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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.

“Are Student Governments Obsolete?”, an early-70s essay by New York student activist Ray Glass, has enjoyed a boomlet of attention in recent months. A couple of people put the text up online, and it’s been getting passed around quite a bit — I keep seeing it pop up on Facebook and Twitter and various blogs.

Ray Glass was one of the founders of SASU, the system-wide student association for the State University of New York. He was the engine behind SASU’s successful campaign to get an elected student representative on the SUNY board of trustees (and on those of all the SUNY campuses), and was completing a stint as the organization’s legislative director when he was struck and killed by a drunk driver in Albany in 1975.

When I joined SASU in the late 1980s the group’s annual organizing conference bore his name, and “Are Student Governments Obsolete?” was one of our touchstone documents — a passionate, broad-ranging critique of university governance, student government, and campus organizing as they had existed fifteen years earlier. In it, Glass argued that voluntary student unions, “dependent in all respects on students and independent of all other people, agencies or forces,” are the path to true student power, an argument with a powerful allure for anyone who, like those of us who worked in SASU, had spent years struggling in student governments compromised by their institutional relationship with the university.

Student unionism is today experiencing a rebirth of interest as our contemporary wave of campus activism grows, matures, and begins to ponder next steps. It is that phenomenon that has spurred the Ray Glass mini-revival, and that element of his work that has drawn the most attention.

But there is a strange paradox here. Ray Glass helped build SASU from a perch in student government, serving as student association president at SUNY Binghamton while he did much of the early organizing that brought the statewide group into being. The SASU that he and his peers constructed wasn’t a voluntary union of individuals but a confederation of student governments, and it was the power of that confederation that enabled SASU to win SUNY students’ first ever direct role in university governance — a victory to which Glass devoted years of his life. And neither was SASU funded by individual memberships, as Glass advocated in the essay. At the time SASU drew revenue from those same student governments, and later it would be supported through binding campus referenda.

This seeming contradiction puzzled me when I first encountered “Are Student Governments Obsolete?”, and the essay offered no guidance as to how to resolve it. An editorial note on the first page of the typed version we all endlessly photocopied said that Glass had written it while serving as SASU’s legislative director, but SASU was — bizarrely, it seemed to me — mentioned nowhere in the document. (My hunch now is that the piece may have been written earlier, but I’ve never found anything to confirm that theory.)

For nearly twenty years the unfolding story of SASU, the organization to which Ray Glass devoted the entirety of his adult life, stood at odds with the thrust of his best-known written work. In the years after his death the organization continued to grow, emerging as the nation’s strongest and most successful statewide student association — winning victories on tuition, governance, and student rights issues, building stronger and more independent student governments across the SUNY system, and helping to transform the United States Student Association into a more activist, progressive, effective force nationally. The collapse of SASU in the 1990s left a void in American student organizing that is still felt today.

So how are we to reconcile these facts?

To start with, much of Glass’s critique stands even if we demur from his conclusions about organizational models. His criticism of student government is acute and lacerating, and many of his arguments about the nature of real student power are cogent and convincing. If student government has more potential than he recognized, it is in part because his generation of activists, and those whom he and his peers influenced, fought like hell to make those institutions into something more worthy than they’d been before.

It’s also, I think, worthwhile to interrogate the specifics of Glass’s argument in favor of voluntary dues. He envisioned the student union as a direct analogue to the labor union, with collective bargaining standing as its central task and responsibility. Voluntary dues were crucial to this project, he wrote, because “the mandatory dues which labor unions charge have probably done more to facilitate their entrenchment, removal from rank and file, and conservative policies than any other factor.”

Reading that sentence today, one is struck by its datedness. Where Glass wrote of labor unions as an “entrenched … conservative” force in the workplace, today nearly all observers — including those unions’ radical critics — would argue something close to the opposite, on one or both counts. Indeed, our era’s legal and organizing struggles around so-called “right to work” laws proceed from a mirror-image premise from Glass’s — nowadays, right-to-work’s voluntary dues schemes are understood by supporters and opponents alike as a mechanism for union-busting.

Consider the following, from a December interview with labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein on the right-to-work struggle:

“Solidarity isn’t a purely altruistic concept. Unions have to be a combat organization, ready to fight the boss. That means there is an element of coercion involved. It’s like taxes. The price of civilization is taxes. The price of unionism is solidarity. And, yes, that does involve coercing people to contribute to the union. Unions are not like the NRA or the Sierra Club, they’re not purely voluntary organizations. They were given a slice of state authority in order to solve the problem of industrial violence. … [Unions] need money, staff. They’re the ones hustling for votes. That’s where the battlefield is being fought. And the money to do that comes from dues. When you don’t have that, unions shrink.”

There are obvious critiques of this perspective to be offered. But its core message is hard to dispute, and its applicability to the student unionism movement as Ray Glass conceptualized it seems clear.

Students like Ray Glass fought hard to build to gain access to mandatory funding mechanisms for student activist organizations, and their successors are fighting hard to keep them, and expand them, today. (As I write this, the Arizona Students Association has seen their democratically-approved student fee funds frozen by the university in a dispute over ASA’s pro-student organizing activities. The fate of the ASA may well hang in the balance.)

If you believe — as Ray Glass wrote, and as I agree — that every American campus should have a student union “which so overwhelmingly speaks for students that it becomes recognized by the university as the exclusive collective bargaining agent for students on all matters affecting the students of that university as students,” then the events of the last four decades suggest that you have to entertain the idea that building a robust, democratic mechanism for implementing mandatory dues schemes is a valid, even essential, organizing goal. And if that’s your goal, you have to at least contemplate the possibility that student government organizing may be the path most likely to get you there.

