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Direct Action Meets Austerity: A Report from the Frontlines

Costas Panayotakis Mar 24, 2011

Austerity is moving into New York State like a steamroller. This sober reality moved me to participate in the direct action against budget cuts in Albany on March 23.

Organized by my union, the Professional Staff Congress, which represents more than 20,000 faculty and professional staff at the City University of New York, the protest drew hundreds of people. Thirty-three participants who peacefully sat down and blocked the doors to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office were arrested. Everyone from first-time protesters to grizzled activists said it was an empowering experience.

Reneta Lansiquot, professor of English at CUNY’s New York City College of Technology pointed out, “I used to look at the coverage of protests in the news, and I would always wonder: who are these people? Why are they angry? Why do they take the time to turn out for protests? Well, my time has come. I turned out because I no longer had an excuse not to and it was awesome. It was not that difficult and I will probably do it again.”

Bonnie Nelson, a librarian at CUNY’s John Jay College shared Lansiquot’s sense of urgency. She went to Albany prepared to get arrested because “civil disobedience is the only moral response to the immoral austerity budget” that Governor Cuomo is proposing.

Many said that a driving factor in their participation was the divide between Gov. Cuomo forcing CUNY students and New Yorkers to pay for the ongoing economic crisis by raising tuition, firing state workers and cutting services while letting the “Millionaire’s Tax” lapse.

Members from community groups representing tenants, students and teachers, and immigrants took part in the demonstration. Jairo Ruiz, a member of the Brooklyn-based community group Make the Road made the four-hour trip because “protest is the only tool that we have to make politicians accountable and to move towards a political system that is more based on participation than on representation.” Ruiz added, “Laying off teachers and increasing class sizes will mean more young people in the streets and more social problems for all of us.”

The conviction that neither these problems nor the austerity budget proposed by Cuomo (with support from the Republican-majority Senate) were inevitable was evident as people picketed inside the Albany Capitol chanting “Tax the rich, not the poor, stop the war on CUNY!”

Bronx Community College student Charles Ansong said, “The governor can do much better than this budget. There are so many millionaires in New York. Why not ask them to contribute 5 or 10 percent of their wealth, instead of having everybody else suffer?” Interestingly, this budget is not Ansong’s first encounter with protest. Originally from Ghana, Ansong lived in England before he came to New York. In England he worked at an international call center until the current crisis cost him his job. When his call center moved to India where wages are much lower, Ansong and the other workers in the center went on strike. Now in New York, Ansong has not lost his fighting spirit: “This is interesting for me because I had protested before against a private company but never against the government.”

As austerity programs are spreading around the world, the issue of taxation moves to the center of the struggle over who will bear the cost of the current crisis. The fact that the March 23 action highlighted this issue was what made it important for Mike Menser, professor of philosophy at Brooklyn College.

“The issue of taxation is central to CUNY and the future of our students,” said Menser. “Direct action against austerity is necessary because the legislators are nervous about their constituents’ reactions to the budget cuts, so it is essential for all of us to be loud and clear about our opposition to the attempt to make all of us pay for a crisis that others caused.”

The current crisis has led to waves of protest around the world. Until recently, American workers were relatively quiet. This may be changing now, as the mobilizations in Wisconsin have electrified workers around the country. In fact, one of the most popular chants in our action was “Wisconsin, New York, the struggle is the same.” Highlighting the need to move the resistance up a notch, this action will hopefully contribute to the comeback that the labor movement so desperately needs if it is to survive the escalating attacks of its sworn enemies.

Costas Panayotakis teaches sociology at CUNY’s New York City College of Technology. An amateur performer, he is also the creator of “Austerity Nut,” who preaches in New York subways the need for all working class people to “sacrifice for our suffering brothers and sisters in Wall Street.”

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