More than 200 faculty and students lined up outside Brooklyn College President Karen Gould’s office May 16 to silently deliver letters of protest.
A Brooklyn College (BC) student demonstration on May 2, 2012, was met with force by CUNY security personnel – and that response became the target of another campus protest. On May 16,2012, hundreds of people joined in a silent vigil to protest the crackdown against the May 2 action.
On May 2, 2012, as part of a “CUNY-Wide Day of Action,” eight Brooklyn College students sat down outside the office of BC President Karen Gould, demanding to meet with her about tuition increases and inadequate student resources on campus. Instead, the students were forcibly ejected by CUNY security personnel from Boylan Hall, where Gould’s office is located. Two were arrested and handed over to the NYPD.
‘SHOCK AND DISMAY’
In a letter to Gould, the Brooklyn College Student Union expressed “profound shock and dismay at the overwhelming security response” and “physical intimidation and assaults” against demonstrators.
“We did not sit in front of your door for light or transient reasons,” the students wrote. Earlier this semester, they said, the Student Union had gathered about a thousand signatures on a petition that Gould had never acknowledged, asking for college-level measures to help students cope with rising costs. (Gould maintains that she never received the petition; student activists say they delivered it to her office on April 16, 2012.)
The executive committee of the college’s PSC chapter wrote that its members “witnessed excessive use of force by CUNY security staff” against a peaceful protest on May 2, 2012, and that the “demonstration was handled in an unnecessarily aggressive and intolerant way.” The chapter asked for “a college-wide conversation about demonstration policies on campus” and urged Gould to meet with Student Union members as they had asked.
Both the union chapter and the Student Union said that charges against the two students arrested should be dropped. One student was charged with assault after a security guard fell to the floor and was injured. Both student and faculty witnesses say the assault charge is false, that the student only tried to shield an injured student walking with a cane from security personnel. The other arrested student was taken into custody after she lay down in the corridor outside Gould’s office; her account of the rough treatment she received is online.
The PSC chapter’s letter argued that it was a mistake for security personnel to prioritize clearing the hallway as quickly as possible over resolving the situation as peacefully as possible. “There is a long and very valuable history of student activism and protest on college campuses, in the United States and around the world. We honor that history by making sure that our campus is a space where students can express their concerns in a non-violent way – even in a manner that may be loud and make some of us uncomfortable – without fear of physical assault.” The union letter voiced particular concern about “the aggressive posture of non-uniform security personnel dispatched by CUNY Central. These personnel appeared to be at the center of the decision to deal hastily and violently with those sitting in.” Accordingly, the letter asked that security staff from CUNY Central be kept off campus in the future.
A resolution approved at the May meeting of the PSC’s Delegate Assembly expressed support from the union as a whole for the Brooklyn College chapter’s stand. In addition to criticizing the use of force against a peaceful protest and asking that charges against those arrested be dropped, it proposed an independent investigation of the incident by a third party agreed to by both the PSC and the college administration.
In a May 10 reply to the mounting criticism, President Gould gave no ground. She wrote that she was “confident that our peace officers took appropriate action to ensure the safety of our campus, including the safety of those involved in the demonstration.”
Dismayed at this response, the Student Union and the PSC chapter jointly organized a silent protest on May 16 that drew 250 people. After gathering in front of Boylan Hall, they filed slowly inside. Carrying individual letters to Gould and a signed group statement, protesters lined up along the edge of the hallways outside her office and sat down. One by one they rose, deposited a letter in front of Gould’s office, and then returned to their spot on the floor, silent all the while. Once the last letter was delivered, they filed back out again, closing with a rally on the Brooklyn College quad.
News that the Brooklyn DA had dropped the felony assault charges initially filed against one student drew loud and joyful cheers. The union chapter pledged its support for defense efforts against remaining lesser charges. As the PSC chapter requested, security officers from CUNY Central were kept off campus during the demonstration. With a minimal security presence, the event remained peaceful.
“It was an amazing turnout,” said Julieta Salgado, who had been arrested on May 2, 2012, after lying down in the hall. “It can be hard to be a student activist. But when you get this kind of direct, local support, it makes such a difference!”
“We needed to send a clear signal that our campus life must have room for active, non-violent dissent,” said PSC First VP Steve London, an associate professor of political science at BC. “Public protest has long been a central part of the academy, and of democratic life – and we are not going to allow the space for it become closed off.”