Author Archives: carneyboy

Second World Urbanity: Between Capitalist and Communist Utopias (call for papers)

secondworldurbanity.umwblogs.org

Call for Papers

Second World Urbanity: Between Capitalist and Communist Utopias

June 21-23, 2013
Location: The Centre for the History and Culture of East Central Europe, Leipzig, Germany

In 1967 the architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable published a long piece in the New York Times on Soviet advances in urban planning and construction. Surprisingly for the Cold War era, the author openly praised the Soviets for creating a country-wide system of mass production of standardised prefabricated cheap housing, ‘an architectural sputnik’  in her own words. She claimed with great enthusiasm, ‘In size, scope and boldness, in spite of crudities, failure and sometimes ludicrous imperfections it is a singularly important undertaking of the 20th century.’ Moreover, she noted, ‘the latest product is acceptable as architecture.’ Describing new residential neighborhoods mushrooming all across the Soviet Union, she wrote: ‘There is no scale, no variety, no surprise. It is monotony with light, air, sun, and greenery in season, and on sum, that effect is no worse and sometimes a good deal better than a lot of construction on the outskirts of large American cities.’ Admitting all the flaws of current Soviet construction she urged her readers to pay closer attention to this ‘special brand of modern architecture [that] is reshaping the Soviet World.’

Second World Urbanity: Between Capitalist and Communist Utopias seeks to investigate the history of the radical reshaping of the Soviet World (in our words – the Second World), that Ada Louise Huxtable reported on in the late 1960s. This project aims to bring together scholarly contributions on the various endeavors in the Second World to conceive, build, and inhabit a socialist cityscape that was an alternative to the segregated spaces of capitalist cities and  the atomized world of suburbia. Imagining and designing urban space were undeniably powerful instruments of forging socialist modernity. Second World Urbanity pays close attention to the tensions between global challenges and locally driven agendas that made architects, planners, and ordinary dwellers alter socialist modernity according to more particular interests. What were the visions and meanings that architects and urban planners sought to communicate through their work? What pre-existing styles did they draw on, reject, and appropriate, and was there a Second World postmodernism?  To what degree was the socialist cityscape a product of negotiation between its dwellers and its designers? Where did other local players–such as major industries and local party bosses–fit in such negotiations over the design and construction of the socialist city?

As a venue for opening a conversation about the new approaches to urbanity and planning, this project goes beyond the geographic boundaries of the Eastern Bloc and seeks transnational, comparative, and global approaches to the study of the socialist city. We propose to think of socialist urban planning from Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union to China and Cuba as a distinct and multifaceted division of global urban planning trends. Just as the geographic scope is broad so, too, is our chronological reach, which will span the early post-World War II period through the collapse of state socialism and beyond to the present day. Was there a common denominator to the variety of projects and planning efforts implemented from Cuba to China, from the Urals to Belgrade? Was it socialist in form and national in content as the common formula of Socialist Realism suggested? Or was it modern in form and undefined in content, to paraphrase the formula Kevin Plath and Benjamin Nathans recently coined for describing the nature of late-Soviet culture? In exploring such questions, what do we – urban historians and historians of architecture – have new to say on the history of the Second World? What are the new research questions that our subfield has generated in recent years?

The present stage in our project is a conference that will be hosted at the The Center for the History and Culture of East Central Europe, in Leipzig, Germany, June 21-23, 2013. Paper proposals are solicited for this conference and an edited volume of selected papers on a wide range of topics from (but not limited to) the history of professional networks and institutional organization, monumental projects, mass housing schemes, transfers of technologies and styles, the organization of public and private spaces, the political engagement of urban planning professionals, the treatment of gender, ethnic, and class differences in the socialist cityscape, the role of the state, the ideological premises of urban schemes and visionary projects, everyday life, urban residents’ (mis)uses of planned urban spaces. Papers from all disciplines in the social sciences and humanities will be considered.

Critical information:

Please send paper proposals (a 300-500 word abstract and a 1-page cv) to swurbanity@gmail.com by February 1, 2013. Paper proposals will be reviewed by the project’s organizers and program committee. We will announce the papers that have been accepted on March 1, 2013.

If your paper is accepted for the conference, the deadline for submitting your paper will be May 20, 2013. Papers should be no longer than 5,000 words including footnotes or endnotes. Papers will be distributed to conference participants ahead of the conference via our project’s blog.

