ANALYSIS: A RSCC member’s view on the way forward for the CUNY movement after the violent attack on students at Brooklyn College

– A member of the Revolutionary Student Coordinating Committee (RSCC), NYC

We must all condemn the Brooklyn College administration’s use of violent police force against a non-violent political demonstration on the campus on May 2nd. Videos and several eyewitness accounts recall the police roughing up and punching students, youth, and faculty in the hallway in front of Brooklyn College president Karen Gould’s office when they demanded to speak with her regarding tuition hikes, student debt, and lack of democracy in the university. A statement from the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), CUNY’s teachers union, says, “we found the conduct of some individual officers to be wholly unprofessional,” and details accounts of officers aggressively berating faculty members for “leading students to take this action, teaching them to be violent etc.” In addition to the physical and verbal assaults, two students were arrested and spent a night in jail. We demand the immediate dropping of all legal and academic disciplinary charges against the students.

One of the young women arrested, Julieta Salgado, can be seen on video prior to her arrest addressing president Karen Gould, exclaiming that “our leader should lead” and calling on her “to care about us”. The blog of the Brooklyn College Student Union, one of the groups who organized the action, writes in a letter to president Karen Gould dated May 8th to “express to you our profound shock and dismay at the overwhelming security response”. However, there should be nothing shocking about the attack. Time and again the CUNY administration has shown that they are not “our leaders” and clearly do not “care about us”.

It is hardly the first time that the CUNY administration has used violence and intimidation by their “peace officers” against people engaged in political work on the campuses. Just last November 21st, 2011, CUNY students and youth were physically attacked by the administration’s thugs at Baruch College when we tried to enter what was supposed to be a public hearing regarding their plan to raise tuition $300 every year for the next five years. This resulted in the arrest of 15 people, and many others reported being hit with batons and punched in the face. The year before, on March 4th, 2010 day of action to defend education, Hunter College was flooded with NYPD officers the morning before a protest was supposed to take place, suddenly instituting a new rule requiring everybody entering the building to have Hunter College ID, turning away and delaying students and faculty who lacked the proper identification, causing people to miss and be late to their classes. These are just two of many recent notable examples.

In addition to police violence at large political gatherings such as those mentioned, various individual students involved in day to day political work at CUNY, including myself, have been monitored, followed and harassed by the administration’s “peace officers” on campus for periods of time. This type of behavior goes hand in hand with the NYPD’s systematic racist spying on Muslim student and community organizations, not only in New York City, but even out of state, in various areas that fall outside of NYPD’s legal jurisdiction. This is a policy that both police commissioner Ray Kelly and mayor Michael Bloomberg support, claiming it “keeps us safe”. This conduct is in some ways reminiscent of the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) of the 1960s and 70s which targeted the civil rights movement, and later the anti-imperialist movement against the Vietnam War, when the U.S. government purposely attempted to disrupt and destabilize political organizations by spying on and infiltrating them, as well as arresting, and sometimes even assassinating its leaders. Everybody from Martin Luther King Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to Malcolm X, to the Black Panther Party was targeted.

Far from a conspiracy theory, COINTELPRO is well documented, clearly revealing the role of the U.S. government not only in representing and protecting the rich and powerful people who control it, but also in dismantling all political opposition, real and imagined, by any means necessary. Similar lessons have been learned by many participating in the Occupy Wall Street movement recently, where we see the police force again being used as a tool of political suppression, protecting and serving the imperialist U.S. government from opposition of all kinds, peaceful and otherwise.

A brief review of historical facts shows that the institutions of power in this capitalist society, from the U.S. federal government all the way down to petty bureaucrats like president Karen Gould and CUNY administrators, are against anybody who expresses dissent and seeks even minor reforms. Because of this, we should be highly aware of the repressive and violent nature of the system and should be careful about how we conduct actions, peaceful or otherwise, that might provoke the authorities to attack and crack down on us. There is a need to be more strategic in order to avoid endangerment and needless arrests and assaults on protesters, both those intending to be arrested as well as those merely caught in the middle. Confrontational actions conducted without mass support often become self-sacrificing and counterproductive.

An example of these self-sacrificing tactics can be seen right before the police attacked the May 2nd Brooklyn College protest. Videos show 6 students sitting down and linking arms in front of Karen Gould’s office. Officers can be heard warning them that if they do not move, they will be subject to arrest. The students, in turn, claim that they will refuse to move. Given the relatively small size of the protest (Brooklyn College Student Union blog claims over 100 people, organizer Charlie Kerr claims 30-40, videos show about 30, PSC statement describes “small but noisy group of supporters and observers”) and unpreparedness to deal with a violent attack that they should have seen coming, these tactics should be rethought, and abandoned. Everyone should stand in full support of militant action against enemies of the people if it is well strategized and has mass support, but as organizers we should not set up ourselves and others for a beatdown. We should do our best to be prepared to defend ourselves politically and physically if necessary. If that is not possible we should attempt to avoid open confrontation with a much stronger enemy. This is an essential rule in defensive war, if we are to be strategic and successful in our aims.

