NEW YORK — Did New School University president Bob Kerrey pepper spray his own students?
The student group calling itself the “New School In Exile” says that Bob Kerrey bears the bulk of the responsibility for police using physical force against unarmed students engaged in a peaceful protest — a protest that called for Kerrey to step down from his position as president of the New School.
In statements released on their website, students involved in the April 10th — Good Friday — takeover of the New School facility on 65 Fifth Avenue said that Kerrey called in riot police despite the existence of a “demonstrations policy” at the New School that banned the use of force and mandated other forms of action.
|“The demonstrations policy states that “absolutely no form of physical violence or intimidation can be tolerated” on the part of demonstrators. But mobilizing the massive repressive apparatus of the riot police (or massacring an entire village in Vietnam) are apparently okay.”|
Kerrey’s use of force against his students contradicts the core mission of the New School – to instill students with a passion for social justice activism:
|“The New School is a legendary, progressive university comprising eight schools bound by a common, unusual intent: to prepare and inspire its 9,400 undergraduate and graduate students to bring actual, positive change to the world.”|
KERREY’S PAST: BACKDROP TO A CONFLICT
Kerrey has been a controversial figure ever since he arrived at the New School in 2001. Frustrated students and their supporters have been quick to point out that during the Vietnam War Kerrey led a Navy SEAL team on a Phoenix Program mission targeting the peasant village of Thanh Phong. The CIA’s Phoenix program orchestrated the assassination of thousands of Vietnamese — some of the targets were National Liberation Front (“Viet Cong”) but many others were innocent women and children.
|“Kerrey should be tried as a war criminal. His actions on the night of February 24-25, 1969 when the seven man Navy Seal unit which he headed killed approximately twenty unarmed Vietnamese civilians, eighteen of whom were women and children was a war crime. Like those who murdered at My Lai, he too should be brought into the dock and tried for his crimes.”
KERREY’S GOOD FRIDAY GAMBLE
Activists at the New School are locked in a protracted struggle with Kerrey, arguing that he is “corporatizing” the school while ignoring basic needs of the students. The student activists are calling for “socially responsible investing” (SRI) — an end to investing university funds in corporations run by defense contractors who engage in war profiteering. They are also demanding Kerrey’s resignation.
|• The removal of Bob Kerrey as president of the university.|
|• The removal of James Murtha as executive vice president of the university.|
|• The removal of Robert B. Millard as treasurer of the board of trustees.|
|• Students, faculty, and staff be allowed to elect the president, EVP, and Provost.|
|• Students be made part of the interim committee to hire a provost.|
|• Full transparency and disclosure of the university budget and investments.|
|• The creation of a committee on Socially Responsible Investments (SRI).|
|• The suspension of capital improvement projects like the tearing down of 65 Fifth Ave.|
After a 30-hour student occupation of the Graduate Center in December of 2008, Kerrey agreed to form a committee to oversee investing as part of a negotiated settlement.
|Issues From The December Takeover
Still Smoldering In The Spring:
|• After the dismissal of Joe Westphal, Bob Kerrey appointed himself interim provost, the chief academic officer concerned with curriculum — angering both students and faculty.|
|• The turnover of provosts, 5 in 8 years, has frustrated faculty — who reacted with a vote of no confidence in Kerrey.|
|• Students complain about “a serious lack of resources, both technological and academic” – including a lack of study space and communal, social space.|
|• Students argue that Bob Kerrey has attempted to make the New School a profit making venture, rather than meeting basic student needs, offering scholarships and keeping tuition low – angering students.|
|• Students describe a “lack of democratic transparency” in the activities of Bob Kerrey and the board of trustees.|
|• Students have called Kerrey a “war criminal” for his role in the Thanh Phong massacre (Vietnam, 1969).|
|• Students have called board of trustees treasurer Robert Millard a “war profiteer” – Millard is chairman of the executive committee of L3 Communications, a defense contractor being sued by several Abu Ghraib torture victims.|
SMOLDERING ISSUES AND AN APRIL FOOL’S DEADLINE
The settlement resolved very little. Revolutionary Student Union (RSU) organizer Pat Korte told NLN in late December that he and others worried the investment committee might be a “sham”. In addition, Kerrey and Murtha did not resign by April 1, 2009 — a student demand that Kerrey consistently refused to honor. In response, students occupied the largely vacant Graduate Center a second time on April 10, 2009. The second occupation was short lived — almost immediately Kerrey ordered the NYPD to arrest his students.
Controversy surrounding alleged police misconduct resulted in additional protests — including several outside Kerrey’s Greenwich Village home — and additional arrests. Students and supporters have expressed outrage at what they describe as police brutality while the NYPD is insisting a choreographed arrest video, filmed by the Technical Assistance Response Unit (TARU) and available on YouTube, proves officers acted appropriately.