The project is presently soliciting funds to cover some of the transportation and/or housing costs of participants. We will know whether such funds are available only in Spring 2013. Therefore, interested participants should plan for covering costs through their home institutions. The conference will not have a conference fee.

Program committee: Andres Kurg, Brigitte Le Normand, Daria Bocharnikova, Kimberly Elman Zarecor, Marie Alice L’Heureux, Steven Harris, Vladimir Kulic

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That was the year that was

WordPress.com just sent us this 2012 annual report for our little wireless blog.

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Here’s an unintentionally hilarious excerpt:

19,000 people fit into the new Barclays Center to see Jay-Z perform. This blog was viewed about 140,000 times in 2012. If it were a concert at the Barclays Center, it would take about 7 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

That’s right: in the coming year, we’re selling out seven times at the gentrifying above-mentioned center, but until then, read the complete report.

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Russia: Reading Aloud in Public Is Illegal (Protest against the Torture of Russian Prisoners)

On November 26, a protest against the torture of Russian prisoners took place outside the headquarters of the Federal Penitentiary Service in Moscow. The protest was occasioned by the conflict in penal colony № 6 in Kopeisk. Police detained more than ten people during the protest.

This is how the protest was announced on Facebook:

On November 26 at 6:00 p.m, a protest against torture in Russian prisons will take place outside the headquarters of the Federal Penitentiary Service at Zhitnaya 14.

We protest against torture in Russian prisons and support the inmates in Kopeisk, who spoke out against bullying, extortion and sexual abuse. During the protest, we will be reading prisoners’ stories of torture and humiliation aloud. We are convinced that the public should be aware of what is actually going on in Russian prisons. And not just be aware, but try and stop this nightmare.

At penal colony no. 6 in Kopeisk in the Chelyabinsk region, more than a thousand prisoners have for several days refused to go inside in protest against torture and beatings. Silently, lined up, they stand in the cold for several hours. They refuse to eat, believing that it is better to die than to continue to suffer torture, humiliation and blackmail.
A group of convicts seized the guard tower in the industrial area of the colony and hung up a banner with the message “People, help us!” Riot police were deployed to the colony; they attacked prisoners’ relatives who had gathered outside the prison gates. People were beaten bloody and the windows of their cars were smashed. Among the victims was human rights activist Oksana Trufanova. “I heard [the command] ‘Beat!’ and the relatives were attacked by men in black masks and uniforms wielding clubs,” she said in an interview. “Everyone fled, but [the riot police] ran many people down. Personally, I was hit on the head and pushed to the ground. I told them I was a human rights activist, but they told me rudely, using obscene language, to keep quiet or I’d get another whacking.”

Even now the authorities are trying to convince us that nothing has happened, and that journalists have exaggerated the scale of the protests. That is why it is so important not to let them hush up this outrage.
We demand:

–  An objective investigation of all allegations of torture and extortion in the colony, and an open trial of Federal Penitentiary Service employees implicated in them.
– The punishment of Interior Ministry officers who employed violence against family members and human rights activists gathered outside colony no. 6.

______

 Why the prisoners “rioted”:

Olga Belousova, the sister of one of the inmates, was allowed inside Penal Colony No. 6 along with two other relatives. As a witness, she was able to speak to the press about the situation there.

“There were 60 people in the room; all were standing quietly,” Belousova said. “I told them that we support them and came to make sure that everything is fine, and that we want to make their voices heard outside the colony.”

The complaints, which were mainly communicated by the prisoners, include enormous extortions, inappropriate use of force and numerous other humiliations, Belousova says.

“They don’t touch those who give them money, but against those who can’t they use force to make their relatives pay,” she added.

Former convict Mikhail Ermuraky believes that this system of exploitation was a main reason for the riot.  

His mother said her son was tortured multiple times, sometimes even including with sexual abuse.

“They start beating those who don’t want to pay,” said Ermuraky in a recent interview with the RIA Novosti news agency.

The father of another convict, who spent three months in colony No.6, told Russia’s Dozhd television that he has twice paid off prison staff.

“Every month… If you don’t bring money, there will be problems,” a man who wasn’t named told Dozhd.

Payments in prison are typically euphemized as “voluntary contributions.” Local human rights ombudsman Aleksey Sevastianov has noted complaints from relatives that such “contributions” can sometimes reach up to 200,000 rubles – more than $6,400. For comparison, the average Russian’s annual income is just over $10,000.

