Student protests against militarism and repression broke out last fall at the City University of New York (CUNY) and in particular at its oldest and traditionally radical campus, City College (CCNY).
In October, the CCNY campus’s last student-run space, the Guillermo Morales/Assata Shakur Student and Community Center (a gain from previous struggles), was shut down in a police raid before dawn on Sunday, October 20. All of the computers, books, papers and other contents of the center, used by Students for Educational Rights and thirty other diverse organizations and community campaigns, were seized for “investigation,” and the school administration immediately began the conversion of the room into an annex of the “Career Center.”
Student activists and other observers suspected that the immediate catalyst for the attack was the series of protests earlier in the fall against General David Petraeus, ex-CIA director and one of the architects of U.S. imperialism’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; Petraeus had recently been appointed to a prestigious visiting professorship at the Macaulay Honors College, another CUNY campus. Some of the students who organized against Petraeus were active at the Morales/Shakur Center, but the City College administration quickly showed that its contempt extends to the entire student body by responding to the first small protests on the day of the raid by shutting down the main classroom building on campus – including the library, which was supposed to be open to all CUNY students in advance of midterm exams. In response, the protest movement quickly spread beyond the nucleus of politically active students who had used the Center.
The heavy-handed response to protests continued for the rest of the semester. Dozens of extra security guards and cops were brought onto campus. Building entrances were repeatedly barricaded to keep peaceful protestors outside, also preventing hundreds of students from getting to their classes and causing many to miss their midterms. At least three protestors were arrested, and numerous other students were arbitrarily detained, some just for trying to leave the building while it was barricaded. Students leaders were followed and video-taped by undercover police officers, and two were suspended for the remainder of the semester; when they attempted to challenge this suspension at a scheduled hearing, the proceedings were abruptly stopped and the two were turned over to the police on criminal charges for “inciting a riot.” The administration refused to meet with any of the groups concerned, and instead, to divide the student body and public opinion, launched a propaganda offensive in the city press (Daily News, NY Post, AM NY) to slander the Center as some kind of front for deranged radicals and terrorists.
This campaign is part of a concerted effort by the administrators to quash political dissent on CUNY campuses. It goes back at least to 2011, when many students were arrested for protesting new tuition hikes. At a protest outside Macaulay against General Petraeus this past September, the NYPD rushed into the crowd, assaulting students and throwing them to the ground; six young people were arrested and still face trumped-up legal charges. In fact, a draft document by the CUNY Board of Trustees was leaked; it dated back to June 2013 (months before the anti-Petraeus protests) and proposed banning all unapproved political and “expressive” activity on CUNY campuses. The trustees were scheduled to vote on it in November, but the vote has been postponed. CUNY also cooperated with the NYPD to place informants or undercover officers in the Muslim Student Associations at City College, Brooklyn College, Baruch College, Hunter College, Queens College, La Guardia Community College and St. John’s University. And last spring the university implemented Obama’s e-verify program to work with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement by investigating and reporting the immigration status of its employees.
These alarming developments are in no way unique to CUNY but are part of a much broader campaign of escalating government surveillance and police repression in the U.S. and around the world. Young people have been among the hardest hit, facing intense competition over a much-shrunken supply of good jobs, and skyrocketing college tuitions which doom millions to a lifetime of debt before they have even entered the workforce. This is felt painfully at public colleges like CUNY, which provide free or relatively affordable higher education to many working-class young people, especially Black, Latino and immigrant youth who are racially oppressed in the U.S. and who could not afford college anywhere else. The ruling class doesn’t need as many educated workers any more, and has pushed everywhere to remake public college into much whiter, more expensive institutions that can compete with elite private schools.
To see the future capitalism has in store for public education, we need only look to the largest public universities in the U.S., the University of California and California State University, where tuition was doubled just in the past 6-8 years; or to Britain, where tuitions were tripled in 2011. From England, to Quebec, to Puerto Rico, to Chile, massive student protests have erupted in recent years in response to such cuts, and have been met with often-unprecedented repression.
