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The New School Occupation: Recaps and Analysis

—The New York Times has a few decent articles on the New School Occupation and the larger context of everyone hating Bob Kerrey, but probably the most useful writing on the occupation was written by one of the occupiers.

With blazing speed, Tim Hearin, a New School grad student, penned an analysis of what happened over the past several days, with an eye for lessons we all can learn from the occupation. I'm reprinting it here, but it's also available at Indymedia and elsewhere. If others are posting analysis pieces, link to them in the comments.

Rules of Thumb Learned by An Occupant of the New School in Exile
As the dust settles, here are some reflections on useful strategy and tactics.
by Tim Hearin

The New School Occupation banner - courtesy newschoolinexile.comSome of these rules of thumb can be generalized, and perhaps others cannot; nevertheless, they comment on the specific context of the student occupation that lasted two days and won important concessions from the New School, including amnesty. The students agreed to continue the struggle next semester. This is only the beginning...

For brevity, I’m not going to give the background of the occupation. Two great sites to learn about it: http://newschoolinexile.com and http://newschoolinexileblog.blogspot.com

Besides a 20 or so core of extremely devoted students, the demographics (and actual numbers) were in constant flux. Excuse the labels, but broadly, if there were 100 students at a given moment, roughly 25 were Anarchists or revolutionaries of some sort committed to serious (sometimes spontaneous) direct action to achieve our goals. 40 were members of the Radical Student Union (formerly Students for a more Democratic Society), were loosely affiliated with them, or whose politics generally fell in line with their pro-negotiation, “Just reason it out with the authorities” attitude. This is not to say that Anarchists spurned negotiations—I did not. Or that RSU members scorned the many direct actions in the occupation—though, I must write here, from the beginning, many prominent members were against the occupation, then against staying after the first night, then against taking control of the entrance/exit, then against our spectacular midnight ruse in the last few hours of the occupation that not only linked the wild supportive demonstration outside with us inside, but also breathed vastly new energy and power into our occupation, calling many of these successful and bold moves, among other things, “Custeristic”. In fact I successfully defended a makeshift barricade with the fierce help of two fellow occupants who were RSU members. I am proud to call them comrades. The lines are somewhat blurred.

Finally, 35 were left liberals who were explicitly against direct action, even though, ironically, the entire occupation was predicated on direct action. Most joined after the initial occupation, probably believing our occupied space was “just a study space,” or that “the authorities were permitting us to be there,” as opposed to knowing it was us who made it so. To my knowledge, none in this group was among the 20 or so core of students mentioned above. I am critical of the latter two groups, but believe me when I write that even being there was a feat in itself, and I am sincerely thrilled they were bold enough to join.

These rules are by no means definitive. While I myself am an Anarchist who was pushing for more direct actions to expand our space, insofar as we were numerically and strategically capable, I encourage healthy debate and criticism of my conclusions.

1. Limited negotiation is fine in terms of winning explicit concessions, but in order to have negotiations, you must have bargaining power, and this requires bold direct action. This belief, this mode of resistance, was the reason for our success. Despite the political inclinations of many of our well-intentioned and intelligent comrades in the New School in Exile (and despite their ever-present reluctance), it was the taking of the cafeteria, the blocking of the doors, the control of the building, that was our power. Of course, our aforementioned “political” comrades celebrated each and every direct action vigorously after the fact, realizing the terms of negotiation had just been changed in our favor, despite their initial resistance to it, saying things like “it’s too disorganized; it’s too brazen; it’s too illegal”—it’s too this or that. Even our last action, when we linked the wonderful movement outside to us inside by the opening of a fire door at midnight, changed the status of the ongoing negotiations in our favor. This was said before us by one of our own negotiators, who herself was not necessarily pro-direct action.

It goes without saying that negotiations are meaningless if you’re bold enough to topple those who would negotiate with you, and this end goal should always be kept in mind for those who want a radically better world. The ultimate power of authorities cannot be abolished through negotiation.

