The New School in Exile, Revisited

The New School in Exile, December 2008. From justseeds.com.

This piece first appeared in the third issue of our OWS-inspired Gazette, available as a free PDF download.

I arrived at the New School in the fall of 2008 to do a master’s degree in anthropology. Tuition was $23,000 per year—this did not include room or board—but the opportunity to be in a great intellectual community eased my anxiety about the cost. A little bit.

Tuition was high for a reason: the school, I soon learned, was on shaky financial footing. Founded in 1919 in part by Columbia professors disgusted by their university’s support of World War I, then expanded in 1933 as a refuge for scholars fleeing Fascism and Nazism in Europe, it wasn’t the sort of place that produced the sort of people who turned around and gave their alma mater millions of dollars. The endowment was meager, and the school relied on tuition for revenue.

The New School needed to improve its financial situation and its status, and it was going to do it, like any New York institution, through real estate. It owned an old two-story building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 14th Street–a former department store whose slogan had been “Fifth Avenue Values at 14th Street Prices”–that it was going to tear down and replace it with a state-of-the-art gleaming sixteen-story tower, home to studios for designers and artists studying at the New School’s profitable design institute, Parsons, and laboratories (for whom, no one could tell you; the New School offers no courses in hard sciences), retail food vendors, apartments, and—most insulting of all, I think, to the symbolic heirs, as we liked to consider ourselves, of refugees from fascism—a fitness center. At the time, the building, at 65 Fifth Avenue, was a multi-purpose meeting place where graduate students could read quietly, have lunch in the café, or find books in the basement library. There had been classrooms upstairs, but at that point they had already been relocated to the Minimalist-style building a few blocks away where my department, Anthropology, was crammed together with Sociology.

Nobody liked the idea of a new building; we thought the old building was perfectly fine, for one thing, and for another we thought the money could be better spent on fellowships for debt-saddled students (like me!). The campus was in an uproar already after the faculty senate, enraged that the university’s president, Bob Kerrey, had, after his fifth successive provost left the job, simply assumed the post himself, passed a unanimous no-confidence vote against him. Shortly after news got around about the faculty vote, an unofficial student meeting was called. There were fliers posted around campus by the Radical Student Union. About fifty of us gathered in the basement of the new graduate building on 16th Street. A piece of butcher paper was thrown up on the wall, and a list of demands was produced: we wanted Kerrey and his vice-president, Jim Murtha, to resign; a new provost selected by the student body; a transparent academic budget; and, later, we added one demand that propelled us to action: that the demolishing and “capital improvement” of 65 Fifth be cancelled.

Most of the meeting’s attendees were graduate students in the Social Research division, notably more interested in radical politics than, say, students at Parsons. The meeting was led by a tall, skinny Philosophy graduate named Jacob, and a chain-smoking Politics student with deep bags under her eyes named Fatuma. Before the meeting started, Jacob passed around a pamphlet he’d written about direct action as he munched, ostentatiously, on some dumpster-dived bananas. “I think it’s time,” he said, as we convened in the basement, “for an action.” Another of the leaders was Tim, a gruff, shaggy-haired guy from the Poli-Sci department, who sneered a bit when people’s comments seemed too moderate.

At this meeting, two actions were proposed. The first was directed at an upcoming meeting Kerrey had convened with the faculty, presumably to try to convince them to reverse the no-confidence vote. We, the students, had not been invited, and our plan was to show up wearing duct tape over our mouths. The next action would be some kind of sit-in, or occupation. We wrote down our emails and walked back out into the night—revolutionaries.

The duct-tape action was a smashing success; many of our faculty members threw their fists up at us, and a buzz went around campus. Meanwhile, our planning meetings for the occupation continued, as quietly as possible—which later would be cause for our fellow students to accuse us of exclusivity. The truth is we didn’t want to get busted. Then, late in the afternoon on December 17th, about sixty of us gathered in the cafeteria at 65 Fifth, a room with glass walls on three sides and, in the back, a little deli that sold terrible sandwiches and coffee. Round tables and chairs were strewn throughout the room. We lounged casually, as if having coffee with friends, as we knew that the administration had, through some whistleblower, caught wind of our scheme. Then, at a designated time, I think around 6 PM, we stood up on the tables, taped banners with “NEW SCHOOL OCCUPIED” to the walls, pushed chairs against the main entrance, and probably began chanting something, or cheering.

I’m not sure at what point we came up with the name “New School in Exile,” but it stuck. It was, of course, a reference to the proud history of the institution, its birth as a place of exile. And not only that. When I’d told my parents that I was planning to go do a master’s at The New School, I learned that my grandparents had taken continuing education courses there, and my grandmother had also been a secretary for one of the deans.

