Students respond to GC President Kelly on security presence

A doctoral student in Anthropology has responded to President Kelly’s request for information about the security presence on the GC campus in an open letter which reads,

I am writing in response to your message addressing security issues at The Graduate Center. I write with both hope and a heaviness of heart. I write in response to your statement and with an honest appeal which I hope you will consider seriously. Most importantly, I write as someone of our university’s academic and political community who holds a profound sense of belonging and gratitude for this place and network we call The CUNY Graduate Center. The words that follow are shaped and inspired by my experiences here.

There are people who would admonish me for writing you such a letter. They would claim that you represent those on the other side of the blunt force that was used against us on Monday at Baruch, that this letter is wasted time, these words are wasted breath. And perhaps they are right. But unfortunately and fortunately, I am not someone inclined towards cynicism. I have my education to thank for that. I will not go through the details of events at Baruch on Monday; for that I could direct you here: http://studentweekofaction.wordpress.com/. I can tell you that I am someone committed to nonviolence both politically and spiritually. I can also tell you I am committed to public education. I have been a public educator in some capacity for fifteen years. I was there on Monday and I saw the terror, disillusionment, anger, resolve, and defiance on student’s faces when they were assaulted with batons by CUNY security and – as substantial and reliable evidence reveals – NYPD was called into the building. I know of someone who was sexually harassed that day by CUNY security. I have heard firsthand testimonials of people who were hit and jabbed. I was grabbed roughly by my arm and I witnessed a male acquaintance being grabbed, thrown, and taken away by 2 men in uniform because he was feeling claustrophobic and leaned his body out of a packed elevator. My friend’s cell phone was smashed to bits. Another’s glasses were broken. I have colleagues who were arrested. I realize you do not know me, but I am not exaggerating. There are video and audio recordings documenting these events, which is why so many faculty – some of our most esteemed – have come forward to support usand why the petition to oust Chancellor Goldstein has already acquired over 2000 signatures. Every student I have referred to thus far is from The Graduate Center.

I am not merely being hopeful and naïve when I say the winds of change are here. As they blow – and they will blow fast – you have the opportunity to be someone who mattered to public education in a deeper, larger sense. There is much reason to believe that Matthew Goldstein’s tenure as CUNY Chancellor is over. He is not respected enough to be feared, not considered eloquent enough to be convincing or ethical enough to be trusted, and he has no credible commitment to public education. He, along with many Board members, has displayed what appears to be – deep down – terror of free thought and the racially and ethnically diverse youth and labor of this city; these are elements to be contained, if necessary with violence. But the very seclusion and elitism that has, over recent years, protected the Chancellor and the Board is now their Achilles heel. I speak for many when I say we feel no allegiance to them. It is not just that they are stirring up an atmosphere of violence and threat, but they are, simultaneously, becoming obsolete. At a historical moment when CUNY students are standing up with self-dignity, finding the right words, fueled by a sense of purpose and righteousness, and coming together in solidarity around public space and public education, neither the Chancellor’s money nor his political connections will save him. I am sure if Antonio Gramsci were alive, he’d be able to explain this better than me.

You say that you value the exchange of ideas and respect. You say you support free speech and civility. You, as much as any of us, should know that without the former the latter cannot exist. Civility in a climate of censorship and violence – economic, social, and physical – is merely a ruse that erodes the very foundation of anything that could be called an education. No step towards justice in history, recorded or unwritten, has ever been taken without deeply disrupting prevailing patterns of work and life. This is because brutality, in its most terrible form, dons the garb of normality. If those of the Civil Rights movement were concerned about enabling people to go to work and study “as usual” the institution at which you are at the helm would look far different today, and the robust intellect that fills its halls would be largely absent. My education has taught me that to be “civil” is to boldly stand up for the most humane thing, not to meekly relinquish to dehumanizing norms. With candor born of respect, I am saying that your proclamation to balance free speech and what you have called “civility” is not a substantial response to recent events ay CUNY. Regardless of the earnestness with which you may have made this call, it essentially amounts to false appeasement.

