White Racial Fantasy, Darren Wilson, and #Ferguson

Reading Darren Wilson’s grand-jury testimony, it’s abundantly clear he lied through his teeth, was not pressed on his contradictions, and, as many others have noted, conjured a (deeply genealogized) white fantasy-spectacle of black criminalization and death, first in Wilson’s fantasy that he was going to be killed by a black man, then in his fantasy of killing a black man, which he succeeded in doing (and which he seemed to enjoy, especially now that he’s gotten off without charge, as expected). But Wilson’s likening of Mike Brown to Hulk Hogan, and himself to his five-year-old self, is perhaps the most telling part of this complex fantasy play:

And he said, ‘hey man, hold these.’ And at that point I tried to hold his right arm because it was like this at my car. This is my car window. I tried to hold his right arm and use my left hand to get out to have some type of control and not be trapped in my car any more. And when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.

Holding onto a what?

Hulk Hogan, that’s just how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm. (212)

Wilson, as we know, was a 6’4″ armed police officer in a police car he could’ve driven away at any moment. Brown was a teenager Wilson wanted to fuck with by ordering him to get out of the middle of the road. That Brown ended up dead, murdered, by Wilson has everything to do with the unaccountable power of the police to kill—and to kill black bodies specifically—as much as with the ongoing psychic economies of whiteness that render blackness by turns fearful and disposable, and pleasurable, too. A five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan, only Wilson was the hulk and Brown just a kid, his death, and the resistance in Ferguson‬, turned into entertainment by TV news, the biggest perpetrator of the white fantasy-spectacle of black criminalization and death there is.

We need to abolish policing and prisons and the criminal-“justice” system, white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism, but we also need to abolish the structures of settler colonialism and enslavement, and their intertwined fantasies of domination. Education is important in this regard, but education otherwise. White U.S. subjects need to work against our racialized socialization at every moment, in every way.

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‘Police • Army Out of Townships!’ Resistance in South Africa, 1985, on the National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality, 2014

Police Occupy South Africa's Townships

A brief look back to resistance in South Africa, 1985, on this National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality, via the archive of the Black Consciousness Movement at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. #O22 #blacklivesmatter

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John Jay College Pres.: Palestinian-Solidarity Activism ‘Fuels’ Anti-Semitism

Opening a new front in the City University of New York’s repression of Palestinian-solidarity activism, John Jay College president Jeremy Travis issued a campus-wide email this afternoon asserting that Palestinian-solidarity activism “fuel[s]” anti-Semitism. His statement comes after the CUNY Graduate Center administration asked the Doctoral Students’ Council to pull the BDS resolution the body has been considering since mid-September, and after a top CUNY attorney denied that the university has sought to repress the efforts of Students for Justice in Palestine chapters, which a group of CUNY faculty had warned about in a collective letter to CUNY administration.

Scroll down for the complete statement, which was issued at 5:33 p.m. today and went to John Jay alumni as well. After stating that John Jay is “dedicated to our mission of ‘educating for justice'”—an obvious appropriation of “Students for Justice in Palestine”—Travis went on to say that he is “deeply troubled, both personally and professionally, by recent reports that Jewish students at John Jay College have felt intimidated and harassed on our campus.” He intensifies the rhetoric in the next paragraph, asserting that

These instances on our campus occurred at a time when other parts of our country, and countries in Europe, are witnessing a rise in anti-Semitism. Universities are often a focal point for organizing activities that have fueled these trends.

The rest of the statement employs the kind of platitudes automatically used to dress up such repression in the guise of “encourag[ing] free and open discussion,” the particular phrase Travis uses. But let’s be clear: this is the latest example that free and open discussion of Palestine, and the Israeli occupation and colonization of it, is not as free and open as CUNY administrators pretend that it is.

Furthermore, this statement is also an example of how opponents of Palestinian-solidarity activism turn claims against them into claims against the organizers. Just today a CUNY student held a news conference at the Brooklyn courthouse to detail what happened to her while recently protesting the Brooklyn Nets’ game with an Israeli team, when she was punched by an interloper, who was then allowed to escape with the help of the NYPD; the assailant later claimed he subsequently experienced a hate crime, which was circulated in sympathetic press outlets. And at the beginning of this semester, after an SJP die-in at Brooklyn College, an SJP member was spat on by a fellow student.

John Jay College’s SJP recently held its own die-in, and we see the angry response, this time from the college’s president.

Click the image below for a closer view of Travis’s statement.

John Jay College SJP statement

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On the American Task Force on Palestine, Normalization, and ‘Dialogue’

This week in English professor Kandice Chuh’s class “Black, Brown, Yellow: On Ways of Being and Knowing,” we’re reading, among other texts, Hamid Dabashi’s Brown Skin, White Masks (Pluto Press, 2011), in which, among other interventions, he critiques Arab and Muslim “comprador intellectuals” as the opposite of the Saidian exilic intellectual, or, that is, an intellectual or knowledge producer who serves the state and empire rather than contesting them.

