NYC College Students Ponder Post-Garner Activism


Dozens of students with their mouths taped shut holding vigil on the stairs of the NYU student center. Hundreds of students lying prone in a “die-in” at the Columbia University holiday tree lighting. Thousands of people marching down streets, blocking highways, and crossing bridges to protest the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Akai Gurley and the lack of indictments for the officers responsible. Tens of thousands flowing down Broadway behind an eight-panel artwork depicting Garner’s eyes.

For most New York City students, the events of last semester represented the biggest protest movement of their college lives. The scope of the activism went far beyond campus: Many of the faces at citywide marches were college-age, and in the largest event, the Millions March on December 13, many participants wore fraternity jackets or college hoodies and carried signs for their schools.

But outrage is not an unlimited resource, and as the weeks pass, the number of protesters will likely decline. With the start of a new semester, student groups face the challenge of continuing the momentum of last fall as the emotional pitch on campus cools.

“If we could continue the conversation and not allow that conversation to die out,” that would be key, says Rahani Green, a sophomore and the public relations chair of the undergraduate Black Student Union at New York University. “I think that with a lot of movements there’s this hot spot and then it dies down. And we want to keep it going.”

During Welcome Week in August, the BSU held a moment of silence for Brown where 100 students sat with tape over their mouths for
fifteen minutes on the steps of the Kimmel
Center for University Life. Near the end of the semester, the group sponsored a die-in inside Bobst Library that included about 300 students and 60 faculty and staff.

Going forward, Green says, the group is considering holding sessions on police brutality at its annual Black History Month conference next month. It also will be pursuing two demands it has submitted to the administration: a meeting with school president John Sexton and the development of a mandatory course, likely to be held during orientation week, that teaches new students about such issues as white privilege and microaggression.

Green says this is just part of the group’s dedication to pursuing a more political profile. “People have come up to me and said that they really
appreciate that we’re being more active,” she says.

Helping to organize some of the protests in the city was the Revolutionary Student Coordinating Committee, a group founded in 2012 as part of the movement to restore free tuition across CUNY campuses. Percy Lujan, a senior at Lehman College and the group’s media officer, says the group envisions CUNY as an entity that belongs to the community and should be controlled by and serve as a resource for it.

The police shootings inherently touch the lives of CUNY students, says Lujan. “They see police brutality happening on a daily basis,” he says. “The role of groups like RSCC is to organize the students around those issues and help the students figure out the ways their university can become a place for liberation.”

RSCC was not an organizer of the Millions March, which drew about 25,000 participants to midtown Manhattan, but the group led a contingent of between 100 and 200 people, says Tafadar Sourov, a junior at City College and the group’s education officer and secretary. Because RSCC emphasizes engaging with local residents, he said, its own protests generally happen in more residential neighborhoods: “We take it to Harlem, we take it to Queens, to where Akai Gurley was killed in Brooklyn, to use the marches to reach the community.”

As the spring semester begins, leaders say, the RSCC will work to keep up momentum by refocusing on issues it had prioritized before the protests took off, and emphasizing their connection to
police brutality. These include advocating for undocumented immigrants and refugees, including Rasmea Odeh, a Palestinian convicted of immigration fraud in November; supporting Palestinians; and protesting the presence of the military on CUNY campuses, particularly former Army general and CIA director David Petraeus, who has been teaching at Macaulay Honors College. The RSCC also plans to help students in New Jersey, Philadelphia, and elsewhere who have expressed interest in forming chapters at their own schools.

Amy Helfant, a second-year student at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, was one of approximately 60 marchers carrying blue Cardozo placards in the Millions March. A board member of the school’s National Lawyers Guild chapter and a fellow of its Public Service Scholars program, Helfant says the Brown and Garner cases raise issues of particular concern for law students, including matters of equal protection and the legitimacy of the law.

“If prosecutors aren’t even trying to prosecute, then what’s happening with the legal field in general?” she says. “If someone has a job to do and they’re not even doing that job correctly or they don’t believe in its importance, that delegitimizes the whole system.”

Before the Millions March, the law school
itself sent an email inviting all students to march together, and the school provided the placards. “I was honestly quite shocked but very happy that they did that,” says Helfant.

The NLG’s Cardozo chapter offered a “Know Your Rights” training in the wake of Ferguson that drew several dozen students eager to learn to teach people how to interact with law enforcement. This semester, the NLG plans a campus training for Legal Observers, the lawyers whose neon-green hats make them easy to spot at the fringes of protests. In March, the Public Service Scholars program plans a conference on policing that will be open to law students, legal workers, lawyers, and the public.

Helfant, a veteran of several social-justice movements, including the pro-Palestinian movement, the anti-war movement, the environmental-justice movement, and the abortion rights movement, said she knows that participation will decline from last semester’s groundswell.

“I see it as something that’s going to be a big struggle,” she said. “Though the scale of the protests are really big and there are so many new participants, I think that it’s hard to just say, ‘OK, well, there’s been these events and now we will maintain this energy.'” But she believes that if the school itself reaches out as it did last semester, people will continue to take action. “I think that drew students who hadn’t been involved in any sort of activism before,” she says.

Ultimately, student leaders say, whether others will continue to participate in activism might come down to whether they feel personally
affected by the situations they’re protesting. Green says students need to realize that acts of racism will continue unless people continue to bring them to light. The RSCC leaders stress the need for their group to engage the community — for instance, by helping to set up self-regulating community patrols that can respond instead of police officers — and for students to see the university as a tool for change. Helfant says that in her experience, for people to stay involved in
activism, they need to perceive activism as a part of their identities, not just as something they do.

All say, however, that they have reason to hope. “Young people definitely want to be
involved in charting the course of history,”
Sourov says. “Something is definitely changing, and I think it’s for the positive.”