The New School Occupation — Perspectives on the takeover of a building

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This is the first of three texts from a document written by some of those involved in the occupation of the New School. The entire document can be found at the following link:
We are of course disappointed with the occupation’s end: a shameful
side-door exit in the middle of the night and an even more shameful
declaration of “victory” on a measly slip of paper listing “demands met.”
To us, that which has been heralded as “victory” is in every way the death
of the occupation – representative both of the loss of our space itself as
well as our capitulation to the liberal forces that sought to destroy the
occupation from the beginning.
Nevertheless, we had held our ground for 32 hours against police and
security attacks and flagrantly broke laws while cops confusedly looked
on; most importantly, we proved that occupations are possible in New
York City, the fucking death metropolis center of capital’s hate. This was a
precedent that we hope will inspire others to escalate their actions in the
occupations we hope to see in the near future.
It is toward these future occupations that we look as we put together
this list of lessons and thoughts on the December 2008 New School
occupation, in the certainty that what began at the New School is
not over, despite the return of most participants to their private lives
and despite the pathetic and misleading declarations of victory.
Occupation is a means without an end – a practice that we can
constantly renew and expand.
And, as always,
the event belongs to those who fight,
not to those who want to control it.
Democracy is above all else the biggest and
most successful lie of our time (and we’re feeling
the same way about consensus, too1). The idea
of democratically debating every day those who
are against the occupation on the establishment,
renewal, and expansion of the occupation is
absurd – as if there is ever anything but antagonism
between us. At every step, the occupation was
brought into being in non-compliance with
democratic order, an order that was forced on us
precisely by those who opposed the occupation
itself – because it was too disorganized, it was
too illegal, it was too soon…
From the beginning, many of the figureheads and
bureaucrats-in-training of the Radical Student
Union [RSU] and Students for a Democratic
Society [SDS] were against the occupation
because it did not fit into their picture of the
“long-term struggle.” First, they did not support
its immediate establishment and many disagreed
with the tactic entirely. During meetings, they
spoke endlessly of their self-righteous feelings
about why the time was wrong or why it failed
to fit into the long-term vision of the “student
movement,” causing the postponement of the
occupation and sleepless nights for many. Next,
after deciding to join us in the cafeteria once
they realized things were happening with or
without their consent, they were chomping at
the bit to quietly end the occupation after the
first night – upon the opening of the business
day (of all the insults!). Thankfully, the wildly
liberal logic underlying this notion was quickly
revealed in all its hilarity and we continued on
into the next morning.
1. When enforced
as a strict practice in
a very large group,
consensus has a
tendency to reduce
outcomes to the
lowest common
denominator, as the
most mediocre or least
contentious decisions
are usually the only
ones everyone can
agree upon. Often
this watering down
of actions or plans is
the result of attempts
to appease a small
minority who would
otherwise block the
action entirely, meaning
that their will eventually
dominates the group
decision anyway. In
general, large-group
consensus slowly
erodes participants’
will to act, grinding
them down into
exhaustion and apathy
and often forestalling
spontaneous or
controversial action.
Later in the evening, many of these same “leaders” sought again and
again to issue “official decrees” against the strategic move to control the
building’s exit points, which allowed us to determine who entered the
occupation, not security and the police. Finally, they orchestrated another
“official” vote on the question of whether or not to forcibly open the fire
exits allowing the crowds outside in to join us – the official line, they
declared, was opposed. “Too risky, we’re just not ready” – it might upset
the administration, their negotiators, the cops, even…
To detail this list is not to get petty – it is to be clear about exactly what
happened during the occupation and how it was done. The fact is that
every highpoint and expansion of the occupation took place despite
these attempts at management. The occupation itself, as well as its
intensification through aggressive fortification, its continuation past the
first night, the forcing open of the fire exits and the joining of the crowds
outside with us inside: one could trace a map of the occupation’s
strongest and most joyful moments by simply imagining the opposite
of the bureaucrats’ tyrannically democratic party line (every high point
on this map would of course need to be immediately followed by the
bureaucrats’ recuperation of the success in a letter, a declaration, a
meeting or a pat on the back).
In any case, the bottom-line is that we do not have to wait for
democratic consensus to act; in fact, the occupation happened
because we did not wait.
Demands are incredibly stupid: they say nothing about what we really
want, of the transformation we really need. Making demands means two
things: first, it means that we define ourselves in relation to the given
order of things and in dialogue with those in positions of control. As if
the university, administrative and police apparatuses are the hothouses
in which human life flowers and grows, making demands means that
we define within these contexts our choices, life projects and success.
Second, it means viewing occupation as nothing but a means to an end,
when, really, the thing to be avoided most is precisely any such end, any
return to the dismal ‘normality’ of capitalist life. As
for us, we’ve realized that we discovered our fate
there in occupying, where we experienced joy;2
that the ends are contained in the means; that we
have to attach ourselves to those practices that
fill us with joy and a spirit of being ourselves.
So we understand occupation as a means
without end, a form of action that perpetuates
other forms of action without an end in sight.
It is pure means, a gesture incapable of being
reduced to a moment in or tactic of the ‘much-
more-long-term-struggle.’ If we don’t rethink the
relation between means and ends, then
we have learned nothing.
“Build the PARTY! I mean, movement! Yes,
towards the consolidation of power into the
MOVEMENT! Anything for the MOVEMENT!
Only the MOVEMENT can act! All praise the
glorious MOVEMENT!”
