By Chris Crews
I was on my way to Battery Park on April 10th, 2009 when I got the text message that told me a second occupation of 65 5th Avenue had just begun, and that people were locked inside. For the rest of that morning and afternoon, my phone exploded with text messages. What’s going on? Have you heard anything? Are you inside? I heard cops are there. Any updates? Police everywhere! Cops are threatening to arrest everyone. Cops going in. Everything is crazy! People arrested, pepper spray used. Are you ok? Are you in jail?
I was not inside during the occupation, and I wasn’t back on campus until hours after the occupation had ended and police had largely dispersed. Only a few scattered news trucks, police cars, metal barricades and yellow tape marked what had been a massive police mobilization just a few hours earlier. I was involved in the rallies and marches following this occupation on Friday night, as well as many of the subsequent events, some of which I also helped organize, including one specifically aimed at calling attention to the police actions and use of force against students on campus. But there has been a considerable amount already written on the occupation and subsequent events and I will not rehash all of that material here. What I am more interested in is the political challenges the occupation, and how it was dealt with, pose to our campus. In particular I want to examine the way that it highlighted or obscured various political tensions and discourses.
More than the actual occupation, the handling of the incident by Kerrey and the actions of the NYPD created the central campus narrative immediately following the occupation. In particular, many in the community—students, faculty and staff—came together in condemning the actions of the administration and even more the actions of the NYPD. The administration’s response to the second occupation was in clear and flagrant disregard of all of the previous talk of democratic politics, accountability and transparency in decision making, as well as the desires for a collaborative political framework. As one of the occupiers wrote to me in their response about the occupation: “Did the April occupation once again draw attention to the fact that the New School president is a war criminal? Yes. Did it expose his formulas about ‘shared governance’ as so much bullshit? Yes. Did it reveal that his power rests on nothing more than police batons? Yes.”
In political terminology, this incident would seem to constitute what German legal theorist Carl Schmitt termed a state of exception where the constitutional process is completely circumvented and those involved, in this case students rather than citizens, are denied their identity qua student and therefore constructed as an enemy and a threat to the university community solely by the sovereign power of the decision, in this case embodied in the figure of New School President Bob Kerrey.
It is precisely this exception that makes the subject of sovereignty relevant. The details of an emergency cannot be anticipated, nor can one spell out what may take place in such a case. This is especially true when the situation is really one of extreme emergency. The most guidance a constitution can provide is to indicate who can act in such a situation. If such action is not subject to controls, if it is not hampered in some way by checks and balances, as is the case in a liberal constitution, then it must be clear who the sovereign is. He decides whether there is an extreme emergency as well as what must be done to eliminate it. Although he stands outside the normally valid legal system, he nevertheless belongs to it, for it is he who must decide whether the constitution needs to be suspended.i
In fact, this very parallel was made during the emergency meeting held on the Monday after the occupation in comments made by NSSR Anthropology professor Ann Stoler. Following up on some points in a similar vein raised by made by NSSR Sociology professor Andrew Arato, Stoler said:
«Bob Kerrey has just done something that actually undermines just about everything that all of us have been working on supporting, loving this place for, that something’s happened with all of these people working together with him, to have no unilateral decision be made. Here is probably the most important place, our students at risk, really at physical risk as well as something else, where Tim [Marshall] was not consulted directly. And I just can’t wrap my head around that. That the place exactly where Bob could have shown his good will…he did not do so, and I’m having a really hard time computing this. Because what this does for someone who works in political theory, and colonialism and various other things—states of emergency, excuse me, states of emergency—are put into place when you are going to suspend certain normal procedures, right. And here we have a call that is a “state of emergency,” he had to act. But we know already how states of emergency operate, they suspend exactly the procedures that we have all endorsed so much, that you all have been working so hard for, and I think this is the place we have to stop, because that is the thing that keeps getting glided over. Of why Bob thought at this moment he could have suspended absolutely the think we have been trying to set in place for three months.ii »
In this sense, the rupture of liberal democratic politics was not caused by autonomous student actions but rather by the one with the power to declare the state of emergency, namely Bob Kerrey. This perspective helps us to see the true inner workings of the very democratic processes being challenged by the student occupation and serves to further validate their critique of the inherently repressive and anti-democratic nature of a liberal politics that is being defended at the New School.
