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A new report on a 2011 CUNY protest that saw more than a dozen arrests leaves core questions unanswered while misrepresenting evidence of police violence.
On November 21, 2011, City University of New York students and faculty assembled with others at Baruch College for a public meeting of the CUNY board of trustees. The gathering, which took place six days after police rousted the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park, was large and boisterous, and turned confrontational after police and CUNY security blocked most of those in attendance from the room in which the meeting was taking place. Fifteen demonstrators were arrested in the clash that followed, amid reports of rough behavior from baton-wielding cops.
In the weeks after the confrontation CUNY commissioned an independent report on the incident, and that report, prepared by the Kroll consulting firm, has just been released. But the 65-page report fails to confront the exclusion of most protesters from the trustee meeting, a central issue for the demonstrators and a crucial question for CUNY to address going forward. Additionally, it misrepresents the state of the public record on the question of whether police used inappropriate force during the course of the demonstration.
The Kroll report documents that CUNY administrators expected, and prepared for, a large turnout for the public hearing on November 21, which was staged to allow comment on proposed tuition hikes. Administrators and security officials held a series of planning meetings and police trainings in the run-up to the hearing, at which some 79 security officers were made available to manage crowd control. Despite this planning, and the fact that the purpose of the hearing was to facilitate public comment on CUNY policies, the meeting was held in a room which the Kroll report describes as having a capacity of just 120 people, while an “overflow” room with a one-way video hookup was provided in an entirely different part of the building from the hearing itself.
Protesters’ frustration with their exclusion from the meeting was the primary source of conflict that day. The Kroll report makes that clear. The report, however, never so much as raises the possibility that a different choice of venue might have led to a better outcome, or engages with the question of whether CUNY might have done more to facilitate public access to the hearing. This omission is particularly striking given the fact that the report’s witnesses note that the room was filled to capacity nearly an hour before the hearing’s scheduled start time, leaving more than a hundred members of the public — a large majority of them, by all accounts, students — unable to participate. (Barbara Bowen, the president of the CUNY faculty union, has described the hearing room as having a posted capacity of 300, which would have provided ample space for all those present at Baruch that day. It’s not at all clear where the Kroll report’s figure of 120 came from.)
The most generous interpretation of CUNY’s meeting planning is that the university prioritized crowd control over the university community’s ability to provide input into the institution’s tuition and governance policies. A more cynical observer might reasonably conclude that the trustees’ intentional restriction of access was itself a root cause of the conflict that followed. That these questions remain unexplored is a glaring defect in the Kroll report.
A second, and more dramatic, flaw in the report is what can only be described as a fundamental misrepresentation of the available evidence of police misconduct. Alleging that its investigators “found no evidence to suggest that any of the protesters were injured during the struggle,” the report claims that the CUNY department of public safety “received no complaints indicating that anyone had been injured, even superficially,” and that Kroll did not “find any evidence to the contrary,” either in its interviews with participants or “in its review of public records, social media, and video evidence.” (Emphasis mine.)
The first contradiction to this sweeping declaration comes in the very next sentence, in which a reporter from the Hunter College student newspaper who interviewed a number of protesters is said to have described several of them as “banged up and bruised.” My own research, moreover — which took the form of a twenty-minute Google search — turned up the following:
- A New York Times story on the demonstration described protest organizer and participant Carlos Pazmino, a City College student, as having witnessed CUNY public safety officers “hitting … students with the batons.” The Times quoted Pazmino as saying that he had seen ”two people knocked down by cops … and one guy’s head was bleeding.”
- In a Daily News story, Hunter alum Michelle O’Brien was quoted as saying “the officers were attacking us,” while Baruch undergraduate Brittany Robinson said police “started pushing us and beating us” without provocation.
- A Daily Kos liveblog declared that a journalist who covered the hearing had been injured when police threw her into a revolving door, and that witnesses had described another participant as having been “taken away bleeding from the head or face.”
- A story in the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that one witness had told their reporter that “several students had been struck” with batons. The Chronicle reporter himself said he had seen “a young woman’s head on the floor, under an officer’s knee.”
- In comments on an NYU Local piece, Hunter College student newspaper staffer Tiffany Huan said that she had been “beaten” and “sexually harassed.”
- In an article on the CUNY faculty union website, Huan said she was grabbed by her hair and thrown to the ground, leaving her “in so much pain … I could barely stand up.”
- In an article in the Baruch student newspaper, demonstrator Kevin Tighe said that “a lot of people got beat up really badly,” while demonstrator Denise Romero alleged that there were injuries among the protesters.
- In a blogpost, Brooklyn College student Zachary Poliski said that officers struck demonstrators with batons, and that one student’s head was bloodied.
- A commenter on a YouTube video who described him or herself as an eyewitness said that “students were beaten” by police.
By my count that’s seven witnesses, five of them named, who claimed to have seen police beating protesters. Three witnesses, two named, said they saw a demonstrator bloodied, and at least four witnesses alleged other injuries. And again, that’s what I found in twenty minutes. But in a yearlong investigation, Kroll says, they found no evidence — none — “that anyone had been injured, even superficially,” in the demonstration.
