Organizing Inside the Cooper Union Occupation (Part 1)
Behind the scenes of the student struggle to preserve one of America’s last remaining free universities
By Saar Shemesh
[Photo: Two students looking out two separate windows of the President of Cooper Union’s large office. A big painting of Peter Cooper, the founder of the school, hangs on the wall in between the two windows.]
On Wednesday, May 8, at exactly 11:00 a.m., about forty Cooper Union students and I waltzed through the doors of the president’s office. We turned on our webcams and began live streaming. We appointed people to keep the entrances and exits open, and we read our statement of intent to the camera and the administrators who were present. They were caught completely off-guard; within minutes, we had over 100 students filling the office space. Our president, Jamshed Bharucha was nowhere to be found − though he says his doors are always open.
That was 19 days ago. Or 463 hours. To me, it feels more like the latter.
[Photo: Nearly 30 students sit on the floor of the President’s office with their arms linked.]
This is not the first time students have taken space at Cooper Union. Just this past December, a group of 11 art students locked themselves inside the Peter Cooper Suite for an entire week using barricades they had built in our own school-wide sculpture shop. Back then, our demands seemed like distant goals: that the administration reaffirm its belief in free higher education, that the board of trustees restructure itself to be more accountable and transparent to the Cooper community, and that President Bharucha step down. In this current occupation, I see those as immediate goals on which to campaign.
What has changed since the December lock-in?
In March, the board of trustees pulled a power play to get the art faculty to concede to the tuition model. Using unprecedented authority over admissions, the board sent deferred acceptance letters to everyone who had applied early decision to the School of Art − forcing the hitherto resistant faculty to sign-off on instituting tuition at the school.
The semester had just started and we were caught off-guard, bumbling around our studios and classes like chickens with our heads cut off, and feeling that our collective artistic body was on the chopping block too. We had small actions, but no cohesive campaign.
On April 23, Board of Trustees Chairman Mark Epstein announced in a public forum – distastefully held in Cooper Union’s Great Hall, where in 1860 President Lincoln delivered his “Right Makes Might” anti-slavery speech – that, beginning in the fall of 2014, Cooper Union would start charging tuition for the first time in 154 years.
We were beside ourselves. The board of trustees had dropped this big news on students just as the semester was about to end, catching us at the onset of finals (arguably the most stressful point in our semester). We hugged the Foundation building and held a candlelight vigil where we shared memories of a free Cooper Union. But again, we were trudging along, shocked that the administration had finally dared to announce tuition, our worst-case scenario, after we had been campaigning for transparency in Cooper’s operations for the last two years.
[Photo: Students sitting on the floor of the President’s office. The students are having a meeting.]
On May 8 we began to hold the office space, exclaiming that it was “no longer the Office of the President, but an Office for Over 100 Presidents from the Cooper Community.” We chose to occupy the president’s office to show how we could make the space function for the institution better than had Bharucha – literally taking hold of the hub of the administration at Cooper.
* * *
As an insider, it’s hard to tell what came first: our plans or our actions. As an organizer, I crave particular structures (albeit loose ones) with which to run a campaign, so the smattering of unplanned actions at Cooper would typically worry or frustrate me. However, this style of organizing seems to work for us here, like no other group that I have organized within.
The majority of us are not versed in direct action tactics or organizing strategy, and have somewhat of an allergic reaction to structure-heavy organizing. However, we have a certain type of loose structure that lends itself well to action-heavy organizing, and that has made both the lock-in last semester and the current occupation very successful.
The way I see it, there are three tiers of involvement: activists, organizers and Organizers. No single tier is better than another nor can function without the other two.
- Activists are the students who come out to actions, but have no direct hand in planning them. They are passionate, in short bursts, and they are extremely important when showing the administration we are not just a small group of occupiers. Instead, activists demonstrate that they are part of a support system of concerned, enraged students.
- [Small-o] organizers are the students who not only come out to actions, but have also gone to all or a majority of the meetings leading up to an action and have committed themselves to some level of preparation for an action.
- [Big-o] Organizers are the students who are more invested in making sure the behind-the-scenes are arranged in a cohesive way, and are constantly thinking of the answer to the question, “what’s next?” – even in the middle of an action. [Big-o] Organizers know that if we’re not constantly thinking of actions in terms of a string of connected actions, with tactics and strategies, then we are simply organizing action-to-action, and support for our cause and movement is not growing.
