Occupiers Divided as Van Zandt Struggles to Vacate 90 Fifth Ave
Updated at 2:40 p.m. on November 24, 2011
A day after President David Van Zandt officially asked the occupiers of 90 Fifth Avenue to vacate the building, a number of them still refused to leave, despite the administration’s last-ditch efforts to end the occupation. A General Assembly voted Tuesday night to accept an offer from Van Zandt and move to a different location at The New School, but those who were outvoted have apparently broken away from the rest of the occupation, starting their own website and releasing their own statement in which they reiterated their determination to stay in the University Study Center.
By Wednesday night, a clear schism had emerged within the occupation, which began on the afternoon of the November 17 Student Day of Action. As some of the occupiers began moving into the Kellen Gallery, a space in the New School building at 2 West 13th Street where Van Zandt said the occupation could continue until the end of the semester, others remained at 90 Fifth Avenue in defiance of the GA's decision. Those who moved to Kellen expressed frustration with the occupiers who refused to leave, saying that they had disrespected the occupation and the process of the GA.
“It’s clear that this very small cult of individuals have never cared about democratic processes and only used the General Assembly as long as it was convenient for their political ideology,” said Chris Crews, a student at NSSR and a University Student Senator who, on Wednesday night, had moved into Kellen and was helping prepare the new space for occupiers.
The occupiers at 90 Fifth Avenue, while declining to comment, released a statement late Wednesday night in which they claimed that Tuesday night’s GA vote did not represent the majority. A few hours before the GA, Van Zandt and Provost Tim Marshall had hosted a university-wide public forum in Kellen Auditorium at 66 Fifth Avenue, during which a number of students voiced their anger and concern about the ongoing occupation. According to the occupiers’ statement, students and faculty who attended the public forum were inspired to come to the GA solely to vote in favor of Van Zandt’s offer and move the occupiers out of the Student Study Center.
“At this [GA], the faculty, bureaucratic manipulators, and students hand-picked by administration revealed their faces,” said the statement. “It became clear that the sole goal of the majority of participants present was not discussion, but a yes vote for the destruction of the occupation.”
Van Zandt’s request for the occupiers to leave 90 Fifth Avenue came after the landlord of the building issued a notice of default on Tuesday, saying that The New School had breached the terms of its lease. On the same day, a Fire Marshal issued a citation to The New School for violating fire codes in the Student Study Center, and ordered the university to fix the problems “forthwith.”
Although the protesters who agreed to move to Kellen were still negotiating with the administration about the terms of their occupation there, by Wednesday evening a small number had begun to move into the space.
“The fine points haven’t been agreed upon,” said Peter Taback, New School Director of Communications. “Those conversations will continue going forward.”
The increasing possibility that The New School could be evicted from 90 Fifth Avenue entirely, along with the potential for police interference, is what prompted many of the occupiers to accept Van Zandt’s offer and move to Kellen even as negotiations were ongoing.
“The reality is that in a day or two, the NYPD will be clearing that building,” said Crews. “Why would we give up the opportunity to continue to have a fixed space on campus, where we don’t have to worry about police intervention?”
On Wednesday afternoon, Van Zandt and Marshall met with the occupiers who remain at 90 Fifth Avenue and urged them to join the others at Kellen. While neither gave an official deadline for them to leave, or said what would happen if they refused, Van Zandt later said, in an interview with the Free Press, that he had told the occupiers he wants them out as soon as possible.
“We want the Study Center opened on Monday,” he said. “I’m very hopeful that they will realize it’s time to get out.”
On Wednesday night, the occupiers who had moved into Kellen, which the university furnished with tables and chairs, were making signs and beginning to outfit the new space. Earlier that day, Kellen staff had covered the floor and walls with paper so that the occupiers could express themselves without damaging the property.
“I’m excited about the move. Now, instead of worrying about the owner [of the building], we can be here organizing with students all throughout the city,” said Cecily, a student from NSSR majoring in Liberal Studies, who didn’t give her last name. “I thought it was great of the administration.”
A GA at Kellen was scheduled to take place at 8 pm, but only a handful of people showed up. Meanwhile, at least 50 students attended a GA which took place at 90 Fifth Avenue at the same time, according to sources. Later, the occupiers of 90 Fifth Avenue released their statement in which they criticized the agreement made between the university and the occupiers at Kellen.
“It is clear that we should not have trusted negotiations with the President of the New School about the security and the character of this occupation,” said the statement. “After six days of dealing with this matter it is evident that it has caused fragmentation not only of the occupation itself, but poses a larger threat for the entire student struggle.”
Still, many of the protesters who supported the move to Kellen said that those remaining in 90 Fifth Avenue were merely defending the space as a matter of pride. USS co-chair and Milano student Melissa Holmes, who was present at Tuesday night’s GA, said that some of the occupiers were fixated on keeping the Student Study Center rather than focusing on the larger issues of the occupation.
“Those students have done something really great for us in letting us have this dialogue,” said Holmes. “But I wish they would take a step back from the principle of space and start having a dialogue about things that matter. It doesn’t matter if we’re in 90 Fifth Avenue. It doesn’t matter where we are.”
It is uncertain what the university will do if the occupiers refuse to vacate. Van Zandt has made it clear over the past week that he wants to resolve this matter peacefully, but many members of the university community — students, faculty, and occupiers alike — are concerned about the possibility of police intervention.
Khonsu Spratt, a junior at Lang who was helping decorate Kellen on Wednesday night, was worried that the occupiers at 90 Fifth Avenue would jeopardize the entire movement if they didn’t leave the space.
“I hope people are not radical just to be radical,” he said. “We will lose our space, our credibility, an occupation, and have none in the end if the police or landlord get involved.”
Rey Mashayekhi, Miles Kohrman, and Andrea Vocos contributed reporting.