Indeed, he quotes Joseph Massad—whose academic freedom was violated when he became the subject of a well-known anti-Palestinian repression campaign several years back at Columbia—on the Palestinian version of this figure as such:

Palestinian intellectuals who previously opposed the occupation, PLO concessions, and US hegemony, but now support, wittingly or unwittingly, all three….Palestinian intellectuals, attuned to the exigencies of political power and the benefits that could accrue to them from it, traded in their national liberation goals for pro-Western pragmatism. (42-43)

Ghaith Al-Omari of the American Task Force on Palestine, who’s having a “conversation” with an adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry tomorrow (Monday, October 20th), seems very much to fit this description. Not only has he worked closely with the accommodationist Palestinian Authority—the successor to the PLO—but his employer is principally committed to the “United States national interest” over that of Palestine or Israel, per the American Task Force on Palestine’s mission statement.

In other words, the conversation that’s happening tomorrow is about U.S. power, and upholding it, and therefore will have very little to say about the prospects of achieving “peace”—that is, an end to the occupation and colonization of Palestine and related issues—especially given that the U.S. funds Israel $3 billion annually. Indeed, nine groups, a majority of them Jewish-identified, called for an end to this funding, among other demands, in a full-page ad in the New York Times last month, about which I previously posted.

Finally, a note about conversations—that is, “dialogue”—re Palestine and Israel. Dialogue implies that the two sides have equal status, and, further, that the Israeli occupation and colonization of Palestine is normal, both of which are untrue. To this end, I want to share two passages about so-called “normalization” from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’s site:

For Palestinians in the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza, any project with Israelis that is not based on a resistance framework serves to normalize relations. We define this resistance framework as one that is based on recognition of the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people and on the commitment to resist, in diverse ways, all forms of oppression against Palestinians, including but not limited to, ending the occupation, establishing full and equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and promoting and advocating for the right of return for Palestinian refugees – this may aptly be called a posture of ‘co-resistance’ [3]. Doing otherwise allows for everyday, ordinary relations to exist alongside and independent of the continuous crimes being committed by Israel against the Palestinian people. This feeds complacency and gives the false and harmful impression of normalcy in a patently abnormal situation of colonial oppression.

‘[D]ialogue’ and engagement are often presented as alternatives to boycott. Dialogue, if it occurs outside the resistance framework that we have outlined, becomes dialogue for the sake of dialogue, which is a form of normalization that hinders the struggle to end injustice. Dialogue, ‘healing,’ and ‘reconciliation’ processes that do not aim to end oppression, regardless of the intentions behind them, serve to privilege oppressive co-existence at the cost of co-resistance, for they presume the possibility of coexistence before the realization of justice. The example of South Africa elucidates this point perfectly, where reconciliation, dialogue and forgiveness came after the end of apartheid, not before, regardless of the legitimate questions raised regarding the still existing conditions of what some have called ‘economic apartheid.’

The BDS resolution before the Grad Center’s Doctoral Students’ Council will be taken up again this coming Friday. I’m hoping GC students, in particular DSC reps, will be able to see past the fog of the opposition.

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Jewish Groups Call for End to U.S. Military Aid to Israel

openletterObamaBDS

In today’s New York Times print edition (page A9) is an “open letter to President Barack Obama” from the groups Deir Yassin Remembered, Americans for a Just Peace in the Middle East, Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends, RighteousJews.org, If Americans Knew, Council for the National Interest, and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

There doesn’t seem to be an online version, so I post some excerpts below.

Dear President Obama,

You renewed hope for a nation drained by interminable wars and economic trauma. You proclaimed that there is no problem we cannot solve, that we can say yes to justice and equality, and that we will oppose attempts by any group to restrict the rights of others. But Israeli violations of Palestinian rights continue virtually unopposed by America as yet another ‘peace process’ has failed. A new approach to this matter is desperately needed, and we would greatly appreciate your consideration of the following analysis and recommendations in this regard.

Secretary Kerry’s retraction notwithstanding, the occupied territories indeed are descending into a form of apartheid as Israel relentlessly confiscates and settles Palestinian land. The latter process is nothing new: the Zionist modus operandi for establishing an ethnic state in Palestine was to take as much land as possible, cleanse it of most of its Palestinians, and bring in enough Jews to ensure a dominant Jewish majority. In extending these methods to the occupied territories, Israel advances its endgame of a Jewish state in all–or nearly all–of Palestine. But it comes with terrible human costs….

Average Palestinians also are severely impacted by the occupation. Their rights to freedom of movement, commerce, education, medical services and more are greatly curtailed by Israel’s system of walls, gates, checkpoints, roadblocks, ID cards and passes. All of this impedes agriculture, slows transportation to a crawl, represses commerce, and does massive damage to the Palestinian economy. Israeli soldiers and border police wielding US weapons harshly enforce all of this. Israel claims these measures are for its security; but they are applied almost entirely inside Palestinian territory and in fact are designed to protect the spreading settlements and to induce Palestinians to emigrate….

Accordingly, we strongly recommend that you suspend military aid and arms sales to Israel until independent, non-conflicted human rights organizations including AI [Amnesty International] and HRW [Human Rights Watch] certify that it has ceased its human rights violations. Should this fail to end the abuses, we recommend that you suspend diplomatic support for Israel–especially at the UN. Of course, security assistance to the Palestinian Authority also should be withheld if its security forces are abusing rights.

