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

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

On Wednesday evening, students barricaded themselves inside the Kimmel Center cafeteria as N.Y.U. security looked on.

Takeover trend continues; Students occupy N.Y.U. cafeteria for two days

By Jefferson Siegel

Continuing the new building-occupation movement by Greenwich Village university students that started two months ago at The New School, last week New York University students barricaded themselves in the cafeteria of the Kimmel Center on Washington Square South for almost two full days. In December, New School students occupied the cafeteria at 65 Fifth Ave. for more than 30 hours.

The N.Y.U. students made a range of demands — 13 in all — including, among other things, calling on N.Y.U. to send aid to the Islamic University of Gaza and to “stabilize” tuition.

At one point late Thursday evening, hundreds of protesters supporting the occupation had a tense standoff with more than 100 police outside the Kimmel Center, as police wielded pepper spray and swung batons.

After 40 hours, the last of the protesters had left the building. By the time it was all over, a female N.Y.U. security guard’s arm had been broken and the occupying N.Y.U. students had been suspended by the university and threatened with expulsion. None of their stated goals were met.

Things started when, last Wednesday night, members of Take Back NYU occupied the Kimmel Center’s third-floor cafeteria. Among the 20 campus groups in the Take Back NYU coalition are the Campus Anti-War Network, the N.Y.U. Graduate Student Organizing Committee and the Queer Union.

Villager photo by J.B. Nicholas

Around midnight Thursday as a deadline to vacate the building loomed, hundreds of supporters of the occupiers clashed with police in the street outside the Kimmel Center.

Take Back NYU had declared a goal of “a more accountable, democratic and socially responsible university.” A list of their demands included a full public accounting of the university’s budget, disclosure of endowment holdings and tuition stabilization. Other demands included annual scholarships for 13 Palestinian students. The students also want N.Y.U. to add a student to the university’s board of trustees, recognize a graduate students union and back fair labor practices. Another demand was for a “reassessment” of N.Y.U.’s decision to lift a ban on Coca-Cola products.

Shortly before the action, Farah Khimji, an N.Y.U. sophomore acting as spokesperson for the group, said of the planned takeover, “We’ve been working on this for two years. At the beginning of the year we presented a letter with our demands to the administration. There was no response.” 

Khimji said a serious concern was that the N.Y.U. administration had learned of the impending takeover from an unidentified N.Y.U. group. The only public notice of the impending action had appeared in the form of a seemingly benign post on the Riseup.net listserv and on the Take Back NYU site. Both listed a “roving dance party” for 7 p.m. 

Speaking in a nearby cafe, Khimji lamented the lack of surprise but seemed undeterred. Asked when the occupation would happen, she stood up and replied, “Now,” and began walking toward the Kimmel Center.

Outside Kimmel a contingent of police officers waited in the rain. Inside the lobby a cluster of N.Y.U. security guards stood by the reception desk. One guard suggested they had knowledge of the impending action, but nevertheless allowed students and their guests unimpeded access to the building. 

Inside the third-floor cafeteria students sat at tables eating, talking and working on laptop computers. Inside one of several enclosed areas filled with tables and lined with plants, a knot of anxious students waited. The space was filled with boxes of supplies, sleeping bags and other necessities for a prolonged stay. 

Over the course of the next hour, as more students arrived, N.Y.U. security supervisors did several walk-throughs of the cafeteria, taking note of the gathering crowd without confronting anyone. 

On their last walk-through, one of the supervisors stopped by the wall of windows facing Washington Square Park with two locked doors that led to a balcony. 

“The balcony is locked. It’s off limits, understand?” he said before leaving.

At 9:25 p.m. with palpable tension in the air a boom box came to life. Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Brain” made it impossible not to dance. Twenty minutes later, as “Let’s Do the Time Warp Again” played, a conga-like line made its way to one of the cafeteria’s entrances. Someone yelled, “Barricade!” and the crowd rushed to push tables and chairs against the entrance. 

At the second doorway, on the cafeteria’s other side, several N.Y.U. guards tried to stop the growing pile of furniture, but the dining-room barricade built up too quickly. As two security supervisors tried to push through, students chanting, “Whose space? Our space!” quickly piled more chairs in front of them.  