I must admit that I am deeply disappointed that – after the violence inflicted upon — NOT perpetrated by– us on Monday, you followed orders and added security on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, trying to ward off the threat of a potential “occupation.” I would have thought that your real concern, as President of our college, would have been for our safety. I would have thought you might have used that money to send security to protect us – your students – on the 28th. I must tell you that in the eyes of the students with whom I have spoken, there is simply no good justification for this decision. I would have thought that you would have understood that the professors, staff, and students who comprise our community fundamentally believe in The Graduate Center as a place where radical thought and political discussions can and should exist. I thought The Graduate Center was a place that we, the students, staff and faculty, did “occupy” with our minds, bodies, passions, voices, and beliefs. Isn’t that its greatest strength?

I ask that you reconsider how you respond to calls for more security to watch your students. I ask that you make a public declaration, supported by irrefutable evidence, that no NYPD will be called into our school because of a fear of “occupation.” I ask that you come out in support of your students with a commitment to protect their freedom of expression, even if that means not following orders from above. I ask, in short, that you be a leader worthy of this great institution of public higher education that I, and so many others, have grown to cherish and would risk much to defend. Your public actions will be read as your response to issues raised in this letter.

The original open letter sent by officers of the Doctoral Students’ Council can be read here. The full text of President Kelly’s response is below:

Dear Friends,

I’ve received a message from the Officers of the Doctoral Students’ Council regarding security practices at The Graduate Center. I was pleased to have their thoughtful inquiry. The concerns they raised are of general import, so I take the liberty of answering in the form of a community message. I will also address security issues their letter did not raise.  I’ll begin with some specifics and then turn to broader themes.

I’ve been asked whether the size of our security staff has been increased. It has not. To the contrary, staffing has been reduced in the last year by 4.2 positions. That reduction is the consequence of an over 50% increase in contract guard billing rates. Since 1999, we are down a total of seven positions. We have had some turn-over this year, so if you see an unfamiliar face, please introduce yourself.

The greater security presence in the building last Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and again on Monday, resulted from holding officers from the 7 to 3 shift over and bringing in the 3 to 11 staff early. No external personnel were involved. The cost attendant to that action will be absorbed through savings effected in our security budget in the course of the year.

We took that action at the request of CUNY central, as did every CUNY college. The request was made in response to a number of non-specific web notices concerning college occupations.  We complied for two reasons: first, to insure the peace of our community in uncertain circumstances; and second — and more important — to guarantee that should the need for additional security staff arise, they would be members of our community, not people whom we do not know and who do not know us.

There was no intent to intimidate students, staff, or faculty; the dispersal of officers throughout the building, rather than grouping a larger than usual number of security staff at the entrance to The Graduate Center or elsewhere in the building was meant to avoid that very prospect.  I deeply regret any perception to the contrary.

Graduate Center peace officers have been trained in first amendment rights as well as the laws of arrest, search, seizure, and the lawful use of force. They have been authorized by New York State law to make arrests for violation of NYS penal code; they may use reasonable force to protect themselves and others. They are not authorized to conduct surveillance of students, staff, or faculty. This point is self-evident to me, but I make it in deference to concerns raised about such activity at other colleges.

There are no plans whatsoever for a sustained increase in security. Should occasional need arise, additional officers would be drawn from our current staff.

Security staff regularly check on all events in the building to insure compliance with NYC fire codes and to gather attendance statistics for the Office of Special Events.  They do not report on the content of those events.

Although we have only eight uniformed peace officers, our practice is to respond to Graduate Center protest activity with Graduate Center personnel.  NYPD is responsible for protecting public officials attending events at The Graduate Center and for policing the sidewalks around our building.  Only in an emergency would they be called into The Graduate Center.

*******

All of the above is nuts and bolts. Here’s what matters, my friends.  We are a university, a community of scholars. The vital exchange of ideas is the heart of our enterprise. That’s one of the two pillars that sustain a university and underwrite its very being. The other is respect, the protection of the rights of all to pursue their work and to conduct their lives.  Free speech and civility are mutually sustaining. Each is meaningless without the other.  Defending both — absolutely — is the challenge we face. Thus far, we have, together, succeeded.  Our security staff, under the direction of John Flaherty, has been — in my opinion — flawless in supporting peaceful protest and free assembly. They deserve our thanks. Similarly, faculty, students, and staff who have participated in the variety of activities associated with the Occupy movement have been both forceful in their expression and respectful in their exchange. I’ve been reminded again and again that The Graduate Center is a remarkable place and that I am very privileged to be a member of this community.

With respect and deep regard,

Bill

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