The controversy that erupted this summer over CUNY’s decision to hire former General David Petraeus as a visiting professor continued with his arrival at Macaulay Honors College this fall. In one of a series of demonstrations in September and October, students peacefully protesting outside Macaulay on September 17 were punched repeatedly by police, and six activists were arrested. The protests have drawn national attention, and organizers vow that they will continue.
The PSC, while not an organizer of the demonstrations, has strongly condemned the use of violence against nonviolent activists and has affirmed their right to protest.
This summer the website Gawker.com published internal e-mails showing that prior to any faculty input, former CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein offered Gen. Petraeus a $200,000 salary for a position teaching a single seminar at Macaulay. In the wave of criticism that followed, the proposed salary was reduced to $150,000, and Gen. Petraeus eventually said he would accept just $1 a year. His lawyer said Petraeus hoped this would “remove money as a point of controversy.”
But even at a reduced salary, the controversy over CUNY’s hiring of Petraeus showed no signs of dying down. The general’s seminar, “Are We on the Threshold of the North American Decade?” was greeted with a picket line outside Macaulay on September 9, the first day of the class. The demonstration was sponsored by the Ad Hoc Committee Against the Militarization of CUNY and other organizations.
“CUNY Must Not Be a War College” and “Petraeus Out of CUNY” were among the signs protesters carried. Leaflets argued that Petraeus was guilty of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, cited articles in The New York Times and the UK’s Guardian that described killing of civilians and torture by forces under Petraeus’s command, and said his appointment “should be rescinded.”
A smaller group of demonstrators confronted Petraeus on the sidewalk, chanting and yelling that he was a “murderer” and “war criminal.” A video of the episode, during which Petraeus did not respond to the shouts and kept walking straight ahead, soon drew more than 300,000 views on YouTube, and national media coverage followed. Many pundits expressed outrage that Petraeus was treated with such disrespect and accused the students of “harassment.”
A statement from Macaulay Dean Ann Kirschner declared that “dialog within the academic setting [must] always be conducted civilly.” The Executive Committee of CUNY’s University Faculty Senate went further, sharply criticizing the tone of the protests. “Because they disagree with Professor Petraeus’s views, these demonstrators intend to deprive him of his ability to teach,” it said. “Members of the university community must have the opportunity to express alternate views, but in a manner that does not violate academic freedom.” (See tinyurl.com/UFS-Exec-Petraeus.)
That drew swift dissent from within the ranks of the UFS, with a flurry of comments on its blog (tinyurl.com/UFS-Petraeus-Discuss). “I thought organized protest was a legitimate form of free speech in a democratic society – so what’s the problem?” wrote Roberto Visani, associate professor of art at John Jay, in one response. Jen Gaboury, associate director of Hunter’s program in women’s and gender studies, asked, “How [do] political protests on city sidewalks or common spaces on our campuses impair a faculty member’s ability to teach?”
Things escalated during a demonstration on September 17, outside a fundraiser at Macaulay that featured Petraeus and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. As protesters marched in a picket line on the sidewalk, police pushed them back from the street entrance to Macaulay and set up metal barricades blocking it off. Protesters then marched partly in the street, and a few minutes later police moved suddenly to arrest several people. Videos of the incident show repeated police assaults on demonstrators without apparent provocation.
In one video, a student is held to the ground by three uniformed officers. Though the student is lying still and not resisting, a plainclothes officer, wearing a striped hoodie and a NYPD handgun holstered at his belt, can be seen repeatedly striking the student fast and hard in his exposed midriff (tinyurl.com/Petraeus-NYPD-Punch). In a second video, another student is surrounded by more than a dozen police officers and held down against the hood of a car. At least two officers repeatedly punch the student in the head as he holds up his arms to protect his face (tinyurl.com/Petraeus-NYPD-Hit-Hood).
“One of the most brutal things I saw was that five police officers slammed a Queens College student face down on the pavement across the street from Macaulay, put their knees on his back, and he was then repeatedly kneed in the back,” said Hunter student Michael Brian.
The six arrested activists were charged with riot, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. To date, no police officers have faced charges.
The PSC Delegate Assembly condemned the police action at its meeting on September 19. “We deplore the use of violence and brutal tactics against CUNY students and faculty who were peacefully protesting outside the college,” the DA resolution said. “We affirm the right of students, faculty and staff to engage in peaceful protest against actions of the City University of New York.” The union called for charges against those arrested to be dropped, and urged a formal investigation of the police use of force.
In his Fox News show on September 23, Bill O’Reilly called for the firing of one of the protest organizers, Sándor John, an adjunct associate professor of history at Hunter. “Professor John does not have tenure. New Yorkers pay his salary,” said Fox correspondent Jesse Watters. “But the university…refuses to take disciplinary action against the professor.” O’Reilly was incredulous, saying “The school…they’re tolerating this! They should have fired this guy!”
John told Clarion that while he has received a lot of hate mail, the call for his dismissal seems to have no traction. “It actually backfired,” he said. “A lot of students, faculty and fellow union activists reacted strongly against the attempt to whip up a campaign for me to be fired for expressing my views.”
Petraeus’s class has been moved from Macaulay to a building on West 57th Street, but the protests have shown no signs of dying down. On October 16, a CUNY fundraising gala with Petraeus at John Jay College drew a robust demonstration, and organizers said it would not be the last.
Petraeus Retreats from $150,000 Pay