For convicts, such sums are impossible to pay – roughly half the prisoners in the colony are not employed. Those who do have jobs in the prison are paid extremely little – less than 100 rubles, or just over $2, per month. Such a wage is not enough even to buy food in a convenience store in the territory, where prices are said to be higher than in the town.

The head of the detention facility met with inmates’ relatives after the uprising, assuring them that he is willing to abolish “the system of contributions.” However, relatives now fear that this change could bring retaliation from the prison staff.

When asked if such a system could be considered as criminal corruption, human rights ombudsman Sevastianov agreed that it is illegal, and should be investigated.

He explained that with the scheme working in the facility, relatives wire money to a bank account given by the colony’s administration. Thus, for example, millions of rubles sent by convicts’ families were spent to build a new church on the territory.

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Emergency INDEX 2012 (call for submissions)

emergencyindex.com

Every year, Emergency INDEX invites authors to document performances they made in the previous year. By including performances regardless of their country of origin, their genre, aims, or popularity, INDEX is the only print publication of its kind, revealing a breathtaking variety of practices used in performance work as it actually exists today. For readers, INDEX offers a cutting edge view of performance as it is used in dance, theater, music, visual art, political activism, scientific research, poetry, advertising, terrorism, and other disciplines. For artists, INDEX provides an opportunity to document the most important aspects of new work, without the need for spin or salesmanship. For anyone interested in contemporary performance, INDEX is required reading.

Emergency Index 2011 is in stores now, documenting nearly 250 performance works made in 27 countries during the year. It is also available directly from UGLY DUCKLING PRESSESPD, and now available in the United Kingdom through UNBOUND.

SUBMISSIONS ARE NOW BEING ACCEPTED FOR EMERGENCY INDEX 2012.
DEADLINE: 11:59 PM DECEMBER 31, 2012

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“Decent Work” and the Valentin Urusov Case: A Test of Sincerity

column.global-labour-university.org

“Decent Work” and the Valentin Urusov Case: A Test of Sincerity
Anna Wolańska

Like Russian politics, labour relations in Russia are rife with contradictions.

On the one hand, Vladimir Putin addressed the International Labour Conference in 2011 and marched with the trade unions in a 2012 May Day demonstration, portraying himself as a supporter of progressive labour legislation and the notion of social partnership. Russia has an established system of tripartism: no social issue can be decided on without being discussed by the country’s permanent tripartite commission.

To discuss the further development of tripartism and socially-responsible responses to the global crisis, the Russian government will host a major international conference on decent work in Moscow on 11–12 December 2012. Around 800 delegates are expected to attend, including prime ministers, government officials, trade unionists and representatives of employers’ associations from 80 countries.

Speaking in Geneva at a joint briefing with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Director-General Guy Ryder during the last session of the ILO Governing Body, Russian Federation Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Protection Lyubov Yeltsova invited all ILO member states to take part in the conference. She emphasised the importance Russia attaches to cooperation in furthering international labour and social standards, the protection of individual and collective rights, and the interests of workers. As she put it, “the concept of decent work makes it possible to seek solutions to key challenges facing the international community, such as job creation, poverty reduction, social stability and globalization, on a just basis.”

On the other hand, on the same day that the Deputy Minister declared her commitment to the principles and ideals of social justice, the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association issued its report on a complaint from Russian and international trade unions. The complaint, filed with the ILO in 2011, is brimming with facts that paint a picture at odds with the official one: constantly increasing pressure on trade union activists, harassment and persecution, threats of physical violence, repressive rulings against trade union organisers by local courts, and a ban on distributing trade union leaflets and educational materials for workers. This is all happening in parallel with the destruction of the social welfare system in a country where wages are shamefully low for a developed European nation.

The complaint submitted to the ILO describes, among other cases, the story of independent trade union activist Valentin Urusov (born 1974). Trade unionists in Russia and around the world have been campaigning for his release for several years. His story is not only an example of determination and sacrifice, but also a vivid illustration of the true relations between capital and labour in today’s Russia, where the largest employers are colluding with corrupt government officials to purposefully and methodically destroy the seeds of the new trade union movement, while Kremlin officials speak about social partnership.

Valentin Urusov

Urusov worked as an electrical fitter at an ore-processing mill owned by the diamond mining company Alrosa in the town of Udachny (Sakha Republic). An intelligent, persuasive leader, Urusov chaired the Profsvoboda trade union that was founded there and led the protest actions organised by workers.

