Volume 78 - Number 38 / February 25 - March 3, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


A puzzling protest

In the 1960s and 1970s, when American college students were taking over campuses, they had clear goals. Their protests centered on ending the Vietnam War and, in that vein, severing their schools’ connection to the war machine through federal research funding and R.O.T.C. training.

Furthermore, a key characteristic of that era’s civil-disobedience protests — as embodied by Martin Luther King, Jr. — was nonviolence.

However, last week’s occupation of New York University’s Kimmel Center by upward of 80 students, first, lacked coherent focus, and, second and more troubling, was marred by violence. An N.Y.U. security guard was injured, and a riot with police almost erupted Thursday night.

The occupiers had 13 scattershot demands, including annual public release of N.Y.U.’s budget and endowment; creation of a “Socially Responsible Finance Committee” to investigate both N.Y.U.’s potential links to “war profiteers” and the lifting of the school’s Coke ban; donation of excess supplies to the Islamic University of Gaza; stabilization of tuition rates so they don’t exceed the inflation rate; and access for the general public to Bobst Library.
Some of these are laudable goals. However, their sheer eclecticism — some would say wackiness — diffused and diminished the protest’s message.

There was a bit of property damage: Some locks broken, a few pictures in the cafeteria written on; the protesters were told not to go onto Kimmel’s balcony, but did.

But after they were given a deadline of 1 a.m. Friday to vacate the building, the occupiers put out a call for reinforcements on their takebacknyu.com Web site — and hundreds of supporters showed up outside. Some picked up metal barricades and tried to throw them toward the police; others tried to push through the barricades. Police smacked their hands off the barricades with batons, used pepper spray and, in one spot, waded into the crowd, batons flailing.

In short, this was a highly volatile situation — because of the protesters’ behavior. How was this a nonviolent action, as the occupiers had promised it would be?

Also puzzling was the occupiers’ top demand — that they be granted amnesty. They demand accountability from N.Y.U., yet shirk responsibility for themselves. However, the final 18 occupiers — who refused to leave until early Friday afternoon — now face expulsion. It’s called “consequences.”

Some of the N.Y.U. occupiers said they were inspired by New School students who, two months ago, similarly held a cafeteria. However, one could argue those New School students were more focused since they, and the school’s full-time faculty, as well, are demanding “regime change” — that is, Bob Kerrey’s removal as president.

Additionally, it seems the Kimmel occupiers lacked support from the wider N.Y.U. student body. They themselves weren’t even all N.Y.U. students, including among their number, eight New School students, as well as numerous other students from CUNY and out-of-state schools. These non-N.Y.U. students, and some of the outside protesters Thursday night, apparently are part of a roving radical group of students from various universities.

The occupiers’ demands could have been addressed through more earnest efforts at negotiation with N.Y.U.’s administration.

In the end, these students, though claiming that they were forced to do so, really just wanted to occupy a building, or part of a building — just like The New School students did.

Yet the measure of a successful protest action is the attainment of targeted goals. Other than briefly commandeering a cafeteria, breaking some locks and causing a near riot, no substantive goals were achieved.

As for their call for tuition stabilization, certainly, higher education’s cost is astronomical. But no one forced anybody to go to N.Y.U. There are always CUNY and SUNY.

No one wants to squelch or negate young people’s voice or commitment. But there are more effective and meaningful ways for N.Y.U. students to take constructive action to better our community and our world. These other courses might not be as “fun” as holding a cafeteria — but they are more likely to get real, tangible results, and to make a real difference.

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