The Glorious Rise and Ignominious Fall of a Student Occupation
Reporting by NSFP Staff
On Tuesday, November 22, Kellen Auditorium was filled to capacity as members of the New School community turned up for a public forum, organized by President David Van Zandt, regarding the student occupation at 90 Fifth Ave. Before the meeting had even begun, security guards were ushering attendees into an overflow room next door, where they could watch the forum on a live video feed. Tensions were high as Van Zandt prepared to address the crowded room, facing his most difficult test yet as president of The New School.
Since November 17, students from universities throughout New York City had been occupying The New School’s Student Study Center, influenced by the Occupy Wall Street movement that has swept across the country. As part of a student-organized “Day of Action,” thousands had converged on Union Square before marching over to Fifth Avenue, where dozens of students entered the New School building at 90 Fifth Ave. There, they took control of the study center’s second floor and announced the third occupation of a New School building in three years. Optimistic and energized, the occupiers hoped to transform the Student Study Center into a space where people could openly discuss economic issues pertaining to students, organize political actions, and launch a national student movement.
But five days into the occupation, as Van Zandt stood in front of more than a hundred people in Kellen Auditorium, it was clear that the occupation of 90 Fifth Ave. had divided the university. An overwhelming majority of the students who spoke at the public forum were opposed to the occupation, and many expressed anger at the administration for allowing it to continue. While a number of the students there said that they supported OWS and had initially supported the occupation, they were dismayed by the turn of events at the Student Study Center.
What had begun as a widely-supported and inclusive movement had, somehow, devolved into a tense, convoluted, and unpopular situation.
The most significant chapter of the New School community’s involvement in the OWS movement began on a rainy Thursday, only two days after the NYPD evicted occupiers from Zuccotti Park. The sound of sirens and helicopters flooded the airspace surrounding The New School campus as, across the city, students marched and rallied in support of OWS.
By that afternoon, The New School had found itself host to a citywide group of student activists. The hope was that the Student Study Center would become “a hub for a genuine student movement of the sort that really hasn’t existed in the United States since the ’60s,” said NSSR student Dan Boscov-Ellen, who was involved in the occupation.
As the protesters settled into the Student Study Center, they prepared the space for a lengthy occupation, placing a large table at the landing of the second-floor escalator to serve first as a barricade, and, later, as an information desk. They plastered signs to the windows and hung large banners out of the building.
“The Zuccotti Virus has spread,” read one hand-painted banner, billowing above the building’s entrance on Fifth Avenue.
“This is an Occupied Building,” said another, posted in a window over 14 Street. “Join Us. Take Back That Which is Already Yours.”
That first night, about 80 students gathered on the second floor of the Student Study Center. Sitting on tables and chairs, they quickly adopted the General Assembly model, a democratic decision-making process that the OWS movement has used since it began in September. The All-City Student Occupation then held its first General Assembly in 90 Fifth Ave. to discuss the intent of the occupation and how the occupiers would move forward.
“The initial goal behind this occupation was to create an autonomous space to facilitate political discussion and organization, as well as have radical and experimental forms of education that were all-inclusive and open to the public,” said NSSR student Erin Schell, who was active in organizing the occupation. “There was a desire to push the Occupy movement forward by contributing to the creation of a strong student movement.”
The occupiers held a number of GAs over the next few days, although a press freeze barred reporters from the occupied floor and forbid any recording or photography. Several teach-ins and programs rooted in socio-political and economic discourse also took place. During one discussion, the far-left French politician Olivier Besancenot delivered a harsh critique of capitalism; another day, Paul Mattick, a philosophy professor from Adelphi University, gave a talk titled “Demystifying the Economic Crisis.”
“There were some days when I thought [eviction from the space] was imminent,” said Aaron Jaffe, an NSSR student who was involved in the occupation. “Other days, I thought we were doing such constructive work that anyone with a social conscience would be crazy to evict us.”
During the first hour of the occupation on November 17, when hundreds of protesters were still rallying on the street in front of 90 Fifth Avenue, police stood in front of the building, blocking the doors to prevent more students from entering.
Shortly after, President Van Zandt and Provost Tim Marshall arrived at the scene with a delegation of New School faculty and administration. As protesters celebrated in the Student Study Center, Van Zandt spoke with a small group of occupiers at the top of the escalators. They quickly reached an agreement and, per the administration’s request, the police were called off. It was decided that the matter would be handled internally by the university and that, for the time being, the occupiers could stay in the space — so long as they did not damage property, disrupt student access to the study space, or violate fire codes. The building would be kept open 24/7, and the lights and heat would stay on through the night.