Profsvoboda was founded in Udachny in June 2008. In mid-August of the same year, dissatisfied with low pay and working conditions, workers in the repair shops at one division of Alrosa announced a hunger strike, formal notice of which was received and registered by management.

The company’s director signed an order establishing a reconciliation commission to resolve the issue of workers’ pay. Profsvoboda was supposed to represent workers on this commission, and the following day it suspended strike actions. Despite its promises, however, Alrosa made no effort to conduct real negotiations, unleashing instead a crackdown against trade union activists. In response, workers began preparations for a large-scale protest rally.

On 3 September 2008, Urusov was detained on suspicion of narcotics possession. However, his arrest suspiciously coincided with preparations for the protest rally by Alrosa workers, a rally he himself was involved in organising. Equally “coincidentally,” the company’s deputy director of economic security was present as an official witness (such witnesses are a formality required under Russian law during police searches) when the drugs were allegedly found on Urusov’s person.

In a statement submitted by his lawyer, Urusov describes his arrest as a kidnapping accompanied by beatings and threats. According to him, the men who arrested him forced him to write a statement, confessing that the packet of drugs they themselves had planted on him actually belonged to him; they threatened to kill Urusov if he refused. Moreover, they demanded that Urusov confess that his deputy in the trade union had given the packet to him. A plan had been sprung to completely eviscerate the union’s leadership. Urusov, however, refused to give false testimony against his comrade.

“The charges against Urusov are based on the testimony of law enforcement officers and biased witnesses,” Urusov’s lawyer recounted. “The signature on the protocol documenting the confiscation of the packet of narcotics was obtained through humiliation and threats. Urusov was taken to the woods, where shots were fired near his head, and he was beaten with batons and told he should get ready to die.”

On 26 December 2008, the Mirninsky District Court (city of Udachny) sentenced Urusov to six years’ imprisonment. On 12 May 2009, however, the Sakha Republic Supreme Court overturned the conviction. Urusov was freed in the courtroom. Ludmilla Alexeyeva and Lev Ponomarev, well-known human rights activists from the Moscow Helsinki Group, stood as surety for Urusov.

However, after a retrial on 26 June 2009, the Mirninsky District Court again sentenced Urusov to imprisonment, reducing the sentence only by a year.

In May 2010, the police officer in charge of Urusov’s arrest, Lieutenant Colonel Sergei Rudov, was himself arrested and convicted of fraud and abuse of power. He was charged with receiving 2.5 million rubles (US$80 000) from Alrosa. This money was disbursed to Rudov shortly after he arrested Urusov.

All these circumstances have convinced Russian and foreign human rights groups that his employer, Alrosa, had fabricated the case against Urusov. Trade unions launched a campaign of solidarity with Urusov. Public protests and other actions have been mounted on his behalf, not only in Russia, but also internationally. An appeal in support of Urusov’s release was signed by dozens of European intellectuals, public figures, and the International Trade Union Confederation while the website LabourStart conducted an email campaign.

The report of the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association also questions Urusov’s sentence. The Committee asks the Russian government to indicate whether, during the investigation and trial, evidence relating to the persecution of Urusov for trade union activities was examined and analysed. It requests that the government launch a new investigation and take steps to ensure the trade union leader’s early release.

In addition, in its final conclusions the Committee mentions the inclusion of trade union leaflets in the Russian federal list of “extremist” materials. The Committee believes that the inclusion of publications with union slogans in the list of extremist materials significantly impedes the right of unions to express their views. As emphasised in the Committee’s conclusions, this is an unacceptable restriction on trade union activities and a flagrant violation of the right to freedom of association. The Committee recalls that the right to express one’s opinion, including criticism of the government’s economic and social policy, is a key element of trade union rights.

In fact, the leaflets in question contained only the most basic information about the opportunities available for workers when they form trade unions and touched on the threats posed by the spread of agency labour and other forms of precarious employment. The declaration of such texts as “extremist” is a clear attempt to render illegal all forms of trade union organising. The ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association recommends that the Russian government take all necessary measures to remove trade union leaflets from the list of extremist materials as soon as possible. The government should also provide assurance that this situation will not happen again.

Despite the fact that the opinions rendered by the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association are only recommendations, the Russian government should pay heed to them. First, the body has repeatedly proved its impartiality when dealing with issues relating to freedom of association. Secondly, Urusov’s release and the implementation of the ILO’s other recommendations would serve as convincing proof that the concept of decent work really is part of the Russian government’s priorities. Such actions would be evidence that the eloquent declarations of its commitment to social partnership are not just a smokescreen concealing contempt for the principles of freedom of association and trade union organising, principles that form the basis of the ILO.

