Thousands marched through midtown Manhattan yesterday as part of the March 4th Day to Defend Education, to protest the latest round of budget cuts being imposed by New York City and State. The crowd was remarkably diverse – university students who faced tuition hikes, high school students whose free Metrocards were being revoked, teachers arguing against school privatization and transit workers enraged at the firing of 1,000 of their fellow workers. Different perspectives, but one demand – stop cutting the budget and start taxing the rich.
My day began at Brooklyn College, a part of the City University of New York. Students and faculty there organized a day-long teach-in about the cuts. About 150 students participated and most seemed to be engaging in their first political act. The spirit that you can make a political struggle and win had yet to develop, but participants were engaged.
CUNY has a rich tradition of student activism to draw upon. Three moments stand out. The first came in the 1930s when students created a vibrant free speech movement to secure the right to make politics openly on campus. This was followed by the 1969 student strike at City College by the Black and Puerto Rican Student Organization, which forced the opening of the CUNY system to all New Yorkers who wished to receive a college education. Next up were the tuition and open admissions struggles from 1989 until 1997, where another diverse student movement exploded onto the scene to defend the right to higher education for all.
From the history of struggle offered at Brooklyn College, I moved to the office of embattled Governor David Paterson in midtown Manhattan. Paterson may be dogged by scandals in Albany, but today he faced a vibrant crowd united by a total rejection of his budget proposals. Sure the speakers droned on for hours and most in the crowd had tuned them out after 20 minutes, but the clear message offered by the mere presence of people from so many parts of the city and so many causes, was that Paterson’s hustle about everyone “pitching-in” during a fiscal crisis was being exposed as a farce. There is plenty of money in New York City – you could feel it oozing from the businessmen in expensive suits who hurled insults at the demonstrators while continuing their journeys back home to Long Island. Protestors wanted to get at this wealth, not for individual self-aggrandizement, but to ensure that our city provides the services poor and working class people need.
Once we were liberated from the short-term of oppression of speechifying, we hit the streets. It is good to march in the streets. There is a sense of freedom it offers that is punctured only by the ever-present squadrons of police. And there were plenty of police – on horses, motorcycles, hanging off the side of buildings, inspecting, watching, directing. Today, though, there were more of us than them and there was a level of outrage to the protest that kept the police at bay, fearful that a provocation might grow into something they would have trouble controlling. So we marched and chanted and spoke with each other united together by a sense that this could be the first round of a longer struggle to reclaim our city.
Is a new movement being born? Hard to say this early. If there is something brewing, it might be very interesting. The pressure of the cuts are coming down so hard, they are affecting so many different parts of our city and they are throwing so many people into politics, that any new movement might have a very broad base. We might not just have a student movement here, a community movement to defend schools there and a workers movement to defend public sector jobs. What may emerge, what many of us hope will emerge, is a broad movement that aims at democratizing New York City. This road, as they say, will be made by walking.