Only one of the eight named eyewitnesses I cite above is mentioned in the Kroll report, and that witness, Tiffany Huan, is named only in the context of a dismissal of her charges of sexual harassment. Her claim that police violence left her “in so much pain [she] could barely stand up” is not addressed.
I’ve written to Kroll to request comment on these issues, and I’ll let you know what — if anything — I hear back.
A little while ago I linked to a piece by Malcolm Harris on what he calls the “generational war” being waged against American youth. Harris’s argument has been criticized from the left by a blogger named Freddie DeBoer who writes that he’s “using the language of revolution to justify what is, at its essence, a dispute among the ruling class,” making “a case that is simply antithetical to the left-wing project: the notion that recent college graduates are the dispossessed.”
College is, DeBoer writes, the province of the elite:
Less than a third of Americans has a bachelor’s degree. The racial college achievement gap is large, and it’s not shrinking; it’s growing. Social class is extremely determinative of access to college education. From 1970 to 2006, those from the highest income quartile had a better than 70 percent change of holding a college degree. Those in the lowest quartile? 10 percent.
This is an important argument, and so it’s important to point out that DeBoer gets it wrong.
Yes, the white and the wealthy are more likely to attend college than the black (and Latino) and the poor. That’s true. But it’s less true than it’s been in the past, not more. Just look at the numbers:
In 1975, 64.5% of high income Americans who graduated from high school went on directly to college, while 34.8% of low income high school graduates did, a ratio of 1.9 to 1. A wealthy student, in other words, was nearly twice as likely as a poor one to go immediately to college, even if they both graduated from high school. By 2009, that ratio had dropped to 1.5 to 1. (The gap in high school graduation rates by income has remained largely constant during the same period.)
Comparing educational outcomes by race shows similar results. In 1970, a white American 25 or older was 2.6 times as likely than a black American in the same age group to have a college degree. Today, that ratio is 1.5 to 1. When whites and Latinos are compared the gap has narrowed more slowly — from 2.5 to 1 in 1970 to 2.2 to 1 in 2010 — but again, the trend is positive.
(And though DeBoer doesn’t discuss gender, it’s worth pointing out how much things have changed there too — in 1960, men earned almost two-thirds of bachelor’s degrees and ninety percent of doctorates. By 2009, women were earning 58% of all degrees granted in the United States, and more than half of doctorates.)
There are still racial and economic barriers to higher education, of course, and the issues that Harris identified are prominent among them. But DeBoer’s characterization of college students as white and privileged ignores major changes that have taken place in the demographics higher education in recent decades, perpetuating the tired stereotype of student activists as coddled whiners.
The American student body does not reflect the nation as a whole, not yet. But it comes closer to doing so than it ever has in the past, and the folks in Occupy who are fighting for higher education access and student debt relief are fighting to bring it even closer.
Running around today, but wanted to at least quickly follow up on the student protests in Sacramento and Albany yesterday.
The New York Times has a good overview of the Albany action. Excerpt:
About 300 students, most of them from public universities in New York, rattled the Capitol on Monday with an outburst of loud protests, in the gallery of the Senate Chamber and outside the governor’s office.
The students, part of a statewide coalition of campus organizations called New York Students Rising, were objecting to the tuition hikes that were approved last year under a measure that permits public universities in New York to increase tuition by up to 5 percent per year over the next five years. The research universities at Albany, Buffalo, Binghamton and Stony Brook are permitted an additional 3 percent tuition increase each year.
The bill also allows the universities to form partnerships with private corporations for development, a change that Alexi Shalom, a student atHunter College, said he feared would bring for-profit enterprises into the public universities.
“It’s a public university,” he said. “It’s supposed to be funded by tax dollars. We oppose corporations and big business being involved in our education.”
As California Highway Patrol officers stood guard at the entrance of the state Capitol building’s rotunda Monday afternoon, protesters inside the building kicked off a 7-hour occupation that resulted in at least 72 arrests.
The occupation followed a rally on the Capitol building’s steps in which thousands of protesters from across the state called for lawmakers to end the recent trend of decreased funding to the state’s public higher education systems.
Yesterday’s national action was the largest such day of coordinated campus protest since the Occupy Wall Street movement went viral last fall. But it was also the third early-March day of action to emerge from the national student movement that began with Occupy California two years earlier.
Occupy Wall Street has given the American student movement a boost, certainly. But in doing so it is merely returning a favor.
Yesterday student activists took to the Brooklyn Bridge in New York like Occupy Wall Street. They congregated in the park that was until recently home to Occupy Oakland, and marched from there to Morgan Stanley offices in San Francisco. They erected tents at UC Santa Cruz, and hung banners in the Massachusetts statehouse like last spring’s proto-OWS anti-Walker occupiers did in Madison. But they also took over administrators’ offices at DePaul University in Illinois and at UC San Diego. They also rallied for increased library hours at Harvard. They also held teach-ins at Ohio State, teach-outs at Berkeley, and a mock telethon for student debt at SUNY Buffalo.
And yesterday was no stand-alone event. Activists used Oakland’s Oscar Grant Plaza as the kickoff point for a 99-mile march to Sacramento, planning to arrive in time for a Monday occupation of the state capitol. That same day, students throughout New York will be descending on Albany for their own day of action.