Anna Wolańska is the international secretary of NSZZ “Solidarność” and a member of the governing Body of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

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Petersburg Police Arrest Michael Jackson Fan for Holding “Illegal Rally”

Police Arrest Jackson Fan for Holding Rally
By Sergey Chernov
The St. Petersburg Times
June 27, 2012

The police dispersed Michael Jackson fans near the U.S. consulate and arrested one for holding “an unsanctioned rally” in St. Petersburg on Monday.

The remaining 20 to 30 fans, who were carrying a tape recorder playing Jackson songs and a sign reading “We remember, we grieve,” were told to disperse.

The shrine of photos and flowers that they assembled outside the consulate was dismantled.

A report on local television channel 100TV shows a young man identified by his first name, Andrei, being told by a police officer that he has violated a local law by treading on the grass.

But after Andrei, wearing a Jackson-style white hat, was taken to a police precinct, he was charged with violating the rules on holding a public assembly.

“I don’t recall that people can be prosecuted for walking on the grass,” a police spokesman said Tuesday.

“If you trampled on the grass — especially if there were flowers planted there — that’s a different matter. [But the detention] was for organizing a rally; there were posters and sound-amplifying equipment.”

Fans who came to the site Monday denied that they were an organized group, BaltInfo reported.

Local fans have come to the U.S. consulate every year to pay homage to their idol since Jackson died on June 25, 2009.

According to amendments to the law “On Assemblies, Rallies, Demonstrations, Marches and Pickets” that came into force on June 9, Andrei faces a 10,000- to 30,000-ruble fine ($300 to $910) or 50 hours of community service.

The incident involving the Michael Jackson fans was the latest in a series of recent non-political arrests and dispersals of people who took to the streets of St. Petersburg for various reasons.

On June 10, about ten young people were detained and charged with violating the rules of holding a public assembly for participating in a pillow-fighting flash mob on the Field of Mars.

This month also saw several young people arrested near the Mariinsky Palace, the seat of the Legislative Assembly on St. Isaac’s Square, for attempting to draw on the asphalt with colored chalk.

Some media have attributed the recent unwarranted arrests and dispersals to the new law. It was passed in the aftermath of the May 6 March of Millions in Moscow, which ended in violent clashes after the police blocked the path of participants of the authorized demonstration and then broke up the rally altogether.

But non-political arrests had been seen in the city many times before the law introducing stiff fines was adopted early this month.

One of the most notorious episodes was the April 2010 bubble-blowing flash mob near Gorkovskaya metro station, which was first attacked by extreme nationalists, who threw a flare at and beat several participants, having mistaken them for gay rights protesters.

The police then dispersed participants, who were mostly teenagers, arresting about 30. They ended up in police precincts and were released after about five hours and charged with walking on the grass.

Some attribute the tightening of the authorities’ reaction to any unsanctioned outdoor events to the Kremlin’s fear of events such as the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004-2005, when massive protests against electoral fraud led to new presidential elections and the loss of the candidate — Viktor Yanukovych — in whose favor the first election results had been rigged.

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Tidal: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy

Editor’s Note. By way of introducing our readers to Tidal, a journal and web site focused on the theory and strategy of the Occupy Wall Street movement, we are reprinting, below, Conor Tomás Reed’s excellent article on the movement, public education, and the right to the city, from the Tidal web site. You can find out how to donate to Tidal here. (Thanks to Comrade O. for the heads-up.)

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On the City as University: Occupy and the Future of Public Education
Conor Tomás Reed

For quite a long time now, we precariously situated students and faculty in CUNY have been practicing the art of what Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o calls “poor theory”—“maximizing the possibilities inherent in the minimum… being extremely creative and experimental in order to survive.” Unable to isolate ourselves within the velvety quicksand of armchairs and seminar table solipsism, we have instead pursued a kind of crowd scholarship that jettisons “interest” for “involvement.” Discussions among crowds of people—in and out of assemblies, street marches, virtual forums, shared meals, space-transformations, and yes, even jail stints—have assembled critical lessons and experiences not yet valued by scholastic frameworks of singularly rendered knowledge. Thousands have co-authored this document itself.

