The All–City Student Occupation began Thursday, November 17th by taking over a New School space at 90 Fifth Avenue. The occupation aims to create a sort of open university, making education broadly accessible.
We will reclaim this elite space and make it open to all. We will foster dialog and build solidarity between students, workers, and others excluded or marginalized by economic and social inequalities. We will build community through the commonality of occupation. We will offer free education ““ this is systematically forbidden. We join a long tradition of student activism and struggle. We the indebted and the future unemployed and underemployed stand committed to this movement for our collective lives. We invite all to join us in this open occupation. (source)
This is, of course, a very admirable goal. The university, including the president of the New School, has so far made it clear that the students are welcome to stay there, although notably the building itself is not owned by New School but instead by WellsFargo (addendum: today, November 22nd, it looks like things are developing towards a possible eviction). One of the rules the occupation is being made to abide by is, for example, that no-one with a non-student ID is allowed in, an issue that organizers were working to get around last I heard. One thing the occupiers themselves have been stringent about is no press, at least not for now. When I was there on Friday, there were signs asking that you not take any pictures. I can excuse some of this to a certain extent ““ it’s a very young movement, and press could butcher the whole concept before it really gets a chance to exist.
Now here is the time for my caveat. I find the cause completely valid, and by writing what follows I am not saying that the movement does not have a potent message or is not important. Additionally, I have barely spent any time there at all, and thus by the standards of the occupiers, I have no right to write about it (more on this later). I write here of a specific argument, and refer only to texts I have seen and first hand stories I have heard. So maybe this does not represent the whole movement, but to me and, I know, others, it represents a major flaw in it. I write as someone interested in the occupation, but not actively involved; I write as someone who saw these arguments and refuses to keep their mouth shut about it. I cannot not write about it. If this gets me ostracized from their community (and I use “their” very deliberately), then so be it.
On Sunday, Chris Crews, an active and well-respected member of the student community, wrote a piece on his blog on problems he had already seen with the movement. He writes about students having difficulty accessing the space they need for studying, about the messaging, and about white privilege. Note, especially, that in Crews’ article he states that he and others did try to raise these issues, but that nothing came of it. So, dear reader, what do you think happened the moment Crews published his article? Was there a move to introduce the issues he raised at the next GA, or perhaps some critical self-reflection? Did people respectfully disagree and ask to engage Chris face to face? Oh, shit no. Instead, the majority mood towards Crews has been disrespectful if not downright hostile.
There are a range of responses. The most popular one is outcry over the medium chosen by Crews. For example: “If your intention is really to ‘chang[e] the direction it [the occupation] is going,’ you might consider bringing these issues up at the GAs, or forming an informal coalition with other people at the occupation who feel the same way”; “Chriscrews.com and Facebook are not the proper venue for this…”; “I would suggest if you have these criticisms of dominant voices, you bring a counter point to it through your own participation, not sitting silently videotaping our teach in* and then writing a scathing review that undermines the solidarity with students and others we are trying to build in order to contribute to the momentum of this movement.” (These, and following quotes, are all from emails sent in the Google Group)
Then there’s the, “Well you haven’t really spent enough time there to critique it” angle: “i can say right now chris, that having seen you there and never seeing you say hardly anything in the discussions, it seems that this is simply inflammatory.”
Finally, and the one that I find absolutely most disheartening (though ad hominem attacks against any critique are always disheartening as fuck too), is the total disavowal of any of the issues raised by Crews. Take this fresh slice of hell:
I can only speak for myself, but I would like to put forward the idea that it is no easy thing to build community from scratch. I realize that everyone, and I mean every single person who is aware of this occupation and is not inside of it wants it to achieve their particular idea of what the perfect version of it would be. I encourage you all to stop idealizing it. I promise you that I, for one, would like to have what I would consider more explicit political conversations and think that the constant personal issues that are coming up in the GAs are merely a way for some to put off a serious political discussion. Granted, many of what I am calling personal issues are deeply political for some, whether I agree with this or not.
All of these conversations are taking place, as far as I can tell, between relatively major people involved in the occupation. Even if they weren’t, it would still yield the same result: how the fuck can you say you represent your whole student body’s interests, that you are an open and transparent body, when the issues of traditionally oppressed voices are just not your concern? When you get defensive instead of critical when somebody raises questions about your ideology and method? How are you at all a radical movement or different from any dominant state if you cannot listen, if you cannot conceive of other people’s concerns as relevant? How the hell am I supposed to feel goddamn safe or represented in your space?
Some would say that I should simply show up to a GA, and though only for a relatively short time, I went yesterday. These issues were barely mentioned and, when they were, were quickly left behind in the urgency of the eviction question (take from that what you will). On a different day, a friend of mine went soon after Crews’ piece was published, after the above fight began, and said that race was relegated to a discussion group, as in, “Oh, if you want to talk about x, join that group, if you want to talk about race, join that one.” Because we all know who the burden should fall on, right? Volunteers only, since, once again, this is not the “real,” movement-wide critical work. She also overheard many people talking shit about Crews, mocking his article, or even, in some cases, mocking his style of dress and demeanour. Because this is the way to respond to a critique? Because this is how you deal with the opinion of someone who, more than most, I assumed would be respected in your circle by virtue of his role as a student leader and activist? Tell me how the hell do I go to your space ever and feel safe when a straight, white man, generally known by the student body and respected, is completely disrespected by your activists for bringing up absolutely critical problems?
I might get into trouble for writing about this. No press, after all. Heaven forbid our struggles with our own ideology be made public! Heaven forbid cracks in the vanguard could show! I might be called “angry,” or maybe I’ll be faced with ad hominem attacks like Crews. I might be alienating myself from the students who support the occupation. But I can live with that. Because I am fucking angry, and right now my use of the Internet to talk about it feels like the only permitted and valid form of speech I have when my interests are so clearly unimportant to the All-City Student Occupation, and when I feel like that that is not a safe space for me.
Since Chris Crews opened the door, others have spoken up beautifully and articulately in defense of the importance of the issues he raised and have showed up to the site to talk and work and fight. I cannot be one of them. I am tired. I am so tired of being ignored, of being shut down, and I cannot face the disappointment anymore of finding out that those who I seriously considered radical allies in any kind of fight against oppression could be so fucking oppressive. So here it rests, on the Internet. Because you cannot say it is a radical, critical movement if it is so afraid of being written about. We will write about it, because what else can we do?
*Crews recorded a lecture that took place there on Saturday; it’s unclear if this is what this person was referring to or not.