During an occupation, aspiring politicians and
self-appointed representatives of “the movement”
will attempt to break our will by calling endless
turgid meetings every 15 minutes which, as was
exactly the case in the New School occupation,
will consistently attempt to destroy every shred
of momentum we build. Anytime things were
exciting in the cafeteria, be sure that a meeting
was called immediately to recuperate that energy
into the party-like machine of the bureaucrats.
Those who have detached themselves from the
notion of the “right moment” know that we are
2. That’s joy like
Bonanno said it:
the realization of
ourselves in the
negation of capitalist
logic and labor. “Its
attack is overcoming
the commodity hal-
lucination, machinery,
vengeance, the leader;
the party, quantity. Its
struggle is breaking
down the logic of
profit, the architecture
of the market, the
programming of life,
the last document
in the last archive.
Its violent explosion
is overturning the
order of dependent,
the nomenclature of
positive and nega-
tive, the code of the
commodity illusion.”
(“Armed Joy,” 1977)
always already ready, and that “long-term struggle” is a myth used to
negate any desires for action that are not directed from core pathetically
inept “leaders.” Their long-term struggle functions the same rhetorically
as “real communism” did to the workers movement: an ever-receding
future horizon, used only to justify exploitation in the present.
The truth is that figuring things out with your friends or in an assembly
is a “meeting” that’s miles away from these bureaucratic movement
meetings that rely on a model for “revolutionary organization” that mirrors
directly the logic of capital. Fortunately, movements, as they know them,
are dead; future struggles will grind their gravestones into rocks for the
battles to come.
When we occupy a space, we must immediately make it ours. We should
inhabit it and turn it to our own ends, because an occupied space is
not that of work or protest, nor is it anything like the isolated spaces
to which we’ve grown so accustomed; it is autonomous, collective and
open for our own use. What makes this space different from all others,
all the commodified, mediated, surveilled spaces of the city? – this is the
primary question to ask when we take a space.
We put up banners, laid out sleeping bags and projected videos on the
walls, staying up late through the nights talking to new and old friends.
Remember the ridiculous fun we had supporting each other at the
barricades and when we linked with the wild crowds from outside in that
huge burst of energy? When we forcibly grabbed our comrades back
from the arms of the cops? We have to immediately populate our spaces
with all of this but so much more. At the New School we allowed the
forces of management and meetings to dominate the space from the
beginning – this was one of our biggest mistakes. Never again a Ministry
on Culture, never another soul-crushing meeting to reinstate management
just as we’ve shrugged it off: occupying should be an opportunity at last,
however fleeting, to take a breath and figure out what it means to live
together outside of capital’s logic.
People had been standing outside supporting us all day long, but a
support rally that had been called for late Thursday night drew a crowd of
200-300. This included a Greek solidarity street party that had begun in
Tompkins Square Park, leaving a path of festive destruction in its wake,
which pushed the situation to a critical mass. Unable to enter the building
due to a complete police and security lockdown, and provoked by the
arrival of new police trucks and reinforcements, people outside the New
School angrily spilled into to the streets, totally blocking 5th avenue and
moving north against traffic, forcing cars to back up, and knocking down
police barricades. Meanwhile, inside the occupation, as mentioned earlier,
a small group of people rejected a fear-induced “consensus” decision
to refrain from “contentious” activity and forced open a fire door to a
raucous, jubilant crowd on the street to enter and join us inside. Running
through the halls, dodging security guards and cops, breaking windows
and hopping barricades, around 75 of our friends joined us inside and
raised the stakes of the occupation once more. As this was happening,
our comrades outside flung tomatoes at Bob Kerrey and chased the one-
legged scumbag down the streets.
Those who opposed making this convergence possible called us
“Custeristic.” Though we’d prefer another comparison, really, in the
more abstract and intended sense, we’re flattered: the whole thing was
pure adventuristic joy. Creating multiple situations inside and out will
effectively strengthen and expand an occupation, especially when they
converge either on one point, as it happened at the New School, or when
they multiply the fronts of battle (for example, if the occupations had
expanded to include other buildings, or turned into strikes or blockades
The Bob Kerrey Issue was merely a pretense for us to take this action. For
some the immediate generalization was to other New School issues, the
broader reality of the neoliberalization of the university, and to capitalism
most of all. We don’t know what this opened up for others involved in
the occupation, but for us the generalization was immediate, thorough
and deliberate: Kerrey’s highly public crisis of legitimacy gave us the
opportunity finally to go on strike from all the myriad forms of production
we live every day and to give ourselves over to occupation.
What we hope to have shown with our brief but successful occupation
is that such action is possible in New York City – we just need to make
it happen. Always look for controversy or conflict that can be pushed
forward or spaces that can be opened up. Opportunities like this present
themselves constantly: we need to watch for them and be prepared.
In the future, we are going to see the effects of the economic “crisis”
intensify; we are already seeing cuts in education budgets, mass layoffs
and city services slashed. We should intervene in these moments, but we
must remember that we are not asking for a little less or a little bit nicer
exploitation, and we are not interested in giving them suggestions on how
to solve their crisis, because the truth is that we have been living the crisis
all of our lives and what we want is, finally, to bring it to its fullest climax.
So when another student occupation takes place, we ought to remember
some of the silliest demands we heard at the New School, some of the
embarrassing posters like “Let Students Have a Say”, and think about
how we position ourselves: are we giving the administration suggestions
for ways to make us happier, more docile consumers again, or are we
using these moments of intensified crisis to insist on our antagonism, to
disrupt the whole arrangement altogether?
See you in the Spring!
with love,
everyone’s favorite autonomous faction in non-cooperation
january 2009