We are engaged in a process of defending our educational and social futures from a threadbare past and present. US student debt has surpassed $1 trillion—a third of this debt is held by graduate students. Crippling tuition increases and education cuts in some cases triple tuition and erase whole departments. Meanwhile, our campuses become increasingly militarized. As recently spotlighted in UC-Davis and CUNY’s Baruch and Brooklyn Colleges, administrators unabashedly welcome the surveillance, intimidation, and brutal arrests of students and faculty who peacefully dissent. But after our pulses shudder from being followed by armed officers, after our indignation roils from reading lies that presidents and chancellors print about our political acts, and after our bruised bodies heal from being treated like enemy combatants on our own campuses, we gather in crowds again because we have no other choice. In spite of these grim circumstances, we’re also witnessing and creating major explosions of resistance through education movements across the world—Quebec, Chile, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Spain, England, California, and around CUNY. Suppression of dissent is being met in resourceful ways. These struggles have demonstrated the power of creative action to mobilize millions—including street theater, public visual art, alternative models and sites of education, music, viral performance videos, and more. For activists in NYC, a few significant developments have arisen out of our own work—to conceive of education itself as a potential form of direct action, to rethink how we approach the call to strike, and to focus more acutely on dialectically connecting student/faculty work with wider community efforts at social change.

In the City University of New York and around the metropolis more broadly, our experiences in the Occupy movement taught us decades of lessons in a matter of months. As Tidal readers know, many CUNY folks were an active part of Occupy Wall Street, helping to maintain a multitude of working groups during the swift upsurge in city-wide radicalization. We facilitated thousands-strong public conversations and direct action trainings, built the People’s Library, and connected a global art and design community through Occuprint. At the CUNY Graduate Center, we began to hold regular general assemblies using the OWS model of direct participatory democracy. We claimed campus spaces that had otherwise not been used for political discourse (such as the recent week-long “Transforming Assembly” interactive exhibition at the James Gallery), and encouraged deeper undergrad students/grad students/faculty collaboration (including multiple open letter campaigns).

We worked on outside free public education initiatives, such as the People’s University series in Washington Square Park, as well as multiple-week open forums on the general strike leading up to May Day, all the while engaging in constant discussions of how to alter our pedagogies and institutional structures. Students and faculty explored consensual direct democracy in our classroom settings. This semester, several graduate student adjuncts team-taught a course at Brooklyn College entitled “Protest and Revolution: Occupy Your Education,” in which the students and facilitators together shaped how each class was used. 

And yet, after the White House-directed nationwide eviction of Occupy encampments this winter, the movement’s future was by no means foreseeable. Furthermore, when the May Day general strike call came out, a serious schism arose in activist circles in NYC and around the United States about whether to frame our efforts as a general strike when we knew that this was an actual impossibility. We queried whether this political action term could be used more as an act of prescriptive manifestation, rather than of descriptive demonstration. Students and faculty in the CUNY movement decided to build for the day with affinity for the language of striking, but not going to such lengths as setting up picket lines at our schools. We considered more fruitful ways to engage in a strike action that wriggled out of the negation-driven rhetoric that dominated initial May Day calls. “No/stop/don’t/shut down” left very limited visions of what the day would actually look like. We recognized that Occupy’s spring coming out party couldn’t be simply a long laundry list of what we opposed.

In early 2012, several graduate students wrote a short piece entitled “Five Theses on the Student Strike” in Occupy Wall Street’s Tidal journal, which set useful initial terms of the kind of affirmational, go-power, strike-as-on-switch tactics and political vision we wanted to create for the day. We sought to invoke the most dynamic and capacious political rhetoric to envision our specific goal of educational direct action, while using the weeks leading up to May 1 to theoretically and practically build for this, instead of standing still to debate whether the day’s actions should be called a strike or not.

By the time May Day had arrived, we had amassed a coalition of students and faculty from almost a dozen schools to produce the Free University: a “collective educational experiment” that ended up drawing almost 2000 participants in what is now delightfully considered the sleeper hit of the day’s event in NYC. We wanted to provide the best of Zuccotti Park’s legacy—unpermitted reclamation of public space, heterogeneous gatherings for radical discussion, and, what is still one of the best organizing tools out there, free food. The big secret is that around forty people coordinated this event within about a month. Our call for anyone to sign up to hold any kind of class or skill share was met with a deluge of exciting workshop submissions. Our call for anyone to attend meant that tuition, ID cards, costly books, security checkpoints, and many other chains tied to higher education were easily dissolved.

