Skip to main content

OP-ED: Looking Back To Understand This Moment at CUNY

The massive presence of police and violence that ensued at City College of New York on April 30 was not seen at CUNY colleges in 1969; it was not seen during building takeovers during the 1980s and 1990s, and it should not be seen today.

Demonstrators gather outside City College of New York calling for divestment of all endowment funds with ties to Israel on Tuesday, April 30, 2024, ((Photo by Cristina Matuozzi/Sipa via AP Images)

In 1968, when attending junior high school in Brooklyn, my friends and I would cut class to travel up to Columbia University to watch and participate in the student-led Vietnam War protests. A year later, in April 1969, when I was finishing my first year at the High School of Music & Art, then located a few blocks from City College (CCNY), throngs of fellow students and I again left school to participate in protests for faculty and student diversity as well as Black and Puerto Rican studies programs. These protests were crucial to the creation of Open Admissions in 1970. Today, the NYPD would call us “outside agitators.”

For the past six years I have had the privilege of serving as first vice president of Professional Staff Congress/CUNY, the union representing CUNY faculty and staff. I have seen the ebbs and flows of activism throughout my life, and I have a good sense of our extraordinary City University of New York (CUNY) where we are ending the semester with dismay and protest over the violence in Gaza. Historians will debate and contextualize this moment as compared to earlier periods of civil and student unrest and there will no doubt be volumes of analyses, but it is counter to the very purpose of a university for student protest to be repressed. 

Student protest at CUNY reaches back to the 1930s when City College and Brooklyn College students demonstrated against the rise of fascism in Europe. Across the country in the 1960s and 1970s, students played major roles in the Civil Rights Movement; the anti-war movement; and for racial and educational justice at CCNY and elsewhere across CUNY. In the 1980s and 1990s, students were at the forefront of anti-apartheid protests at colleges and universities across the country and the world. There were also student actions at many CUNY colleges in response to continuing tuition increases, austerity budget cuts, and for greater diversity among CUNY faculty. Building takeovers occurred at several colleges during this period when city officials and CUNY administrators were not responsive to student demands for dialogue about, and change in, the curriculum and faculty diversity. For a century we have seen students engage in civil disobedience to break and oppose unjust laws and to draw attention to critical issues of our times. It is no surprise that the war in Gaza has provoked a large and passionate response from students who are among those who believe this is the moral crisis of our time.

The massive presence of police, and the violence that ensued at City College of New York the night of April 30 was not seen at CUNY colleges in 1969; it was not seen during the building takeovers at CCNY, John Jay, or Hunter the 1980s and 1990s, and it should not be seen today. 

Unfortunately, we are witnessing a diminishing of the right to peaceful and respectful assembly at CUNY as events are canceled, parts of campuses shut down, entrances barred, and more. All members of our college communities should find the curtailment of free speech, the undermining of peaceful protest by our students, and attacks on academic freedom in the classroom unacceptable. 

To witness firsthand what was happening at CCNY, I visited the encampment on Monday, April 29, the day before police were called in to remove the students. Monday’s scene could not have been more calm and peaceful. I returned the following night to a drastically different scene when I was stunned to hear there was a police action taking place. 

No one should condone damage to CUNY facilities that are meant to serve our student’s needs. No one should condone violence or harassment against participants or against others in the college community, including all who work in our buildings. 

I don’t know if there is real clarity yet about who exactly did what at CCNY but one thing is clear: However you feel about the student demands, the level of police force that was used against those at and around CCNY that night greatly exceeded what we’ve seen at CUNY in the past and is unacceptable. I have heard people say things like, “if you break the law, there are consequences.”

Those who commit civil disobedience understand the risks they take. But authorities, including CCNY and CUNY leadership, have the discretion to understand the context in which protest anchored in moral values happens. In this context, no CUNY students or faculty members should be subject to the criminal justice system.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

Antisemitism has been on the rise, and it is real and there is no place for it on our campuses, just as there is no place for any racist or Islamophobic language or behavior. There have been incidents of antisemitism in our city and on our campuses that must be challenged. We must acknowledge the full context of this moment and oppose hate and harassment.

But it would be a grave mistake to allow this difficult moment to shut down the democratic right to dissent and restrict free speech. College education was never necessarily “comfortable,” and it should not be a place that is now judged by how “comfortable” the environment is. 

Yes, of course, physical safety must be ensured for all, including faculty, staff, and students. But if members of our community feel unsafe when opposing views are expressed even in an abrasive tone, that is a fundamental problem that we should be aiming to overcome—in our classes, in our demonstrations, and in our conversations. College has been, and should remain, a place where students confront subjects and views that are divergent from their own.

That is at the very core of what should be occurring in college. If we are to retain the remnants of a democracy, challenging debate is one of the invaluable lessons colleges have to offer our students. Only in this way can students become reflective citizens and enlightened members of a broader community. This highly fraught moment calls for more engagement inside and outside of the classroom—not less. 

We live in scary times as anti-democratic politics are on the rise in the U.S. and globally. One of the worst possible outcomes of the CUNY protests would be for the CUNY administration, or any elected official, to infringe upon the rights to freedom of speech for our students, academic freedom for our faculty, and freedom of assembly for us all. Public higher education holds the promise of a democratization of our society and of providing hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers with a better future. 

This democratization of experience and thought is what CUNY faculty, staff, and students are fighting to protect so that the university can live up to its promise for future generations of CUNY students. 

Andrea Vásquez is the first vice president of the Professional Staff Congress/CUNY.

The New York Amsterdam News was started more than a century ago, with a $10 investment. It has gone on to become one of the most important Black newspapers in the country and today remains one of the most influential Black-owned and -operated media businesses in the nation, if not the world.   While the Amsterdam News is “The New Black View,” it remains keenly aware and respectful of the fact that it serves an increasingly multi-racial and multi-ethnic community in New York and beyond. Today, the New York Amsterdam News remains the voice of one of the largest and most influential Black communities in the country and the world.