Within our group, Organizers make up the smallest group, and are generally outweighed by the will of the organizing-body that works on a looser structural basis. What’s great is that mostly everyone in the activist and organizer tiers are willing to do a whole lot at the drop of a hat—with just the prompt of a Celly message—to ensure the group’s safety in numbers or the drop of a banner. What I’ve realized in the last three weeks (half spent in occupation, and half spent planning for it) is that our group as a whole does not like [big-o] Organizing.
After the lock-in during December, many of us realized we had to try and get everyone familiar with a certain type of organizing framework. Collectively, we established a spokescouncil – that would have ideally functioned like that of Occupy Wall Street – in which working groups would meet regularly and report back to each other either via representatives once a week, or through meetings coordinated on an as-needed basis.
To execute the spokescouncil efficiently we used Google Groups and Google Docs; this made organizing our actions into longer strategic campaigns much easier. However, with the exception of the “Organizers,” most of the group found this laborious and attendance dropped off rapidly. My fellow students were constantly lamenting that we were spending critical time on creating elaborate internal structures and not actually planning anything (read: actions).
Good strategy is important to me because without it even well planned actions fall flat. Without some form of escalation, campaign, or action sequencing we don’t build power.
Good strategy includes having clear goals (a free, accessible and transparent Cooper Union), identifying your allies and your constituents, targeting someone who can give you what you want (President Bharucha and the board of trustees), then deploying tactics that can get you closer to achieving your goals (petitioning the student and faculty bodies for a vote of “no confidence” and a open, rolling occupation).
As I said, long-term strategy minded Organizers are the minority in our group and, perhaps because we failed to communicate why strategy was so crucial to everyone else, a misconception pervaded the group that action-based tactics were synonymous with strategic campaigning.
Over winter break, we held facilitation trainings. In the spring, not only did more people show up, but now we also had trained leadership that could facilitate meetings in a non-hierarchical manner. Before we had tactics, now we could forge strategy.
Still, most Cooper students involved in the occupation were “activists,” and many of them were hesitant about strategic Organizing or even disdainful of it. It makes sense; only a few of us have experience from Occupy or other social justice movements. We’re college students who believe in our school and the sanctity of free higher education. And we’re occupying because we think it will help us protect that. But that doesn’t mean that long-term strategic Organizing will come naturally to all of us.
Regardless of people’s hesitation for devising strategies within an agreed upon structure, we’ve so far been able to get by on our antics and actions. Although we never formally met as a large group to discuss what would become of our occupation after the last day of school (which was last Wednesday), we met organically in smaller groups and decided that we aimed to stay. For the last week or so, we’ve become a fluid group of about thirty rotating students all committed to holding this space for the summer.
Meeting organically allows for us to have leaders at any given time, tethering us closer to the non-hierarchy we aim to enact. Already people are planning to sublet their apartments on account of their new residences being the president’s office. Without formally talking about it, we began to carve out the office into different zones; food pantry, backpacks and belongings, banners/signs, collective bedding, space for work, and space for play. When it gets messy, we start cleaning, and it’s not a big to-do. We have started compiling a calendar, and day-by-day people add events to the blackboard, noting when we’ll have guest speakers come to hang out with us. A projector has been procured, and we are starting to screen movies at night. In the end, all of these structures came out of the lack of formal meetings from folks who shared a common strategic Organizing mindset.
[Photo: A banner unravels from a window at the front of a Cooper Union building.]
It seems that for most Cooper occupiers, [big-o] Organizing feels stuffy, and burdensome – whereas [little-o] organizing feels exciting, fresh and free. Given the choices available to most college students, it’s no surprise that creative young minds would prefer to organize themselves in a seemingly looser structure – and Cooper is no exception. I think our compromise is a good one: we each hold a long-term strategic framework in our heads, but we eschew the more formalized structures that turn our fellow students off.
* * *
We’ve been able to keep approximately twenty-five people in this office at any given time, and even with people leaving the city for the summer, we have begun visioning activities well into the summer to keep momentum high. Loose plans for a ‘disorientation’, or ‘re-orientation’ for incoming freshman are being organized for the Fall, and we are working on strengthening our network with other schools in NYC to ensure that what we are beginning to build at Cooper does not die out.
It took me the better part of a year to adjust to the Cooper “style” of organizing – but I continue to learn more about myself as an organizer (and an Organizer) in the process of helping to sustain, with the rest of my classmates and fellow occupiers, a budding student movement.
You can keep up with Saar on Tumblr.