The Frontline of Privatizing Public Education

On November 21, 2011, City University of New York (CUNY) students, along with representatives from New York University and the New School, gathered at Madison Square Park to protest the proposed tuition hikes and marched to Baruch College, where a Board of Trustees public hearing was scheduled to take place.  In addition to an annual tuition increase of $300 over the next five years, up 11% by 2016 compared to current rates, other important issues on the table include cuts to adjunct health insurance; the controversial CUNY Pathways project, which critics see as diminishing the core curriculum’s rigor, especially in the humanities; and the introduction of bylaws, which would undermine faculty and staff rights.

Although initial groups of students entered the building to attend the meeting without any commotion, just before 5:00 pm billy club wielding campus security guards had blockaded the subsequent wave of students from passing through the turnstiles of the Newman Vertical Campus lobby. Undeterred, students decided to hold their own hearing at the entrance. The loud but orderly gathering did not get very far as the guards violently evicted them from their own university, eventually arresting 15 students.

Following the UC Davis pepper spray incident last Friday and violent police confrontations at UC Berkeley earlier this month, the topic of police brutality has dominated the conversation about the surge of protests across the country. Yet, little has been said about its direct relationship with tuition hikes and budget cuts. Whether it is through the menacingly cool use of chemical spray or the brute brandishing of wooden truncheons, the pattern of police brutality hardly appears random, but seems designed to clear the way for privatizing public higher education by suppressing peaceful dissent.

Captured by someone standing one floor above, this video of confrontations with police in entrance to the Newman Vertical Campus lobby clearly demonstrates that the violence was unprovoked (see ~3:50), but purposefully executed at the orders of a higher command.

Other video evidence show students being dangerously kettled against glass walls and pushed out of glass doors, as well as non-resisting individuals being descended upon by multiple cops for arrest.

To date, Chancellor Matthew Goldstein has made no public denunciation of the violence meted out to non-violent protestors. On the contrary, the statements released by both CUNY and the Baruch College president, Mitchel B. Wallerstein, fail to acknowledge the violence, blaming students instead for causing the scene. Moreover, the presence of Baruch Vice President of Administration and Finance, Gabriel Eszterhas, in the lobby both before and during the commotion renders it improbable that top administrators were unaware of what was going on. Students and CUNY workers’ union, the Professional Staff Congress have refuted these statements’ claims.

Over the weekend, Wallerstein has canceled all classes and granted administrative leave to staff in the Vertical Campus on the afternoon of November 28, in conjunction with the Board of Trustees business meeting, during which tuition increase proposals are expected to pass. “For this reason,” Wallerstein’s email explains, “student presence in the Vertical Campus after 3:00 p.m. will be limited only to those completing a class already in progress and initial access will be granted only to those with an urgent and legitimate need to be in the building.” This directive to cancel classes and to lockdown the building not only speaks to how the Board of Trustees takes priority over the university’s educational mission. It also implies that CUNY’s highest levels of administration will not hesitate to exercise force again to clamp down the planned protests at that same time.

The tacit endorsement of violence by the highest level of CUNY administration sheds light on the role that security personnel plays in advancing efforts to restructure the public university toward private interests. Adding illumination is an added agenda item for the Board of Trustees November 28 meeting, which proposes to spend $15 million to hire private firms for campus security at the same time that cuts to adjunct health insurance and increases to student tuition are being pushed forward (see page 9, item 2.G.).

While seeming to advance the agenda of the Board of Trustees, the way that campus police have been deployed has also had the effect of pitting the social, economic interests of the guards themselves against those of the students. The palpable dissensions among protestors as to whether CUNY police are a part of the 99% constitute one of the contentions that will need to be resolved in order to build a university that truly serves the public.

I was among those standing outside when security unleashed violence. Before the pandemonium in the lobby broke out, a short but heated exchange took place among a group of students. Through the people’s mic, one student implored the group to see law enforcement officers as a part of CUNY. She pointed out that many of them go to CUNY’s John Jay School of Criminal Justice to qualify for their professions. They are not our enemy, they are one of us. To be sure, the adverse effects of privatization have not left them untouched; a number of security employees risk losing their benefits and positions as their services are increasingly being contracted to private firms.

But, a few students vehemently disagreed. Of all the people’s mic sessions held that day, this was the only one that divided the crowd. No surprise given that CUNY students, especially undergraduates, are predominantly from immigrant and working class minority communities, who experience firsthand the discriminatory nature and effects of policing, and its ties to the prison industrial complex.

The case of the NYPD spying on Muslim students on CUNY campuses, which was referenced on the people’s mic, is a particularly chilling example of how the educational space is being turned into a war zone. “N. Y. P. D.” two students shouted together, “Not Your Police Department.”

The evening’s events seemed to affirm their message. Of the 15 students arrested by security personnel, five were seamlessly handed over to NYPD custody by CUNY security, detained overnight, and given felony charges. It is unclear why these five were singled out; all of them are people of color.

Outside, as we watched the grim scene through the glass walls, the city’s finest swarmed behind us on 25th Street with officers in riot gear and paddy wagons, at one point diverting traffic flow. Above, a helicopter hovered watchfully.

Shocked and confused, students splintered into smaller groups. I watched as a band of cops marched slowly but purposefully toward a loose cluster of students. As if in a cat-and-mouse chase, the students quickly corralled and turned the corner, avoiding their path. No arrests, to my knowledge, were made outside but the purpose of the police presence was clear—to intimidate.

The police brutality that took place at Baruch College on November 21, 2011 was not an isolated event. It is part of the massive structural adjustment efforts being undertaken by the CUNY Board of Trustees which make it exponentially difficult for the working class minority students of New York City to obtain a higher education, to advance the private interests of the few. Despite the intimidation, another group of students defiantly continued to march around the block. Their spirited chants made the connections that the chaos of the evening sought to obfuscate: “Hey, hey, ho, ho. Tuition hikes have got to go! Hey, hey, ho, ho. Police brutality’s got to go!”

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