Educators conducted over forty workshops, classes, and collective experiences during the five hours we occupied and transformed the park. Over a dozen faculty members contractually prohibited from striking moved their entire classes off campuses and into the park in solidarity with the call to strike. Attendees shared and learned from front-lines movement experiences on occupying foreclosed housing, student organizing and debate skills, indigenous environmentalism, open access academic publishing, and anti-capitalist approaches to math and science. Collective poetry readings brushed up alongside figure drawings and collage projects. We welcomed such luminaries as Drucilla Cornell, David Harvey, Neil Smith, Ben Katchor, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Chris Hedges to join large crowds that gathered and mixed freely.

However, our ambitions mustn’t be misunderstood as creating a Free University to be a temporary utopian enclave, full stop. We promoted these outside classrooms as areas for generating rooted political content that could be catalyzed into movement activity. Indeed, at 3pm, our whole Free U campus marched to the main Union Square rally location, and then later swarmed the financial district, book shields and banners in hand. To focus on education itself as direct action suggests that we can transform public space into mobile classrooms—in public parks and community centers, as well as in street intersections, board rooms, and bridges. Future Free University initiatives can include radical think-tanks, hosting classes inside other classes, projecting our stories on various walls around the city, and performing pop-up Free U’s at annual city-wide events. We’re establishing the foundations for future attempts at dual power with such projects as People’s Boards of Education that decide and implement our own education plans while refusing those dictated from above.

Crowd scholarship of education outside walls can focus on such anti-disciplinary subjects as the compositional practice of street writing. Science lessons can observe as well as counteract neighborhood environmental devastation. Social geography can be taught through power-mapping areas of surveillance and gentrification, as well as routes for resistance. Poetry writing as a social and bodily practice can be differently imagined when we see ourselves as stanzas marching in the street, enjambing past police barricades, and breathing new life into words made collectively resonant through mic-checks. We can crowd-source syllabi in becoming students of urban revolutionary life—featuring Michel de Certeau, Jane Jacobs, Samuel Delany, and David Harvey alongside community texts and memoirs that academia has long overlooked. Harvey demonstrates the reflexive power in embracing our entire cities as universities when he says: “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.”

This work must also boomerang back into the academy walls in the process of ultimately decentering university spaces as the sole, tightly guarded sites where knowledge is made and trafficked. Each conference is a space to differently occupy, establish networks, and debate living strategies.  Each thesis and dissertation is an opportunity for multi-author, multi-modal scholarship to be evaluated by a committee of peers. Cross-department/cross-borough gatherings and actions can replace the vacuous insularity of academia. Our libraries can become true active repositories of 21st century movement life that is being daily archived in posts, streams, pamphlets, and feeds. Such participatory archive sources as occupycunynews.org and Interference Archive are excellent models for librarian archivists today.

Moreover, faculty nationwide will have to heed UC-Davis professor Nathan Brown’s recent challenge: “Student activists have understood the simple point that forms of action which do not pose an immediate and concrete barrier to the normal functions of the university will be ignored, deferred, and displaced. So they organize occupations and blockades. If faculty want to confront the totalitarian conduct of administrations, we will also have to organize and participate in occupations and blockades.” His jibe that faculty can organize international conferences, but not a twenty-person faculty sit-in, demonstrates how academics’ priorities will have to shift and grow, or else risk social irrelevance. I welcome our own CUNY professors to meet this challenge by considering the incredible power that mass faculty direct actions would contribute to our movement.

Occupy is at a crossroad, its development is not inevitable, we can become another mysterious blip (especially as the election season approaches), or we can do the patient and painstaking work of building a mass movement that will flourish in the face of what is an inevitable reality of further violence, crackdowns, and surveillance by the state. Academia has a role to perform in Occupy’s future, but one that employs both a step forward and a step aside. Academia must cede intellectual space for community members—the exiles of our current university systems—to raise their own critical voices while we listen and learn. And academia must also reconcile its own demons of the past 30+ years of significant yet extremely disillusioned and defensive theoretical positions. The current international spotlight on higher education can offer us the chance to make dramatic advances towards community control of our daily lives. Now that’s the  kind of education no school but ourselves can provide.

First printed in CUNY Graduate Center’s The Advocate.

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Filed under activism, alternative education, film and video, open letters, manifestos, appeals, political repression, protests, urban movements (right to the city)