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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.

This, from the front page of today’s New York Times, is a really strong piece, and really worth reading. I may find time to say more about it after the Christmas break, but for now I’ll just cut and paste what I said about it on Facebook a moment ago…

One thing stuck out powerfully for me in this story is that making students jump through hoops sucks.

Too often recently, administrators and legislators have justified increased tuition by bumping up financial aid concurrently. But even when those hikes are commensurate — and they often aren’t, and they rarely are in the long term — more tuition plus a new financial aid system amounts to a new hoop. Students of means, students with educated parents, are generally good at navigating hoops. Students at greater risk often aren’t. So poor students fall through the cracks.

Predictably. Inevitably.

The student occupation of the eighth floor of the Cooper Union Foundation Building entered its second day this morning, as activists pressing for reaffirmation of the college’s tuition-free structure, governance reforms, and the resignation of the Cooper Union president remained barricaded in a space at the top of the college’s iconic signature structure.

As discussed here yesterday, the occupation was launched in conjunction with a day of action around the college’s decision to consider charging tuition for its undergrads for the first time in more than a century. (Cooper Union, founded as an institution committed to radical accessibility in 1859, is today one of only a handful of American colleges to provide full tuition scholarships to all admitted undergraduate students.)

The Cooper Union occupiers released a second statement this morning. In it, they reiterated their intention to remain in occupation “until our demands are met or we are otherwise removed.” The group also announced plans for a press conference outside the Foundation Building at 2:30 this afternoon. Additionally, a livestream of the occupation has been set up, and is broadcasting as of the time of this writing.

The New School Free Press has been covering the occupation since it began. Their liveblog now reports that a group of students who occupied a space on the fourth floor of the Foundation Building overnight in solidarity with the eighth floor demonstrators were removed by campus security this morning.

Noon Update | I mentioned this on Twitter yesterday, but it’s worth repeating here. All current Cooper Union undergraduates, and all new admits for Fall 2013, are guaranteed free tuition until graduation. The college has pledged not to charge any student currently enrolled or applying any tuition fees whatsoever.

That means that all the folks who are accusing the CU occupiers of acting in their own narrow self-interest are wrong. From a financial perspective, the occupiers have nothing to gain — and, given the possibility of legal charges or academic sanctions, quite a bit to lose — from their protest. They’re not doing this because they don’t want to pay tuition. They’re doing it because they believe in what Cooper Union stands for, and has stood for over the last century and a half. They’re doing it to preserve the character of the institution for those who come after them.

4:45 pm | Students are still occupying. Supporters outside recently rigged up a pulley system with an Up-style balloon bouquet to deliver a pizza up the building’s facade. The New School Free Press has the text of an afternoon statement from Cooper Union president Jamshed Bharucha in which he declares that the college’s priority is “the safety of our students and to insure that the actions of a few do not disrupt classes for all.” The statement goes on to say that the administration’s “approach in the coming day(s) will continue to be one of discourse —engaging in a dialog with the students.”

Doesn’t seem like a police raid is imminent.

As I mentioned this morning, today is a day of action at Cooper Union, one of New York City’s oldest and most esteemed colleges. Cooper Union has been tuition-free for 110 years, but this fall the administration started charging for Masters programs, and students fear undergrads are likely next.

Today’s announced activities included a teach-in, demonstrations, and an evening colloquium, but late this morning activists launched another tactic — barricading themselves inside the top floor of the college’s Foundation Building. As of this writing (2:40 pm Eastern Time), that’s where they are.

The occupiers released a statement at midday, in which they declared that their action was a “response to the lack of transparency and accountability that has plagued this institution for decades and now threatens the college’s mission of free education.” They issued three demands: That the college restore and preserve free tuition, that it initiate governance changes including student and faculty representation on the board of trustees, and that the college’s president, psychologist Jamshed Bharucha — who took office just seventeen months ago — resign.

Cooper Union activists are tweeting about the day’s events at @FreeCooperUnion, and #FreeCooperUnion has been adopted as the go-to hashtag for coverage. New School Free Press reporter Kali Hays, tweeting as @HaysKali, appears to be the only person regularly updating from inside the occupation.

Hays tweeted from inside the occupation for the first time shortly after noon, and reported half an hour later that maintenance workers were “attempting to drill/saw” through the door to the space the students had taken over. Hays later reported that the drilling had been called off, and that administrators had given assurances that they would not for the moment attempt to gain entry to the space. At about 2pm Hays tweeted that the occupiers would “not negotiate with administration,” quoting one occupier 40 minutes later as saying “We feel confident about our demands. We’ve put a lot of work into them.”

3:30 Update | The occupation is front-page news on the website of the arts magazine Art in America, and has made the City Room blog of the New York Times as well. The City Room story includes an interview with occupier Victoria Sobel, who says the students were inspired by past occupations at The New School and NYU, as well as this spring’s Quebec student uprising. Sobel says that the occupiers have food and bedding and are prepared to stay “as long as necessary.”

3:40 Update | Sobel confirms to the Gothamist website that the group’s demands are non-negotiable, saying that they will not leave until those demands are met.

4:40 Update | Heading out to dinner with my kids. Will update when I return if there’s news. In the interim I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I snuck a look at Twitter over fries, and RTed a thing or two.

Morning Update | They lasted the night with no disruptions. More in a new post shortly.

New York City’s Cooper Union is one of the nation’s great private universities. Founded in 1859, it was from the start an experiment in radical accessibility — open to women and people of color and students of any religion, free to the working class. And since 1902 it has accepted students on a need-blind basis, charging none of them a penny in tuition. Today the college is among the most selective in the country, and though more than two thirds of its students come from public high schools, the average graduate leaves Cooper Union with just $10,000 in debt.

But that may be about to change.

Last year the college announced that it was considering charging tuition for the first time since 1902, citing the economic downturn, poor investments, and a series of expensive capital projects. This year Cooper Union began charging tuition in its graduate programs, and though undergraduate enrollees for the fall of 2013 have been promised a tuition-free education, no similar pledge has been made for the following year.

Students have been mobilizing against the tuition plan since it was first proposed, and today marks their biggest day of action and outreach yet. Starting at noon, the activists of Free Cooper Union will be holding a day of free classes and demonstrations at the campus’s Peter Cooper Park, followed by a three-hour Summit on Debt and Education at the college’s Great Hall at six pm.

Afternoon Update | Students have barricaded themselves inside the top floor of the college’s Foundation Building, demanding a return of free tuition, governance reforms, and the resignation of the college president. Ongoing coverage here.

About This Blog

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StudentActivism.net is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here. For more about him, check out AngusJohnston.com.

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