Late on Monday afternoon, Nancy and I arrived at the CUNY demo outside Baruch College’s “Vertical Campus” (an ugly building resembling a smushed pyramid or a sci fi incubator for a futuristic plague) and eagerly joined the first rebellious crowd we saw. Soon we were sprinting up Third Avenue in what looked like some sort of human Running of the Bulls action. Motorcycle cops were seeking to trap the herd, which swerved periodically and reversed direction to avoid capture. “We won’t be penned!” read a message hand-lettered on oaktag. The ANSWER coalition had neatly printed mustard-colored signs calling for the abolition of the CUNY Board. (Good demand, but shouldn’t it come from inside CUNY? I wondered.)
This demo was for the physically fit. I clutched the cardboard tube of my UAW lollipop sign, technically the property of the union, but resident in my basement since November 17th, when I finished the Brooklyn Bridge march with nary a sign-collector in sight. “Where are the other faculty members?” we wondered, finding ourselves in what appeared to be a cohort of undergraduates. “Sometimes I really want a cigarette,” Nancy sighed as the smoke from their cancer sticks wafted into our faces. “How long did you smoke?” “From 14 to 25.” Nancy is now in her late fifties, a couple of years my junior. She clutched her takeout coffee cup. We discussed the extra physical apprehension that people our age and older often feel at the prospect of tangling with the police or getting arrested under uncontrollable circumstances.
We made our way back to 25th and Lexington, where we discovered a fairly decorous picket line with a lot more folks of mature age, led by PSC-CUNY union president Barbara Bowen, megaphone in hand. “Oh, that’s where all the faculty went.” Nancy filled me in on some of the concerns behind the demonstration, above and beyond the steep tuition hike that the trustees were set to vote on that day. These include a large appropriation to beef up campus security and draconian changes to the system-wide curriculum that many believe are being imposed without appropriate faculty input. Then there’s the revelation, recently discussed on the Occupy CUNY web site, that CUNY campus police were equipped (as long ago as the late ’90’s) with a raft of high-tech weaponry. Overhanging all of these specific grievances is the perception that the trustees are a bunch of well-connected political appointees with little real concern for or knowledge of higher education. (Another reason to think poorly of them: I was just reminded of last spring’s dust-up over their malfeasance when l read that playwright Tony Kushner has received a Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship, given largely because of the stand he took when the CUNY BOT declined to go ahead with awarding him an honorary degree on the strength of one member’s unsubstantiated allegations that he was “anti-Israel.”)
“We’re Young, We’re Poor, We Won’t Take it Anymore,” the beautiful students chanted, while some of their peers gaped curiously from the big windows of Baruch’s library across the street. “Cops off campus!” “You say tuition hike–we say student strike!” “Do you think they chose Baruch for the trustees’ meeting because it’s the business school and they think there’ll be less student activism here?” someone speculated. “Fire[Chancellor] Matthew Goldstein!” and “Goldstein went to CUNY when CUNY was free!” were other popular slogans. After something of a wild goose chase–a sidewalk march down to Gramercy Park and back, well accompanied by cops, as an alternative to unrelieved penning–we ended up back in front of Baruch, where a few people in business attire were glimpsed behind the lobby glass. “Walk of shame!” we shouted as some presumed trustees exited. The evening wrapped up with a “mic check” broadcast of a brief pep talk. “This evening was awesome. We stood together. This is just the beginning!”