An Exclusive Occupation: Enmity at 90 Fifth Ave. and the Devolution of a Student Movement

In the opening moments of the All-City Student Occupation on November 17, the second-floor of the Student Study Center at 90 Fifth Ave. buzzed with energy, excitement and confusion. As hundreds of students from universities across New York filed in, the room filled with enthused chatter about the days ahead — they envisioned lively debate, political organizing and, hopefully, the launch of a nationwide student movement. For many, The New School had just become the new Zuccotti Park.

“I was really excited to be there on that first day,” said Cecily McMillan, a liberal studies student at The New School for Social Research. “I really believed it was a true possibility that the occupation would incite a series of student occupations across the country and launch a student movement.”

But as more than a dozen administrators, faculty members, and students involved in the occupation recalled later in interviews withThe Free Press, the initial feelings of elation didn’t last long. After only a few hours, students began to recognize an inherent problem with the occupation of 90 Fifth Ave.

Of the small number of New School students who had planned the occupation, in secrecy, for more than a month, a few had banded together and formed an exclusive group based on their shared ideologies. They believed in individual autonomy — that any authority is a type of repression, and that each person has the right to challenge repression through whatever means necessary.

This group, which others alternately referred to as the “hardcore,” the “die hards,” and the “inner circle,” included students from Lang and The New School for Social Research who were among the first to enter 90 Fifth Ave. Those who were present in the opening hours of the occupation said that by the time other students arrived, the students in the inner circle had already begun exercising their self-stated rights: they had barricaded the doors and escalators, were smoking inside, and had started writing on the walls.

Many of the other students who joined the occupation in the Student Study Center said that they had done so because they saw it as an extension of Occupy Wall Street — their goal was to facilitate open discussion and encourage student activism. By the first evening, however, it was evident that the inner circle of students who had helped organize the occupation had very different expectations. Over the next few days, the two groups struggled to coexist within the space and find a common ground. Gradually, they realized that their differences were too great to overcome.

“It’s not like a glass that just breaks,” said Candan Turkkan, a politics student at NSSR who helped plan the occupation but was not a part of the inner circle. “It’s a process — think of it as elastic: you pull, you pull, you pull, and then, suddenly, it snaps.”

When the occupation ended in the early hours of November 25, it left behind a tangible feeling of tension and uncertainty. The ideological disagreements that began at 90 Fifth Ave. had spread beyond the occupation, creating deep divisions throughout The New School’s intellectual community. And as students, faculty and administrators examined the dynamic of the occupation, and the events that had taken place, many worried that its divisiveness would haunt social activism at The New School and cripple any future attempts to bring the values of OWS to the university.

****

The first disagreements among the occupiers emerged in the form of cigarette smoke and graffiti. At the inaugural General Assembly on the evening of November 17, they discussed how they should treat the occupied space. While a number of occupiers worried that they would be evicted if people continued to smoke inside and tag up the walls, the inner circle of organizers maintained that these actions were a necessary part of the occupation.

Despite multiple attempts made over several weeks, no one in this group would agree to be interviewed on the record. Ryan Richardson, a Lang philosophy major who participated in the occupation, shed light on the ideology at play.

“The occupation was always, at its core, an anti-capitalist action,” Richardson said. “An anti-capitalist action has to challenge existing property relations.”

By the second night, the atmosphere inside the Student Study Center had grown tense as the students in the inner circle continued to follow their own political ideologies. Despite the complaints of other occupiers, the group exercised its belief in individual autonomy by smoking in the common areas and tagging the walls with political messages that railed against capitalism and occasionally promoted violence against “pigs.” In the back room, an American flag had been hung upside down, with a message scrawled across.

“Fuck capitalism,” it said. “There is no nation like no nation.”

The actions of the inner circle incited anger, and even fear, among many of the other students there. McMillan, who had been part of the occupation since the first day and is an active member of the Democratic Socialists of America, said that she was repeatedly antagonized and threatened because of her political views. She and some of the other occupiers wanted to be active parts of the occupation, she said, but they were afraid to sleep in the occupied space.

“We realized that we needed to have a consistent voice in order to have a say over the space,” said McMillan. “But we didn’t feel comfortable being there at night, when our community had left.”

On Friday, McMillan joined in a discussion with some of the other occupiers who claimed that they, too, felt uncomfortable. The group included women, people of color, and those who identified as LGBT; together, they created a “safe room” where people who felt as though their voices were being marginalized could gather.

