Every gate at the City University of New York's Brooklyn College had doubled security—no one was getting in without a student ID.
That and the rain might have dampened turnout for a mass student day of action calling for increased access to higher education and supported by the likes of Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky, but it didn't dampen the spirits of the student activists who rallied on the quad and then marched into Boylan Hall, chanting, “1, 2, 3, 4, tuition fees are class war! 5, 6, 7, 8, students will retaliate!”
It took police, batons and riot cuffs to do that.
I was able to get onto campus with the name of a professor given to me by one of the student organizers--the last time I visited the campus, I had no problem walking by the guards, but this time a student was left in tears because her ID wasn't properly validated and she couldn't get to class. Some CUNY graduate students from other campuses were able to join the Brooklyn College students for their rally, which included a banner drop from the top of Boylan Hall (also reading "tuition fees are class war"). "They didn't give access to a rally about access," commented Biola Jeje, one of the students involved in the action, later to AlterNet.
Arriving on the quad just after 1pm, I was just in time to follow the march into Boylan Hall and up the stairs. The students, a mix of men and women, many of whom wore red squares on their shirts or backpacks in solidarity with the Quebec student movement, took the stairs and lined up arm-in-arm in front of the office of the college president, Karen Gould.
Campus police followed the students up the stairs and lined up behind them as they sat down, still with their arms linked together, still singing. They mic-checked their demands, the crowd surrounding them repeating their calls for the college president to meet with them to discuss tuition hikes, the surveillance and racial profiling of Muslim and other students, and funding student services, as well as the over-arching presence of security on campus. And they stressed that they would not move.
The university president, they pointed out, might not have the power to change the tuition hikes they were fighting, but she did have the choice to come and meet with them and she chose instead to send campus police. "We had a petition going around that had over 1000 signatures for free printing, extension of library hours, free course packets. Those are ways besides rescinding the tuition hikes, to help students who were dealing with the tuition hikes," Jeje said of the students' demands to the president.
A clarinetist accompanied them as they turned once again to songs, declaring “The Italians fought fascists with this song” and keeping the mood, for the moment, cheerful, yet militant.
“In 1969 we shut this school down, in 1989 we shut this school down. In 1995 guess what we did? We shut this school down!” the crowd echoed as the police moved closer.
Those of us standing were herded backward and the police began yanking students to their feet, pulling them apart and pushing them down the hallway. "They yanked us up and just threw us away," Jeje said later.
In front of me, an older man dressed in a suit tried to move forward and was roughly pushed back by an officer. He declined to give me his name, but he told the police, “I'm a college professor!” He was threatened with arrest for disorderly conduct by a large plainclothes security officer when he pressed his case for staying close. Others loudly proclaimed their right to be in the hallway as the police continued to shove students down the hall—and more of them streamed up the stairs, batons out, plastic riot cuffs dangling from their belts.
During the scrum in the hallway, one student, Cecelia Adams, already walking with a cane after having her feet broken in a clash with cops at last fall's tuition fee protests at CUNY's Baruch College, had her cane taken from her and thrown down the hall. A slim young woman, she told me she'd been grabbed by a cop who wouldn't let her go as she fought to breathe--”He was squeezing me to death”--and that she was on medical leave from the university after her injuries in last fall's actions, was supposed to start classes again in the summer but because of cutbacks, the university had cancelled 83 of its planned summer offerings.
"I think that it was made really clear that President Gould would rather lock down the campus and have students pushed out of academic buildings than answer any questions or engage in any dialogue," Isabelle Nastasia, another of the students involved in the action, told AlterNet later. She also reported being elbowed or punched in the stomach by the police.
The building wasn't shut down, exactly, but the police had blocked multiple stairwells and hallways. Those of us outside the cluster of students being shoved down the hall by baton-wielding officers were directed down one stairwell, and I followed a National Lawyers Guild green hat back up another set of stairs, but was then blocked by officers and told “It's not safe right now in there.” I asked “For whom?” but they declined to answer.
The students, Jeje said, were escorted by the police down another stairwell and outside. They followed the officers who had arrested one of their number, a girl named Julieta, who was shouting about being in pain as she was taken out. (Two students were arrested—Julieta and a man named Eric. No one knew, as of press time, what the charges against them were or how long they would be held, only that they'd been transferred to Central Booking.)
Later that day, President Gould reportedly spoke to an American History class and was asked what happened with the action. "She said that folks were being inflammatory and violent and we crossed the line by trying to get into the office," Nastasia reported. "All we really wanted to know was what we can do to work together to fix the social conditions of the school that have been broken for a long time."
Back outside, a light rain was falling and I returned to talk with Adams, but was interrupted by an officer charging outside to shout at a student who'd muttered “Fuck you” as he passed. “I can make your life miserable!” he shouted at the student.
Out in the street, a group of students, many of whom had been in the bloc being dragged out by the police, struck up a chant of “Whose streets? Our streets!” even as more police officers walked past them and toward the building. I accompanied Adams, walking slow to regain her breath, and she told me “The only thing that started it was the first cop grabbing someone.” The action had been orderly, she noted, with the presence of the Lawyers Guild to ensure protection for the students.
As she turned to walk home, another student told Adams, “I'm so sorry that happened to you.” She shrugged, and said “Don't be sorry. I couldn't think of a better reason to be here.”
"It was the irony of the day," Jeje noted, "We talk about not having access, and then we physically see, through the excessive amounts of police force, how far they're willing to go to keep students from talking about their issues."