By Jared Chausow
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A recent student protest at CUNY's Hostos Community College in the South Bronx escalated into a confrontation with police when a plainclothes NYPD lieutenant grabbed and allegedly threatened a student organizer. Students won their goal of reinstating two remedial classes to next semester's schedule, but the victory has been over-shadowed by anger over how police and school officials have handled the incident.
On the afternoon of May 9, several dozen students broke away from a rally in front of the building that houses college president Dolores Fernández's office and headed inside to demand a meeting with her. In the hallway leading to the office, Lieutenant Joseph Dowling of the 40th Precinct confronted student government president Oscar Paul. The lieutenant and an accompanying uniformed officer were reportedly on campus for a workshop.
I go up to Lieutenant Dowling and I say, Hey, let this [student] go, recalls college security chief Arnaldo Bernabe. something very bad could have happened.
In an interview with the Voice, campus chief of security Arnaldo Bernabe corroborated much of what students have reported through their lawyer. Bernabe says that when he arrived at the scene, Dowling had the student in his grip. "I go up to Lieutenant Dowling and I say, 'Hey, let this guy go.' I'm trying to focus his attention on me, not Oscar, because we're trained to deal with students," Bernabe recalls. "I didn't know what led up to the struggle, but it wasn't helping in the least. So, I separated them," he says. "The [accompanying] officer said, 'Hey, that's an NYPD lieutenant.' I said, 'So what?' I hadn't asked them to come."
Students, including Paul, then headed outside, but the lieutenant radioed for backup, Bernabe says. Hostos professor Henry Lesnick, who was on the street at the time, says he saw a police van "screech to a halt" and several officers head "like gangbusters" from the van into the building.
Additional police officers were "absolutely not" in the building, says college spokesperson Carlos Hargraves, citing a long-standing memorandum of understanding (MOU) between CUNY and the NYPD that restricts police presence on campus. But Bernabe reports that several officers responded to Dowling's call. Hargraves would not release write-ups filed by security guards.
Such confusion has been typical in the aftermath of the incident. Ron McGuire, the lawyer for the students, has said several students saw a gun in the lieutenant's hand, but the attorney has advised them not to speak publicly on specifics. The school denies it. "There was no gun," Hargraves says. Bernabe says he did not see a gun, but he missed the start of the confrontation. Both the administration and McGuire claim to have video footage supporting their respective accounts.
The controversy has both the students' lawyer and the Hostos security chief wishing for clarification of the relationship between the NYPD and CUNY. McGuire maintains the police have no place in an academic environment and that they should at least be required to check with campus security before taking any action. Bernabe seems to agree, calling the incident "a lesson for CUNY" to address "this gray MOU that leaves [jurisdiction] open to interpretation."
"It was a traumatic and potentially tragic situation," says McGuire. Bernabe says, "Hypothetically, it could have gone from the worst to the least. Something very bad could have happened, nothing at all could have happened."
"Civilian administrators abdicated their responsibility to monitor student protest," says McGuire. "The university should be taking a very strong stance to make sure something like this never happens again," he adds, vowing to pursue legal action pending an official school response.
"I personally think that the [lieutenant] acted inappropriately," says Hargraves, but he says the school is not pursuing the matter with police. "The police department is more than capable of dealing with its own officers," he says. The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.
Like the neighborhood around it, Hostos is overwhelmingly composed of low-income Latinos and blacks. McGuire says the demographics explain the lieutenant's behavior and the administration's apparent lack of indignation over it.
"At Harvard, you're allowed to sit in the president's office for three weeks, and I guess you get tea and crumpets," he says, referring to the recent campaign supporting a living wage for Harvard workers. "Can you imagine a police officer passing by a sit-in at the Harvard president's office and [intervening]? Can you imagine what would happen to this officer?" he demands.
"This is not a pro-student administration," says outgoing student government president Haile Rivera. "We don't expect them to come out and support us in any way."
Tension from the run-in with police has carried over. At a May 17 meeting to discuss specifics about the remedial program, administrators banned McGuire from the room. Students walked out in protest, but some returned to hear proposed policies that might weaken their recent victory.
Remedial classes, endangered by a mayor-backed CUNY leadership, are crucial for enabling underprivileged students to enroll, argues Rivera. Faculty and students say the president's initial slashing of an English and a Spanish class would have kept approximately 400 students from entering next semester.
Continuing their rally for a second day, students found themselves decrying not only curriculum cuts but also the policing of their protest. "The students had a chant, 'We're students, not criminals,' " says faculty member Lesnick. "It hurt that they had to say that."