THE CONTROVERSY AND CORPORATE MEDIA COVERAGE
The videotaped beating and arrest of David Benzaquen, a student at the New School who was observing the second occupation from outside the facility on April 10, was filmed by an independent journalist named Brandon Jourdan and posted on the New York Times website. This video has been a precipitant for the growing controversy surrounding Kerrey’s handling of the occupation — and the NYPD’s use of physical force against unarmed students. The video, reposted by a number of New York City news agencies, clearly shows police pepper spraying students and an officer striking Benzaquen, knocking him to the ground.
Perhaps because of the video, the corporate media was surprisingly even handed in its coverage of the New School occupation. Coverage of the controversy surrounding police conduct by the Daily News and NY1 tended to support the student charges of brutality. The New York Times was far less critical than its peers in its commentary on the Police Department’s use of physical force to subdue unarmed students — despite the fact the Times city room blog was the first media website to post the Jourdan video.
NY1′s Pat Kiernan reported that “There is some controversy today over the way protests at the New School were handled by police yesterday…Protestors say police were too aggressive in their enforcement, and posted an amateur video of a man being arrested down the block from the school as proof.”
Kiernan went on to report that the NYPD had released its own video as the students continued to call for Bob Kerrey and James Murtha to resign.
The Daily News also provided coverage that tended to support the students: reporting that riot police were “caught” on videotape roughing up supporters and using pepper spray against students — “even though police brass categorically denied” that chemical agents (pepper spray and tear gas) were used. The News also quoted eyewitnesses who were horrified by the behavior of the police. The News piece concluded with Kerrey claiming he had no choice but to authorize the police to use force against his students.
David M. Halbfinger of the New York Times wrote a piece on the controversy surrounding police behavior in the occupation, offering a different perspective.
In his piece, Halbfinger reported that some knowledgeable observers feel that video evidence is not objective. Halbfinger’s piece makes no distinction between the police — credentialed professionals trained in crowd control — and unarmed civilians caught in the fray. The piece suggests that police behavior, as captured on video, cannot be assessed objectively — in part because an off camera provocation may have occurred. Key to this argument is the notion that the videographer could lie by omission, facilitated by editing, or that the framing of the shot can color the material. In effect, police behavior cannot be caught on film without observer bias distorting the image. Halbfinger raises the question: how can one make an assessment of what is and isn’t reasonable conduct on the part of law enforcement based on video evidence? Fortunately for civil rights activists, the public doesn’t seem to buy the inscrutability of reference argument, a kind of extreme relativism – as evidenced by the NYPD firing of Officer Patrick Pogon, the rookie cop who tackled a cyclist in a recent Critical Mass ride. [ The brutal act was videotaped and then posted on YouTube. As a result, Pogon's case was tried in the court of public opinion and he did not fare well. A lawsuit has been filed on behalf of Pogon's victim. ]
The principal problem with Halbfinger’s argument is that even if footage of a police officer beating an unarmed observer is not placed in a broader context by the videographer – the beating has nonetheless been documented. And should not have occurred as it is unprofessional – and, most likely, unlawful.
COPS ON YOUTUBE
In the NY1 story, New School faculty member and protest eyewitness Jan Clausen told a reporter that, “I know a lot of concerns have to do with militarism in the university, also concerns about students’ conditions of education. And I think that the administration needs to listen to the students and furthermore, I’m really shocked at the police presence.”
Perhaps in anticipation of controversy surrounding their tactics, the police created their own video.
TARU IN A POST-HANDSCHU WORLD
In 1985, the Handschu agreement, the result of a class-action lawsuit filed in 1971, was handed down by the federal court system. The court ruled that the NYPD could not tape peaceful protesters solely for the purpose of gathering intelligence. During the 2004 Republican National Convention the NYPD resumed taping nonviolent protesters and afterwards issued a written policy authorizing this violation of the Handschu agreement – which prompted the NYCLU to challenge the NYPD policy. After a three year court battle, the NYPD quietly rescinded the policy.
The blue jacketed TARU videographers, so ubiquitous during the RNC, have apparently redefined their mission — and have begun contributing to the NYPD presence on YouTube. After the occupation, the NYPD used their YouTube venue to release a TARU produced video of the New School arrests. Manhattan South Task Force commanding officer, Captain Francis Tloczkowski, leads his officers into a room inside the New School: “Task Force, come on!” The TARU videographers follow MSTF into the room and document the cordial arrest process – clearly showing the student occupiers as cooperative and the officers as courteous.
