Conor Tomás Reed, CUNY Teacher and PhD Student, On Being Arrested for Protesting Tuition Hikes
City University of New York students will be protesting tuition hikes this afternoon, and all classes at Baruch's Newman Vertical Campus have been cancelled. It will be déjà vu for Conor Tomás Reed, a CUNY PhD student and a graduate teaching fellow at Baruch College. He was one of five people arrested last Monday, November 21, when a large contingent of CUNY instructors and students were attempting to voice their opposition to planned tuition increases at the CUNY Board's meeting at Baruch. They were not allowed into the meeting, however, and were arrested in the lobby.
We spoke to Tomás Reed over Thanksgiving weekend about the planned tuition increases, CUNY security, being arrested, and the second attempt to protest tonight's board meeting.
Here's an edited transcript of our exchange.
How did you get involved in this protest?
We had been raising awareness of the CUNY Board of Trustees' quote "rational tuition policy."
Who was "we"?
We were students as well as adjunct and full time members of CUNY faculty, and other concerned people in New York City.
What happened last Monday?
So, basically the various movements and communities in CUNY were raising awareness about the "rational tuition policy" that the Chancellor and the Board had voted on in the summer, when students were out of class and not able to pay attention to the issue. We knew that this Monday hearing would be one of the main opportunities to address grievances, while also raising awareness about the CUNY Pathways Program, which is a way the university is trying to change the transferring of credits between CUNY schools. We were also trying to raise awareness of how almost 2,000 adjunct teachers are having their health care under attack, and of other funding being under attack, and of the NYPD surreptitiously spying on CUNY Muslim student groups.
The CUNY Board of Trustees will try to tout legitimacy at these hearings and say that the board will listen. But with a university of hundreds of thousands and students, and thousands of instructors, to have the hearings in a room that maxes out at 300 people shows that board is not interested in having a venue with the size and depth needed so that our community can share our concerns.
So there was a demonstration at Madison Square Park, which happened earlier in the day, building upon the success of Occupy Wall Street day of action, and the student strike which many had participated in. On Monday, the 21st, people met in Madison Square Park and shared testimony about how tuition increases were going to affect them. We repeated that we wanted to share these testimonies with the board and that we wanted this to be a nonviolent demonstration at Baruch. We didn't want any rabble-rousing. We wanted to go there as legitimate participants in the CUNY community.
How many people were there?
There were about 100, 150 people when we marched from Madison Square Park. When we got to the Baruch College Vertical Campus building, the crowd swelled to 400 or 500 maybe. There is this Byzantine process where you have to call the Friday beforehand to assure you can speak, to get on a list that the board controls, and then that list is first-come, first-serve for those on it. Basically, we were outside of the building, and then CUNY public safety said that if you were here for the public hearing, you can come in now. So people started making their way into the Vertical Campus lobby. At that point, there was an announcement by CUNY public safety that we could go into a side room on the first floor. But a lot of people were saying the hearing's on the 14th floor. But they were trying to usher us into this side room. What wasn't clear was that the side room would have a live video feed of the proceedings. Still, it wasn't a two-way system. There would be no way to share our testimonies from there.
So, at that point, people were saying, "We're here to deliver our testimony." There were all kinds of CUNY faculty: full-time, part-time, adjuncts, as well as graduate and undergraduate students. We were in the lobby, before the turnstiles, about 25 or 30 feet away from the turnstiles.
And then there was this huge row of public safety officers, and they had their billy clubs out.
Were they CUNY security?
Yes, but it's hard to define. As we've heard, CUNY public safety take care of things in-house, and if they need to, they will call in the NYPD and ask for support. It gets muddled, though, when you see that CUNY has a special public safety team. On Wikipedia, it shows an arsenal which includes sub-automatic guns, a bunch of which were purchased after the Virginia Tech shootings to protect us. We didn't know until after several of us had gotten arrested the extent to which CUNY public safety is so thoroughly embedded with the NYPD apparatus. When the five of us who were ultimately arrested and brought to the Seventh Precinct, all of the processing was done by these CUNY public safety officers, in the Seventh Precinct. They finger printed us and used the scanning machines there, until we were taken to the Tombs and put into the control of the corrections departments.