“I think they’re carrying themselves in an excellent light,” Van Zandt told The Free Press on the night of the occupation. “I’m very proud, actually.”
Van Zandt’s attitude surprised many, especially those who were at The New School during Bob Kerrey’s presidency. In April 2009, Kerrey’s intolerance toward the student occupiers of the now-demolished building at 65 Fifth Ave. led to NYPD interventon and a number of student arrests. Van Zandt, however, appeared determined to ensure that the situation at 90 Fifth Ave. reached a peaceful conclusion.
But by the following Tuesday, problems had arisen between the administration and the landlord of 90 Fifth Ave., real estate tycoon Aby Rosen’s RFR Holding LLC. At the public forum on November 22, Van Zandt announced that the fire marshal had issued a citation to The New School for breaking fire codes in the Student Study Center. The landlord, meanwhile, had issued a notice of default to the university for breaching its lease — a possible precursor to legal action that could evict The New School from the building entirely.
“Normally, they don’t do that unless they want you out,” said Van Zandt to The Free Press after the forum. “But they haven’t filed a lawsuit yet.”
As the week wore on, the occupation found itself increasingly isolated from the rest of the student community at The New School. A number of students were upset that valuable study space was being occupied, especially as finals drew near, and were angered by the vandalism inside the Student Study Center. At the public forum on November 22, many of them complained and lamented the fact that Van Zandt was letting the occupiers destroy the space. One student, who did not identify himself, had taken photos of the graffiti inside the occupation and read some of what had been scrawled on the walls.
“Fuck peace, it’s boring. Let’s fuck shit up,” he read. “A kid that tells is a dead pig.”
The atmosphere inside the Student Study Center seemed to be growing increasingly radical, and even those who had participated in the occupation from the beginning felt that it had fallen into the hands of a select few who were not interested in political inclusiveness. Many students said that they supported OWS and wanted to participate in the occupation, but felt intimidated by the atmosphere inside 90 Fifth Ave.
“It was the most uncomfortable situation I’ve ever been in,” said one student at the public forum, a Lang student who did not give her name. “It’s an experience that frightens me. They’re unwelcoming to other students. I’m torn — I supported OWS from the beginning, but I don’t support this.”
To some, it seemed that the original goals of the occupation had been co-opted by an exclusive group of students with an extreme political agenda. Rather than fostering an open dialogue and discussing ways to engage with the greater student movement, they appeared to be promoting their own ideologies. Eventually, this exclusive attitude manifested itself in the occupation’s relationship with other student organizations around the city.
After attending a heated GA at 90 Fifth Ave. on November 21, a group of “autonomous” CUNY students drafted an open letter to the All-City Student Occupation, which was posted on the CUNY General Assembly’s website. The letter described the GA as “one of the most disrespectful, antagonistic and aggressive General Assemblies that any of us had witnessed or been subject to before,” and called into question “the highly undemocratic nature of what appeared to be a shadow decision-making body within the ‘All-City Student Occupation.’”
Some of the New School occupiers shared this sentiment, and were similarly disappointed with the direction that the occupation had taken.
“What began as a cross-university student occupation of a Student Study Center... has turned into a political spectacle as a small clique of people attempted to impose a bizarre, messianic insurrectionary authoritarianism upon everyone in the occupation,” wrote Chris Crews, a USS Senator and student at NSSR who participated in the occupation, on his website.
As some occupiers became increasingly vocal and outspoken about their politics, the tenor of the occupation grew estranged from that of the wider student movement.
Even after the landlord of 90 Fifth Ave. began taking legal action against The New School and threatened to evict the university from the building, Van Zandt remained committed to resolving the occupation internally. At the public forum, he announced that he had asked the occupiers to vacate the Student Study Center, but would offer the occupation an alternative space to continue student-led organizing.
The alternative space was the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery at 2 W. 13th St. The gallery was to be used as a “free, open space for dialogue and debate,” said Van Zandt in an email to the university community explaining the decision. The space would be kept open 24 hours a day, and would serve as a platform to continue the discourse being held at 90 Fifth Ave.