In no way would these actions break your pledges to stand by Israel. Rather, this would mean standing with the many Israelis who support Palestinian rights. It would mean aligning with progressive Israeli organizations like Rabbis For Human Rights, Gush Shalom, Peace Now, B’Tselem, and The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, as well as US Jewish organizations like Jewish Voice For Peace and Tikkun. But it would also mean breaking with the right-wing establishment that shapes Israel’s current policies. In doing so you could help Israel achieve real democracy by living up to its Declaration of Establishment vow to grant equal rights to all.

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Nelson Plays Victim, Grows Slander Campaign

Earlier today on the contingent-academics listserv adj-l, Cary Nelson complained about an article critiquing his support of Steven Salaita’s ouster from the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign. His complaint rested on two charges: the first, that the Electronic Intifada had perpetrated “vicious slander” against him for describing his monitoring of Salaita’s tweets as “monitoring” (which the article in question referenced), and, secondly, that the listserv member who posted the article exhibited “deep hatred” for Nelson simply because he circulated the article, one of numerous circulating critiques of Nelson at the moment.

Other listserv members rallied to our colleague’s side, including one who called for Nelson to recant his remarks, another who posted a number of readings on Nelson and the Salaita case, and a third who questioned Nelson’s denial that he monitored Salaita’s tweets. I also responded to Nelson, a response which I include here along with his statements to the listserv (the original one and a follow-up) as well as the quote from the article that caused his ire. I have redacted the first names of listserv members, except when I have received permission to include them, so that they aren’t dragged publicly into the current debate vis-a-vis Nelson because I choose to post my response publicly.

A link to the article in question was posted along with this quote:

Professors and educators, who are experiencing a steady erosion of academic freedom along with pay and job cuts, should take Nelson’s involvement in the Salaita case as a warning. They can put no faith in a “union” whose most prominent member publicly boasts of monitoring the statements of a new faculty hire and defends that hire’s dismissal on grounds of objectionable speech—even when university administrators are not openly making such a claim. [Emphasis in original.]

Nelson responded as such:

This “monitoring” charge is a vicious slander by The Electronic Intifada, now amplified by [redacted] in McCarthyite style. I have been writing about the BDS movement for a year and have just completed editing a book titled THE CASE AGAINST ACADEMIC BOYCOTTS OF ISRAEL. I try to keep up with the work of all the major BDS supporters, from Judith Butler to David Lloyd to Steven Salaita, etc. I READ their books, I read Steven’s essays, I read his tweets. I explained all this to The Electronic Intifada when they asked me how long I had been READING (their word) Salaita. They then turned this into “monitoring,” which [redacted] has now amplified into a broad political charge. In the past I’ve “monitored” Adrienne Rich, monitored W.S. Merwin. On this list I “monitor” [redacted]. I guess the rest of us are doing so as well, but all of you apparently read, while I “Monitor.”

Although [redacted] and I have had our differences in the past, I’ve always respected his energy and dedication. I didn’t realize he’d developed a deep hatred for me.

Cary Nelson

Later, after the first round of reaction to the above, Nelson responded as such:

I understood [redacted] to be agreeing with and elaborating on the “monitoring” remark.

Cary

I discovered Nelson’s intervention in the list when I was copied on a response to the listserv, which I saw upon checking my email about an hour ago. I responded to Nelson, and the listserv, as follows:

It’s amazing but unsurprising that Prof. Nelson brought his “McCarthyite style” “vicious slander” campaign, currently deployed against Steven Salaita, here to this listserv to accuse [redacted] of the same. [Note: Upon rereading Nelson’s original statement, I see he accused the Electronic Intifada of “vicious slander,” but as he explained in his follow-up statement, he “understood” the listserv member as “agreeing with and elaborating on the ‘monitoring’ remark.”] Not only that, but then to claim that “critique”—and by a third party at that, since [redacted] was quoting from a source—is somehow equivalent to “deep hatred.”

This is incredibly troubling rhetoric from someone who apparently played a role—though he’s yet to fully disclose it—in the firing of an academic for his political views and the consequent upheaval in that academic’s—and his family’s—life. Please don’t play the victim card, Prof. Nelson, when it’s you that has caused so much damage.

As Ana [M. Fores Tamayo, of Adjunct Justice and this petition] avers, Prof. Nelson was quoted directly as follows in the Electronic Intifada piece about his “monitoring” of Prof. Salaita: “There are scores of tweets. I have screen captures. The total effect seems to me to cross a line.” If that’s not “monitoring,” then apparently its definition has changed—but given that Prof. Nelson doesn’t believe that Gaza is under Israeli occupation, as he also stated in the Intifada piece—in contradiction of all accounts except for Israel’s mystifying “facts on the ground,” of which Prof. Nelson is a chief promulgator—he’s not necessarily referring to material reality when he discusses Palestine, Palestinians, and their advocates such as Prof. Salaita.