If reading Ray Glass is the first step in building student unionism in our century, arguing with him may well be the second.

Obama chief of staff Jacob Lew, who multiple media reports say will shortly be named Secretary of the Treasury, led New York University’s campaign to break its graduate student employees’ union eight years ago.

Lew was hired as NYU’s chief operating officer and executive vice president in 2004. Shortly thereafter the National Labor Relations Board, newly stocked with Bush appointees, reversed a Clinton-era ruling that graduate student employees were entitled to collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act.

NYU’s graduate student union, GSOC, was recognized by the university in 2001, and nothing in the 2004 ruling prevented the university from continuing to do so. When the union’s contract expired the following year, however, NYU withdrew recognition and unilaterally imposed a new, dramatically more restrictive, “paradigm” of the GSOC’s role in graduate employee affairs.

The memo announcing that decision was co-signed by Jacob Lew, who the head of the GSOC’s local now describes as “the point person” in enacting the university’s new policy.

GSOC declared a strike that fall, which NYU met with threats, intimidation, and firings. The strike ended in failure in May of 2006, and Lew left NYU a month later — to become the chief operating officer of Citigroup Global Wealth Management.

A GSOC petition to overturn the National Labor Review Board decision denying them collective bargaining rights is currently pending before the NLRB, which now has a majority Obama-appointed membership.

A student who sued her school district over a requirement that she wear an ID tag equipped with an RFID chip that allowed the school to track her movements lost her court case yesterday.

The case filed in a Texas federal court, was a strange one. San Antonio sophomore Andrea Hernandez objected to the RFID chip on the basis of theology, not privacy — she believes that the tracking tag is the Mark of the Beast warned of in the biblical book of Revelation. As a result, she contends that her religion forbids her from wearing the tag, and that the school’s tag requirement is a violation of her First Amendment rights. As her father put it in a September letter, “it is our Hell Fire Belief that if we compromise our faith and religious freedom to allow you to track my daughter while she is at school it will condemn us to hell.” In a later meeting with a district official he also expressed concern that wearing the chip might cause cancer.

Hernandez was suspended later that month for refusing to wear her school-issued ID, and told that she would not be allowed to return without it. District officials gave her the option of transferring to a school that didn’t use the tracking chips. Instead she sued, and won a preliminary injunction against the suspension. Yesterday’s ruling lifted that injunction and freed the district to transfer her to another school. (Hernandez is likely to appeal.)

So where does the victory come in? Well, at a relatively early stage of the process, the school offered to give Hernandez an ID badge with the RFID chip disabled. Her movements wouldn’t be tracked, her attendance wouldn’t be automatically logged — it’d just be an ordinary ID on an ordinary lanyard.

Hernandez refused this accommodation on the grounds that even a chip-less ID — which her father referred  to as a “symbol” of the RFID tracking program — constituted forced speech in favor of the program itself. The court rejected that argument yesterday.

It’s not clear whether Hernandez would have prevailed in court if the school hadn’t offered the compromise that it did, but the language of the court’s ruling made it clear that she would have been on stronger ground. (They did not address the question of the constitutionality of the ID requirement on privacy grounds, as Hernandez explicitly disavowed such a claim.)

Yesterday’s ruling, then, leaves many of the core issues surrounding student RFID tags unresolved. But it does provide support for the idea that allowing students to opt out of RFID requirements is a reasonable accommodation, as well as raising the public profile of the opt-out path for those students who might be interested in it.

One note about the RFID requirement. Although yesterday’s ruling claimed that the tags “are expected to improve [school] safety by allowing school staff to know the whereabouts of a student that may be missing or unaccounted for in the event of a fire alarm or other emergency evacuation,” that’s not the reason that the chips were added.

In Texas, as elsewhere in the country, state school funding is set partially on the basis of student attendance. When students are absent, funding goes down. Equipping ID cards with RFID, and mandating that students wear the IDs on campus at all times, allows the school to automate attendance-taking and include students who arrive late, leave early, or otherwise fall through the roll-call cracks in their attendance reports. More accurate record-keeping means more state money.

As is so often the case these days, this new — and potentially problematic — education policy is driven primarily by the ongoing crisis in public school funding.

Administrators at a California community college removed the elected student body president from office earlier this year over charges that students and faculty claim were concocted in an effort to silence his criticisms of college fiscal policy.

Officials at Moorpark College say that campus cops caught 33-year-old Jon Foote drunk on campus on one occasion and “inciting [his] fellow students into becoming a mob.” A professor who was doing calculus with Foote immediately prior to the first incident says he was not inebriated, and students present at the second say he was assisting them in dealing with over-aggressive canvassers.

In reality, his supporters argue, administrators were gunning for Foote because of the light he shone on excessive campus spending at a time when classes and professors were getting the axe. The administration’s unilateral decision to remove him from office in the middle of his term was preposterous, they say.

Another incident that took place around the same time seems to lend credence to their story. Accused of plagiarizing the homework of a study partner, Foote was barred from a physics class he was taking. When he refused to stop attending, administrators sent campus police to remove him from the classroom.

The kicker? The plagiarism charges were later dropped.

Foote remains on campus, progressing toward his degree. He’s concerned that the disciplinary charges could hurt his chances of transfer to a four-year school, but he has no plans to drop out in the meantime.

And he’s thinking about running for student government president again next year.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall
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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