New York cops barricade streets to prevent demonstrators from reaching Wall Street on November 17, 2011. The city shutdown Zuccotti Park on November 15 to halt the anti-capitalist encampment., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Student Strike at Union Square: “Shut The City Down”
November 18, 2011 Samantha Kimmey
While Occupy Wall Street arranged a Five Borough Meet Up today that started at 3:00 p.m, the gathering at Union Square was unique in that it specifically was organized as a student strike.
Union Square is an interesting space in which to hold an OWS event. The square is often associated with social movements as unions, Socialist and Communist political parties have all had headquarters near Union Square, and many believe the name itself comes from those connections (it doesn’t). Furthermore, while it’s still owned by the city, the square operates under the direction of a Business Improvement District, which basically means the square is run by the businesses located there.
As you listen to the collective chanting of students to “Shut the city down,” you might like to see this as a collective group of organizations taking charge of their shared space and regulating it themselves. On the other hand, you might be wary of the fact that yet another public space – um, Zuccotti Park, anyone? – exists in a slippery public/private agreement wherein the city doesn’t actually have complete control over the space it owns.
Whether students like Ben, a speaker who complained that we are “eviscerating what is left of the commons,” understood the significance of his own complaints echoing against the backdrop of Union Square is unclear. Yet what is supremely evident is that in the heat of the moment, the square felt owned not by an association of businesses but by an ever-amassing crowd of students and others who want to stop both the encroaching ownership and encroaching ideology of private, for-profit models on public entities.
When I first arrived at 2:30, I only saw a small crowd and wondered whether the light precipitation would keep some at bay. What can I say? I like to arrive early, and I always think there will be more like me.
I was wrong.
The first wave of marchers arrived right around 2:55 p.m. from the corner of Union Square East and 14th Street. They marched up the square and eventually met another wave coming from the west side. The chants will be familiar to anyone who has been following the Occupy coverage: “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” and “Show me what democracy looks like, this is what democracy looks like!” were chanted in unison by the crowd, sometimes fading slightly before being chanted again even more emphatically.
At the top of Union Square, one of the organizers started out by calling out various universities and colleges in the city and asking the crowd to shout for their school. NYU got the loudest response, various other institutions seemed to have a respectable presence, and apparently Union Square was a bit too far from Morningside Heights for anyone from Columbia to make it.
Students, both undergraduate and graduate, took to the people’s mic and shared their stories. The speakers came from Cooper Union, the New School, CUNY, NYU, Brooklyn College and Julliard. One of the most powerful aspects of the whole gathering, in my mind, was that the people’s mic required everyone in the crowd to repeat the speakers words, which always seemed to start with an identification: “My name is Ben,” “My name is Bobby,” “My name is Emma” – which, when you hear echoed five times, reinforces the collective ideal behind the entire 99% project.
The most heartbreaking story – the one that truly spoke to the intersection of the Occupy movement and twisted economics of higher education – came from a woman named Sasha (I think – the people’s mic got a little fuzzy), a graduate student who has also been working off-contract at NYU since 2005.
She cried that NYU “is union busting, is not for students, is not for education,” and “is for profit.” As she spoke in the short sentence fragments necessary for the waves of chants to reach the back of the growing crowd, she held her two-year-old child and let us know that NYU did offer some support to her as she worked full-time while earning a degree and being a mother – for instance, in the form of $200 per semester for daycare. That lasts about a week at most. During all this, the cherub was surprisingly docile. Good thing, because it would be hard and kind of a downer to people’s mic the crying of a baby.
In the speeches of others were themes that spoke to the specific place that education and students’ concerns have in the Occupy movement: growing tuition, the question of whether some so-called nonprofit institutions like NYU truly deserve that designation, and of course the general feeling that the people have lost control of their own public institutions (but if you otherwise couldn’t tell it was a student strike, the signs of various literary books might give it away). While Cooper Union is entertaining the possibility of requiring tuition from students, the fact stands that the presence of tuition-free private university pointedly highlights the problem facing public universities that continue to raise tuition at a rate much faster than inflation. Some will scoff at statements like the one made by the Cooper Union student that “education should be as free as air and water” – come on, you go to a highly selective artsy university, can we get just a bit more striking of an image? – but the underlying sentiment was pretty well received. Obviously.
After the speeches, around 4:00 p.m., we were told to march down 16th Street. The crowd, which at this point was fairly massive, needed no convincing. We marched through cars and taxis and buses as they honked (mostly in approval, I believe), people rolling down their windows to wave at us. The marchers happily called to those standing with iPhones on the sidelines to “join us!” The atmosphere was jovial and celebratory and breathless – only partly because we sometimes started running down the Avenue of the Americas – as if the speakers from Union Square were right and we could indeed claim the schools, the streets, and the city itself as our own.
After about an hour of marching this way and that (we were redirected a few times), NYPD finally showed up in force and screeched for us to get out of the road and onto the sidewalk. At first the majority remained on the road, until they started literally shoving people (yes, I got my first official NYPD shove) off the street and appeared to be arresting some as marchers chanted “Shame, shame, shame!” at the officers.
The last image I had as I left (what can I say? It was my shift at the Park Slope Food Coop tonight, and those are some people you don’t want to mess with) was of the marchers heading south, seemingly towards Zuccotti Park, as a cavalcade of NYPD vans and scooters sped down, red lights blazing, ahead of them.
Samantha Kimmey lives in New York, NY. Follow her on Twitter at @Samantha_Kimmey