This is the text of an open letter about the student occupation and police intervention last weekend at the New School in New York City. It was sent to members of the New School community by James Miller, professor of political science and liberal studies at the school. Miller is a former member of Students for a Democratic Society and author of several books, including “Rousseau: Dreamer of Democracy” and “Democracy in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago.” – John Leo
Although I am co-chair of the Faculty Senate, I am writing to you today as an individual, and as a concerned member of the New School community, alarmed and saddened by the events of the past few days.
In my view, these events represent a collective failure of our community to uphold appropriately the core values of the New School.
In two major manifestoes that were circulated among activists in January, as a new semester began, a small number of anonymous authors advocated a renewed occupation of a New School building in the spring. These texts are explicitly anti-democratic: they make it clear that the authors despise open discussion, reasoned debate, liberal tolerance, and democratic decision making. They heap scorn on “(hypo)critical theory.” The rhetoric is often quite violent.
Most student activists that I know explicitly reject the views expressed in these manifestoes. In a series of meetings in recent weeks, large numbers of New School student activists vehemently disagreed with the tactic of occupying a building. But most of these students have been unwilling to criticize their comrades openly, or even to publicize widely their dissenting views, for fear of alienating friends and dividing what had been a relatively unified and often constructive student movement for change at the University.
In the early morning hours of March 30, a small group gathered at 65 Fifth Avenue. But that attempted break-in was thwarted by the presence of a security detail guarding the building, in anticipation of just such an assault.
With the passage of the April 1 deadline set by the sub-group that favored a new occupation, the University relaxed the policing of 65 Fifth Avenue. When a small group arrived wearing ski masks and wielding crow bars at 5:30 AM on April 10, they were therefore able to break into the building before university personnel could respond.
Among the small group that broke into the building were a number of outsiders, with no connection to the New School at all. In effect, roughly a dozen New School students felt entitled to hi-jack what had been a broadly based faculty and student movement for positive change.
According to an official statement from the administration, “Security called 911 to report a burglary at the New School.” According to an interview with the New York Post, it was President [Robert] Kerrey who took charge: “I called the NYPD and said there are people who have broken into our building and I want them removed…. If they do it again, I’ll call again…. We still remember 9/11 around here.”
I can understand why a frightened security supervisor might call the police.
But I can’t forget that the New School was a community first founded by pacifists. It is hard to see how our core values were served by the extraordinary scale of the police action – or by several documented incidents which suggest that individual officers may have used excessive force against some protesters, bystanders, and videographers. It is also hard to see how President Kerrey’s belligerent tone in the Post piece is helpful.
Under the circumstances, I hope we as a community will find some way to gather and investigate various student and faculty allegations of police misconduct. It is important, given our shared founding ethos, for us to set the record straight about what happened, and why, on April 10.
At the same time, we as a community have an obligation to take seriously the avowed aims of the tiny handful of people who singlehandedly – and despite widespread opposition to their tactics – provoked this melee. To that end, and to help initiate a full and frank discussion of the political principles at stake, I am attaching copies of the two key manifestoes and one recent email communique. I urge all of you to read these documents, and to judge for yourself whether or not they uphold – or rather subvert – the core values of our community.
I believe we also have an obligation to renounce more publicly, and firmly, the recent acts of vandalism and threats of violence against President Kerrey and his family. For such threats – renewed by some protesters in recent days – also violate core values of our community.
I certainly support the rights of students and faculty to protest vigorously – but I personally condemn these recurrent threats of violence. The University in Exile was, after all, founded by refugees who were fleeing, in part, gangs of political thugs. It shocks and saddens me to see self-styled anarchist posses trying to resurrect such threatening tactics.
When the senior faculty expressed their lack of confidence in President Kerrey on December 10, 2008, we did so by holding a meeting. I chaired that meeting, and I helped draft the motions of no confidence we passed. At that meeting, we also expressed confidence in our deans. Since then, deans, faculty and students have made progress on a number of important reforms, working together in a civil and collaborative spirit.
Still, it has been very hard in recent weeks to keep our collective focus on constructive initiatives, in part because it has been very hard to know how best to counter the looming threat that a handful of people would break and enter a University building. A number of us collectively chose to refrain from publicly criticizing those who proposed a new occupation, for fear it would have the unintended consequence of increasing the chances of a violent confrontation. Perhaps we were mistaken to exercise such restraint.
Later this month, the Provost, Deans, Faculty Senate and Student Senate, in cooperation with all interested student groups, will convene a public forum to reflect on the events of the past five months, from the first vote of no confidence to the most recent occupation of 65 Fifth Avenue. At that time, we hope to discuss some of the different ways that students and faculty can work towards constructive democratic change at the New School. I hope that everyone with an interest in the future of the University will join us at that time for an open conversation about our core values, and how best to expand the scope of free speech, shared faculty governance, and student rights.