Somewhat ironically, it’s the Occupy Wall Street May Day event that is the least controversial that is most reminiscent of the best of Zuccotti Park’s heyday. The Free University of New York — largely sponsored by CUNY students and faculty who chose to take their classes into Madison Square Park today, where they were free and open to the public — recalled Zuccotti’s finest hours, when freewheeling political debate and the exchange of ideas dominated a public space unseen in modern New York.
The big question this reporter had before arriving was, if Free University were to really affect the public life of Madison Square, would it be able to draw a bigger crowd than Shake Shack?
It actually did.
Event organizers never meant for this gathering to be antagonist, and worked closely with park managers and the NYPD to guarantee it would be a peaceful, safe space. Outside of the park, balloons and info tables welcomed visitors in a fashion more inviting than their counterparts last fall in Zuccotti.
Inside, classes met on the ground and at various monuments. In an hour loop I took around the park, I was able to hear lectures and lessons from Truthdig’s Chris Hedges (railing about “The Death of the Liberal Class,” a rigorous discussion of “classical political philosophy,” a critique of U.S. and global incarceration practices, a history lesson on student activism at CUNY (including reflections from a student activist who’d protested at City College in 1968), a discussion of the Palestinian state, and a course on the business behind mathematic and algorithms.There were also martial arts and yoga classes.
Classes were also given by noted individuals likes Frances Fox Piven and Wayne Koestenbaum.
The overall theme of this protest was about the role of education and its privatization and marginalization as a public good, especially in terms of humanities education. The organizers seemed to think that the best way to “strike” at CUNY was to open up their education to everyone and attempt to air their ideas. But, besides some of the content (theater students staged a mock wedding between the CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein and Kroll Securities CEO Jules Kroll “in richer and richer”; Hedges railed that hedge managers are scared “shitless” that “people might actually think”), there was hardly any conflict. The atmosphere was light and open, and gave the NYPD nothing to be afraid of.