At Baruch College, Tuition Protests End in Confrontation and Arrests

Mark Abramson for The Chronicle

Students protesting a proposed tuition increase were turned back by the police after they tried to enter a Baruch College building to reach a public hearing. Fifteen students were arrested.
November 22, 2011

A young man chanted as three police officers wrestled him to the floor. "Students united," he screamed, "will never be defeated!"

A young woman, her hands bound with white plastic cuffs, shrieked as two officers dragged her across the floor. "I have a right to be in here," she yelled. "I have a right to be here."

On Monday evening, a day of passionate, but peaceful protests against tuition hikes and student loans ended in violence at the City University of New York's Baruch College. Inside a campus building where the university's trustees were holding a public hearing, demonstrators carrying signs clashed with police officers carrying night sticks. Fifteen protesters were arrested after forcing their way into the building and refusing orders to exit the lobby.

One item on the agenda, a proposed tuition increase—of $300 a year for the next five years—drew college students from around the city to Baruch's campus. Although the CUNY system's average tuition and fees are low compared with what many other state institutions charge, the proposed hikes here have stirred emotions among many students and faculty members.

Earlier in the day, protesters from the Occupy Wall Street movement gathered in lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park to announce a national "student-debt refusal" campaign. That rally began with theater. A half dozen students wore caps and gowns made of trash bags and chains made of duct tape to signify their debt. Each one was presented a "diploma of debt," showing five-figure amounts they would owe.

Pamela Brown, a graduate student in sociology at the New School, read the "pledge of refusal," in which signatories promise to stop paying their loans once a million signatures are gathered. Ms. Brown, who has more than $100,000 in student-loan debt, has already signed the pledge. If the pledge receives a million signatures, Ms. Brown plans to stop paying her loans after graduating, whatever the consequences. She believes the petition could help change the national conversation about the affordability of college.

"The question has been asked repeatedly about the morality of not paying debts," Ms. Brown said. "We now need to ask the question about the morality of paying when the vast majority of people cannot afford to pay."

All around, protesters insisted that dollars weren't the only issue. Many said the very narrative of college—its promise and potential—was at stake. Hilary Goodfriend, a senior at New York University, is debt-free, but she has worked on the committee that created the campaign. She described how the pressure to attend the "best" colleges shapes students' decisions about college and how to pay for it. "People say, 'Students choose to go to expensive schools,' but students are constantly told, 'This is what you need.' It's a symbol, a prize."

Later in the day, several hundred protesters gathered in nearby Madison Square Park for a rally sponsored by Students United for a Free CUNY. There, students held signs that said, "We pay for this school. We run this school," and "This is our future. Hop off it." One by one, students from various New York institutions stood up to describe their struggles to pay for college and rail against tuition increases.

Dan Plaat, a senior at City College, said he had chosen CUNY because it was the cheapest option. He has taken out $15,000 in loans, which he says he can handle, but he predicted that the planned tuition increase would reduce the number of New Yorkers who could afford to attend CUNY. "Where's my choice," he said, "if I don't go here?"

Mr. Plaat, an architecture major, likened public education to a house that's been neglected. "There's a problem, but the problem isn't with the house itself," he said. "It's that the house isn't being maintained."

As the sun sank, the protesters marched down East 23rd Street toward Baruch, flooding the sidewalks and stopping traffic at each intersection. A chant rose ("They say, 'tuition hikes'; we say, 'student strikes'!") as passers-by snapped photographs and scrambled to avoid the throngs.

In a doorway, a middle-aged man yelled, "Go get a job!" Brandon Peker, a recent graduate of the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts who now waits tables for a living, turned to look at the man. "I have a job," he said, "but I choose to be here."

After the crowd arrived at the William and Anita Newman Vertical Conference Center, as many as 200 students marched through barricades and filled the first-floor lobby. Up on the 14th floor, the hearing room was already full, so police officers and Baruch officials directed protesters to an overflow room equipped with live video of the hearing. Some protesters entered the room, but others refused.

A new chant began: "Locked out of CUNY! Locked out of CUNY!"

Several protesters ran toward the lobby turnstiles at which CUNY students must show their ID cards to enter the building. None of the demonstrators were allowed to pass. One Baruch official in a suit twice stopped a girl in pigtails. "One more time, and you're going to be in cuffs," he told her. Meanwhile, several Baruch students, coming to attend evening classes and not to protest, walked by, wearing baffled expressions.

After a few minutes, campus police officers formed a wall, some of them joining hands, to prevent the protesters from surging toward the turnstiles. A sea of bodies, pushing and shoving, grew more restless after officers told protesters several times to leave the building or else be arrested for trespassing.

Many students then sat down on the floor. Slowly, the police officers moved toward them. Several students tried to run through the wall of arms but were forced to the ground. The scene turned chaotic. Police officers tackled one student, then another. Between the tangle of legs, one could see a young woman's head on the floor, under an officer's knee.

From a second-floor balcony, dozens of students cheered and slapped the walls. Some threw newspapers and trash down on the police officers. Many of the student filmed the scene with their cellphones, as if to confirm the new chant rising from the protesters: "The world is watching, the world is watching, the world is watching." As the scuffle continued, protesters outside beat the glass with their fists and chanted, "Shame on you!"

A plastic bottle of ginger ale sailed over the crowd and smacked the floor. Michael Arena, CUNY's director of communications, ran over to pick it up. He then helped officers and Baruch officials clear several chairs out of the way of the protesters, who were eventually forced back onto the street. Tattered signs and orange and green flyers covered the lobby floor.

Out on the street, witnesses described what they had seen upstairs when several protesters tried to enter the hearing room. Two students said officers had pushed back the protesters with batons. One student who asked not to be named said that several students had been struck, but CUNY officials could not confirm that description. Most of the 15 students arrested were released hours later, Mr. Arena said, but some may face charges.

In the hearing room, Barbara Bowen, president of CUNY's Professional Staff Congress and an English professor at Queens College, had finished speaking against the proposed tuition increases when she heard the commotion downstairs. She rushed to the lobby. As a reporter described what had happened, she shook her head.

Recently, Ms. Bowen had directed a member of her staff to talk to administrators about the best way to handle students protests. "The message," she said, "was that nonviolent student protests must not be met by violence."

Late last night, Mr. Arena described what didn't happen. Campus police officers threw no punches, he said, and they used no pepper spray. "The security and safety of students coming in and out of that space was in question," he said. "What you saw was a very professional effort to ensure the safety and smooth running of the operation. When you have students banging on glass, there's a number of different ways things could have gone down."

On the street, however, protesters weren't buying that. Long after the scuffle had ended, Russell Weiss-Irwin, a freshman at City College, came outside to a raucous crowd of students. "Take everything that happened here back to your campus," he said. "Take it back to Brooklyn! Take it back to Queens!" Each borough and campus he named brought cheers.

Mr. Weiss-Irwin had registered to speak at the hearing, but was not permitted to enter because the room was already full. About an hour after the scuffle, he was inspired, but shaken. "People are getting arrested and beat up just for expressing their views," he said. "That's pretty messed up."

Clarification (11/22, 12:40 p.m.): This article originally mischaracterized Pamela Brown's intentions regarding the payment of her student loans. Although she has planned to pay back her debt, she has, as a signatory of the debt-refusal pledge, vowed not to pay if the petition receives a million signatures. The article has been amended to reflect this.