#M1 has been described as a kickoff for the new semester, though there have been at least a dozen major campus actions in the US since January. It has been described as a reflection of an OWS “shift to the universities,” though OWS is as much the child of recent student activism as its parent. In reality, it was neither of those things. It was something quite different, and far more interesting.
It was just another day.
It’s four o’clock in the afternoon (ET), I’m back from teaching, and I’m picking up my liveblog of today’s national day of student action where I left off two hours ago. So far today we’ve seen one campus (UC Santa Cruz) essentially shut down by student protest, significant citywide marches several places, students rallying inside the Massachusetts statehouse, and other actions of various kinds at dozens of campuses from coast to coast.
The day is young, and there’s clearly a lot more to come. Stay tuned.
Friday Update: I’ve put together a summary/synthesis post on the day’s events here.
• • •
11:00 pm | That’ll do it for me for tonight. More thoughts tomorrow.
9:54 pm | UC Santa Cruz activists have re-opened one of the two UCSC entrances to vehicular traffic.
9:43 pm | Some of the Berkeley/Oakland activists have been occupying a state building in San Francisco. They’re currently being removed from the building, issued citations, and released.
9:34 pm | The DePaul occupation has ended, with the occupiers regrouping for new actions tomorrow.
8:38 pm | Having dinner. DePaul occupation still ongoing, reports of occupation of chancellor’s office at UC San Diego. More in a bit.
7:31 pm | Reports coming in of police presence at the DePaul occupation. Situation still unclear, but one tweeter says the occupation was “partially broken up by cops.”
7:22 pm | Two big non-#M1 campus stories today. In Arizona, a state legislator withdrew his proposal to require (nearly) all students to pay at least $2000 a year in tuition out-of-pocket, regardless of financial need. And in Virginia, more than a dozen UVA students ended a 13-day hunger strike after the university administration acceded to many of their living wage demands.
6:58 pm | There’s now a livestream of the Berkeley/Oakland demonstration out front of the Morgan Stanley offices.
6:44 pm | Tweet from inside the DePaul occupation: “We’re staying. Come to 55 e jackson right away-we need your support!!!!”
6:37 pm | The Oakland marchers who aren’t going to Sacramento are heading to Morgan Stanley.
6:28 pm | Marchers are setting out from Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland, heading for … Sacramento, 99 miles away. Background here.
6:13 pm | DePaul admin building occupation is settling in. Occupier reports that they “just voted unanimously to stay in this room until we get a date and time for a public forum with the entire student body.” He says there are about 45 people there at the moment, and that the university’s president met with them, rejected their demands, and left.
6:09 pm |Via Twitter comes word of a Seattle march on the Gates Foundation headquarters. That’s the seventh city march (along with NYC, Philly, Boston, Oakland/Berkeley, DC, Montgomery) I’ve learned of today.
6:05 pm | The DC marchers delivered a statement of grievances and demands to an official at the Department of Education, who promised a response by a week from tomorrow. That action is apparently now over for the day.
5:49 pm | Students and supporters from around the Bay area have congregated in Oscar Grant Park, the longtime home of the Occupy Oakland encampment.
5:22 pm | We apparently have our first campus occupation of the afternoon. According to tweeter Brad Hamilton (who posted a photo), students at DePaul University in Chicago have occupied administrative offices there, demanding a tuition freeze at the Catholic institution.
5:01 pm | Actions today aren’t confined to the campuses and regions you’d expect, as this photo of a sizable rally at the Alabama state capitol demonstrates.
4:58 pm | Six tents and the shell of a geodesic dome are up on the UCSC campus, but it’s not clear whether an occupation is planned.
4:42 pm | DC marchers have arrived at the Department of Education, where they have been denied entry by police.
4:37 pm | Bad weather appears to have depressed turnout on both coasts earlier today, but rain seems to be ending both in Northern California and the NYC area at this hour.
4:33 pm | UC Santa Cruz remains almost entirely shut down as a result of students’ blockade of the campus’s two entrances. A motorist who drove through a crowd of protesters earlier today was “briefly detained” but apparently not arrested.
4:30 pm | Bay area march now heading from Berkeley to Oakland. Students who had been at the Boston state capitol are marching to Harvard.
4:25 pm | The American Association of University Professors has been tweeting about #M1 events all day, mentioning chapter support for actions at Hofstra, the U of Akron, Indiana U, Stetson U, Lincoln U, Delaware State, Marymount Manhattan, Bowie State, the U of Delaware, St. Catherine U, and the U of Rhode Island.
4:18 pm | The Washington DC action is currently outside the offices of student loan corporation Sallie Mae. The founder of http://occupystudentdebt.com/ is speaking to the crowd.
4:15 pm | The New York City march has been on the move for several hours. Size is estimated at several hundred.
4:06 pm | In addition to the Boston march which has ended in the statehouse, there are citywide marches confirmed in New York, Philadelphia, the Bay area, and Washington DC so far.
4:02 pm | Students are inside the Massachusetts state capitol in Boston, hanging banners.