Students Fighting The CUNY Machine Learn From , Connect With Frontline Groups
By Amity Paye
On November 25, student activists and their allies held a protest against the City University of New York’s Board of Trustees meeting.
“During the Fall of 2013, the CUNY Machine has joined forces with militarism and suppressing free expression on our campuses. David Petraeus teaches a class on US Empire alongside the return of ROTC, but students are beaten and arrested at anti-war pickets,” reads the group’s event page.
City College shuts down the Morales/Shakur Community and Student Center (MSCSC), and then suspends two students who worked to reclaim it, who now face up to one year in jail for spurious charges. CUNY admins have ushered in the Pathways education assembly line to churn students out quickly, while working teachers and staff to the bone. And now, the CUNY Board of Trustees proposes an anti-free expression policy (the proposed policy on expressive activity) to broadly limit and police all of our ability to assemble, speak, and exchange materials without official permission. Enough is enough!
This long list of developments is what protesters are calling an “escalation of oppression” and shows the militarization of the public school system in New York that has taken place on CUNY campuses, particularly the City College of New York (CCNY), during the last three months. Protesters passed through three levels of security to enter the Board of Trustees meeting on the November 25 where they saw their battle with the university system extended into next semester as the proposed Expressive Activities Policy – which would regulate student and faculty’s right to assemble and protest – was not voted on as expected.
In this “March against the CUNY machine,” student groups including New York Students Rising, The Free University, and Students for Educational rights gained support from the transportation workers from the AFL-CIO union local 100 and the Professional Staff Congress, which represents educational workers at CUNY.
"Student activism, leadership, and community building is under attack, and it’s directly affecting the marginalized communities these students serve. We need the students, faculty, alumni, and community to rise to the occasion and stand up for what’s right,” said Alyssia Osorio, who is the director of the Morales/Shakur Center, president of Students for Educational Rights, and a student at CCNY.
But, as protesters begin to rally behind the working class students attacked at CCNY, there has been an important population left out of the planning process: many of those student and community groups themselves.
“White, middle-class people have a march down the street and it’s different from when we have a march down the street,” said Mark Torres, a 1989 student organizer who helped to create the MSCSC who is helping to organize the present-day protests. During teach-ins over the past few years, Torres has advised current students to first develop a core group of student organizers. Then he advises they reach out to student government, community organizations and other partners. Finally he says organizers should set up political education groups to study the past, and then, finally, take action.
The Ad Hoc Committee Against the Militarization of CUNY, The Revolutionary Student Coordinating Committee (RSCC), the People Power Movement, the People’s Survival Program (PSP), and Sister Circle Collective (among many others) recently formed the Community and Student Coalition for MSCSC, which planned its own student protest and community march for December 5.
It is the reaching out to community organizations stage of organizing that is happening now. The students and community members planning for the December 5 march on CCNY have organized with churches, local youth groups, and businesses to form many Harlem-community led branches of the march.
While the two organizing contingents, divided by class and race, are reacting to the same events, they only began speaking, and in some cases know of each others’ existence in the two to three days leading up to the November 25 protests.
“The PSC said they were unhappy about community and students having a march on the same day as their march on November 25. They thought we should have come to them first. It’s a power thing,” said one member of the coalition at an open planning meeting on Sunday. Brother Shep, PSP Outreach Communications Coordinator, further explained, “Part of the issue with reaching out to [the PSC and other student organizers] is that there is a lot of miscommunication and bureaucracy. We want to be in solidarity with Monday but we also want them to be in solidarity with our action on the fifth.”
While class and race divisions often plague organized movements, this weekend, just days before their protests, students and community groups organizing around CUNY’s repressive activities began to come together surprisingly fast.
“I find it really frustrating that I didn’t even know there was a whole community organizing in Harlem,” said Jason Coniglione, Director of Development for New York Students Rising, who helped to organize the November 25 action. “They were upset that the student movement was basically ignoring them and I completely understand how that would be frustrating… with all of this organizing and there is still a long way to go before we are fully connected to do what we have the potential to do.”
Solidarity was shown on November 25 when members of the Community and Student Coalition attended the protests at the Board of Trustees meeting and served as security for the day’s protest events, despite the fact that they had not been involved in the planning.
“After that, we have been much more connected,” said Shep. “[PSP and student groups] have been much more present in the lead up to the upcoming events and we are all trying to work together on this now.
With a strong history of protest at CUNY, both camps are not only trying to connect with one another, but also with CUNY’s organizing past in order to realize this potential.
In 1964 and again in 1989, students from CUNY, led in large part by CCNY students, shut down campuses around the city in protest of tuition hikes, educational links to wartime militarization, and systemic racism. Sound familiar? Many of these student activists are still around, helping and advising current student organizers.
Ron McGuire, a former CCNY student who helped organize the 1964 student strikes, is representing the two student organizers who were suspended and criminally charged for inciting a riot at one of the MSCSC protests. New York City Council member Ydanis Rodriguez, one of the student activists who fought to create MSCSC in 1989, organized a tour of club spaces for student government leaders last week. This tour became the first time that students were allowed into the MSCSC since the college seized the space on October 20.
The connection between the past and present has also been growing over the last few years. In 2011, the late Louis Rivera, a poet and CCNY student activist from 1969, held a teach-in for CCNY student activists where he outlined how his group of student activists successfully shut down the college with a concentric organizing structure.
But, while many marches, protests, and speak-outs are planned for the next few weeks, students say that they know this will be a longer battle and are continuing to look to these former leaders for support. RSCC hosted an event, “The CUNY Student Struggle, Then and Now,” for current students to learn from past student organizers. “The struggle of our generation is going to be to seize CUNY for the people. In order to do that we must study the past,” reads the event invitation.
As the many groups organizing against the repressive activities of CUNY pursue political and historical education and come together, they are looking outside of New York City for the possibilities of their protest.
“Obviously, we have some steps to go before we get to Chile or Montreal,” said Coniglione. “Those were much needed, large-scale attacks on the education system and people’s ability to get education. So far the atmosphere is much different here, but we want to push it in that direction.”