Among the readings [redacted] helpfully posted, the CCR one makes clear that an individual’s constitutionally protected political views cannot be separated from the manner in which they’re conveyed, as the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled. And Corey Robin’s itemized account of Prof. Nelson’s contradictions on “civility,” academic freedom, and academic boycotts is especially helpful in seeing how far Prof. Nelson has drifted from his days of embracing justice, not, as he does now, working against it.

To these resources I will add Mondoweiss’s extensive review earlier this year of Prof. Nelson’s longtime machinations regarding Israel, especially vis-a-vis his role at AAUP.

As Noura Erekat put it today on Facebook, “Opponents to Palestinian freedom, liberty, & dignity have made a policy of censoring & punishing scholars who dare to speak on Palestine. Supporting Steven [Salaita] is also about resisting entrenched practice in academia that has harassed/stifled scholars for decades.”

I stand with the countless others who reject Prof. Nelson’s—and the Israeli government’s and its global lobby’s—campaign against Palestine, Palestinians, and their supporters, and I join Jack’s call for Prof. Nelson to retract his vicious ad hominem against [redacted].

I will also be posting this to my blog to document and circulate Prof. Nelson’s actions here.

Regards,

Sean

I’ll post and circulate any further responses by Nelson.

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Teaching Against Stop-and-Frisk and Racial Profiling

SONY DSC

Last fall I focused the introductory composition class I taught at CUNY’s Lehman College on stop-and-frisk and racial profiling at large. The course received the 2014 Diana Colbert Innovative Teaching Prize, awarded annually by the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ph.D. Program in English. I post the materials I submitted here in the interest of open access: all of the following, except for my specific words, is free to use. If you’ve taught a similar class, let me know—perhaps we can build a site for such pedagogic and teaching materials. (Above image: “End Stop and Frisk” by sainthuck, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.)

Rationale

Black and Latino young men are highly disproportionately stopped-and-frisked by New York City police officers, particularly in the Bronx and Brooklyn. (For representative New York Police Department data collected by the New York Civil Liberties Union, see here and here.) Although the stop-and-frisk program has been in place since at least 2002, debate over its propriety and effectiveness reached a peak last summer due to the city’s mayoral election, the media attention to now-mayor Bill De Blasio’s “mixed-race” family, and a federal court’s finding that stop-and-frisk violated both the 4th and 14th Amendments. At the same time, the George Zimmerman trial, which concluded with Trayvon Martin’s killer being found not guilty, amplified controversy about racial profiling and state power. So, too, did widely noted cultural representations such as Kanye West’s Yeezus album, with songs such as “New Slaves” and “Blood on the Leaves,” a re-working of the anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit,” and Ryan Coogler’s film Fruitvale Station, about 22-year-old Oscar Grant, slain by Oakland transit police in 2008.

Given these various cultural texts and discourses concerning racial violence, spanning—at a minimum—the white-supremacist terrorism of the “old South” and the everyday subjugation of black and Latino New Yorkers, it seemed an especially rich conjuncture to focus my English composition class at Lehman College on stop-and-frisk and the longer history of racial profiling in the United States. Indeed, given Lehman’s Bronx location, the higher rate of stop-and-frisk in the borough (not to mention lingering grief over local teenager Ramarley Graham, killed by a cop in 2012), and the college’s predominantly Latina/o and black students (see Lehman’s data here), I knew that many, if not all, of my students would be affected by the program, whether the young men targeted or their family members and friends. I also knew they would have experienced racial profiling in its other forms, whether the school-to-prison pipeline in operation at New York City public schools, the general entrapment of the prison-industrial complex and its attendant political economy, or the surveillance of department-store staff and their collusion with police (as experienced by a CUNY student that fall in a high-profile incident).

My pedagogy centers on connecting with students on their terms in order to facilitate critical thinking and discussion about the links between their individual and collective experiences and larger political, social, and economic problematics at local, national, and global scales. This scrutiny extends to the classroom and university, marked by its ongoing exclusion of racialized students (see, for example, here), and disciplinary methods and knowledges (see, for example, Rod Ferguson’s The Reorder of Things), including the very notions of “standard” English and normative academic writing that orient an introductory composition class (see Kevin Brown’s “Rhetoric and the Stoning of Rachel Jeantel,” the first assigned reading).

Indeed, the Zimmerman trial, for instance, in addition to showing the limits of the criminal-justice system for social justice, also highlighted the ongoing subjection of minoritized English speakers, as Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel was roundly mocked for her testimony. As such, the composition classroom is an ideal space to attend to the verbal dimensions of racial profiling at the same time as its other manifestations.

In this way, the first course readings (see below for full list) addressed the profiling of Jeantel’s rhetoric, affect, and appearance in the context of the authors’ personal experiences vis-a-vis profiling, thus framing the objectives of the course as a whole: a two-fold dynamic in which the students’ own experiences could serve as the initial ground on which to contest hegemonic discourse on race.

This unit, which included Roots’ drummer Questlove’s viral Facebook post about his experiences being profiled, culminated in the first paper assignment, a descriptive/narrative essay in which students intervened in a particular debate over racial profiling using their lived experience as the primary form of evidence. Subsequent units, each tied to a different type of essay writing, focused on multi-modal comparative analysis of popular music and music videos, expository analyses of mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex, and various arguments opposing stop-and-frisk specifically and racialized security mechanisms generally. The final paper prompt connected the course’s overall discussions to praxis, asking students to make an argument, supported by information from any two course readings, about what aspects of U.S. policing or prisons need to be changed.