They were both mostly self-educated. My grandfather had been expelled from City College in the nineteen-thirties for protesting against Fascism in Europe, then gone on to become a journalist for the Daily Worker; my grandmother, who knew Italian and Spanish, had been a union organizer. In Specters of Marx, which I read in my second year of graduate school (by which point I was about $30,000 in the hole), Derrida talks about the ghostly nature of politics, how it moves in cycles. That night, as hundreds of New School, CUNY, and NYU students gathered outside the building, on Fifth Avenue, sending us tweets and text messages of solidarity, and as we huddled inside, writing our list of demands, I felt my grandparents’ ghosts inside me, in that building, likely the very same one where they had read philosophy and sociology and tried to channel those ideas into creating a better world.

That night we put up our new “New School in Exile” banners, and a blog was created in that name by a politics student named Scott. Scott, it must be said, was a Leninist, which pissed everybody off and made us worried, because he was our media guy. But for the moment, things were great. Someone from the New York Times came in to report on us—at this point the administration was letting people enter and leave the building at will—and an organization from Harlem sent food. Jim Murtha, our vice-president, showed up, with alcohol on his breath, and we booed him. Some NYPD entered and hovered in the lobby near the front door, chatting with the security guards. As the morning hours approached, we played music on our laptops, made signs about neoliberalism and student debt, and worked on our final papers, which were due that week, and most of which were probably about Marx. Some of us slept, a little, on the floor.

The next day, people began coming from all over campus and other universities to show their support or just check us out. A sign saying “New School: OCCUPIED” had miraculously appeared on the outside of our building, a couple of stories up; people sent us photos via cell phone. I also learned that many of my fellow students in the Anthropology department were unsure what to think. There was a sense that our faculty were not enthusiastic about the occupation, and grad students concerned about keeping good relations with them (who wasn’t, really?) were hesitant to align themselves with the New School in Exile. Regardless, some of my colleagues, and students from other departments and the undergraduate divisions, showed up at 65 Fifth for the afternoon meeting on the second day.

We proved to be totally unprepared for this. As a large group of students gathered chairs in a circle, expecting to learn our plan for getting the administration to cave in to our demands, I looked around and realized that I was the only organizer in sight. Where were Jacob, Fatuma, Tim, and Scott the Leninist? Gone. I looked at the gaggle of bright-eyed but uncertain students, threw up some butcher paper on the wall, ripped off my sweater as I began to sweat profusely with anxiety, grabbed a marker, and began to solicit agenda items from the crowd.

Thankfully, someone sensed my confusion and stepped in to help: it was the anthropologist David Graeber. Many New School students knew him through his previous work with the New York Direct Action Network, and they had called him in to help. He gave us a brief workshop on democratic consensus-building, and then stepped aside. And then we were doing it. I facilitated, and people wiggled their fingers, and we moved through our agenda items. We talked about the cafeteria workers, who we wanted to make sure were not losing a day’s wages because of our protest, and decided this should be high on the list of our demands. We discussed other things. It was exhilarating to be using this new language, with our hands, to hold a discussion. Soon, meetings were popping up throughout the day in that room, all using the consensus procedures. Graeber moved in and out silently, hardly making his presence known.

Finally, the missing organizers from earlier returned to join the rest of us. They told us they’d learned that, all over the city, anarchist networks had mobilized and were ready, were near the school even, waiting, to join us. They wanted to come in that night. We discussed it; I remember not liking the idea, but I can’t remember why. Eventually we voted it down. It didn’t matter. At around 1 AM on the second night of the occupation, about one hundred and fifty people, with Mohawks and patched-together cargo pants and Doc Martens, came pouring into the building. Graeber had found a side entrance unguarded by the security guards. As the students ran in, the guards attempted to stop them, throwing them up against the wall or grabbing at their limbs, but the anarchists pushed through and nearly every single one of them made it into the cafeteria, where we were cheering. We hadn’t liked the idea, but now, we felt, we were stronger. There were over two hundred of us. The negotiations were continuing with the administration. We felt that it was possible we would succeed.

Eventually the security guards in the lobby, outside the cafeteria, stopped letting people enter and leave the building. We had enough food and water to last us awhile, and we were energized by our recent growth in numbers. Negotiations were going on in a reading room off the cafeteria between, on our side, Fatuma and some of the other main organizers, and a few selected representatives from the administration and the faculty. Even as the police grew stricter, though, we were still fairly casual about venturing out of the cafeteria to the bathrooms, which were located right outside the cafeteria doors. Then, on the third night of the occupation, the police walked over to the bathrooms, and planted themselves in front of them. There would be no more free pass to the bathrooms. This had not occurred to us. They’d found our blind spot.

People immediately began talking about building a compost toilet with paper walls in the back of the cafeteria. Hey, it was more eco-friendly, anyway! Other people, however, looked sick at the thought. We still had lots of food, donated by supporters, but everyone immediately stopped drinking and eating. It got tense. People grew quiet.