Public colleges in New York have been at the center of similar efforts since the first pangs of the financial crisis decades ago. But plans to “restructure” CUNY were repeatedly sidetracked by student protests against tuition hikes and other attacks. The Morales/Shakur Center was born at the high point in this movement to defend public education, when in the spring of 1989 campus buildings at 13 CUNY and SUNY colleges were occupied and thousands marched from Harlem down to Wall Street, forcing the politicians to cancel the planned tuition increase and the administration to concede a large office as a “permanent” space for student and community defenders of public education. [See below for more on the history of struggle at CUNY.]
CUNY has been hard hit since that time. State funding has steadily declined, and most forms of Federal assistance to students have disappeared, while tuition has increased by 300 percent. Many young people from New York’s working-class neighborhoods have already been excluded: notably, enrollment of Black students at City College, located in Harlem, fell from 31.2 percent to 14.4 percent between 2001 and 2010.
Yet protests have remained an obstacle and threaten to become an even bigger one in the future, with a five-year 30 percent increase in tuition authorized through 2015 heralding even steeper hikes ahead, along with a very focused campaign to increase cooperation with the military. The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, produced a report in 2011 that launched a new ruling-class offensive to recruit more inner-city youth and expand the Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC) into public colleges, specifically pointing to CUNY as “under-served” by the military: “The absence of ROTC units on urban campuses, especially in the Northeast, prevents the military from taking full advantage of their large, ethnically diverse populations. This is particularly true in the case of the City University of New York.” Bringing in a military celebrity like General Petraeus to teach a class at the honors college was meant to spearhead this effort. And now even more than in the past, the administration is showing that it is unwilling to tolerate even small protests that could threaten to derail their vision of a “restructured” CUNY.
The City College administration, the CUNY trustees and their backers in the military and the ruling class could still be forced to back down if they feared that the protests at CUNY were growing into a broader movement, as has threatened to occur in the past. Working people across this city and the country are facing a range of attacks, and could be expected to support a public struggle that stands up for their interests. Even worse than other college students, high school and even elementary school students have been subjected to the same type of militarization seen at City College in recent months. The NYPD’s “Stop-and-Frisk” policies terrorize hundreds of thousands of innocent people on the streets every day, especially Black and Latino young men, and nationally President Obama has expanded the war on civil liberties and deported as many undocumented workers in five years as G.W.Bush did in eight. At the same time, working people in general face a president and congress who jointly promise to undermine Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
In the face of these ongoing attacks, there has been no effort by the union and community leaders and all those who claim to represent the working class to lead any type of movement to stop the cuts and defend working peoples’ rights. Instead of the mass struggle we need, labor and community leaders in New York hailed the mayoral election of Bill De Blasio, who promises to be a friend of Wall Street and supports the “restructuring” of CUNY.
To win back the Morales/Shakur Center and restore other lost gains, CUNY students and their allies need to draw a sharp contrast between their determination to not take these attacks any longer, and the abject capitulation of our class’s false friends and misleaders. Student activists have already made an impressive start by connecting this attack to capitalism’s broader assault on the entire working class. But more can be done to take advantage of this opportunity by reaching out to other working-class campuses, high schools, city unions and labor organizations, the movements of low-wage workers, immigrants, and other oppressed groups – even at the same time as the struggle on campus continues. By addressing the needs and consciousness of the broad, multiracial working-class public, the struggle at City College could serve as a spark for a mass movement that would force the capitalist class to concede reforms.
Several of the activist leaders at City College – those who have been most targeted by the administration and the police as scapegoats for the movement – are avowed Maoists and supporters of the Revolutionary Student Coordinating Committee (RSCC). RSCCers haven’t been afraid to expose the role of the capitalist system in the attacks on public education and student political freedom; from the beginning they have correctly called for mass protests against the Center’s closure. They have also put their own safety and academic standing on the line toward this end.