“It was all very new. We were trying to figure things out,” said Brad Young, an M.A. student at NSSR who helped organize the occupation but did not identify with the inner circle’s ideologies. “But there were problems we weren’t able to resolve. Our GAs couldn’t find a way to deal with them.”

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Despite the occupiers’ differing opinions over how to treat the Student Study Center, many remained hopeful that the divisions would diminish as, over the first few days, a number of teach-ins and lectures sparked political discussion.

“It opened up a social and political space. And in the beginning, that had me feeling really optimistic about it,” said Young. “It was an experience where you would walk around and talk politics with anyone. And it just created a sort of bond. Those were some of our best moments.”

But as the days passed, many of the occupiers became aware that the small inner circle of students were hardly interested in political discussion. While these students declined to be interviewed, others involved in the occupation said that they rarely attended the GAs and, when they did, they would drown out the demands and concerns of others by directing people to “working groups” to discuss specific issues.

“It seemed efficient to divide people into working groups, but at the same time this avoided open questions and discussions at the main arena of the GA,” said Turkkan. “I think at the beginning, they were not really aware that they were doing this. But towards the end, they were doing it on purpose.”

To many of the occupiers, it had become clear that this inner circle of students who helped plan the occupation had never intended to create a place akin to Zuccotti Park.

“I had assumed that the occupation was aligned with the OWS movement, but it was very apparent as soon as I walked into that space that it wasn’t, because it wasn’t welcoming” said Cynthia Lawson, a Parsons professor who has been active in the OWS movement. “It felt like a police state, and yet that’s totally counter to what the OWS movement has been.”

This was partially due to the fact that, on the first night of the occupation, the occupiers issued a press freeze on the Student Study Center. Besides banning press, the occupiers also didn’t want administrators to join, and forbid anyone from taking photos, videos or audio recordings inside the space. Because the possibility of police intervention still loomed, the organizers argued that the press freeze was necessary to protect the occupiers — if people were arrested, photographs, or any type of recordings, could be incriminating. To those on the outside, though, the occupiers’ lack of transparency was troubling.

“When the media of an occupation is trying to be controlled, it’s because the occupiers don’t want it to leave the room, and there’s a reason for that,” said Lawson. “If only great positive things were happening, they would want to share it broadly.”

Many occupiers were also worried that the inner circle was  prone to violence. While Occupy Wall Street has never released an official statement committing the movement to nonviolence, it has been characterized by its relatively peaceful protests. But again, the occupiers of 90 Fifth Ave. found themselves at an ideological impasse.

The question was first raised at the inaugural New School GA in the Vera List Courtyard on November 2, when one student suggested that the group make a commitment to nonviolence. But some students opposed this idea, and Lang student Gerald Koch, who would become a main member of the inner circle when the occupation began a few weeks later, stood up to respond.

“A diversity of tactics is what sets the goods,” Koch said. “I’m very uncomfortable with anyone speaking for this group, or any group, without all of our permission, to say that we are violent or nonviolent or anything else.”

This sentiment concerned students and faculty alike, given what happened at the last New School occupation in 2009, when students occupied the now-demolished building at 65 Fifth Ave. The situation ended in violence and student arrests; at the time, many members of the university community believed that the occupiers were intentionally provoking police action, and didn’t want to see the situation repeat itself.

“I was always worried about the possibility of violence at The New School,” said Jim Miller, a professor at NSSR who attended the first Lang GA and visited 90 Fifth Ave. throughout the occupation. His concerns were deepened when he heard Koch’s statement.

“Warning bells went off in my mind, at that point,” he said.

In the end, the occupation of 90 Fifth Ave. never did erupt in violence. But many members of the university community believed that this was due more to the way the administration handled the occupation than anything else.

“Some of the occupiers saw themselves as revolutionaries. Some saw themselves as organizing a city-wide student movement, and were willing to fight the institution to do that,” said David Scobey, dean of The New School for Public Engagement. “And some seemed to be spoiling for police and arrests, because they see that as a tactical victory, which the president’s patience deprived them of.”