At 10 p.m. the standoff had begun in earnest. The occupiers gathered around Khimji as she read the 13-point list of demands. There was a proposal to form a committee to negotiate bathroom access. Buckets and toilet paper had been brought into the cafeteria, just in case. However, after a brief discussion with security, the students learned they would be allowed to step outside to bathrooms located across from the cafeteria door.  

Konrad Cukla, an N.Y.U. junior studying Marxist theory, sat quietly by one of the barricades reading “Iraq, The Borrowed Kettle” by Slavoj Zizek. 

“I agree with some of the basic demands,” he remarked as students spread out sheets and began painting slogans on banners. One banner read, “Solidarity with Gaza” as a second, huge banner was stretched over an interior window reading, “Make NYU Affordable.” 

Just before 11 p.m. the group sat for its first meeting, where a “consensus model” of discussion was agreed upon. Anyone present could vote thumbs up or down on any proposal. Just a single no vote would kill that proposal. 

Four students volunteered to act as negotiators. Several others approached security guards, handing them printed papers with a “Statement of Non-Violence and Abstention from Property Destruction.” It read, in part, “...[N]or do we condone or support the destruction of property over the course of this occupation.” 

Someone proposed calling on those outside the building to post the demands around campus. “‘Martin Luther’ everything,” a student suggested. 

Sixty-four people then settled into a patient routine. Four students played cards. Six others opened textbooks and formed a study group. On the street several dozen people pressed up against the building doors, hoping to join the occupation, but were denied access. 

“The N.Y.U. administration is ridiculous,” said N.Y.U. junior Elana Cohen. Cohen said she tried to attend a graduate students meeting with the university’s president, John Sexton, the night before to voice concerns but, as an undergraduate, she was turned away. “I think that’s obscene,” she complained. 

Jacob Bloom, a Ph.D. philosophy student at The New School who was among the Kimmel cafeteria occupiers, offered a more profound observation.  

“It’s amazing to see people are taking risks to fight for what they believe in,” he said. “I think these moments are really fulfilling. They’re risky and uncomfortable, but people learn through these events who they are and what they can do. Your politics, your ethics, your values get brought to the surface.”

There were numerous non-N.Y.U. students among those barricaded in the cafeteria. Eight New School students sat at a corner table.

“We’re here in solidarity but feel the N.Y.U. students should make their own decisions,” one remarked. Students from CUNY and several out-of-state schools were also present. 

As midnight approached, Banu Quadir, an N.Y.U. senior studying psychology and sociology, still displayed the energy of a runner starting a marathon as she moved around the cafeteria, checking every detail. 

“This is our school and our university life,” she said. “This used to be the Loeb Student Center, where there were rooms for students and clubs.

“Instead of being a student space, Kimmel is a space for the university to make a grand an hour renting out rooms. Symbolically, a lot of us are tied to this building but it’s being used for impressing people and making mad bank,” Quadir said. 

On the other side of the cafeteria, four students sat at laptops live-blogging developments.

Just after midnight Julie Kilger, an N.Y.U. junior studying history, dispensed vegan chocolate chip cookies from a large bag.  

“I baked five-dozen cookies, two-dozen muffins and three-dozen cupcakes, all vegan,” Kilger said as people offered her thanks. 

“I just want to get some honest dialogue between the administration and the students,” she remarked after returning with a tray of vegan cupcakes. 

Cell phones and laptops lined one wall near electric outlets, recharging. A coffee maker was unboxed and teabags were produced. Apples and oranges appeared from a cache under a table. 

At 1 a.m. half a dozen people practiced what one described as “revolutionary calisthenics.” Around 2 a.m. one student evoked cheers when he offered up nicotine gum. “Who’s a smoker?” he asked as hands went up in the no-smoking building. 

By 3 a.m. a dozen students had stretched out to sleep in several quiet corners. Some lay on sleeping bags while others sprawled on the hard floor.  

At midday Thursday, about 20 other students who had entered a side stairway emerged onto the third floor and rushed into the cafeteria. Signs hanging on cafeteria windows reading, “This building has been occupied,” and “NYU is a liberated space” were visible from the street. 

