Category Archives: academic politics

Death of the Die-In (and PSC ‘Civil Disobedience,’ Too)


[Cross-posted at CUNY Struggle.]

On Thursday, March 24th, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) staged its second “civil disobedience” of the academic year, this time a die-in in front of the building that holds Governor Cuomo’s New York City office. Like its “blockade” of the entry to the building that holds CUNY’s central offices last November, the PSC trained participants who volunteered to risk arrest, and the NYPD dispatched those arrested to central booking, where they were released shortly after—the whole action a smooth operation carefully production-managed for maximum positive media exposure and minimum duress for participants. What couldn’t be controlled, of course, was the reaction from observers, inside and outside the PSC, which ranged from adulation for those arrested to revulsion that the PSC once again colluded with cops to enact another fake civil disobedience (or civil disobedience “lite”), at a moment when many rank and filers would like to see the PSC hold a strike: a genuine civil disobedience, given the Taylor Law.

Count us among the repulsed. Not only is normalizing the structural role of police, a repressive state apparatus, in this stagecraft deeply reactionary, it also elides the myriad ways the police—and the prison-industrial complex for which they serve as the front line—interfere in the lives and livelihoods of CUNY students and workers who are black and brown. Too, this elision amounts to a significant contradiction in the PSC-leadership-led contract campaign’s tirelessly stated assertion that a new, fair contract is good for CUNY students (as some people who got arrested at the die-in offered as well).

Although a kind of realpolitik claim has it that making people comfortable with the police is vital to ensuring their participation in this type of action, and, therefore, such collaboration with the police should be excused, the very notion of making people comfortable with the police inverts the reality that non-voluntary interactions with the police, such as being arrested for an alleged crime, are not comfortable—and they’re not designed to be comfortable (per the police’s repressive role). Further, the police routinely terrorize, harass, arrest, and incapacitate black and brown people as a function of white supremacy, capitalism, settler colonialism, and imperialism. CUNY students are not excepted from this experience: whether commuting to class, walking around campus, or participating in student clubs and activism, they face both uniformed and undercover officers, and stop-and-frisk, broken-windows, zero-tolerance, surveillance, and other forms of policing. None of this is comfortable for students, nor for anyone who experiences contact with police.

Indeed, to make people comfortable with the police is exactly what the ruling class wants. Not only does such socialization play into the dominant “bad-apple” theory—that only a small number of police officers kill or brutalize people, when in fact every one of them is trained to repress—but it redirects attention from the masses of people negatively affected by the police to the individual person choosing to be arrested, and to be arrested in a positive context. (Selfies with your arresting officer may be the best example of this celebratory mood.) In sum, if the PSC leadership and those arrested—and those praising those arrested—actually took seriously student issues, as they claim, they wouldn’t be colluding with police in any fashion but, instead, organizing to get cops off CUNY campuses, among numerous other issues and actions that would reduce contact between the police and students, on campus and off, and challenge policing and carcerality overall.

Meanwhile, the specific die-in component of the action raises two points of concern: (1) the significant revision of the political history and contexts that obtain in the die-in as a form, and (2) the implications of personifying an institution as the subject of death rather than the people who are subject to death.

In the first case, the image at the top of this post exemplifies some of the revision: originally a photo of a Black Lives Matter die-in at Emory in December 2014, it was altered to (a) replace the “Black Lives Matter” message on the center placard with “Stop the War on CUNY” and (b) add a second placard with the hashtag “#SaveCUNY.” Although the revised image isn’t an official PSC one—a student organizer made and circulated it—it highlights, as with the normalizing of the police above, a shift in attention from the very real deaths of black people by the state and its accomplices to the metaphorical death of CUNY.

As such, the image—and the die-in itself—erased anti-black state violence as a point of struggle in favor of not just a university, which isn’t subject to violence, but one that, like all institutions of higher education in the U.S., is enmeshed in anti-black state violence (again, via various security apparatuses, but also in various forms of institutional violence, such as the low numbers of black students and faculty at CUNY, particularly at the graduate level). In effect, the PSC’s die-in turned attention away generally from the material realities of black students, faculty, and staff, while the altered image circulated to promote the die-in specifically exploited black people and black struggle for a struggle—to “save CUNY” from “dying”—that isn’t particularly focused on race or racism at all (notwithstanding a few signs at the die-in declaiming that “CUNY is about racial & economic justice“).

Further, insofar as the PSC die-in didn’t reference material but metaphoric death, it suggests that the die-in has reached such a point of institutionalization that it’s no longer a useful form of protest—indeed, that, as a form, it’s become completely depoliticized and, therefore, uncontroversial for a liberal organization like the PSC to stage. It bears remembering that the original die-ins by ACT-UP in the late 1980s occurred in a moment of utter silence from the media and government about the epidemic of AIDS deaths, and that the die-ins were meant to break that silence (consonant with ACT-UP’s slogan, “Silence = Death”). And, importantly, the political funerals that began in 1992 took the die-in a step further, presenting death both materially and symbolically, thus ratcheting up the intensity of the tactic as the struggle demanded it.

