For more information on TBNYU, visit their website.
A group called Take Back NYU! (TBNYU) occupied the student union at New York University, Feb. 19, placing demands on the university’s administration. The occupation lasted for two days. Near the end of the occupation, close to 500 supporters outside the building rallied in support of approximately 80 students who were inside the building. Fight Back! interviewed Christa Hendrickson, a student from Drew University and a member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Hendrickson was present at the end of the occupation.
Fight Back!: First of all, how did you come to be involved in the occupation? What was your role there? Why did you personally want to be involved in the occupation?
Christa Hendrickson: A while ago, I was invited to the event - Study Breakdown - on facebook by a former SDSer. Last Tuesday I got word from an NYC SDSer that the event was going to be another ‘New School’ and that they needed support. Since I am close to the city, a chapter member - I decided to go in to show support and do solidarity work. Our chapter is working on similar issues on our campus - budget transparency, socially responsible investments, accessible education, etc - so I felt it was really important to support Take Back NYU's work.
Fight Back!: Many people have questioned the tactic of occupying the building instead of a protest or simple negotiations. Why do you feel it was necessary to occupy Kimmel Hall?
Hendrickson: I think what many people fail to realize is that TBNYU was working on budget transparency and student power issues for the past two years. They sent letters to the administration, attended town hall meetings. They attempted to use all of the formal routes. The administration completely ignored all of the letters TBNYU sent as well as the rest of their previous work. Other forms of protest did not work. TBNYU needed some sort of leverage. Using extra-legal direct action was necessary. Even during the 40-hour occupation the administration never agreed to negotiate. They never would have done do without pressure.
Fight Back!: Some of the goals in the occupation included more financial accountability, fair labor practices on campus and keeping Coca-Cola off of campus. Can you tell me more about these goals and why you feel that they are important?
Hendrickson: There were 13 points to our demands. I think every point had validity and was really important. We were asking a lot, but that is the point of negotiation. Raise the bar high and be willing to lower it. Four demands focused on budget transparency and socially responsible investing. Three focused on accessible education and student power. Three more demands focused around fair labor practices. Two of our demands also focused around Palestine. Our number one demand was amnesty for all people involved in the occupation. This demand was criticized because it was somehow seen as weak or coming from a privileged position. I couldn't disagree with that more. NYU students pay $50,000-plus a year on tuition and housing. Expulsion is a really scary consequence. That is a lot of money to lose, especially for lower income students.
Fight Back!: What was the response from the university administration to the demand for negotiations?
Hendrickson: The administration didn't even consider negotiating until Thursday [Feb. 19] night, over 24 hours into the occupation. Before they would negotiate we had to give a concession. Most of our interaction was with the advisers of TBNYU. They would then relay our message to the administration. The only thing they ever offered us was something called ‘safe harbor’ which basically means that the students wouldn't be punished unless they committed another infraction during their time at NYU. So basically it was a way to prevent the students from participating in future actions against the university. A few people took it, but most of us didn't even view it as a legitimate offer. On Friday morning the administration agreed to negotiate. Five of the occupiers willingly left the occupied space in good faith to negotiate. Once they reached the negotiation table they were served suspension papers and were told that the administration was not willing to negotiate. It was really back-handed.
On Thursday they also started calling students’ parents, which is another dirty move. We are adults; we can make our own decisions. Some parents were supportive, some threatened to pull all funding for school and others placed a lot of pressure on their kids to leave the building.
Fight Back!: What was the response from both campus security and the local police?
Hendrickson: Campus security was very civil. They would check in to make sure we were doing okay. They allowed us to use the bathroom. Overall I was very impressed. The only scuffle was when we had the second surge of students come in on Thursday night. Around 35 students rushed in all at once and campus security tried to keep them out while the students occupying the room were trying to pull them in. I wouldn't say it was violent, but there were definitely some scrapes and bruises.
As an occupier I had no personal interaction with the NYPD. However, on Thursday night when there was the rally in the streets there was definitely some police brutality. The police were using their batons and pepper spray against the protesters. Looking down on the crowd it was really scary. At one point some of the students considered ending the occupation because they didn't want our supporters outside getting hurt and beaten. We decided not to do that because ultimately those people were outside because they wanted us to occupy that building, they wanted us to win.
Fight Back!: Do you feel that the occupation was a success? If so, why?
Hendrickson: I think a lot of people that weren't involved in the action or the student movement as a whole viewed this as a large failure because NYU didn't meet our demands. I honestly don't view it that way. I think this was a huge success, especially for the student movement. For the Take Back NYU folks, they are now at least acknowledged by the administration and they have shown that they are willing to escalate their actions until their demands are met.
There was an outpouring of support from so many people. We got solidarity statements from all over. Students from South Africa, England, Ireland, Finland, and all over the United States sent in statements of solidarity. Hundreds of students stood outside of Kimmel showing support. This is just the beginning.
Fight Back!: Finally, how do you feel that the Take Back NYU! movement should move forward? What are some next steps for the student movement as a whole?
Hendrickson: I think right now we are trying to fight the evictions and suspensions that the students are facing. We plan on doing a lot of media work around this. This fight is not over and we are not giving up. The frequency of occupations and large-scale direct actions are happening all over. Students are reclaiming control over their tuition, the effect their institution has on the world and how they are treated by their administration.