Many of the occupiers had similar suspicions, and came to believe that the inner circle of students who helped plan the occupation wanted to provoke police action all along. While many thought that Van Zandt was being considerably accommodating and willing to negotiate, the inner circle viewed the administration with contempt. Aaron Jaffe, an NSSR student who had helped organize the occupation but broke away from the students in the inner circle, said that he missed having a “ridiculous president” like Bob Kerrey, who had called the police on students during the 2009 occupation.

“Kerrey was extremely helpful in galvanizing student protesters,” he said.

On November 22, after a fire marshal issued a citation against The New School and the landlord of 90 Fifth Ave. began taking legal action, Van Zandt made an offer to the occupiers: he would let them stay in Kellen Gallery, a space in the Parsons building at 2 W. 13th St. At that point, Van Zandt had repeatedly stated his commitment to ending the occupation peacefully. But his offer proved to be the most divisive issue yet for the occupiers, one that would bring all of their disagreements to a head and, ultimately, cause the group to unravel.

****

That day, at a public forum in Kellen Auditorium, Van Zandt told the university about his offer to move the occupiers. An overwhelming majority of the students who spoke at the forum expressed anger at the occupation, and particularly at the way the occupiers had vandalized the space.

Seeing the reaction among students, Jaffe announced that there would be a GA that evening in 90 Fifth Ave. to discuss the president’s offer to move to Kellen, and encouraged anyone to come. And come they did — that evening, an estimated 160 people showed up at the Student Study Center.

After intense debate, the GA voted, 96-26, to accept Van Zandt’s offer and move to Kellen. But the inner circle maintained that the GA had been stacked by the administration, and that most of the students who voted for the move had not been involved in the occupation before. Considering the vote illegitimate, the small group refused to leave 90 Fifth Ave.

The rest of the occupiers saw this as a confirmation of what they had already suspected — that the inner circle of students was more interested in occupying the Student Study Center as a statement of protest, rather than opening a space for student dialogue.

“Kellen would have been a great central location for GAs. Some people didn’t want to move because it wouldn’t have been an occupation. But my response to that was, ‘So what?’” said Young, who had helped organize the occupation but who did not identify with the inner circle’s politics. “My concern was moving the movement forward. Others had different priorities.”

But the inner circle said that moving to Kellen would conflict with their ideologies — that to accept an offer from the administration was a direct contradiction to the idea of individual autonomy.

“We weren’t interested in being accommodated,” Richardson said, adding that though he was not involved in the occupation by Tuesday evening’s GA vote, he opposed the move to the gallery space. “We were there to occupy. Moving to Kellen would have effectively turned our politics into a spectacle.”

By the following morning, the occupation had officially split into two factions. A small group of occupiers began moving into Kellen, desperately hoping that they could change the direction of the occupation, reinforce the values of Occupy Wall Street, and encourage the rest of the student body to join. But the damage had been done. Upset by the inner circle’s exclusive politics and refusal to recognize the GA’s vote, a large number of occupiers left.

“When we made the move to the new building, there were maybe 10 or 12 people,” said McMillan. “So many people had been repelled by the occupation and what had happened that nobody wanted to be involved anymore.”

In the early hours of November 25, the group of occupiers who remained in 90 Fifth Ave. released their final statement. Posted with the headline “Attack Us If You Dare,” they announced their determination to remain in the building and declared that they would fight any police who attempted to remove them.

“We have chosen to barricade all entrances to this space and will defend it by all means available to us,” said the statement. “We challenge the NYPD to attempt to gain entry into a space that has proudly denied the pigs, the media, and the press access to it during its week-long existence.”

But the following morning, the occupation had ended, with no police and no arrests. Sometime after issuing their final statement, the inner circle of occupiers had quietly left the building. Around the corner, the walls and windows of Kellen Gallery were covered in graffiti.

None of the students in the inner circle would comment on why they eventually left 90 Fifth Ave. The administration said that they had not threatened the remaining occupiers with police action. Many speculated that the occupiers who remained had simply disintegrated, weakened by a loss of numbers and support.

“I wish I knew what happened,” said Scobey. “I’ve wondered whether they had this kind of paranoid moment — they became more and more isolated, they became more and more paranoid, and they didn’t know what was happening.”

The occupation of 90 Fifth Ave. resulted in more than $40,000 worth of property damage and a number of unanswered questions. When students and faculty returned to the university after Thanksgiving break, debate broke out over the occupiers’ differing ideologies and tactics. And just as the occupiers themselves had been divided, the rest of the New School community began to fractionalize as it analyzed the events of previous week.