The NYPD has no video of what happened outside the New School and so it is unclear if those police who pepper sprayed students and roughed up supporters were members of MSTF or were attached to other precincts. The NYPD YouTube description of the TARU video is critical of the Jourdan video. It states that “A video on the New York Times website showed portions of these arrests, but did not show those elements captured on video elsewhere, including Youtube, which captured images of individuals from the group throwing the metal barriers. The same video showed an individual, later arrested, as he tried to wrest a prisoner away from an officer who either fell, or was knocked to the ground while attempting to make an arrest.”
Protesters maintain that the NYPD attacked supporters outside the New School without provocation, including Mr. Benzaquen, and the corporate media appears to agree. The Daily News reported that “Riot police were caught on videotape Friday manhandling New School student protesters” and quoted eyewitnesses who were disgusted by the behavior of the police.
RALLIES, MARCHES — AND ADDITIONAL ARRESTS
A rally to support the jailed students was held at Union Square at 10 p.m. on Good Friday. After a press conference supporters marched to Bob Kerrey’s home and shouted demands for him to step down as police looked on. The marchers were headed for 65 Fifth Avenue, the New School building the students had occupied, when a scuffle with police resulted in two arrests. Chris Crews, a journalist and grad student at the New School was filming one of the arrests when a police officer punched his camera, cracking the housing. Crews salvaged the video and posted it on YouTube.
Crews told NLN that “I am an independent filmmaker and New School graduate student who was personally assaulted by an unidentified security official on 14th St. at around 11pm Friday night while filming two NYPD officers arresting a demonstrator (4/10/09). The man had just pushed one person next to a metro stop, and after picking up his hat from the street, he walked directly at me and punched my hand and camera, attempting to break it. The force of his blow cracked my camera and may have permanently damaged it. I was in no way obstrucing or interfering with any police officer, nor was I being disruptive or confrontational. What I experienced was a completely unprovoked and violent assault against my person and my video camera simply for documenting these events. This is a clear case of intentional targeting of journalists and videographers at protests, and my experience was only one of several I have heard of. The blatant assault I experienced was unwarranted and inexcusable, and incidents of this sort threaten all potential journalists and reporters in the field.”
By Saturday, April 11, all of the students arrested for occupying the Graduate Center on Good Friday had been arraigned and released without bail. Supporters, including a number of New School students and faculty, began demanding reinstatement for the 14 students expelled by Kerrey for their role in the occupation. The Radical Student Union held a press conference the following Wednesday — April 15, Tax Day — to reiterate their demands for Kerrey and Murtha to step down.
On April 16, students and supporters held a speak-out on the issue of students rights and police brutality outside the New School campus on West 13th Street. Protesters took to the streets after the speak out and occupied the intersection at 13th and Sixth Avenue briefly. The demonstrators then marched south on Sixth and taunted Kerrey from the street as a row of police stood in front the New School president’s besieged home. The marchers moved on to the Grad Center at 65 Fifth Avenue where they occupied the street in front of the building. Community Affairs cops were unable to do much but they were eventually joined by Deputy Chief Chan and police from the 6th Precinct and Manhattan South. Three protesters were arrested and taken to the 6 for processing. The crowd moved back down Sixth Avenue making their way to Washington Square South and NYU’s Kimmel Building where mayoral candidate Reverend Billy Talen was scheduled to speak. Delivering a bullhorn sermon on NYU’s architectural “monstrosity”, the Kimmel building, Talen mentioned Bob Kerrey — calling him “our favorite war criminal.”
STATEMENTS OF SUPPORT
Statements of support for the students continue to be posted on the New School In Exile site and now include letters from the Comisión Internacional de la CAE in Barcelona, La Sapienza University in Rome, the Graduate Faculty Student Senate, the Lang Faculty Executive Committee, the Economics Student Union (ESU) at the New School for Social Research and the union of part-time faculty at NYU and the New School, ACT-UAW Local 7902. ACT-UAW has its own issues with Kerrey who dismissed a dozen part-time faculty members in the Fine Art Department at Parsons, the New School for Design. ACT-UAW is holding a demonstration at the New School’s Administration building, 66 West 12th Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues) on Thursday, April 23 at noon.
Many of the issues surrounding the behavior of the police department will likely be settled in court but the issue of Bob Kerrey and his embattled presidency remains on the front burner at the New School. The students continue to reiterate their demands at press conference and speak outs — and from the street in front of Kerrey’s Greenwich Village home.
PAST REPORTING ON NLN / RELATED ARTICLES:
|Stories Related To The Takeover In December:|
|• Iraq Moratorium III at L3 Communications, November 16, 2007|
|• Lockdown at L3 Communications, 8 students arrested, March 19, 2008|
|• SDS die-in at L3 Communications, April 18, 2008|
|• Faculty Vote of No Confidence In Kerrey, December 10, 2008|
|• Sit-in at New School Board of Trustees meeting on December 10, 2008.|
|• Occupation of Graduate Center, December 17, 2008.|
|• Agreement Signed, December 19, 2008|