You said you saw their billy clubs out.
Yeah, they were out. There were mic checks, and general announcements, drawing attention to the fact that CUNY security had their batons out. People were saying things like, "This is a school, why are you treating this like a jail?" and "There is no need for this kind of danger of brutality. This is a peaceful group of people." And we decided, if they weren't going to let us into the Board of Trustees meeting, for which there was still room, then we were going to share out public testimonies in the lobby. At one point, a student made a suggestion that we sit in a circle, General Assembly-style, and go around share about what tuition increases would mean to each one of us.
About 20 seconds after we started to sit down, we saw pubic safety officers move forward and start pushing us. If students didn't have their wits about them, they could have been trampled. We jumped to our feet and people started protecting themselves and protecting each other. The CUNY officers would hold the batons with two hands, holding them like a stick, and pushing them into people's faces and chest. They were telling us to leave, but the doors were blocked.
Blocked from both ways?
Yeah. They were blocking people trying to come in, and they were blocking people from being able to leave. It was entrapment. We were being told to leave without having anyway to leave at the same time.
From the balcony above, several dozen students were watching all of this as it was happening. I was right in the middle of everything, when a CUNY public safety officer started to unzip my backpack, and said, "Sir, your backpack is open, you might want to look out for your stuff. All of my students' graded papers, my attendance sheets, all of this was being emptied out of my backpack during this scuffle -- although I don't like that word scuffle. It makes it sound like it was mutual on both sides.
You actually saw a CUNY office opening up your backpack?
What I heard and saw was this office saying, "Sir, your backpack is open," and it was coming unzipped as he said this, and there is no other way it could have been unzipped. I was pinned between students on one side and public safety officers on the other. I don't know how it could have come unzipped. And now, I don't have those materials from my class. I don't know if facilities swept it all up, or if it was lost. My students and I will have to figure out what to do about this.
You were saying --
The public safety officers began grabbing people and wrestling them to the ground and putting them in zip ties. I was one of them, and while I'm being wrestled to the ground, I'm saying that I'm a teacher at Baruch. I had glasses hanging on my shirt and they were broken. My shirt was ripped. I was pinned down by officers and my hands were placed in zip ties. They secured my hands behind my back so forcefully, and so hard, I couldn't feel my hands, which was an experience several others shared. It wasn't until later, when were were brought to the 14th floor -- coincidentally, about 100 feet from the public hearing we had been trying to get into -- when they finally loosened some of our ties.
Several people shared that they couldn't feel their hands, and public safety reluctantly, adjusted them. People had their hands behind their backs, they were shaking, they were asking for water.
How many were you at this point?
There were 15 detained and brought up to the 14th floor -- 10 were given summonses for trespassing and disorderly conduct, and five of us were brought to the Seventh Precinct. The charges vary, from criminal trespassing, to resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. It's possible one person may be attempted with grand larceny for trying to shield himself from being struck by the batons.
How long were you there?
We were held there for two hours. (By the way, the five of us left were all people of color. I'm Puerto Rican/Irish, one person was Asian, one person was black and Latino.) We were eventually told they were going to take us out through the side exit. But, they weren't able to figure that out, and so we were taken out, in handcuffs, through the main exit. We saw students looking at us, with fear that students were being lead out in handcuffs, all because we were here to protest tuition increases, and that's how CUNY public safety chose to respond.
Tomás Reed will be participating in today's march at CUNY, ahead of tonight's meeting of the Board of Trustees, where they will consider the tuition hikes. Rosie Gray just reported that all CUNY classes at the Baruch Newman Vertical Campus after 3 p.m. today have been cancelled.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.