****

On November 28, the first Monday after Thanksgiving break, the University Student Senate hosted a public forum in Kellen Gallery. The administration had not yet said whether or not it would keep Kellen open to students as a place for political organizing, and had tasked the USS with gathering student feedback and deciding what to do.The consensus among students at the meeting was to return Kellen to its intended use; the USS, meanwhile, would look for another space on campus that could be used for discussions about social, economic and political issues pertaining to students — a space that the more moderate occupiers had hoped 90 Fifth Ave., and later Kellen Gallery, would be.
“We’re trying to end the alienation that a lot of the student body feel from the occupiers,” said Katherine Towell, a USS co-chair and student at Lang. “We’re trying to make a space where students can come together.”
One space that the USS is considering, Towell said, is the basement of the New School building at 6 E. 16th St.
But even as some students seemed optimistic about the possibility, members of the university community were concerned that the divisions caused by the occupation were irreversible. Tension was especially evident at NSSR, where both students and faculty had strong opinions about the occupation. About 30 faculty members there signed a letter, dated November 28, that condemned the actions of the small group of occupiers who had remained in 90 Fifth Ave. The letter, drafted by NSSR professor Andrew Arato, also commended the administration for the way that it handled the occupation.
“[The administration was right] in calling attention to the destructive and undemocratic practices of a minority that initially refused to leave in spite of the vote,” the letter read. “We are not calling for the punishment of the students concerned… but we do think that any serious movement-to-be has the responsibility to police its ranks, and discipline its membership by excluding those who violate democratic rules and engage in random violence.”
Arato’s letter rippled throughout the NSSR community. A number of faculty members refused to sign, and spoke out about it in a reportedly contentious NSSR faculty meeting on December 7. Students, meanwhile, and especially those involved in the occupation, expressed disappointment with the letter’s tone.
“I think it’s highly inappropriate,” said Jaffe, who was involved in the occupation and supported the move to Kellen. “Not only do I think it was wrong and surprising, but politically counter-productive.”
Other students were concerned that faculty members’ involvement with the occupation, both their support and criticism, would complicate relationships, and some worried that differing opinions about the occupation might affect their grades.“Almost all of the sociology department signed that letter, which puts a strange burden on sociology students,” Young said. “They can now reasonably fear being open with their professors about what they think or how they feel.”But most worrisome were the tensions within the student body. McMillan was one student who was singled out for her political views over the course of the occupation; the inner circle of students repeatedly threatened and insulted her, she said, accusing her of spying for the administration and calling her a “bureaucratic rat.” Their antagonism towards her intensified on the Tuesday night after the GA voted to move to Kellen, McMillan said. As she left 90 Fifth Ave., one student approached her with a warning.“He got in my face and said, ‘We know you who are. We know where you live,’” she said. “‘Everybody will know your name. Everybody will know your face. Everybody will know what you did.’”The small group who remained in 90 Fifth Ave. that night refused to be interviewed about the incident.None of the students involved in the occupation have been punished for their actions, although some faculty discussed the possibility of disciplining the organizers. Van Zandt, however, told *The Free Press* that “it’s not something, at this point, that we’re looking at or have a made a decision on.”

Despite the occupation’s divisive effect on the university community, students, faculty and administrators have all expressed optimism that the occupation has not repelled people from Occupy Wall Street.

“I feel that the occupation of 90 Fifth Ave. was an unfortunate sideshow that detracted from the larger political issues of OWS,” said Scobey. “And I’m really glad that it ended peacefully and people are still hungry to engage.”

Indeed, many of the former occupiers regarded the failed occupation as a learning experience, a first-hand experiment in politics that could ultimately benefit the larger student movement.

“We’re trying to go back to the moment when we were having those first New School GAs,” said Young. “The movement hasn’t gone anywhere. It hasn’t disappeared. All we can do is learn from what’s gone on in the last few weeks.”

But even as the USS looks for a space on campus where students can organize, and former occupiers continue to participate in Occupy Wall Street events around the city, many worry that the occupation has done irreparable damage to The New School.

“I can’t believe this happened the way it happened,” said Turkkan, a former occupier. “And the funny thing is, I think it ended up dividing us so much, it did more harm than good.”

Chris Hooks, Miles Kohrman & Rey Mashayekhi contributed reporting.
Article originally appeared in The New School Free Press. Link here.
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