More than a thousand students from universities across the city mobilized mid-afternoon Thursday at the north end of Union Square. This was part of a national day of ‘solidarity’ and action in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement that saw its symbolic residence at Zuccotti Park removed by a surprise NYPD raid on Tuesday.
Earlier Thursday at NYU, an assembly of students drawn together by NYU4OWS occupied the Gould Plaza in front of Stern in preparation for the subsequent convergence on Union Square. Behind a 15-feet banner that read “NYU CUT THE BULL: STUDENTS AND WORKERS UNITED,” NYU4OWS held a briefing they called “The 99% Reclaim the University: Student and Worker Speak-out.” Afterwards, two of the organizers brought forward a purple paper-mache bull hanging off from wooden bars, called “Wally,” which a speaker announced represented “the spirit of Wall Street here at NYU.” They then pulled off Wally’s golden testicles in a highly symbolic gesture before shattering the animal into smithereens with a staff wrapped in union leaflets amid a chorus of an impromptu marching band.
By 3:00PM, armies of students equipped with banners and placards from universities across New York (including the New School, CUNY, Hunter College, Pace, Fordham, Pratt Institute, Cooper Union, The Graduate Center, Brooklyn College, and NYU) swarmed into Union Square—a historic ground for political demonstrations. There was much anticipation and excitement at the rare sight of such a diverse congregation. Every march chanted the name of their own school amongst other slogans like “We need jobs & education, not schools run by corporations,” “We got sold out, banks got bailed out,” and “This is what democracy looks like,” reflecting not only their ire at the current state of higher education in the U.S. but also their unanimous embrace of the OWS movement. What was initially a gathering of about 600 gradually swelled to over a thousand as the rally wore on, and eventually around 3,000 protestors joined in from their initial gathering at Washington Square Park, covered by WSN.
Against a backdrop of an assembly covering the entire expanse of the northern end, representatives from various universities came forward by the footsteps of the Union Square pavilion to each give speeches in relay accentuating the laundry list of problems our generation is up against.
All speeches used school-specific issues as a platform to point out the wider issue at hand. Christina from Cooper Union spoke about the forthcoming termination of Cooper’s policy of awarding full tuition scholarships to every single one of its students due to a financial predicament that could otherwise compel closure. Last names seemed to be deliberately unmentioned, taking away formality to create a more personal and amicable discourse.
Regina from Hunter College also raised the tuition alarm, “CUNY is my opportunity, coming from the projects, it was my only opportunity. Because of CUNY I have a better chance. CUNY used to be free. And it should be again. In 1969, students of colour fought for open admission. They occupied for this right, and they won…Tuition has increased during every fiscal crisis. It is not fair that students have to pay for a mess they didn’t make.” Emma from Brooklyn College also criticised tuition fees, denouncing privatization of higher education as “a war against education.”
Dasha Mitchell, a doctoral student and adjunct instructor at NYU, came to the fore with her child in arms to speak out about NYU’s lack of child care support, “I have worked without a contract since I got here in 2005. New York University is union busting… As a graduate student, I now work full-time while taking care of my two year daughter. I cannot say that I haven’t received any support. They give me a day care stipend of two hundred dollars per semester,” she said.
Bobby from the New School delivered a speech that fumed out his frustration at what he saw as an unreasonably competitive environment, “Fuck internships. Fuck kissing ass. Fuck office hours. If we want something we have to get it ourselves. It’s as simple as speaking the fuck up.” Strong language in this instance sat well with a crowd that was predominantly comprised of students. Speeches of course were delivered with the archetypal OWS system of human-mic, with every sentence or phrase emphatically reverberating in domino throughout the crowd.
One of the highlights of the rally was when two Egyptian students who were part of the April 6th Youth Movement—a Facebook group that emerged back in 2008 and ever since has been a driving force in political activism in Egypt—came on stage to show their support and encouragement.
In a day that saw scores of arrests in Lower Manhattan, the student gathering at Union Square was contrastingly peaceful, testified by a relatively thin presence of riot police in the vicinity. There was, however, a brief moment of violent outburst during the rally when a man in an ice hockey jersey expressed his dissent at one of the speakers by hurling a jab at his face post-speech. The favor was returned, but the fight was broken off promptly, with the crowd collectively and vociferously repeating, “This is a peaceful protest!” Earlier on, there was another close encounter between Dennis Cooney from Xavier High School, and one of the protestors, which ended with an exchange of verbal assaults. Afterwards, Cooney said “I’m here because I feel this is a very ineffective way of getting what you want… there are so many other solutions these people can approach. They’ve been given so many more opportunities than two thirds of the world.”
By 4:30PM, the masses in Union Square began their march southward to descend on Foley Square where unions have congregated. Their chosen-path down 5th avenue however, was cordoned off by NYPD barricades at the 14th street juncture, diverting the march toward Broadway. Adam Gabbatt of the Guardian reported for the live-blog that it was a police tactic intended to “split big marches into smaller ones” by containing the stream of protestors within the narrower pedestrian strip.
By 6:30PM, well after sundown, the student movement along with other assortment of marches arrived at Foley Square to join forces with a crowd of unions and protestors of all stripes, many of whom were most definitely much older. Here NYPD presence was far more pronounced with a hefty number of officers equipped with riot gear lingering at key junctures.
By 6:50PM, most of the masses had descended upon City Hall Park, passing through a bottleneck created by NYPD fencing along Center Street to contain the march from spilling out onto the roadway. By then the rally within the park must have numbered in the thousands. On some of the court houses, projectors splashed slogans chanted by OWS protestors all over Lower Manhattan, “We are the 99%…We are a part of a global uprising…Anther world is possible…Occupy Movement.”
The masses in the seemingly sealed off City Hall Park steadily made their way toward the sole exit that lead to the pedestrian walkway of Brooklyn Bridge. The extra space on Brooklyn Bridge seemed to soothe tensions that were brewing inside a claustrophobic park—perhaps it was the lack of NYPD presence on the bridge. The atmosphere was largely festive as the marching crowds were cheered on by acknowledging honks from passing traffic on the Bridge. The towering Verizon building adjacent to the bridge was also beamed with more OWS messages which were chanted aloud by the marchers on their way into Brooklyn.
[Photos by Harry Lee]