Finally, although the oppositional capacity of social media was central to both class discussion and participation (students were required to submit reading responses via Tumblr), I also emphasized social media’s citational limits—that is, the ease with which correct attribution can go awry. This risk was the subject of the first class meeting, in which I handed out copies of a Facebook post quoting “bell hooks on the Zimmerman trial” that went viral —except the quote, from hooks’ 2001 book All About Love, does not specifically address the Zimmerman trial but rather white supremacy at large. Once again, though, it was a prime opportunity to discuss both racial profiling and composition practice.

Detailed Assignment

Per Lehman College English department requirements, English Composition I is not predominantly literature-based, but with this second paper assignment, I introduced literary elements in the form of the lyrics to “Strange Fruit,” originally performed by Billie Holiday in 1939 and later covered by Nina Simone in the mid-1960s, and the lyrics to “Blood on the Leaves,” the 2013 Kanye West track that features Simone singing the lyric “Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees / Blood on the leaves” for its chorus. The paper assignment was to compare and contrast the two songs, which offered the critical challenge of how “Strange Fruit,” based on a poem by Bronx school teacher Abel Meeropol and recorded by Holiday in protest against lynching and revived by Simone at the height of the civil-rights struggle, related to the concerns West raises in his song, namely the complex intersections of romantic relationships and consumeristic bourgeois desires. As such, students had to think about both the literary aspects of each song’s lyrics as well as the differing, but related, historical contexts—that is, the history of U.S. racial oppression in service to white economic power. This history was further emphasized when West performed “Blood on the Leaves” at the MTV Music Video Awards in silhouette against an image of a tree Steve McQueen photographed while making 12 Years a Slave—a performance that generated fresh attention to the song right at the beginning of the semester.

Preparatory class work for writing the paper included lectures by me on the particulars of lynching under Jim Crow, augmented by multi-modal texts available on the course Tumblr and shown in class; close readings of the lyrics and their contexts (aided especially by the annotations of “Blood on the Leaves” on RapGenius.com); and intensive comparative discussion across several class sessions, which yielded an in-class exercise I designed on the basis of the students’ analysis to further hone the possible arguments that could be made (click on the following image for a clear view of the handout).

Stop-and-Frisk handout

In the end, although some students remained resistant to seeing any connection between the two songs, everyone was able to see the historical continuum of black pain, on the one hand, and white economic gain, on the other. This lesson effectively set up subsequent class lessons on the continuance of racialized social control in the U.S., including current forms such as stop-and-frisk and mass incarceration. At times it was also entertaining, as all the students had an opinion of West, and they enjoyed discussing pop culture.

Course Readings for Each Unit

Unit 1: the narrative/descriptive essay

  1. Kevin Browne, “Rhetoric and the Stoning of Rachel Jeantel”
  2. Mariame Kaba, “Rachel Jeantel: Through a Glass Darkly…”
  3. Questlove’s Facebook post
  4. Kim Foster, “Why the Questlove Article Exposes Our Racism—and Our Sexism”

Unit 2: the compare/contrast essay

  1. Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit” (lyrics)
  2. Kanye West, “Blood on the Leaves” (lyrics)
  3. West, “Blood on the Leaves” (VMA performance)
  4. Jasiri X, “Blood on the Leaves Remix” (lyrics)

Unit 3: the expository essay

  1. Angela Davis, “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex”
  2. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in The Age of Colorblindness (excerpt)

Unit 4: the argument essay

  1. Darius Charney, “The NYPD’s Criminal Stop-and-Frisk Record”
  2. New York Times editorial, “Reform Stop-and-Frisk”
  3. The Nation video, “Stopped-and-Frisked: ‘For Being a F**cking Mutt'”
  4. Mimi Kim et al., “A World Without Walls: Stopping Harm and Abolishing the Prison Industrial Complex”

Supplemental readings/texts available on the course Tumblr.

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Open Letter to CUNY Union Pres. Barbara Bowen

Adjunct Project logo

We are still actively receiving and inviting signatories to this open letter, but it has moved here. Please click the preceding hyperlink and leave a comment with your name and academic affiliation (if you have one). All are welcome in this effort to hold the union leadership accountable at the largest university by enrollment in the U.S.! Real democracy now!

Dear Barbara—

I write as a union member and CUNY contingent faculty member to express my great dismay at your statement of May 9th praising Mayor De Blasio for his CUNY budget and singling out “full-time faculty and student support staff” as needing “investments” while entirely omitting mention of adjuncts and graduate student workers.

In addition to the questionable negotiating strategy of such mayoral sycophancy—and your bizarre contention that CUNY is the “solution” to “inequality,” when CUNY reproduces, and contributes to, the inequality of New York City at large—I don’t understand how you could ignore the needs of adjuncts and graduate student workers, who teach the vast majority of classes at CUNY and are the majority of union members and agency-fee payers. Furthermore, I don’t understand how full-time faculty need “investments” more than adjuncts and graduate student workers, who make a pittance compared to full-time faculty, work under worse conditions, and lack job security. What kind of message does this send at negotiating time?