But the RSCC has not pointed to the possibility of sparking a bigger movement speaking to the common frustrations of the entire working class. This neglect exposes the limitations of their approach, which stands for “people’s” or “community” power rather than working-class struggle. Their perspective for the protests at CUNY has been that they become a “base area for building a revolutionary youth and student movement for socialism.” They have raised expectations that students alone had the power to stop the capitalist attacks on colleges and universities, and that in this they would enjoy “massive support” from “city council persons, to community members, to nearly every Undergraduate Student Government in the CUNY system.”
The example of the struggle at City College shows the opposite, however: “progressive” politicians and community activists all but abandoned the student movement, and the sympathies of student government did nothing to soften the administration’s response. Likewise, other, larger student movements around the world, such as that recently in Quebec, should show that in conditions where the system is in deepening crisis, even a massive and prolonged movement by students at many colleges will have great difficulty in forcing the ruling class to change its policies as long as the working class continues with business as usual.
The League for the Revolutionary Party is a working-class revolutionary socialist organization that includes workers and students. We in the LRP have participated in all the CUNY struggles since 1969; we believe that the only way to end capitalism’s long term crisis – and the austerity, racism, and imperialist wars it brings – is by building an international revolutionary party. We seek to use the experience of mass struggles – from here to China to South Africa to Egypt to Greece – to raise class consciousness and convince the masses of workers and poor of the necessity of socialist revolution. We think the most politically conscious workers and youth will come to see, by way of struggles today as well as the study of Marxist theory and the history of past struggles, that the working class can overthrow capitalism and build a better, socialist world. We hope that revolutionary-minded workers and youth will join us in this, and we look forward to discussing these ideas as we fight side-by-side for a better life for all.
CUNY has always tailored its educational philosophy to fit the needs of employers. During capitalism’s post-World War II boom years in the 1950s and ‘60s, the system needed more educated workers, so the public colleges were expanded. In 1969, Black and Puerto Rican students and members of the Harlem community, insisting that “our kids need college too,” occupied City College’s south campus. They won open admissions, giving all New York City high school graduates the right to attend CUNY for free. But the economic boom ground to a halt a few years later, and the ruling-class politicians started eliminating working-class gains. And today, with the global economy teetering on the edge of depression, U.S. capitalists aren’t interested in having too many educated workers.
CUNY was one of the very first victims of capitalist austerity in the U.S. That was even before attacks on higher education and other public services spread nationwide during the Carter and Reagan administrations, and long before the current assault on public services. When NYC went bankrupt in 1975, as non-white students were becoming a majority at the university, CUNY introduced student tuition, under pressure to meet its obligations to the big banks – ending its 130-year history as a free university. Student enrollment over the next five years plummeted from 250,000 down to 170,000, with the number of Black and Latino students declining by 50 percent. By the early 1980s, all the gains made in public education in the post-war period seemed threatened; CUNY’s non-teaching working-class staff was decimated, and the university practically stopped hiring full-time faculty, replacing them with part-timers with no job security and few benefits.
These early plans to undermine CUNY ran up against a revived student movement that was self-consciously proletarian. Student leaders in the 1980s repeatedly spoke of their base as made up of “people of color and the working class.” When a new round of austerity was announced in the spring of 1989, including a $200 tuition hike throughout CUNY and SUNY, students at CCNY, organized in Students for Educational Rights (SER), responded by occupying the administration building. Activists on other campuses quickly followed their example. Thousands more students participated in picket lines to enforce a boycott of classes. These campus actions set the stage for a militant, multiracial march of 10,000 angry students from Harlem to Wall Street which sent shockwaves through the racially-polarized city and forced Democratic Party Governor Cuomo to veto the tuition hike – one of the few real working-class victories in recent NYC history.
