Last month the most important struggle at City College in many years broke out in response to the NYPD’s pre-dawn raid on Sunday, October 20, that took over the Guillermo Morales/Assata Shakur Student and Community Center – the last student-run space left on campus. This provocative seizure marks but the latest stage in the decades-long effort by New York’s ruling class to “restructure” the City University of New York (CUNY) at the expense of a largely Black, Latino, and immigrant student body who think for themselves. It occurs amidst a campaign of escalating government surveillance and police repression, including at colleges and high schools, that is a necessary to enforce capitalism’s wider assault on education, health care, wages, Social Security, transit, affordable housing, food stamps, youth programs, abortion rights – everything that working people of all races and religious and political affiliations need to make life tolerable.
The Morales/Shakur Center was born at a high point in the student 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 to defeat Governor Cuomo’s proposed $200 tuition hike. Since that time, the large office at NAC 3/201 has remained at the center of the struggle to keep CCNY affordable and funded for working-class students, while also serving as the meeting place for over thirty diverse organizations and campaigns. The authorities are afraid to acknowledge this ongoing legacy or the diverse student and community voices rallied behind the center. Instead, to divide the student body and public opinion, they have turned control over NAC to the police, while drumming-up a propaganda offensive in the city’s gutter press (Daily News, NY Post, AM NY) to slander the Center as some kind of front for deranged radicals and terrorists.
Against such opposition, getting the Center back and fulfilling its stated aim of defending public education won’t be easy. To see the future capitalism has in store for CUNY, we need only look to the largest public university systems in the U.S., the University of California and California State University, where tuition has doubled since 2005 and 2007 respectively; or to Britain, where tuition at public colleges was tripled in 2011, resulting in a nearly-50 percent drop in student enrollment at some institutions.
Political activity on campus reached an historic low point in recent years, but there have been protests this semester against the militarization of CUNY – directed especially against the administration’s hiring and celebration of General David Petraeus, the ex-CIA director and architect of the bloody U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Though these actions never involved more than a few dozen activists, they were enough to convince the administration and the police to eliminate the Morales/Shakur Center and to prepare to strangle all protest and “expressive activity” at the upcoming November 25 Board of Trustees meeting.
In response, there has been an outpouring of outrage by the Center’s supporters at City College, while large numbers of other students have been shocked by the aggressive police presence, unwarranted arrests, suspension of activist student leaders, and lock-downs of the NAC building. Student activists have connected this attack to capitalism’s broader assault on the entire working class. This is an impressive start, but significant sections of the student body, under ever-increasing stress just to keep their heads above water, remain demoralized or indifferent; some even join in blaming the protestors when the police shut down the library during midterms and blocked students from getting to class.
Actions on campus, however, won’t be enough to win over these students and force the authorities to back down. This can only be done by addressing the needs and consciousness of the broad, multiracial working-class public, who in recent years have faced daily police repression and endless cuts to public services – a one-sided class war which our class’s traditional political leaders have done nothing to combat.
In an attempt to obscure its long-term opposition to the Morales/Shakur Center, the administration claims the Center’s room was needed to create extra meeting space for its “Career Center” – an office that helps students polish their resumes for low-paying jobs. 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 bosses 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 any 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 past working-class gains. And today, with the global economy teetering on the edge of depression, U.S. capitalists need more low-paying jobs and 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 nation-wide during the Carter and Reagan administrations, and long before the full-on assault on public services under Obama. 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%. By the early 1980s all of the gains made to public education in the post-war period seemed threatened; CUNY’s non-teaching staff was decimated, and the university practically stopped hiring full-time faculty, replacing them with part-timers with little job security and no 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 NAC 3/201 as 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 Democrat-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 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.
State funding to CUNY schools has steadily declined since 1991. While most forms of Federal assistance have disappeared, tuition at CUNY has increased by 300% (with further increases authorized through 2015), excluding most of the young people from NYC’s working-class neighborhoods, largely Black, Latino, and immigrant. (Enrollment of Black students at CCNY fell from 31.2% in 2001 to 14.4% in 2010.) This past spring, CUNY became officially complaint with Obama’s e-verify program to check the immigration status of its employees and cooperate with ICE head-hunters.
Another focus of the attacks on CUNY students has been NYPD’s infiltration of Muslim student groups. The Associated Press reported in 2011 that the NYPD had placed 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.
The attacks on CUNY have been relatively mild compared to other public universities, where tuition is higher and student bodies are much less diverse. Every time in the past when the city’s ruling class attempted to accelerate the pace of CUNY’s “restructuring” they have been met with protesting students and their supporters, including most recently against tuition hikes in 2011 and the anti-militarization movement this fall. That is why they are targeting the Morales/Shakur Center now: in the deepening global economic crisis, capitalism’s survival more than ever depends on driving down the gains that workers and oppressed people won through decades of struggle
Campus actions will not be enough to convince most City College students that our movement can win, but there is great potential for building a militant working-class struggle if we link the movement beyond the campuses. The attack at City College is connected to the rising poverty and exploitation of all working-class and poor people. In the financial crisis, the banks and biggest businesses got bailed out, while the working class has been abandoned to budget cuts, rising unemployment and falling wages, with Blacks, Latinos and immigrants being hit the hardest.
The attack at CCNY occurs at a time when all city workers are without contracts, and nationally President Obama has expanded the war on civil liberties and deported more undocumented workers in the past four-and-a-half years than Bush did in eight. Now working people face a president and congress who jointly promise to undermine Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Instead of the mass struggle we need, labor and community leaders in New York are hailing the mayoral election of Bill De Blasio, who like Obama promises to be a friend of Wall Street. By now working-class people should understand that despite the rhetoric this means that he will continue the attacks under a “progressive” cover.
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 the city unions and all of the self-proclaimed representatives of the oppressed. Activists must link the attack on the Morales/Shakur Center to the wider campaigns of austerity and police repression. As determined as our enemies are, they would back down if they were afraid that the CUNY struggle could spread into a broader movement, as they feared in 1969 and 1989. A victory at City College would convince many of our classmates and working people everywhere that the working class does have the power to struggle and win.
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.
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.
3. See for example the LRP statement on Petraeus, Kick Petraeus Out of CUNY! Drop the Charges against the “CUNY 6” Protesters!. There have also been protests since this spring against the return of the Reserve Officer Training Corps to CUNY campuses. In 2011 the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative Washington, DC, think tank, produced a report, “Underserved: A Case Study of ROTC in New York City” (tinyurl.com/AEI-ROTC), that launched a new ruling-class offensive to return this militarist institution to our campuses: “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.”
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. 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, Winter 1989 (available from the LRP).
6. See NYPD monitored Muslim students all over Northeast.