"I was on my way to German class," says Maria, a Macaulay Honors freshman at Hunter College. "But I heard there was a protest." We were marching on Manhattan's wealthy Upper East Side toward the office of Matthew Goldstein, chairman of the City University of New York (CUNY) Board of Trustees, to protest tuition hikes and heavy policing of dissent on campus. "The tuition hikes come in gradually, so we will have graduated before the worst of it hits. Really, we're fighting for future college students, like these ones." She indicates our recent recruits.
We picked them up in front of Wagner Middle School, where their last period was just ending. As the protest passed the middle school chanting, "1, 2, 3, 4, Tuition hikes are class war, 5, 6, 7, 8, Students will retaliate," the majority of the early teenagers' reactions fell into one of two categories: complete bewilderment and gut-busting laughter. Nonetheless, some of the cool kids joined up with the march. Four fourteen-year-old boys, none of whom had ever been to a protest before, got a thrill from the sheer rebelliousness of it - one, with a skateboard tucked beneath his arm and a Justin Bieber cut sprouting from his head, giggled mischievously and covered his mouth while chanting vulgarities about the police.
Augustin, a former CUNY student, now unemployed, marching with his group, the Revolutionary Student Coordinating Committee (RSCC), spotted one of the kids and asked if he, like Augustin, is Dominican. The kid responded in the affirmative, and Augustin hit him with a history lesson about American military intervention in the Dominican Republic. "This is a common story in the so-called third world," he said. "Why are we fleeing from home? Why did my dad have to leave? I'm talking about U.S. imperialism." Augustin's father attended CUNY when it was free, as it was until 1975, and still sends money back to his struggling family. "The cops here are just an extension of the troops on our island," Augustin concluded.
Even the small police force assembled to supervise the marchers this past Thursday, May 10, was much larger than is normally seen on the Upper East Side. As the march passed Serendipity Spa; a boutique called Shynn; and a man walking a miniscule, artisanally groomed pooch ("Freaking my dog out," the man mutters to himself, indignantly), passersby stop and stare. On dissident-heavy CUNY campuses, though, police are now a fixture. In protest after protest, on campus after campus, students have been assaulted and arrested by police. "Security represents a misappropriation of funds," said Maria. "It detracts from CUNY's intellectual environment."
The march reached East End Avenue, the address of Chairman Goldstein's office, and the students began chanting, "Goldstein, Goldstein, come on out! Face the students you sold out!" Out stepped, not Goldstein, but CUNY Director of Communications and Marketing Michael Arena, who listened patiently as students alternately chided him and his superiors and told their stories. The situations are by now lamentably familiar: having to work two jobs to pay rising tuitions, explaining lateness to the landlord, police harassment and brutality, mounting and inescapable debt. The students demanded that all charges be dropped against students with charges pending from peaceable protests.
Arena told the students, "You are all very welcome to express your opinions." They reacted the way you would if someone making problems for you granted you his endorsement of your right to express your opinions. Later, by email, Arena told me, "We listened carefully to the comments that were presented today and I am working on a request by a member of the group for a meeting to further the discussion." I will follow up on the status of that meeting.
"I'm actually feeling sorry for them," one protester said via the people's mic, pointing to the middle schoolers in our midst. "College is getting very expensive."