Who is Being Occupied?

At the New School, not all activists felt welcome in the movement or appreciated its taking over study center. Still, administration gave protesters lots of room, and managed to regain spaces without police force.

December 2, 2011

Look up the New School Occupy movement and you won’t find any videos of cops pepper-spraying students or hitting them with batons to get rid of an encampment (as you will when you look up the police responses at the Universities of California at Berkeley and Davis).

David Van Zandt, president of the New School, managed to clear out students who had hijacked the college’s study center without any violence or arrests. That’s despite the fact that the situation unfolded in a decidedly volatile environment – the occupiers had come straight from a march protesting the eviction of Zuccotti Park. Police were out in full force, streets were barricaded and tensions were running high on a politically active campus where the previous president clashed with protesters on his way out of office.

Still, when Van Zandt got a call from police officers asking whether they should forcibly remove the marchers who, when their route was barricaded, settled into the student study center at 90 5th Ave., he said no. Instead, he opted for a strategy that seems to be increasingly novel when it comes to Occupy protests these days, on campuses and elsewhere: negotiating.

“I wanted to avoid personal harm, physical harm – whether to our students, other people or the police,” Van Zandt said. “Maybe I learned something from Davis and Berkeley, but I knew the one thing I didn’t want to have was people hurt. So that was the most important thing to me.”

The protesters were granted permission to stay in the privately owned building but ultimately were told to leave after, to the dismay of some New School Students, graffiti turned up, and the landlord and fire department complained of fire code violations. Van Zandt offered up the New School’s nearby art gallery, Kellen, as an alternative space – barring vandalism, danger and sleeping overnight, for which the previous location had been cited. After the president essentially told them they had no choice but to move, most of the protesters left with no resistance. A few camped out at Kellen and applied graffiti to the walls; they were kicked out – also without force – and the occupation has more or less disbanded. (Van Zandt said none of the vandals at Kellen appeared to be New School students, though one, a high schooler from Brooklyn, chatted with the president about his aspiration to enroll.)

New School estimated that it spent $25,000 on maintenance, cleaning and repainting both spaces.

Despite the relatively cordial dispersal and the several forums held to brainstorm ways to satisfy all sides, and despite many students and faculty being hugely relieved and grateful for the way things turned out, some maintained that any eviction at all was unacceptable.

Cynthia Lawson, an assistant professor of integrated design and co-chair of the Parsons New School for Design faculty council, went into the study space last Wednesday to talk with protesters and ultimately encourage them to leave. Being an active Occupy Wall Street participant herself, she said, she could appreciate the intentions of both the students and the administration.

But Lawson found the “unwelcoming” and “paranoid” environment to be at odds with her previous experience with the movement. Occupiers told her that the previous night, students who haven't shown up since "were infiltrating the occupation" to sway the General Assembly vote on whether they should move to the gallery. She also heard that some students who said they wanted to move were ejected from the meeting.

“We just wanted to be able to continue to maintain the safety of everyone in there and not have to end up with some sort of crazy pepper spray situation,” Lawson said. However, while those who vandalized property and excluded others were not representative of New School students, Lawson said, she was disappointed by the climate she found. “I don’t mind graffiti, I don’t mind this kind of defacing because ultimately that’s just a temporary disruption of the space. But I was very surprised that I walked in and there was just this sort of heavy air.”

“The idea that ‘We are the 99 percent’ is precisely to be inclusive of anyone who wants to be there,” she said. A City University of New York student who was there read a statement on behalf of CUNY students, saying that the protesters had good intentions but “lost our way.”

Melissa Holmes, co-chair of the University Student Senate, doesn't know of anybody getting ejected from the General Assembly meeting. But she did say those who opposed the move were more forceful in their opinions than others. "I don't think there was actual kicking out as much as there was disagreement," she said. "There were students who had big ideas -- they were really doing it for the theoretical larger-scale social change ideology. And then there were some students who were just doing it because, I think, it was the cool thing to do .... It just was a really confusing situation."

While Van Zandt acknowledged that there was “clearly some sort of tension” within the group, “at the end of the day,” students, deans and faculty stepped up to figure out a peaceful resolution.

“The idea that we would lose this space because non-New School students were occupying it – the great majority were not New School students – was just kind of absurd, and not something we wanted to risk,” Lawson said, noting that the space itself was created just a few years ago during the college’s last student occupation, where protesters demanded a dedicated study space (hard to come by on an urban campus like the New School’s). “If it was a university-owned space, I think the occupation would have continued unless there were actual physical threats or if anybody was hurt or until people’s safety was compromised.”

(A different situation unfolded at Harvard University, where officials closed Harvard Yard to occupiers without university identification. While they attributed the closure to safety concerns, students and faculty protested the lockdown, saying there were no issues and everyone should be allowed in.)

A similarly unwilling-to-compromise attitude came through on the blog kept by occupiers of the student center. “New School administration, despite their mealy-mouthed lip service to the movement, has decided to side with the banks, landlords, millionaire trustees, and whining conservative students who are all clamoring for this break in their miserable daily routine to end,” they wrote after hearing they would be kicked out.

The protesters wrote that, in anticipation of police violence, they would barricade all entrances to the space and “defend it by all means available to us.” It is unclear how many of those protesters were New School students, as they were joined by students from several other New York institutions. (Those who organized the protest did not respond to e-mail requests for interviews.)

Most New School students were “outraged” by the behavior of the occupiers, Lawson said. “The trickiest thing about these occupations is to make sure that the students are aligned with the students from the camp that they’re occupying…. This occupation, like the previous one, alienated the local student body,” she said. “The feeling on campus, I think, is very much, ‘I’m glad it’s over; I’m going to focus on my schoolwork and then go home for the holidays.'”

The Student Senate is now advocating for a new, yet-to-be-determined space in which occupiers can organize -- but not the art gallery, so as not to displace the programs and exhibits that were cleared out for protesters.

For Elana Bulman, a New School student who was involved early on in the college occupation and the larger Occupy movement, it’s not surprising that things have gotten somewhat contentious; one thing about the movement is that it draws together so many different people that some rifts are sure to form.

“From what I can see, the different divisions and different opinions about what we’re trying to do existed from the first day. We’ve just been trying to figure out how to structure it and how focused it wanted to be,” Bulman said. “I’ve seen more New School students get passionate and engaged in this than any other sort of organization or activist students. I don’t think it’s the majority of students by any means, but I think it’s a pretty large group.”

Bulman, though, is extremely grateful for the administrative response – particularly Van Zandt’s not getting the police involved.

“I think that the administration has made it pretty clear that they’re interested in having a space for students to organize,” she said. “It makes it interesting; if not quite an occupation anymore, it’s more of an administration-supported student-organization effort, but I think that we as New School students should be really grateful for that.”


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