The political gains and negotiations made between the first December occupation and the early days of April when some members of the community—quite foolishly it turns out—thought the sovereign power of the President was being reduced and distributed into other university actors were proved meaningless on April 10th when even the newly appointed Interim Provost was excluded from the formal political process. But perhaps the best information we have comes from an interview which the Free Press conducted with the President nearly two weeks after the occupation, and to which I want to draw attention to a few examples of where I see reflections of this anti-democratic sovereignty at work in Kerrey’s twisted logic. ED and AG are Free Press reporters, BK is President Kerrey.
There was a student on the scene very early who knew some of the New School people in the building. Police began immediately to try to negotiate their peaceful departure from the building.
Now, did they really call Tim [Marshall]? Because this student spoke at the community forum that was held last week and she said the administration–or someone had said that–the administration had refused to negotiate with the students inside.
There’s two definitions of the word negotiate. You have to understand that. One is negotiate for terms, which is what we did in December. Having given almost every single item, including amnesty, it didn’t seem to me to be appropriate to negotiate for additional terms. The second kind of negotiation was unquestionably occurring which is, “Will you leave peacefully? Can we get you to take the locks off the doors, open the doors, and allow us to come in, and without any use of force at all to arrest and book you on whatever charges they were negotiating at the time?”
Which one did you refuse- You didn’t want to come to terms with them?
You just wanted them to leave the building?
Jumping back to the Demonstrations Committee, in the future, will the Demonstrations Committee convene even if the event isn’t necessarily legal?
I think there needs to be a consultative process, but I’m not comfortable having the Demonstrations Committee with authority to make that call. You need trustees involved, and you need senior academic leadership. They’re the ones that have the responsibility. I have responsibility. The academic leadership has responsibility. The Board has responsibility. We could take the advice, I would say prior, from a Demonstrations Committee, but in that moment when a decision has to be made–because that’s what it leads to, a decision has to be made, authorize or don’t authorize–and it’s my own opinion that consultation with the committee has to be a prior consultation not on the scene consultation.
I think what a lot of people are complaining about is that they were under the impression that student voice would be permitted at an administrative level and that in a moment of crisis, it was denied.
It’s a complaint without understanding of the context or willingly to not acknowledge the context. This committee lay dormant. We discovered it. We just stood it up and began to understand what it ought to do. It hasn’t been around here for 40 years. It’s been around here for approximately four months. We’re trying to figure out what authority to give it. I’m not certain what the academic community wants. As to whether or not a student voice is going to be heard on the scene, I think a student voice needs to be heard, I just don’t know how. I don’t know how to do it in a way that makes possible for a decision to be made. I’ve been at this university for eight years and one of the problems is we’re heavy on process, short on decision making capability. We will identify a problem and we will study it, study it, study it and take great satisfaction in the effort to study it. In a situation like this where you’ve got health and safety concerns and the operation of the university–the university opened after this occupation occurred–a decision has to get made. I don’t have an answer to the question: how to connect this committee we’ve just begun to activate or how we get student voice into it. I think it’s a legitimate question. I just don’t have an answer to it.iii
Here one can see the liberal sovereignty at work behind Kerrey’s claims, as well as further validation of the ongoing critique of his inability to reflect the values of the New School in his leadership. When he does not want to negotiate, he simply claims he already negotiated everything, and so there is nothing left to negotiate. When pushed on this point, he again switches his tactics and claims there are different meanings to negotiate, and then cleverly jumps to the negotiating with the police, which in fact was not negotiating at all. Secondly, when asked about the role of students on the Demonstration Committee and why they were not convened for the occupation, Kerrey first says that we don’t understand the situation, then switches to saying that we do want students involved, only to alter his claim again by saying that the problem is really how to go about getting students involved in such a process. The obvious answer is that they were already involved via the standing committee, which was created for exactly this type of situation. However, by acting unilaterally—and this goes back to Schmitt and the concept of the sovereign—Kerrey invalidated both the process in place and the function of those already involved in it. Using Linda Reimer as a mouthpiece, he effectively told students (and everyone else for that matter) to defer to him in all cases involving actual decisions within the New School. He alone, as the one who defines the state of exception, holds the ultimate sovereign power. This is one of the central political issues at the New School and as long as Kerrey or another like him is acting President, the problem will be the same.
i. Schmitt, Carl. Political Theology.Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. pg 7
Chris Crews is a media activist and writer from the foothills of Appalachia, and currently working towards a Ph.D in the Department of Politics at the New School. He has been involved in media production since an early age, and enjoys playing with mixed media, film and paint. His current work is focused on immigration politics in the media and the intersection of nationalism, identity politics and homeland security mainfiest in the United States. He also loves to bake, cook food, discuss anarchist theory and practices, and generally be a neo-shamanic trickster. His web site is www.chriscrews.org.