As the negotiations continued in the next room, little by little news came in: they were granting the student government the power to e-mail the entire student body, something they hadn’t previously been able to do; a socially-responsible investment committee would be formed; no one who had occupied would be expelled. We were mostly getting what we wanted, except a few things, such as the opening of the university’s accounting books, the immediate resignation of Kerrey and Murtha, and, most importantly, the building. There would be no compromise. The building was going down. And we, too, were on the verge of going down. Standing in front of the glass windows, peeking out from behind the butcher paper that read “NEW SCHOOL IN EXILE” and “EDUCATION IS NOT ABOUT PROFIT” at the numerous police officers and large-bellied security guards prohibiting our access to the toilets, we knew that our occupation was over.

The administration did, however, offer to create of an interim study space for students (which became the site of the recent, also brief, New School occupation in November of this year). They also said that a group of students would be allowed to be on the committee that was planning the new building.

So it was that I found myself a few weeks later, drinking bad coffee at nine in the morning next to our new provost, Tim Marshall, alongside architects and administrators—who nervously eyed the other student representatives and me—looking over various blueprints that the venerable architectural firm SOM had prepared for the “University Center” that would replace the building we had occupied. I blinked at the designs, which I knew would be realized long after I’d left the New School, and felt the gloom of compromise. I offered the suggestion that a rooftop garden might make the building more sustainable, and its residents could eat from it, too; I received weird, patronizing looks in response. A rooftop garden was not entered into the SOM design.

On October 5, 2011, when Occupy Wall Street called for a Day of Action for students and unions, many New School faculty signed their names to an online pledge in support of OWS. They walked out of the university and marched, alongside thousands of students from The New School and NYU, down to Zuccotti Park (or, to Foley Square, where the police boxed them in and let them trickle out little-by-little). Atop the ledge surrounding Zuccotti Park on its north side, as the march went by, people were holding an enormous banner that read, “ARAB SPRING, EUROPEAN SUMMER, AMERICAN FALL.” In the bottom corner, it said, “NEW SCHOOL IN EXILE.” It had been resurrected.

Our December 2008 occupation received letters of support from Greek labor unions, from the Chicago factory workers who were striking, and from students everywhere, particularly UC Berkeley, where students were gearing up for their own occupation in protest against a 33 percent tuition hike. We received emails from people like Clemson University philosophy professor and anarchist Todd May, who wrote: “Too often, in our world, we are told that politics is dead, that resistance is useless, and that public action is nothing more than an exercise in nostalgia. We are told that we live in a post-political world, where we must compromise with those who would oppress us and must subordinate ourselves to those who would manage our lives for us. These past few days you have shown, as others in Europe, in Latin America, in Asia and Africa seek to show, that politics is not dead, that resistance is not useless, and that public action is precisely what our world requires and demands.”

The letter made us proud to be students of the New School, and confirmed our belief that we were not merely complaining about our particular, isolated situation—we were participating in a broader critique of neoliberalism, of which our corporatized university was just one instance.

But, for the most part, The New School in Exile did not have the support of our own faculty and fellow students. Only two faculty members, Tim Pachirat and Simon Critchley, publicly announced their support of the occupation and visited it. In my department, people accused me of participating in an “elitist” and “exclusionary” movement—too secretive for all to have been involved, too time-demanding for students with jobs to participate. Our department chair, Hugh Raffles, read a statement to us expressing his belief that direct action was not the way to go in this situation. Students nodded in agreement. The New School in Exile had also, during the occupation, been associated with some fairly questionable acts: a group of students literally chased Bob Kerrey down the street in the West Village, near his home, screaming at him as he ran. Kerrey, a Vietnam War veteran, had had part of his leg taken off by a grenade in the Nha Trang Bay. When we inside the occupation heard this had happened, some people cheered, and our blogger, Scott, condoned it in a blog post titled “See Bob Run.” Others wondered if it was ever really okay to chase and threaten a late-middle-aged, hobbling man.

What was it three years later that suddenly made it okay to Occupy? Was it the occupation itself—more dramatic, more clearly connected to the broad impact of the economic crisis beyond the context of our private university? Was it that people had become angrier about the inability of Congress to deal with the recession? Was it that radical politics finally seemed justified in a situation where no other form of politics was effective? Perhaps, if we want to be self-congratulatory, our New School in Exile movement shook things up a bit and created the space for that radicalism. Or maybe it just has to do with the simple fact that, thanks to the convenient location of a 24-hour McDonald’s down the street on Broadway, the occupiers of Zuccotti Park had the one crucial element that our movement never possessed: a bathroom. Having finished my master’s, I’m no longer at The New School, so I don’t know what prompted my faculty to support this occupation, when the previous one had seemed out of bounds. Maybe it’s just easier to accept criticism when it isn’t in your own backyard.

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