Van Zandt put forth specific terms for the occupiers’ use of Kellen Gallery. It was to be “kept clean and free of property damage,” students would not be able to sleep in the space, and it would only be available to them until December 22 — the end of the semester.
The decision regarding whether to accept Van Zandt’s offer was brought to the General Assembly in 90 Fifth Ave. that Tuesday night. The GA overwhelmingly decided on moving to the new space at the Kellen Gallery, contingent on the administration approving a number of amendments to the proposal made by the occupiers.
“It’s not about the space, it’s about the connections that we’ve made with people,” said Boscov-Ellen. “Having a space to organize is important, so we’ll see what happens with this new space; whether it becomes this bureaucratic space that’s controlled by the administration, or whether it can be used temporarily to figure out a way forward.”
Yet the general assembly’s vote proved to be a point of contention among the occupiers. As one group was willing to relocate to the Kellen Gallery, another was determined to stand their ground and continue to fight for the occupied space in 90 Fifth Ave. It was indicative of a greater ideological divide that had emerged within the occupation, and one that would split the occupying students into two distinct camps.
“You have some people who see radical action almost as an end in itself; that by creating this anti-capitalist space, that’s an end in itself and there’s no need to consider how our actions look to the outside world and to people who don’t already agree with our viewpoints,” said one NSSR student involved in the occupation, who did not want to be identified due to the ongoing tensions at play between the occupiers. “And then there are other people who understood this as an opportunity to build a larger student movement that brings people on board based on our common interests and grievances, and connect the problems we face as students to those of society in general – which Occupy Wall Street is addressing right now.”
“I think that this fundamental disagreement as to the purpose of the occupation is what ultimately caused it to fall apart at the end,” the student added.
On November 23, the group of occupiers who were determined to stay in 90 Fifth Ave. released a statement, under the name “Autonomous Occupation of 90 Fifth Avenue,” saying it was “clear that we should not have trusted negotiations with the president of The New School about the security and the character of this occupation.” Despite repeated attempts, those remaining in 90 Fifth Avenue declined to comment.
That same day, Van Zandt sent out an email to the community acknowledging that the administration had “learned that a small group of protesters is considering not accepting the [General Assembly] resolution.”
The email suggested that if The New School was to stay faithful to its mission of providing a “safe and non-violent environment for all,” it would be “imperative that the Study Center be returned to its intended use and the terms of last night’s resolution be honored.”
The occupation turned one week old on November 24, at which point a small group of occupiers remained at the Student Study Center, even as others had begun moving into Kellen Gallery. Late that night, the Autonomous Occupation of 90 Fifth Ave. released another statement on their website entitled “Attack Us If You Dare,” which suggested that they had received information that the police were preparing to forcibly remove them from the space early the next day.
“Unwilling to sacrifice our dignity by surrendering a space we have taken and transformed with full legitimacy, we have chosen to barricade all entrances to this space and will defend it by all means available to us,” the statement read.
By noon on Friday, the occupation was over — but not at the hands of the NYPD, who were never called. At some point that morning, the student occupiers of 90 Fifth Ave. discretely left the building. But one block away, Kellen Gallery was covered with graffiti, tagged and trashed at the hands of unknown perpetrators.
The use of the space at 2 W. 13th St., where many of the occupiers had hoped to continue the discussions that were started at 90 Fifth Ave., was now in doubt. Those who had defaced Kellen Gallery had seemingly derailed the prospect of the space as platform for student-led initiatives, in line with both Occupy Wall Street and the wave of student activism it had inspired.
"There was a lot of graffiti on the wall, and it was clear that the terms agreed upon in the General Assembly were not adhered to at Kellen," Peter Taback, The New School's assistant vice president of communications, told the Free Press. "Since it's clear that the agreement was violated, we first need to make the space safe for students, and then the conversation will open up again."
In the days after it ended, the university community tried to make sense of the occupation. Nidhi Srinivas, a management professor at Milano who observed and participated in the events at 90 Fifth Ave., described how his opinion of the occupation transformed over the course of the week. While initially enthusiastic about its potential, Srinivas became increasingly demoralized as the occupation dragged on and it devolved into an exclusive and divisive environment.
“They were not very good at recognizing a classic notion of politics that is unique to The New School, which is from [Hannah] Arendt: that politics is a form of inclusion, of a way to bring groups together,” he said. “They didn’t make any effort to do this. And I don’t blame this on the people who taught them — I think they were just bad students.”