Indeed, it seems to me that any “investments” in faculty the union wins from the city should go to adjuncts and graduate student workers and not to full-time faculty, given the extreme inequality between contingent faculty and full-time—inequality that has occurred in large part because of the priority full-time faculty have received by union leadership since the beginning of the Professional Staff Congress and which, quite evidently, continues under your leadership.

I wish I could say your out-of-touch statement is an aberration, but unfortunately it conforms to the sense so many of us adjuncts and graduate student workers at CUNY have about the union’s neglect of us and our issues. It’s certainly been clear to me in my tenure this academic year as an Adjunct Project coordinator, in which you and your leadership team have either ignored or outright stymied our efforts for greater union representation of adjuncts and graduate student workers and our issues.

Union leadership has been unable to respond to or move forward our simple request from December that adjuncts and graduate student workers have a choice of which chapter to affiliate with; our demands for the bargaining agenda were sat on by you, also since December, until a meeting with my colleagues on April 10th, and we’ve received no follow-up from you, including on your promise to include adjuncts and graduate student workers in the bargaining meetings; and our newly reconstituted Graduate Center chapter—an initiative the Adjunct Project proposed at its October 2013 organizing meeting—contains only two student workers on its slate of 12.

Meanwhile, the UFT deal, which will set a precedent for the rest of the city’s bargaining units, including our own, has been heavily critiqued by the Movement for Rank and File Educators caucus, which is waging a struggle against an entrenched, monopolistic party much like the New Caucus, which commands every (or nearly every) chapter of the PSC. At the moment, I feel more allegiance to MORE than I do to our union, given your De Blasio statement and inaction on the above issues.

I am hoping you will find this letter jarring enough to immediately redress these issues, at least the ones you have full control over: namely, the addition of our demands to the bargaining agenda, the inclusion of adjuncts and graduate student workers in the bargaining meetings, and the change in chapter-affiliation policy.

Furthermore, to enable the participation of CUNY adjuncts and graduate student workers in this summer’s COCAL conference, which is being organized by the PSC and taking place at CUNY’s John Jay College, I ask that the union cover the $250 registration fee for 30 adjuncts and graduate student workers at CUNY.

I look forward to your response, Barbara. If you don’t respond, however, I will not write again, as it shouldn’t be my job to convince you of the merits, ethics, and fairness of genuine union democracy and the concomitant representation of adjuncts and graduate student workers and our needs.

Very sincerely,

Sean M. Kennedy, Graduate Center, CUNY

Elizabeth Sibilia, Graduate Center, CUNY

Wendy Tronrud, Graduate Center, CUNY

Dadland Maye, Graduate Center, CUNY

Öykü Tekten, Graduate Center, CUNY

Erica Kaufman, Institute for Writing & Thinking, Bard College

R. Josh Scannell, Graduate Center, CUNY

Preeti Sampat, Graduate Center, CUNY

Peter Matt, Brooklyn College, CUNY

Margaret Hanzimanolis, City College of San Francisco, De Anza College, Cañada College, California Part-Time Faculty Association

Debangshu Roychoudhury, Graduate Center, CUNY

Jack Longmate, Olympic College

Monique Whitaker, Hunter College, CUNY

Anna Spiro, retired CUNY adjunct

Rafael A. Mutis, Hostos Community College and Graduate Center, CUNY

Jennifer Prince, Graduate Center, CUNY

Esther Bernstein, Graduate Center, CUNY

Héctor Agredano, City College, Bronx Community College, and Graduate Center, CUNY

Collette Sosnowy, JustPublics@365, Graduate Center, CUNY

Megan Paslawski, Graduate Center, CUNY

Kristen Hackett, Graduate Center, CUNY

Fang Xu, Lehman College and Graduate Center, CUNY

Christina Nadler, Graduate Center, CUNY

Kristin Moriah, Graduate Center, CUNY

James Anthony Phillips, Kingsborough Community College, CUNY

Ana M. Fores Tamayo, Adjunct Justice

Tristan K. Husby, City College and Graduate Center, CUNY

Erin Michaels, Graduate Center, CUNY

Cameron Pearson, Queens College, CUNY

David Tillyer, City College, CUNY

Amy Martin, Graduate Center, CUNY

Colin P. Ashley, Doctoral Students’ Council Co-Chair for Business, Graduate Center, CUNY

Ian Foster, Graduate Center, CUNY

Derrick Gentry, alumnus, Graduate Center, CUNY

Melissa Phruksachart, Graduate Center, CUNY

Maureen E. Fadem, Kingsborough Community College, CUNY

Alec Magnet, Graduate Center, CUNY

Erin M. Andersen, Graduate Center, CUNY

Ashna Ali, Graduate Center, CUNY

Jerry Levinsky, Member UALE, COCAL Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor

Michael A. Rumore, Graduate Center, CUNY

Makeba Lavan, Graduate Center, CUNY

Conor Tomás Reed, Medgar Evers College and Graduate Center, CUNY; Free University-NYC