Instead, the self-sacrificing approach taken by some of the Brooklyn College student draws an immediate parallel with the political practice of many Occupy Wall Street protesters, many of whom view arrests as badges of honor, sometimes seeking them out in order to make moralistic symbolic statements about “resistance” while often failing to defend themselves and others from beatings, arrests, and legal charges. The PSC statement on the incident acknowledges that “many students and our members identify with and participate in Occupy Wall Street”.

The failure of the Occupy Wall Street movement to have a coherent strategy and politics is reflected in disastrous incidents such as the Brooklyn College May 2nd action. This criticism is made not to justify the unjustifiable actions by administrators and cops, but, to know our enemies, and prepare to deal with such enemies properly. A CUNY movement which underestimates the willingness of the administration to use police violence against us is ignoring recent and past history of the CUNY struggle, and will fail to draw in the proletarian populations of New York City with the most to gain from access to CUNY, that is, black and brown youth who are primarily targeted for exclusion. It is these same populations who are regularly criminalized just for walking down the street. It is unlikely that they will be eager to throw themselves at the mercy of the racist police and court system, or work with anybody who leads them to do so.

P.S. – The day of this writing, May 10th, 2012 was the day of Students United for a Free CUNY’s self-proclaimed “CUNY Wide Convergence against police repression” in response to May 2nd attack against Brooklyn College organizers. It began with a small rally and speak out in front of the Hunter West building of about 30 to 50 people, followed by a march including about the same number. Most individuals in the crowd were people who have been organizing within CUNY for some period of time. There weren’t many new faces to be seen, despite the misleading title of the action being “CUNY Wide Convergence”. This substantiates our thesis that the May 2nd action was conducted without mass support, and that the politics being put forward by the groups involved are not taking hold among any significant amount of students, outside of the small activist circles.

We need to consider why the movement for a “free CUNY” isn’t catching on with most students. We need to take a moment to stop calling for protest actions one after the other, and reconsider the overall political strategy and message of the movement we are trying to build. Is a “free CUNY” simply a question of dollars and cents? Are we fighting for nothing more than a discount? Who are the populations most affected by the tuition hikes? How do we connect the struggle for CUNY to the overall change that is so desperately needed in society?

RSCC (Revolutionary Student Coordinating Committee) has, since it’s founding in January been the main student based group in CUNY that has put the struggle against white supremacy within the CUNY at the forefront of our struggle. We do not see CUNY as one in a sea of important social issues, we see it as a vehicle to reach the minds of the section of proletarian youth who have, against all odds, made it to college. In our fight we consider the oppressed nationality (black and brown) youth within CUNY to be the vanguard of struggle, the social base of our movement. Because I don’t have the time nor the space here to outline our politics thoroughly, I encourage you to read our Points of Unity document, as well as our platform for CUNY.

RSCC has also, since its founding, challenged politics among the left that try to mask the racist character of the system to instead talk about narrow economic issues like tuition and debt, which are only one of many ways in which poor and working class students are excluded from CUNY (language requirements, many people don’t even graduate high school or get GED’s etc.). Examples of the narrow economic centered politics we have been combating manifest themselves in many forms. One straightforward example was displayed clearly today, just hours before the supposed “CUNY Wide convergence” at Hunter, when the Brooklyn College Student Union facebook page posted: “Today is not just about the cops assaulting and arresting peaceful students, its about TUITION HIKES and the repression that we face when fighting austerity measures…” Once again, prominent voices in the CUNY student movement attempt to reduce every issue, including racist police state violence, to the issue of “fighting austerity measures”…

While economic issues are obviously important and are intertwined with other forms of oppression, this analysis is far too narrow, and does not have the substance to actually articulate the needs and demands of oppressed peoples in the CUNY system. If pressed, most political groups in CUNY give lip service to the idea that the tuition hikes are racist. They will probably even admit that police violence faced by Occupy and the CUNY movement is part of an overall white supremacist police state within the U.S. Yet they fail to follow that idea towards its logical conclusion: WE LIVE IN THE MOST POWERFUL IMPERIALIST STATE IN THE WORLD TODAY, THE U.S. EMPIRE! Because of this, oppressed nationality people are the most fertile social base for revolutionary ideas and activities. We recognize that the struggle within this imperialist country must be directly related to the struggle of the world’s colonized and imperialized nations. Because the U.S. empire imposes violence on oppressed nationality peoples, both here and in our homelands, we have a world to win (literally) by engaging in class struggle. The super-exploitation of our homelands, that parasitic imperialist economic system, is what allows people living in America to have relatively higher living standards. So when we limit our politics primarily to fighting austerity, we are forgetting the imperialist super-exploitation that allows the social safety net (and other first-world benefits), as they call it, to exist as it does.


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