Take Back NYU!: Change We Can Believe In?

WASHINGTON SQUARE, NYC - - Late on Wednesday evening, a small group of
students in the student activist organization Take Back NYU began a sit-in inside the Kimmel Marketplace. The Kimmel Marketplace is the dining hall inside the Kimmel student center and is probably the most popular and best dining hall at NYU. The location for the sit-in was well chosen. Take Back NYU originally issued a statement pledging non-violence and no destruction of private property. This the students revised at 1:00am to exclude the pledge not to destroy private property so that they could break open the door to the 3rd floor balcony of the Kimmel Center. So after my classes had finished for the day I went to watch the sit-in and to see what student activism really looked like in the 21st century. I sat in silence on a bench on Washington Square South, ate my lunch with gusto, and watched with intense disenchantment.

The sit-in is centrally located indeed. But, considering that of the 400-500 students who took to the streets in support of the protest, many of them weren't NYU students, and that the total undergraduate student population of NYU is approximately 20,000, the group is marginal. The students inside the Kimmel Center have been at pains to declare with their loudspeakers that they are part of a larger movement; that they are in solidarity with students engaged in similar activities in Greece, Italy, the United Kingdom, and across New York State. To their credit, a student organization at the University of Helsinki and another at Cambridge University did issue statements of support. On Washington Square, however, Take Back NYU's relatively minuscule number belies their claim to speak for NYU's student body. It is unclear, in fact quite unlikely, that they have anything even approaching a majority of support among NYU students.

One very good reason for the marginal nature of this protest is that Take Back NYU's true goals are ambiguous. This problem exists primarily because Take Back NYU's list of actual demands is utterly incoherent. Several specific demands, such as that NYU's administration should resume dialogue with the GSOC/UAW graduate student union and that NYU employees whose jobs were disrupted by the sit-in should be compensated for lost work-hours, are thoroughly valid. On the other hand, along with some old unrequited ultimatums such as disclosure of the budget and tuition stabilization, Take Back NYU calls for an "in depth investigation of all investments in war and genocide profiteers, as well as companies profiting from the occupation of Palestinian territories" and "that annual scholarships be provided for thirteen Palestinian students." Finally, they request that "the university donate all excess supplies and materials in an effort to rebuild the Islamic University of Gaza." Aside from alienating large portions of the entire NYU community through their myopic, unfocused, and immature political platform and by implying without a shred of evidence that they suspect the NYU administration is investing in war and genocide profiteers, they have demonstrated and therefore deepened a saddening intellectual and strategic failure of our generation.

When Senator Obama gave a speech in Washington Square last year, the crowd that turned out was huge. An energy that this NYU student had never before observed among his peers spread around the campus like wildfire. The speech wasn't Obama's best, but seeing so many members of my stereotypically disaffected generation, particularly the slice of that generation which attends NYU, chanting "Fired Up?! Ready To Go?!" definitely meant something. The numbers of young volunteers on the Obama campaign and of newly registered voters whom Obama has inspired suggest that, after all, my generation is deeply engaged, but in a way very different from that of our parents. Rather than staging demonstrations like as our parents did, rather than working from outside the political system to affect changes, the Obama campaign illustrated a promising new paradigm: my generation's form of activism, unlike our parents', is to work within the political process for a candidate who inspires us.

My intention is not to imply that we should be an entirely establishmentarian generation. We owe it to ourselves to promote rational critique and effective social action from all perspectives and standpoints. And, of course, the Take Back NYUers are quick to point out that the "established channels have been insufficient to make our voices heard by the administration." The real meaning of this statement, of course, is that "we haven't had any success working through established channels so we're going to try something a little different and a lot more exciting." But the reason that the established channels have failed goes to the heart of my generation's collective failure. That failure is quite simply that we demand and expect far too much and we want everything NOW. Take Back NYU's demand for a student body with executive administrative power and seats on the board of trustees is but one very small, and frankly petty, demonstration of this problem. But it will continue to be a problem even once our generation fills the ranks of the established channels. Obama's campaign and his first weeks in office offer a case-in-point. Though, to be fair, Obama undoubtedly promised more than he could hope to deliver, what our generation expects of him is miles beyond anything he ever promised on the campaign trail. Because of our expectations, we are on course for a crushing hangover full of disillusionment and frustration at the midterm elections. If we discover that there really is only one way to motivate our generation and that is through over-heightened expectations, then the problem is even more severe. Hopefully, that won't come to pass.

Even now that our generation has created normative changes through the established channels, we nevertheless have set ourselves up for extreme disappointment. We haven't made the collective discovery that many generations of wise leaders before us knew so well: Changes are made by asking for a little bit at a time, over a very long duration. The end of that duration, will, if we can stay the course, constitute that immortal and increasingly ironic phrase "change we can believe in." Take Back NYU, on the other hand, will fail. When that happens, it shouldn't come as a surprise. Take Back NYU is a small organization, without a broad base of support or a coherent platform. But when our president, who so very very many of us toiled to elect, fails to live up to our copious expectations, perhaps even fails to win re-election, then we will have paid an all-too-dear price for a lesson we could easily have learned from our parents.