In contrast, the issue at the center of the PSC die-in—CUNY funding, specifically Cuomo’s proposed $485-million cut—had been widely covered in the media and the focus of much state-government activity by the time of the action: there was no silence to break. Moreover, unlike the gay and queer men who took part in the ACT-UP die-ins and political funerals and the Arab, Muslim, and black people who take part in Palestine-solidarity or BLM die-ins respectively, the people who participated in the PSC die-in had no literal relationship to the death they enacted because it was only metaphoric. Instead, like non-black or -brown folks who jump at the chance to participate in die-ins, thus erasing, visually, their highly differential connection to the death being represented, the PSC members who staged the die-in erased the question of material death entirely in service to pure spectacle. As such, the die-in also reinforced that the PSC contract campaign and related initiatives vis-à-vis state funding have been largely designed to engage the media (“#StopStarvingCUNY”) and not, for instance, CUNY students, faculty, staff, and community who might actually be starving because of low wages or unemployment.

Finally, given the lack of death as material referent, and beyond the cultural dominance of metaphor as a form of comparison, why frame CUNY as dying at all? For one thing, as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, authors of The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, said at last May’s Cultural Studies Association conference, also employing metaphor, the university is already dead: it’s not working for most people, a claim that, at CUNY, might be supported by the dismal graduation rates of CUNY undergraduates (a fact buried in recent professor op-eds about the importance of CUNY to reducing inequality) or barriers to access in the first place, such as the school-to-prison pipeline, the disinvestment of public primary and secondary schools, or high-stakes testing. In other words, maybe CUNY’s “death,” already or imminent, is actually a good thing: the end of the fiction of the “CUNY Value,” whether promulgated by the administration or faculty, and a new focus on the needs of would-be CUNY students in order to get their paper and thus have a greater chance to self-determine their lives.

Taking the PSC die-in on its own terms, though, what does it mean to personify an institution and mourn its “death,” backed by the not-insignificant resources of the union, instead of centering and supporting with those resources the people of the institution who are subject to, in CUNY professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s formulation of structural racism, “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” (Golden Gulag 28)? Relatedly, what does it mean to stage a civil disobedience in which the “penalty”—a tap on the wrist legally—is as symbolic as the action, instead of engaging in the actual civil disobedience of going on strike and breaking the Taylor Law, in which the penalty is significant (lost wages, fines, possibly lost jobs for individuals; fines and other reductions in resources for the union proper)?

The PSC leadership and many of the union’s most ardent champions, on hand at or who participated in the die-in, prefer the empty symbolism, self-interest, and low stakes of the former approaches—the reasons, not incidentally, the contract campaign hasn’t produced any results yet—while many of us uniting under the “CUNY Struggle” banner favor the material meaning, collectivity, and risk-reward ratio of the latter approaches.

Indeed, to use the PSC campaigners’ enthusiasm for death metaphorics, many of us would like to see this current formation of the PSC, and its incredibly narrow and dispiriting strategy, die and a new, genuinely social-justice-oriented one, replace it. Change requires change. Once a form, like the die-in, or a leadership, such as that of the PSC, becomes institutionalized—dead—it should be discarded.

[Image created and circulated by a student organizer to promote the PSC die-in.]
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On the MLA and Academic Boycott

Young students and tank

This evening I gave the following remarks in the second of two special convention sessions on the boycott of Israeli academic institutions held by the Modern Language Association’s Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee as part of the association’s process of considering a resolution on boycott that could come at next year’s convention. The four speakers in each session, two pro-boycott and two anti-boycott, were limited to seven minutes each, after which questions were posed to the speakers from the audience. I will refrain from characterizing the arguments of the anti-boycott side in my session but to mention that I was asked if I agreed “Muslims are terrorists.” I said no, they’re not—to say they are is Islamophobic. And that was the tip of the iceberg of the anti side’s rhetoric…

I first want to acknowledge that we’re on unceded Indigenous people’s land here in Austin.

This past summer I was in South Africa doing research for my dissertation on criminalization, cultural representations of crime, and colonial and postcolonial social relations. While there, I met with organizers of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, BDS for short, including current students and recent graduates of the University of Johannesburg, the University of Witwatersrand, and the University of Pretoria as well as members of Jewish Voices for a Just Peace, the South African analog to the U.S.-based Jewish Voice for Peace. I want to emphasize these two organizations at the outset of my remarks, since one of the popular criticisms of BDS, including the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, is that somehow it’s anti-Semitic, despite the countless Jewish-identified groups and people who are engaged in the effort.

