Student activism at the City University of New York (CUNY) has been on the rise, with protests against the teaching position at the Macaulay Honors College for former Pentagon commander and CIA Director David Petraeus. Meanwhile, on the campus of the City College of New York (CCNY), a wave of protests erupted in response to the administration's move to shut down the Morales-Shakur Center, a vital student-community center on campus.
Will Russell and Nisha Bolsey spoke with Sharmin Hossain, a CUNY Hunter College student working with the Ya-Ya Network and activist participating in the Ad Hoc Committee against the Militarization of CUNY; and Oscar Maradiaga, a former CUNY student and community activist also actively involved in the Ad Hoc Committee.
Who is David Petraeus, what is he doing at CUNY and why are students fighting against him?
Sharmin: David Petraeus is the former CIA director, as well as the former military official involved in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the illegal occupations.
Can you talk about his connection to the El Mozote massacre is in El Salvador?
Sharmin: Petraeus hired and worked with Col. James Steele who basically created the psychological terrorist agenda of massacring thousands of innocent people who were affiliated with anti-government or anti-system organizing. [The Atlacatl Batallion in El Salvador] would line the civilians up and shoot them in the head or knock them out.
Petraeus was also responsible for the bombings of innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was one of the lead commanders who created a dialogue around the way that American massacres occurred during that time. He was one of the biggest voices that we heard in public justifying the crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We know that our occupations there are illegal, but he was one of the main voices that was encouraging the occupation and also turning the American public to believe there were "criminals" in Iraq and Afghanistan that deserved this kind of terrorism and violence.
Petraeus was later head of the CIA, too. Aside from the whole scandal with his extramarital affair, what was his legacy in the CIA during the time he was there?
Oscar: I think that he furthered the agenda of imperialism through usage of drones–bombing places we weren't "officially at war with," such as Yemen and Pakistan, and thus furthering the agenda of U.S. imperialism.
What is his position at CUNY?
Sharmin: Recently, Petraeus got hired as a professor at Macaulay Honors College at CUNY, which is an elite institution in itself. He is teaching a class called "Are We On the Threshold of the North American Decade?" and at first, he was offered about $200,000 to teach at CUNY. But after outrage by students and faculty who signed petitions and created an online response over the summer, his salary was reduced to one dollar.
After the first few protests, there have been increased security measures, where private Escalades have picked him up, and cops and security officers were protecting him on CUNY dollars.
CUNY educates more students of color than any other university system in the country–is that right?
So that includes people who might be from El Salvador or Iraq and Afghanistan. What does it mean for him to be teaching at a campus like CUNY?
Oscar: Before I touch on that point, I think we should also go back to Sharmin's point where he was offered a $200,000 teaching salary. I think it's a big slap in the face to any sort of professor or teacher who actually takes the time to become a career educator, when you have this person Petraeus, who's not a career educator, just a career murderer, and he gets by with all of this. I think this is a big slap in the face. I think that's part of the reason why the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), one of the CUNY unions, is also involved in protesting his lecture position at the College>/a>.
Sharmin: His position also speaks to the acceptance that the CUNY administration has toward war culture and imperialism in general. This past year, Reserve Officer Training Corps has returned to CUNY campuses after being kicked out in 1971. Students–antiwar students and students who have a very personal relationship to the impact of imperialism within their homeland experiences–are really outraged by the fact that they are seeing army recruiters coming into our campuses, knowing that we are in a $25 billion debt bubble, with students are lacking opportunities for higher education and lacking opportunities for jobs.
With the military coming to recruit on campus it says a lot about what opportunities are being offered to working-class students who don't have access to better education or better jobs.
Petraeus' position also creates this culture of acceptance towards war culture. That people like Petraeus are allowed to teach here is not only blatantly disrespecting the families that he has violated, but it also represents that CUNY is accepting the militarization of culture.
If you look at the City College of New York advanced research center, we know that that $168 million research center is funded by gun manufacturers and companies like Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman. These companies are coming into CUNY under the illusion that they are providing jobs or access to engineering opportunities. But they are essentially perpetuating the military-industrial complex. It just becomes accepted and "normal" that people who are murderers and imperialist machines are coming to our campus.
Can you talk about how the Ad Hoc Committee came together and started to build the campaign, and some of the highlights?
Oscar: It's a group of interested people from different campuses who've come together to rally and protest against Petraeus, the militarization of campus through the NYPD, the militarization through the ROTC programs, and what we've been facing in the current weeks–from the initial start of Petraeus' teaching to the takeover of our community center here at City College.
Sharmin: When we got together in the summer originally, people were talking about the way we wanted to organize in moving forward. It was the "hit-the-ground-running" petition about Petraeus' original salary that really created a momentum that now we're going to protest. We've been open to the public. We've been based on a participatory model, and we've been very inclusive of different campuses.
There have been a lot of different people who have shown up. We have a lot of workers coming in from Hot & Crusty bakery, and a lot of workers coming in from day laboring. They have joined us in the struggle. It makes it a very intersectional conversation because a lot of antiwar organizations and staff, like the PSC, have come out in solidarity with us.
Can you explain what happened to the Morales-Shakur Center, what the security presence has been, and how this connects to the campaign against Petraeus?
Oscar: On October 20 (which also happened to be in the middle of midterms), students heard from one of our comrades that the center was being locked down–so he sat down in front of the door to protest it, which eventually led to him getting arrested.
