economics class that had begun ten minutes earlier. “The Board of Trustees are supposed to be promoting education and they are the ones stunting it.”

A couple of hours later, about a thousand students, faculty, staff and supporters rallied outside the Vertical Campus. Several hundred PSC members participated in the union-backed demonstration.

“We need to show solidarity with students,” said a faculty member from QCC. “If standing up and protesting in a building gets you dragged out and arrested, that could be us.”

Franky Laude, an adjunct teaching art history at Medgar Evers College, said that if CUNY keeps shifting costs to its students, “we’re going to go back to the days when only the rich went to college.”

Gina Wolff of Hunter College was one of the student protesters who had been shoved out of the lobby of the Vertical Campus on November 21. Wolff returned on November 28, determined to assert her rights to free speech and free assembly. “It made me more involved,” she told Clarion. “I couldn’t believe they would use violence against people standing in a hallway.”

PSC leaders said that the union felt it was important for faculty and staff to show up for the Nov. 28 protest, in part because their presence might help avoid a repetition of the events of Nov. 21.

A MOVEMENT RE-ENERGIZED

The Board of Trustees approved the tuition hikes by a vote of 15 to 1, with only the student representative voting no. The decision will boost the cost of attending CUNY from the present $5,100 per year to $6,300 per year by 2015. That comes on top of a $300 increase that took effect this year, for a total increase of more than 30% in five years.

But the CUNY student movement has been re-energized. The influence of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) was apparent through the November protests, from the human mic – popularized by OWS – to working-class students’ anger at being told to pay more while their economic prospects shrink. For Conor Tomás Reed, active in both movements, the end of the semester is an opportunity to regroup and set future plans.

“Now is a time to consolidate the movement we have built,” he said at the November 28 rally, “so we can come back stronger than ever in the Spring!” As the human mic repeated these words, it dissolved into cheers and applause.