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Thursday, 24 October 2013

Whose CUNY? Our CUNY!

Nisha Bolsey reports on the shuttering of the Morales-Shakur Center on the CCNY campus--and how students are fighting back.
Students march and rally at CCNY to defend the Morales/Shakur Center 
Students march and rally at CCNY to defend the Morales/Shakur Center
ON THE morning of October 20, without any warning, police and City University of New York (CUNY) employees shut down the Morales-Shakur Center, a beloved community center on the third floor of the North Academic Center building on the City College of New York (CCNY) campus.
The Morales-Shakur Center, named for revolutionaries Guillermo Morales and Assata Shakur, has served as a hub of campus organizing, with more than 10 student groups using it as a meeting space; a community center that housed programs like a book exchange and a farm share; and above all, a safe space for both CCNY students and the larger Harlem community.
It was considered a community center run by students, and not under the jurisdiction of the CUNY system. Because of its unique status, it was seen as a space where students felt safe and free to express themselves. According to Zulai Romero, a CCNY student from the group Students for Educational Rights (SER), one of the many that was housed in the Morales-Shakur Center:
It was the only space that I ever really found my niche in. You'd go there and you didn't have to be a club, you just had to educate yourself. During midterms week, I didn't want to be in the library because the lights hurt or whatever, I'd go in there and sleep, study, organize there...Not everyone who goes to the center is a leftist or radical--students there are just trying to make college easier for people.
What you can do
Protest the closure of the Morales-Shakur Center on October 24 at noon, near the flagpole in front of the NAC Building on the CCNY campus, 160 Convent Ave.
In a press release, CCNY students from the Liberate CUNY Front explained what happened when the center was taken over:
The morning after the raid, the entire City College campus was put under lockdown. Inside the college, students were kidnapped and unable to leave the facilities; outside, students were harassed by public safety officers and unable to access the school. This came at the worst time, as students needed to get in and use the library to study for upcoming midterms.
In their frustrations about the library being closed and a beloved community center being raided and shut down, students organized an impromptu protest that gained numbers and support quickly. Media, community members and city council members came to express solidarity, and enough pressure was built to force the administration to reopen the campus. However, the Morales-Shakur Center remains under siege.
The following day, October 21, hundreds of students gathered in front of the NAC to protest the administration's seizure of the center. Many students gathered to speak on the people's mic, and expressed anger about both the seizure of the center and larger problems students see taking place at CUNY.
Students marched through the library chanting, "Who's CUNY? Our CUNY!" and were eventually stopped by multiple security guards, who blocked them from going up the escalator where the Morales-Shakur Center is located.
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THE ADMINISTRATION'S move comes as part of a neoliberal wave of changes in the CUNY system, of which rising tuition has been central. As state funding has decreased, the CUNY system has relied more and more on tuition, which has increased from 12 percent of its operating budget in 1989 to 41.5 percent in 2006.
These changes, which have accompanied administration rhetoric about making CUNY "more selective," have disproportionately affected low-income students, particularly students of color, who are becoming less and less able to afford their education.
When the CUNY system was created as the "Free Academy" in 1847, with a campus now known as City College, it was completely free--tuition wasn't charged until 1976. At that time, it was established with the goal of providing a free education to lower-income students.
CUNY students have a long history of radical organizing. In 1969, students were able to win open admissions after a wave of protests and the occupation of City College's South Campus, which they named "University of Harlem," in protest of CCNY's majority white student body in a majority minority neighborhood. In 1976, the year that tuition was imposed, CUNY had its first majority non-white student body.
The Morales-Shakur Center itself was won in 1989 as a result of major student protests against tuition hikes. Student activists took over an administration building at CCNY, demonstrated outside of the governor's office downtown, and boycotted classes in protest of the rising cost of public education at CUNY.
Students have described the administration's move to shut the center as part of a growing "militarization" of the university--from the emergence of ROTC on campus after four decades (when it was abolished thanks to massive student protests during the Vietnam War era), to the appointment of former CIA chief and U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus to teach at the Macaulay Honors College, and the subsequent crackdown on student protesters who came out against Petraeus' appointment.
Shaila Bora, also an organizer with SER, sees this as part of a larger move on the part of the administration to silence student activism: "What's happening is they're shutting down a community- and student-run space in order to silence the voices of students. Our school has a long radical history, and they are trying to quell that and erase it."
As many students around City College will tell you, CUNY students have a long history of fighting back, and that is exactly what they plan to continue doing. The struggle to reclaim the Morales-Shakur Center continues, as student organizations and groups come together to decide what to do next.
Students ended their press release by emphasizing how important the center is as a reminder of what progressive struggle have won in the past, and calling on all progressive students and activists to join the fight for the center in the days ahead:
Unless all progressive forces unite at this point, the repression will become even more draconian and face the possibility of our movement, that among the students in general, will be set back years of work with this loss. Morales-Shakur Center is the center and congealment of those progressive struggles that ran themselves among the revolutionary working-class students. It must be defended now.

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