At my meeting with BDS organizers in Johannesburg, I was asked why I participate in Palestinian solidarity and why I myself am engaged in BDS efforts, both at the City University of New York and at the MLA. It was, and is, a good question. I answered then and I say now that I’m committed to BDS and the boycott of Israeli academic institutions because Palestinians, in the midst of the unceasing occupation and colonial settlement of their land by the Israeli state, have asked the world to help them break this siege through the methods of BDS. Although opponents of these methods continue to try to dismiss this fact—that the force of this collective Palestinian call has no force at all—it is indeed a fact: as much a fact as the South African call for BDS throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s that played a central role in ending apartheid there.

This is how global-solidarity movements work: a community asks the world to support them in their struggle for self-determination, and the world, ideally, responds. And this is why, for instance, Palestinians under occupation and facing continual inroads by Israeli settlers, have responded to Black Lives Matter organizers here in the U.S. with robust displays of support. Indeed, the links between the black liberation movement in the States and the Palestinian liberation movement in occupied Palestine go back decades, as do links between the Palestinian struggle and many other struggles for self-determination the world over.

This is another reason I support academic boycott: as both a student and beneficiary of settler colonialism in the U.S. and its related structures of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and imperialism, and one who’s tracing these operations globally in my dissertation research, I consider it my ethical obligation to not just oppose settler colonialism—whether here in North America by the U.S., Canadian, and Mexican governments or in Palestine by the state of Israel—but to work to dismantle it as well.

And that’s what we can do, as MLA members, by endorsing the boycott of Israeli academic institutions: contribute to the dialogue within Israel and internationally on ending the occupation and colonial settlement of Palestine. Indeed, as much as BDS is an intervention against the Israeli state’s unjust policies concerning Palestine and Palestinians, it’s also an intervention against the support of those policies by governments and institutions around the world. So while BDS, in one way, is meant to spur Israelis to oppose their own government’s policies in response to growing global pressure to do so, in another way BDS is meant to spur non-Israelis to oppose our own respective governments’ support of those same policies.

This dialogue must necessarily extend to Israeli academic institutions, which, like our own academic institutions, have manifold connections to the state, including specific links to the occupation and settlement of Palestine, well-documented by independent sources. But in the remainder of my remarks I want to address the educational situation in Palestine.

So much of the debate in the U.S. over the boycott of Israeli academic institutions revolves around the academic freedom of U.S.- and Israeli-based academics, even though an institutional boycott would not constrain their academic freedom. Meanwhile, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza face severe restrictions on both their freedom and their academics as a direct result of occupation and settlement.

These restrictions were brought home for me when I met with students visiting from Birzeit University in the West Bank last academic year as part of the Right to Education tour, another example of dialogue. The students spoke of their difficulties in even getting to class because of the routine obstacles posed by the Israeli-security apparatus, apartheid segregation, and settler violence—that is, when classes weren’t cancelled outright because schools were shut down for Israeli military operations in the area or to quell academic resistance. Indeed, in a fresh-from-the-headlines example, sections of the West Bank city of Hebron have been closed since November by the Israeli military and residents have had to file for “special permits to cross through the 18 military checkpoints in the city center.” Can you imagine what that must be like?

As one of the organizers who helped bring the Birzeit students to the States, Kristian Davis Bailey, has written, “everyone must consider academic freedom in its fuller context. Education is a fundamental human right….We must protect it at all levels. So even when the academy or political elite do not agree with the methods of BDS, they have been presented with facts and with a call from a suffering people to do something. The question is no longer whether or when to act, but how will we respond now?” (Against Apartheid: The Case for Boycotting Israeli Universities 157-158)

I hope, as educators and MLA members, we can all take heart and answer the call Palestinians have made to us by endorsing academic boycott—and sooner, rather than later. Thank you.

[Photo: “Israel Palestine” by Rusty Stewart via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
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The NYPD and CUNY Inequality: Two Urgent Notes on the Arrests

Stop & Frisk

Two things that everyone who shared or read news of the arrests outside of CUNY Central last night urgently needs to know:

1) The union pre-arranged the arrests with the NYPD. Those who agreed to be arrested were brought down the street, given a desk ticket, and released. Never mind that the union president claims the arrests were in part on behalf of the students of CUNY, who are routinely terrorized, harassed, and spied on by the NYPD—the union actively worked with the NYPD to stage their spectacle, and egregiously appropriated a civil-rights genealogy, and “racial justice,” in their public rhetoric about it.

2) The demand of “CUNY Needs a Raise”—that is, the equal-percentage across-the-board wage increases that the union is bargaining for—will maintain and even increase the pay disparity between adjunct faculty and full-time faculty absent any other measure (such as a minimum starting salary of $7K). The union, as it has consistently done, contract after contract, is actually fostering inequality with this demand—no help from CUNY management or the state even needed.

Instead of “CUNY needs a raise,” we should be calling for pay equity for adjunct faculty, the majority of the faculty (59%) and the ones on the front lines of introductory classes filled with working-class students of color that CUNY is systematically trying to exclude.

[Photo: “Stop & Frisk” by carnagenyc via CC BY-NC 2.0.]
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