A Portrait of the Events on November 21st and 28th
It’s a common mode of thought to believe that the police are there to protect us. Free speech and expression are also considered two fundamental rights and what better place to exercise those rights than at a public school. The place we were taught is our second home, a place for our personal and professional growth, a place where we could openly share our ideas, a place to be accepted, and most importantly a place to be safe.
On the afternoon of November 21st I was greeted by my English professor in class. She stated, “In light of what is going on, I do not feel comfortable conducting class today.” We were allowed to accompany her to the CUNY student strike to what seemed to be a peaceful protest against tuition hikes. I was up for it. It would be the second peaceful protest I attended for class. The first being at Occupy Wall Street.
A few other classmates and I followed my professor’s lead as she gave us a brief explanation of what to expect. We should observe the scene in the context of what we are learning in class, art within a very different environment. As we entered Madison Square Park, we heard chanting and a rumbling sound as if we were about to step into a new jungle. Yellow signs stating “They want a hike, we say student Strike!” were perched up on wooden planks and students circled around a human microphone. They repeated chants in OWS fashion. But the difference was that this protest was mainly comprised of students. They were in camaraderie, in a united fashion as they shook fists in the air and cried out their own student struggles. They shared stories, financial hardships, and spoke in vibrant, passionate fervor. One student shared a story that may be familiar to some Baruchians: Her struggle to pay more and more because her college will not accept her transfer credits. Another young woman’s story also caught my attention. Her brother was in Afghanistan working as a service analyst and making $20,000 a year. He was struggling to pay her tuition. When the young woman finished delivering her story tears streamed down her face, one student gave her a pat on the back, and another embraced her.
As my professor was about to leave the protest she told us, “Everyone be safe. You never know when these things can get violent.” I didn’t think that what she said would actually ring true. In fact, I thought simply, “These are students. The police would never do that.” I guess I didn’t know that between the thirty minute time span in which I left the protest, things would be very different. I went home, logged onto Facebook, and saw “15 Arrested At Baruch College in Clash with Cops.” I paused and suddenly became quite nervous. I watched The Ticker’s video in which a student was being held to the ground and cuffed right underneath the familiar yellow panel, with the words “Inspire Students”. I felt a surge of an emotion I can’t quite describe. Except what if I was there? It could have been me. This happened at my school, the place I go to everyday and expect to be a safe place.
According to third-year Baruch student Denise Romero who is a representative of Students United for a Free CUNY and the President of Bottom Up Baruch, a student club that aims to address political initiatives, “The students came out to share their personal stories and be supportive of each other…We wanted to make our presence seen and we were immediately stopped by a human wall of NYPD and security…Paola Martinez [a fellow Baruch student] had her Baruch I.D. taken away… Students were met with batons and pushed into revolving doors.” Romero stated that since the students were not allowed to enter the Board of Trustees meeting, they were to hold a general assembly right there in the NVC. But the unarmed protesters were faced with armed security. Both students and professors alike could be sighted at the protest. Graduate Teaching Fellow at Baruch College, Conor Tomas Reed, was charged with trespassing in the very school he teaches his students.
The safe place to exercise free speech and assembly had been compromised. It was further evident on November 28th, the judgment day for tuition hikes. Some say the decision to cancel classes was due to the chance of violence from the police or a disruption from the protesters. Public Affairs Professor Edward Regan agreed with the decision on the grounds that the protesters were being disruptive. He stated, “The marchers, for the most part, were not Baruch students and I think they interrupted class presentations when they marched in here. We had to close at 3 o’clock and that’s wrong. That’s absolutely wrong. They should have a right to be heard. This is free speech. This country is free speech. But it’s not free if you’re disrupting people that are working.” Denise Romero held an opinion quite the opposite. She stated, “That was an administrative decision that was not provoked by the students. They did it to keep students, staff, and the community out of the building from a public meeting.” She later stated, “They did it because the security’s actions cannot be anticipated.”
The President of Baruch College Mitchel Wallerstein’s message to cancel classes on the 28th was an inconvenience to many students and teachers. The CUNY Professional Staff Congress, a union for faculty and staff, called for the Baruch President to “Open the campus, open the meeting, and let this university be a university again.” Many professors ended up cancelling Friday class. But other students had to choose either work or school. The change of schedule has made some students contemplate who to blame for this snatching of a day of classes and this hindrance on their education.
The use of violence against students on November 21st was the first time that I was awakened to a new idea: Maybe We’re Not As Free As We’d Like to Think We Are. We’ve grown accustomed to the principles of free speech, assembly, and the right to an education. But any infringement on our basic rights has to be questioned. Perhaps the cancelling of classes on the 28th should be taken more seriously. Our classes can be taken away, just like that. And not for a religious holiday or a snowstorm. For a student protest. There’s one thing for sure. Free education will come with a price.