Forgive the platitude, but you must dare to win. Confident but collected, brazen but not reckless, direct action is a primary weapon of revolt. Do not wait for the authorities to give you permission. At the outset, we did not wait for their permission, and that impatience was the engine of our progress. Before that, we were stalled. Remember: the reason why we resorted to an increasingly provocative and popular occupation was because the words, the negotiations, of faculty were meaningless. Their vote of no confidence was mocked by Bob Kerrey’s comments to the New York Times that the only votes he cared about were those of his trustees. The students were not even allowed into meetings concerning the No Confidence vote. We were only taken seriously when we dared. We were only taken seriously when we barricaded the cafeteria, when we controlled the entrance/exit, when we repeatedly disrupted operations in 65 5th avenue and elsewhere, contrary to the orders of police, of New School authorities. For that, we won important concessions and further destroyed the reputation of Bob Kerrey.

For that, we continued the inspiring example of the workers in Chicago and the anarchists throughout Greece.

2. While democratic consensus should be the watchword of a revolutionary situation—it was a crucial facet of our decision-making inside the cafeteria—direct action should not always wait for mass confirmation before being initiated. In our case, deliberation often took hours when there was an immediate concern at hand; and there was the problem of the newer, more liberal elements who did not have a clear-eyed conception of the occupation. Any further direct action would have been blocked.

On several occasions, a few of us had to bolster or defend a barricade without popular consensus. When we took the entrance/exit, we did not wait for popular consensus. Our spectacular midnight ruse did not wait for popular consensus—in fact, in a vote it was shot down.

This is philosophically problematic, I realize, and I am troubled by it. All I can say is that moves should be made to ensure that the consequences of a direct action should minimally affect those comrades who do not support it, and should never put them in harm’s way. Now, if your enemy does not support it, that probably means you’re on the right track.

3. The physical barricades—desks, tables, dumpsters, planks of wood, etc.-are merely one of two primary components of successful defense, and perhaps the weaker of the two. The physical barricades saved us multiple times. This is fact. However, when the NYPD were committed to smashing our barricades, they did so, and quickly, like when they physically extricated us from our barricaded fire exit. The second component is outside support and solidarity that is won through dissemination of your cause and actions. The media we received garnered wide popular support from liberal faculty members in other American schools to students in Mexico to Greek anarchists who did direct actions in shows of solidarity with us. It would have been even more of a public relations disaster if the NYPD mass-arrested 150 students. Outside support was too strong; the sympathetic public eye was focused on us! In fact, for many hours our front door was not barricaded physically because we knew we were too connected to vigorous outside support to be raided. I should note here that, in addition to the direct focus of your cause, it’s also critical to expand your solidarity, connect the dots, between you and other movements.

Most apparently, an important reason why the NYPD did not storm our fortified cafeteria on the last night is because of the massive demonstration outside. (A banal meta-reflection, the cameras and journalists who were inside with us filming and reporting put an immediate stop to police brutality when the cops realized they were being recorded).

4. Security guards are not on your side. We can argue for days about whether they are fellow workers—which is an irrelevant argument anyway—but despite your friendship with a security guard, or the guard not being happy with his union contract, or the guard claiming he is on your side, he is not. Sure you can crack jokes with him and talk about your common music interests, but open your eyes when the moment is not trivial. He will push against the barricades. He will tackle you. He will rip your clothes. He will call the cops on you. That is his job. I think of economic conscripts, GIs in Iraq. Yes, they might bring candy to kids in the street. They might hate President Bush. They might even hate the military-industrial complex. But when there is resistance to their presence, they will be ordered to snuff it out. In order to keep their job, they must obey. This is not to say that soldiers or security can never be on your side, but it would require them doing precisely the opposite of what is required of them.

One more comment on this. There was a security guard during the occupation who was also a student. Some RSU members were friends with him, buddying up with the guy and even inviting him in at points. But what happened on the last night when we propped open a fire door and let in scores of supporters and students? This very same security guard who was “just a fellow worker” was seen tackling students trying to get on the right side of the barricades.

5. Ever-expanding occupation is an extremely effective tactic for revolution.