Notes from the The New School Occupation

Hundreds of people spent most of last night chanting, speaking and singing outside of the New School for Social Research. The protest outside was in support of those on the inside – the more than 100 people occupying the cafeteria inside of the Lang Building. The occupiers demands, scrawled in red and pasted on a wall on the side of building, called for the immediate removal of New School President Bob Kerrey. The charges highlighted his role as a CIA operative in Vietnam, anti-democratic management style and support of a Board Member connected to the war-profiteering L3 Communications.

Occupation was the tool to advance this demand. The occupation was initiated by a loose grouping of graduate students allied with the primarily undergraduate Radical Student Union (RSU). The RSU is a split-off from the Students for a Democratic Society and has organized a determined year-long campaign against L3 Communications centered on the company’s role in the operation of the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Energy from this campaign intersected with local New School demands for greater access to email, student space and representation on the decision-making bodies. The outcome – occupation!

The call for support demonstrations outside of the occupation was well received. Hundreds of people gathered throughout the night to feed off the positive energy created by the occupiers. Just when the crowd seemed to dissipate new arrivals brought fresh enthusiasm. Clear influxs could be seen seemingly every two hours from 10:30 pm on. Passers-by also popped in to receive spontaneous 5-minute educationals from participants.

Most in the crowd referenced events in Greece, Rome and the Chicago factory occupation. There was a sense that if we were not indeed witness the start of a new movement at least the occupiers had created a space in which one could think a bit more boldly about possibilities. The interesting problematic many wrestled with was how an action at this primarily elite university could be exported to working-class students at CUNY feeling the pressure of impending tuition increases. No sure answers were gained but the vague sense of impending victory through direct action was enough to spur on conversations.

Sometime after 3am supporters and occupiers were reunited on the side of 13th street as the occupation ended. The occupiers voluntarily dis-engaged after Kerrey agreed to a series of proposals. The occupation did not remove him. However, the occupation did force the school into concessions around student representation, the removal of restrictions on school email and created some larger space for student association.

The end of the occupation was not without its dissenters. Students from a low-income student caucus of New School students attempted to advance demands for financial assistance but were mostly rebuffed. They voted against ending the occupation and wished to widen future struggles. Their complaints highlighted a common refrain among occupiers who, after dis-engaging, wished to do more “base-building” among the student population.

Overall, the occupation was a victory. It was a victory for a particular method of direct action politics which is sorely needed in the US. There will be no Greece in the US anytime soon but the energy and romantic leaps made by university students still hold the possibility for reviving the near-moribund political imagination of the left. Occupy-Refuse-Resist!

Billy Wharton is a writer, activist and co-chair of the Socialist Party USA. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Billy, or visit Billy's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Jason Oberg said on December 21st, 2008 at 1:12am #

    Thank you for this article, as I believe it is important to illustrate that here and there, all over the country, the seeds of revolution are being sown. And congratulations to the students on their victory.

  2. Max Shields said on December 21st, 2008 at 10:12am #

    The New School has a history of being one of the staunchist progressive university in the country – world (perhaps).

    How in hell it ever got Bob Kerry as President is just beyond me. He is the face of fascism.

  3. Billy Wharton said on December 21st, 2008 at 10:19am #

    My understanding is that the selection of Kerrey was based on his ability to raise funds for the school. In addition, the New School Board of Trustees is no haven of progressive types – including this fellow Millaird who is directly connected with L3 communications.

    To their credit, the students actually refused to directly negotiate with Kerrey since they would not recognize his authority as President. Plus as he left the building a section of the outside protesters chased him (literally) back to his nearby apartment. A very tough evening for Bob Kerrey.

    A quite press release announcing his resignation two weeks from now is to be expected. If he remains as President expect fireworks to ensue once the Spring semester begins!

  4. Max Shields said on December 21st, 2008 at 11:25am #

    Mr. Wharton thanks for the update. I figured that BoT were culpable, but the NS’s history is one which is generally progressive.

    I do hope Kerry is out of there, just as long as his replacement is not more of the same.

  5. Steve Levine said on December 26th, 2008 at 9:01am #

    In 1970 I was part of a group of students who occupied the New School in response to the bombing of Cambodia and in protest against the university’s complicity in the war. The occupation lasted a couple of weeks and was marked by a participatory democratic engagement and terrific esprit de corps of those who took part. We had the sense that we were creating a new culture with new social relationships. The occupation was somewhat utopian but nevertheless expressed a vision of the world that would have been better for the country than what we ended up with. Ultimately a conservative group of professors (including my doctoral advisor) called in the police and had those of us who refused to leave arrested.

    That Bob Kerry should be the President of the New School is particularly ironic in light of the school’s – and the country’s – history. Vietnam casts a long shadow – all the way into the prison of Abu Ghraib and other prisons that we do not even know about around the world. I hope that students today will keep this history in mind and not be satisfied with greater email access and a more comfortable place to study.