I think that was the catalyst to what's been happening in recent days. On October 21, less than 24 hours later, we were able to pull together a good turnout at a protest to reclaim that space.
Can you explain about the space?
Sharmin: Tthe Guillermo Morales-Assata Shakur Center is a center directed by students of color clubs, as well as marginalized peoples clubs like the Black Student Union or New York Students Rising, and organizations that are building leftist movements on campus. They use that space as a resource.
It has been a space within City College that was won and continuously fought for over years of struggle–because the administration has continuously attempted to take it away. Stories of infiltration and NYPD spying on students within college campuses have also been recorded in spaces like this. We believe that this is happening as a direct form of repression against students who are mobilizing antiwar efforts on campus.
How has the closure of the center affected the campaign?
Oscar: I think the point Sharmin was making earlier is that now our main focus is not on Petraeus, it's on trying to regain our space–our space that has been taken away from us with no prior dialogue, with no respect for communities that work out of it.
Sharmin: Having six students brutally assaulted and arrested by the NYPD shifted our movement energy real quick. Because of the violent repression, we had to organize a response to that, and then Petraeus ended up switching his class to a high-security building, a BMW building up on West 57th Street.
So there are these things the institution is doing in order to change our organizing tactics and methods, in order to derail a lot of the student mobilizing. Basically, shutting down the center was a great tactic to make students feel like they don't have a space to organize. I do believe that this type of momentum–where you had about a thousand students come out that day at City College when we had a mass protest–and those types of big crowd energies are what we can navigate to talk to huge groups of CUNY students.
How can we address a mass crowd of CUNY students without making them feel like their mission is not our mission, and also networking and building our base to understand that this Center represents our antiwar campaign, represents the anti-repression campaign for Muslim students, represents a lot of different struggles that we need to ally with and bring together, because state repression is coming from all ends?
How do we, as a collective body of Black, Brown, poor and working-class students reply holistically to really address the root of the problem, which is the security state, the NYPD and CUNY administration thinking that it's okay?
The CUNY administration has released statements in support of violent repression. They have been creating laws at City College to limit "expressive organizing," which is basically revoking First Amendment rights. These things are happening simultaneously, so we have to react very powerfully, using these really high-temperature moments to talk about the multitudes of repression.
You were holding actions outside of Petraeus' class. Can you talk about those a bit?
Sharmin: Every week, starting with his first class in September, we have been protesting. The first protest was unexpected, so we didn't have a lot of security present. But in the following weeks, we had at least 50-100 cops regularly at the classroom before we got there. The first week, we actually had the opportunity to run into Petraeus on his way home–he decided to walk over Central Park West, and students decided to tell him that he needs to get out of our campus.
Could you talk about those arrests?
Oscar: It was the second anniversary of Occupy Wall Street–September 17–and so New York City was perhaps hot that day, due to everything going on in the city. Petraeus used to lecture only once every week–on Mondays for three hours. So we made it a thing: We would be out there every Monday.
The day of the second anniversary of Occupy Wall Street was also the day of the fundraiser. Things happened as usual. We were all there gathered, picketing. They specifically targeted six of our comrades, two females and four males, one of whom was on the ground, not resisting. There's a video showing the assault by police officers. I think it shows what kind of influence that Petraeus, in conjunction with the CUNY administration, has in repressing people voicing their opinions.
What do you envision as the next steps for the campaign?
Sharmin: With the chaos and the really great mobilization happening at City College, we definitely want to build this momentum to move on to a larger "demilitarize CUNY" agenda.
We definitely are looking to take a lot of the "people power" that we're getting from this response [to the closure of the Morales Center] to bring it into the Ad Hoc committee and think about how these forces can ally, and how each campus can have their own group of bodies that are collectively addressing their campus' militarization.
We think this movement can never be won unless we have huge representation of CUNY faculty and student representation. We need more "allyship" from teachers who are sometimes hesitant to speak out about this because of their jobs–while also understanding that they're limited on time and limited on power. So we definitely need to figure out how we can push our power.
Oscar: I want to take that to the next level, with current issues about what's going on in the Center, and combine the momentum and get the militarization out of CUNY, and stop police repression of not only the LGBT community, but of the Muslim community, of students with black and brown faces.
I think that we also want to let Petraeus know that he is not welcome at our schools, that we do not approve of his message, and we do not approve of what he represents–which is a U.S. imperialist model.
How can people help the campaign and express their solidarity?
Sharmin: We're asking people to call the City College president and CUNY Board of Trustees to highlight the importance of talking about this right now. We are accepting statements of solidarity. We have teach-ins and speak-outs regularly–if people have a couple of hours to stop by and talk about how they feel, we would like that.
We are definitely looking to mobilize larger social action movements throughout each campus, so that even if it's by contributing flyers or contributing the ability to create a great Facebook event or great image, we are looking for all these skills.
I think the Ad Hoc Committee has been running based on all these little things that people are doing, but bringing together a bigger, stronger movement because we understand that people have limited time or limited capacity. But creating a flyer is a really important task that people need to take hand in.
Oscar: I think that we need to expose and bring the spotlight to our issue. With the takeover of the center, we want to involve more of the people who are affected by the center not being there–making it an inclusive circle of CUNY students who are involved. We also need to bring unions in, because we need more strength in numbers.
For me, as a member, not necessarily of CUNY, but of the community that's affected, this deeply concerns me. That's why I'm here. I've been here every day since, and I won't stop.
First published at SocialistWorker.org.