Kathryn Moss, Graduate Center, CUNY

David Spataro, Graduate Center, CUNY

Kenneth H. Ryesky, Queens College, CUNY

Betsy Smith, Cape Cod Community College; member of MCCC, MTA, and NEA

Isabel Cuervo, alumna, Graduate Center, CUNY

Jennifer Chancellor, Graduate Center, CUNY

Luke Elliott, Graduate Center, CUNY

CUNY Adjunct Project

Alan Trevithick, La Guardia Community College, CUNY

Ann Kottner, York College, CUNY

Vanessa Vaile, Precarious Faculty Network

Mary Carroll, Lehman College, CUNY

Linda Neiberg, Baruch College, CUNY

Brian Unger, Graduate Center, CUNY

Ian Green, Graduate Center, CUNY

Eric Lott, Graduate Center, CUNY

John Sorrentino, John Jay College, CUNY

Hulya Sakarya, Mercy College

Allison E. Brown, Graduate Center, CUNY

Rayya El Zein, Medgar Evers College and Graduate Center, CUNY

Melissa K. Marturano, Brooklyn College and Graduate Center, CUNY

Ross Borden, SUNY–Cortland

Frank Reiser, Nassau Community College

Dominique Nisperos, Graduate Center, CUNY

Amanda Matles, Graduate Center, CUNY

Lavelle Porter, City Tech and Graduate Center, CUNY

Lauren Tenley, College of Staten Island and alumna, Graduate Center, CUNY

Mary N. Taylor, Graduate Center, CUNY

Edwin Mayorga, Graduate Center, CUNY

Charlotte Thurston, Graduate Center, CUNY

Robin Hizme, Queens College, CUNY

Sue Clark-Wittenberg, Director, International Campaign to Ban Electroshock

Wilson Sherwin, Brooklyn College and Graduate Center, CUNY

James D. Hoff, Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY

Mark Drury, Graduate Center, CUNY

Anton Borst, Hunter College, Graduate Center, CUNY

Jason Schulman, Lehman College, CUNY

Wilma Borelli, Lehman College, CUNY

Daniel Nieves, City College and Lehman College, CUNY

Elizabeth Bidwell Goetz, Hunter College and Graduate Center, CUNY

Maria L. Plochocki, Baruch and College Now, CUNY

Sara Jane Stoner, Graduate Center, CUNY

Anna Gjika, Graduate Center, CUNY

Alicia Andrzejewski, Graduate Center, CUNY

Paul Hebert, Queens College and Graduate Center, CUNY

Patrick Reilly, Baruch College and Graduate Center, CUNY

Kara Van Cleaf, Graduate Center, CUNY

Harry T. Cason, College of Staten Island, CUNY

Kylah Torre, Graduate Center, CUNY

Kate O’Donoghue, Queens College, CUNY

Keith Hoeller, editor, Equality for Contingent Faculty; co-founder, Washington Part-Time Faculty Association

Karen Gregory, City College and Center for Worker Education, CUNY

Michael Friedman, Queens College, CUNY

Heather Heim, Lehman College, CUNY

Marnie Weigle, San Diego City College

Austin Bailey, Hunter College, CUNY

Leigh Somerville, Queens College, CUNY

Lindsey Freer, Macaulay Honors College and Graduate Center, CUNY

Lydia Pelot-Hobbs, Graduate Center, CUNY

Nathaniel Sheets, CUNY Graduate Center, Hunter College

Brianne Bolin, Columbia College Chicago

Sean Collins, trustee, Troy Area Labor Council

Meyer A. Rothberg, alumnus (1958), City College, CUNY

John Martin, chair, California Part-time Faculty Association

Jonathan R. Davis, Hunter College and Graduate Center, CUNY

Marga Ryersbach, Queensborough Community College, CUNY

Andrew Akinmoladun, Bronx Community College, CUNY

Thomas Smith, Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY

Tyler T. Schmidt, Lehman College, CUNY

Sarah Davis, Hunter College and Graduate Center, CUNY

Reid Friedson, Adjunct Faculty Union

Emily Nell, Graduate Center, CUNY

Jack Henning

Vakhtang Gomelauri, Global Center for Advanced Studies

Brenden Beck, Hunter College and Graduate Center, CUNY

Brandon Kreitler, Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY

Alex Kudera, author, Fight for Your Long Day, Clemson University

Aysenur Ataman, College of Staten Island and Graduate Center, CUNY

Anthony Galluzzo, Queens College, CUNY

Jenna Gibbs, Florida International University

Ryan Daley, former NYCCT adjunct; Red Hook Initiative

David Parsons, Baruch College

Rebecca Schuman, all-purpose higher-ed loudmouth

Daniel Levine, alumnus (2013), Baruch College; writer

Stanley W. Rogouski

Kelly Eckenrode, Lehman College and Graduate Center, CUNY

Danny Sanchez, Queens College, CUNY; member, Revolutionary Student Coordinating Committee