A short time later, the occupiers, anxious to address supporters face to face, broke a door lock and poured onto the curving, glass balcony, using a bullhorn to address the crowd on the street below.  

When the occupiers made a second, late-afternoon appearance on the balcony, some students on the street expressed displeasure with the situation. As supporters were shouting, “Take back N.Y.U.!” one student walking by retorted, “Take back Kimmel!” 

“Is it O.K. that you prevent me from using my facility?” Hampton Williams, N.Y.U. College Republicans president, shouted toward the balcony.  

Kimmel remained open to N.Y.U. students with ID, but a sign in the lobby read, “3rd Floor Marketplace Cafeteria Closed.”  

Just before 9 p.m. Thursday night, another two-dozen students again rushed from a stairway toward the cafeteria. As N.Y.U. security tried to hold back the swarm, Blanca Gaston, a 20-year veteran of the university’s security force, suffered head and body injuries. She was treated at N.Y.U. Medical Center and released several hours later. Several students were roughed up in the brief melee. 

The university set a deadline of 1 a.m. on Friday for the occupiers to leave. The occupiers put out a call on their Web site for reinforcements, and several hundred responded, filling the streets outside the Kimmel Center. In turn, another 75 to 100 police officers responded, bringing the number of police at the scene to more than 150.

As the vacate deadline approached, the hundreds of supporters filling the street in front of Kimmel started chanting.

One bloc of protesters, wearing masks and some of them also goggles, toted a banner with the anarchy symbol and the word “Resist.” At one point, the crowd surged toward metal barricades that the police had set up. Police pushed back against them, and responded with pepper spray and also wielded batons. One street protester was arrested and charged with resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and several other misdemeanors. 

Friday morning power was cut to electrical outlets in the cafeteria and wireless Internet access was shut off. Students climbed chairs to wrap white plastic bags over ceiling-mounted security cameras. 

A group of five students, who believed they were leaving the cafeteria to negotiate with N.Y.U. officials, were instead escorted from the building.  

Around noon N.Y.U. guards entered the cafeteria. Confronting the remaining 18 students, they took identification cards. N.Y.U. students were then given letters, with their names and student ID numbers, declaring them “suspended from, and classified as persona non grata at, New York University.” The letter outlined violations of N.Y.U.’s Rules for the Maintenance of Public Order and the school’s Policy on Student Conduct. 

Just before 2 p.m., as crowds chanting, “Take Back N.Y.U.!” rushed to a side door of Kimmel, the last four occupiers finally emerged.  

“We shouldn’t be expelled for acting on our beliefs,” Drew Phillips, an N.Y.U. junior studying philosophy, told a swarm of media as he and the others were greeted by friends and fellow students. “We didn’t want to occupy a building. They should have replied to us in September.”

“I’m happy to see my friends — not as happy that I’ve been suspended,” N.Y.U. sophomore Emily Stainkamp said, looking slightly dazed. 

According to a witness, of the last 18 students to be removed from Kimmel, those who were residents of N.Y.U. dorms were escorted by security back to their dorms and told to pack their belongings; they were then relocated to a university-owned building in Brooklyn, which an N.Y.U. spokesperson described as “alternative housing.”

The university issued a statement that said, in part, “These actions dishonor N.Y.U.’s commitment to free exchange of ideas, reasoned debate and legitimate form of protest.” The statement concluded, “None of the students’ demands was met.” 

“We also recognize that our occupation was not a full success,” Stainkamp said on Saturday. Calling the occupation a “historic effort,” she declared, “No suspensions, expulsions or arrests can contain what began in the last two days. The real lesson here is that you can act and you can make a difference.”

A disciplinary process, scheduled to begin Mon., Feb. 23, will determine if any students will be expelled. N.Y.U. spokesperson James Devitt said he would not characterize the process as exclusively about expulsion.

“Every case is different and there are a range of possible outcomes,” he said. 

The occupation followed by two months a similar cafeteria takeover at The New School just blocks away. That action was engendered by students’ dissatisfaction with the school’s president, Bob Kerrey, as well as demands for an autonomous student space. Two weeks ago, members of the same group that took over The New School cafeteria threatened to “shut down” the school if Kerrey hasn’t resigned by April 1.

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