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/ November 21, 2011
Inside The New School Occupation

Since the nationwide day of action on Thursday, the New School’s Student Study Center has been occupied. At 4:30 pm, the student rally was on the move towards Foley Square. However, its planned route along Fifth Ave. was cordoned off by NYPD barricades at the 14th street juncture — right at the entrance to the university study center.

As more protestors arrived at the blockade, the scene became increasingly chaotic. The Guardian reported that a few from the march attempted to occupy the study center at 90 Fifth Ave. in that moment of confusion, but were prevented by police. What the report missed was that some 40 protestors did manage to slip into the second floor lounge at and barricade the entrance. The windows of the study center were plastered with banners reading, “Take Back That Which Is Already Yours,” “All City Students Occupy Everything,” “Student Debt is a National Threat,” “Estudiantes Y Trabajadores Unidos Venceremos,” “The Zuccotti Virus Has Spread,” and “99% Means Civil War”.

This story is at first unsurprising, given the frequency of New School occupations in recent history (this is the third in the past four years). However, the nationwide movement that has occupied hundreds of key public spaces in the past two months lends this action a flavor that sharply contrasts the preceding New School occupations.

The central agenda of the previous two occupations at the university stemmed from widespread discontent with the school’s president at the time, Bob Kerrey, who stepped down this January, 6 months before his contract was set to expire. The occupation that has sustained itself since Thursday, however, has adopted the outlook, philosophy, and spirit of the wider Occupy Wall Street movement. A segment in the first version of their statement reads:

On this historic day of global action, the students of New York City Public and Private Universities and Colleges, in solidarity with the 99%, Occupy Wall Street, labor, and all those dispossessed by our economic and political system, will expand the struggle and occupy a university space.

One early sign in the window read, “This is not a New School Occupation.” Indeed, the occupation’s diverse membership attests to this sentiment. The New School Free Press reported that students from NYU, Columbia, Hunter, Pratt and CUNY Grad were also present at the inaugural scene of takeover. The report also included details of the negotiation between a delegation of the occupation and the current New School president, David Van Zandt, who “taking advice from National Lawyers Guild, called off the NYPD,” unlike his predecessor’s decision to call the police in to arrest 22 students. The president said that students with any university ID’s would be granted access to the study center. Van Zandt told the Free Press, “I think they’re carrying themselves in an excellent light… I’m very proud, actually.”

Read the full email sent by Van Zandt to the New School student body here.

On the other hand, one of the occupiers said Saturday that their demand for access to the study center for those without student IDs was refused by the administration. This was heavily condemned in the occupation’s second communiqué:

To only allow card carrying higher education students perpetuates the very problem they are attempting to address by entering: the restriction of education to a privileged few. This excludes those who cannot afford name-brand education, those whose shoddy financial aid has been cut, and those underemployed and too busy to afford school in terms of money or time.

When we arrived at the center on Saturday, a media blackout had already been put into effect. After coming to an agreement not to use cameras or recording equipment nor to interview protestors inside, we were allowed into the occupied space.

Part of the reason for the media blackout was that many protestors felt inadequately prepared to speak to the press. Some of them referred to The New York Times‘ Aidan Gardiner as an example of a hostile journalist. They claimed he has a history of publishing articles critical of civil-rights activists. He wrote about this occupation in a City Room article dismissively titled, “Once Again, Protestors Occupy the New School.” They also accused him of publishing false information about other protests. The factuality of that claim has not yet been fully established. On some of the walls inside the student center, there were printed pictures of Gardiner with scathing labels such as “Snitch” and “Persona Non Grata.” Ironically, he used to be a student reporter and editor of The New School Free Press.

A General Assembly mediator named Max agreed to speak to us outside of the occupation. He explained that the even larger reason for the media blackout was the disconcerting notion of having an open debate while the press was around to quote every word. Given the diverse collection of opinions and political alignments that this occupation harbors, the chance for the occupation to be misrepresented would be enormous. For those mainstream media with stronger predilection than others, internal variety in OWS at large is becoming a sort of ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ opportunity, where certain words from speech and sign could be tactically selected to generate their own spin on such gatherings—a classic ethical problem that plagues journalism chronically.

Inside the study center, the walls are plastered with banners and graffiti to visually represent the current “occupied” status of the space. Much like what Zuccotti park used to be, the study center has stations for various purposes including a kitchen, a library, movie-screening station, a media outlet comprised of a few Mac computers, and a banner-production section. One of the few private study rooms was reserved for those who felt unsafe sleeping outside.

General Assemblies are held at least once a day to decide on logistics and to discuss politics. All decisions are reached after a lengthy process of democratic discourse where individuals propose agendas. Discussion of each agenda item can last for up to 15 minutes, after which a vote is taken. During these meetings, individuals from other Occupy movements update about is happening at other gatherings, and what events are being planned.

Of course, the deliberative processes themselves are in a state of constant evolution, as the GA develops additional sets of rules on conduct as the need arises. During times where there are no scheduled meetings or events, the atmosphere goes back to that of a quiet study area. Student occupiers get on with their own  school work. And without the lurking presence of NYPD, the mood resembles a laidback café; a safe environment where individuals gather to learn, speak out, and exercise the right to activism.

[Image via the occupation’s official blog.]