Michelle Chen, Graduate Center, CUNY

Carol Lipton

Michael Pollak

Aaron Botwick, Graduate Center, CUNY

Naja Berg Hougaard, Graduate Center, CUNY

Gerhard Joseph, Lehman College, CUNY

Catherine Liu, alumna, Graduate Center, CUNY; University of California–Irvine

Emma Myers, Borough of Manhattan Community College and City Tech, CUNY

Marimer Berberena, Hostos Community College and Graduate Center, CUNY

Seth Sanders, Trinity College

Evgeniya Koroleva, Graduate Center, CUNY

Johannes Burgers, Queensborough Community College, CUNY

Angelina Tallaj-Garcia, Graduate Center, CUNY

Alexander Chee

Sansanee Sermprungsuk

Lisa Regula Meyer, Kent State University

Sonia Maldonado, Hostos Community College, CUNY

Natalie Yasmin Soto, alumna (‘09) Hunter College, former adjunct, Medgar Evers College, CUNY; NYC public high school teacher

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Paul Krugman & the Political Economy of CUNY

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(Posted earlier to the CUNY Adjunct Project.)

Amid the responses to yesterday’s news about the supremely cushy terms of Paul Krugman’s hiring at the CUNY Graduate Center, three have stood out:

1) that the average adjunct salary per course at CUNY is ~$3,000, and Krugman will earn 75 times that to teach one seminar per year (and no teaching labor at all in his first year);

2) that Krugman’s salary of $225,000 per academic year is either appropriate to his scholarly and public stature or that he’s being underpaid at that rate; and

3) that his salary is actually a bargain because it will be well returned by virtue of the Graduate Center’s enhanced profile and an attendant increase in private donations.

To these responses I’d like to add:

a) that there are 13 different funding levels for students at the Graduate Center (GC), ranging from zero dollars to $27,000 (as of last fall’s data). Krugman’s primary attachment will be to the GC’s Luxembourg Income Study Center, the mission of which is to support the study of, among other phenomena, poverty and income inequality.

The contradiction between these objects of study and the very subjects of poverty and income inequality at the GC is worth continually highlighting. Graduate students at the GC are at the mercy of funding—the funding inequities among us are the direct result of GC decision-making and priority-setting, working within the two-way interface with CUNY Central. Just last Friday we were at a meeting in which Interim President Robinson—the GC leader who fawned so over Krugman in the numerous emails that were released—told us, yet again, that there was no money available for increased funding—not even for those students who have no funding at all, either because they came in with no funding or because they are now outside the five years of guaranteed funding of the most lucrative packages.

There is, however, $225K a year to give Krugman for just, essentially, hanging around. What if, instead, that money went to the GC students who need it the most? Sure, at an annual rate, Krugman’s salary would only equal 12.5 $18K fellowship packages, the deal that many GC students have who entered before the current academic year (including me). But another way to think about it is as 75 $3,000 grants to students sans funding, so that they could teach one less class as an adjunct, thus allowing a much-needed diminishment in pressure and the possibility, maybe, to get through another dissertation chapter because of it.

The larger issue, of course, is that the terms of Krugman’s hire represent a fundamental contradiction in the hegemony of the “lack of money” that rules the practices and discussions of public higher ed. Indeed, there is always money to be had, at CUNY as elsewhere, whether it’s to hire a celebrity prof to add value by virtue of his name, or to build a $350-million “world-class” science center. (Note that Krugman is also “world class.” CUNY’s desperate for world-class status, even if it means running its students and faculty into the ground.)

And this is just to consider the situation of graduate student workers at the GC. The CUNY system at large is rife with inequality due to the state’s and university’s spending priorities, which reflect the overall neoliberal political economy that has decimated public higher ed over the last 40+ years. Indeed, at CUNY in particular, as much as the 1969 student, faculty, and community occupation of City College was a watershed victory against structural racism and/in higher education, it also galvanized the reactionary policies that have led to the increased exclusion of working class students of color in recent years.

b) As for Krugman’s salary, whether he’s being paid appropriately for his stature is beside the point. I mean, does anyone know how much money he makes from university employment versus his NYT gig versus his books versus his speaking gigs, etc.? In a bitter irony, it would seem that university employment is actually adjunct labor for him, in the way that it was for most adjuncts back in the day, who taught to supplement their income and not for their entire livelihood, as they must today under the penury of academic capitalism.

Furthermore, CUNY’s last celebrity hire, David Petraeus, cut his salary to $1 after a similar outcry last summer over his comparably less cushy terms (he had to teach—wait for it—two courses a year). As Petraeus’s representative put it at the time, “Once controversy arose about the amount he was being paid, he decided it was much more important to keep the focus on the students, on the school and on the teaching, and not have it be about the money.”

Considering the above, is Krugman more or less ethical than Petraeus?

c) Finally, if Krugman’s hire results in more private donations, fine. But to what would those donations go? There is currently no accountability mechanism at the GC (that I’m aware of at least) to measure, on the one hand, incoming donations and, on the other, what those funds are being used for. If Krugman’s position at the GC spurs donations that will then be put to student funding, that would be great—all for it. But something tells me that’s not what’s going to happen…

To be clear, I’m not against Krugman per se—I’m against the political economy that rewards elites while immiserating everyone else (given that the middle class is increasingly an illusion). For all Krugman’s own utility, such as it is, as a scourge against center-right economics, the terms of his hiring at the GC are an unfortunate symbol of all that’s wrong with public higher ed.

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