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New York: Interview on occupation of New School

By staff

Fight Back! interviewed Eric Eingold, a member of the New School chapter of Students for a Democratic Society and one of the leaders in the New School in Exile. The New School in Exile was an occupation of a campus building to demand the resignation of president Bob Kerrey, among other demands (see Students Occupy New School, Demand President Kerrey Resign, Fight Back! December 2008). The occupation lasted for two days and won significant victories that have strengthened the student movement in the United States.

Fight Back!: How did the New School occupation begin?

Eric Eingold: On Wednesday, Dec. 10, the New School Radical Student Union [a group affiliated with Students for a Democratic Society, the Student Environmental Action Coalition and United for Peace and Justice] held a demonstration demanding the resignation of Treasurer Robert Millard from the school’s Board of Trustees. During the demonstration, we learned that the senior faculty voted overwhelmingly no-confidence in President Bob Kerrey and Executive Vice-president Jim Murtha.

As the events at the school continued to unfold, it became clear that the students would again be left out of the decision making process. What this was really about, in many ways, was struggling towards a self-managed university where students, faculty and staff collectively run the university in proportion to the degree in which they are affected. We had a meeting that an ad hoc group of students called and we met Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, leading to the occupation on Wednesday. The dilemma for us was that the semester was ending so quickly – many students’ last day of classes was Monday, the 22nd – and we felt it urgent to act as quickly and strategically as possible.

Fight Back!: Some of the statements from the demonstration say that president Bob Kerrey is a war criminal, what is the story behind this? And why demand that Bob Kerrey resign?

Eingold: During the Vietnam War, Bob Kerrey was part of Operation Phoenix, an operation aimed at breaking the back of the National Liberation Front. As part of that, Kerrey led a group of Navy Seals into Thanh Phong Village and murdered in cold blood dozens of women and children. It was very similar to the My Lai massacre, one of the greatest war crimes perpetuated by the United States in the 20th century in which an entire village was wiped out by American soldiers.

But, more specifically, this was about Kerrey’s inability to effectively run the school. Two weeks prior to the event, his fourth provost in seven years left the school, amid allegations that he was forced out. The provost is the school’s chief academic officer, and this speaks to the feeling that the New School has failed to place academics at the center of its focus under Kerrey. Kerrey then appointed himself acting provost, and apart from this being ludicrous, as he has little academic background, faculty and students were afforded no say in this. We demanded students to be able to participate in the hiring of an interim provost and the future provost. We demanded a student vote in the process, as well as a student seat on the school’s Board of Trustees, all with a broader aim of student empowerment and participation in the operation of the university.

Fight Back!: What were the expressions of solidarity you received?

Eingold: We received so many declarations of support, from places like Mexico, Greece, Spain, Puerto Rico and all around the country. It is no exaggeration to say that we could not have done it without that support. Before we agreed to leave the building, there were 300 people demonstrating outside, pouring tremendous amounts of pressure on the school, but also inspiring us to continue inside. Without the solidarity we received, we would not have been able to win what won, or stay as long as we did.

Fight Back!: What were your accomplishments coming out of this occupation? What more is there to win?

Eingold: We achieved many things. Among them, a guarantee that anyone involved in the occupation will not be disciplined by the school, student participation in the process of selecting an interim provost and the future provost and a guarantee for students and the administration to work together to create a Socially Responsible Investment committee which will monitor the school’s investments to ensure that the New School is investing in corporations that promote social, economic and climate justice. However, the current administration is still in place. That’s a longer struggle, as is the creation of a university self-managed by students faculty and staff. What we seek to do with the energy coming from the occupation is to build a movement capable of winning those long term changes, and not only at the New School.

Fight Back!: What lessons can we take from this? How do you think this demonstration relates to the broader student movement?

Eingold: Hopefully, we can take many things from this, especially momentum. I think, for those of us inside, a lesson we learned that was especially poignant was the importance of solidarity. For those of us working for student power, I think we can see the importance of linking our struggles and organizing around the issues confronting us, as students from all over the city showed up in front of the school in solidarity with those of us inside. Also, this also speaks to the importance of action, and strategic action. As our movement builds and more and more people join the left, it becomes increasingly important that we continuously ask ourselves, “How does this help us build, how does this help us expand and push ourselves further to the left?” A movement struggling to gain serious victories will need to incorporate millions of people, and we need to work to build that kind of membership.

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