The students’ success in standing up to the administration and the state and city governments and defending public education is inspiring to us today, and it was that movement in 1989-90 which compelled CCNY’s administration to concede a “permanent” space for SER to continue its work. But that victory was short lived: security was increased on campuses, and only two years after the $200 tuition hike was defeated, the politicians enforced a $700 increase in CUNY tuitions along with a $400 drop in state tuition assistance.
The fact is that the student movement on CUNY and SUNY campuses in 1989 was dangerously isolated. Not one member of the Democratic-controlled State Assembly voted against the planned austerity budget, and none of the candidates for Mayor of New York, including the Democratic winner, David Dinkins, supported the students’ demands. Public employees in NYC faced across-the-board budget cuts in 1989, but the union bureaucracy managed to prevent strikes and channel workers’ anger away from joint struggle and into passive electoral channels.
When Governor Mario Cuomo announced the new attack on CUNY in the spring of 1991, it was a golden opportunity for broadening the movement off of the campuses and to the broader working-class public. The stage had been set for this in November 1990, when thousands of New Yorkers protested outside the offices of the Daily News against the paper’s efforts to bust its workers’ union. In the following month, tens of thousands of angry city workers protested for decent contracts and against layoffs, and 25,000 students, parents and teachers demonstrated to “Save Our Schools.”
But the opportunity for building a mass movement against cuts was missed. The union bureaucracy, who talked militant to cover their fear of leading a real struggle, was most to blame. The leaders of SER also failed to see that mass action – the student picket lines around campus buildings and march on Wall Street – had been critical to success in 1989. Instead of campaigning for a broad movement of the working class against all cuts and mobilizing for as many students as possible to participate, student leaders in 1991 were under the illusion that a few hundred people holding buildings would be enough to win again. There were again occupations on CUNY campuses, but participation was limited and decision-making was restricted to a small group, further isolating the movement and contributing to a growing loss of confidence that mass struggle could change the direction society was headed in.
1. The organizations and campaigns involved include: Students for Educational Rights; Black Student Union; Community Vision Council; The Universal Zulu Nation; Nosotr@s L@s Pobres; New Black Panther Party; Radical Women; Sister’s Circle Collective; United Muslim Alliance; Malcolm X Grassroots Movement; People Power Movement; Healing Drum Collective; Safiya Bukhari-Albert Nuh Washington Foundation; Revolutionary Student Coordinating Committee; Malcolm X Commemoration Committee; The Jericho Movement; The Black Panther Commemoration Committee; Reinstitution of CUNY-wide “Free Tuition & Open Admissions”; Reinstitution of the Black Studies, Asian Studies and Women’s Studies Departments; Creation of a Multicultural Gender Resource Center; Student & Community Youth Advocacy; Advocacy & Freedom for all U.S. Held Political Prisoners; POWs and Exiles; The People’s Survival Program; Book X Change; English as a Second Language Classes; Accessible Research and Study Space; Anti-Police Terror and Community Control of NYPD workshops; Soup Kitchens; Safe Space for LGBTQ; Community and Solution Building; Low-cost Farm Food Sharing Program; Know Your Rights Trainings; Can Food and Clothing Drives.
2. On past efforts to demonize the Center, see Morales/Shakur Center at CCNY under Attack in Proletarian Revolution No. 79.
3. See the LRP statement, Kick Petraeus Out of CUNY! Drop the Charges against the “CUNY 6” Protesters!.
4. For a draft of CUNY’s proposed ban on “expressive activities,” see liberatecunyfront.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/cuny-policy-on-expressive-activity.pdf
5. See the press report, NYPD monitored Muslim students all over Northeast
6. Underserved: A Case Study of ROTC in New York City.
7. See the LRP statement “Progressive” de Blasio Dashes Hopes
8. For a report on the struggle at City College, which goes into some of the strategic debates over how to win student support, see the article “CUNY: A Working-Class Victory,” in Proletarian Revolution No. 34, Summer 1989 (available from the LRP).