Necessary steps in tough economic times: New York students take to the streets in the wake of Occupy

A piece by Marianne LeNabat that takes us through an overview of how students in recent decades have become saddled with debt, how a student movement rose up in NY during the height of Occupy Wall Street, some of the lessons we can draw from organized resistance, and the ripples that student fights caused spreading solidarity throughout various sectors of society.

Submitted by Recomposition on September 13, 2015

Today we share an article that first appeared in Deric Shannon’s book The End of the World As We Know It? published by AK Press. “Necessary Steps in Tough Economic Times” by Marianne LeNabat, one of our editors at Recomposition, takes us through an overview of how students in recent decades have become saddled with debt, how a student movement rose up in NY during the height of OWS, some of the lessons we can draw from organized resistance, and the ripples that student fights caused spreading solidarity throughout various sectors of society.

Necessary Steps in Tough Economic Times: New York students take to the streets in the wake of Occupy
by Marianne LeNabat

College and university students in New York City, like their counterparts elsewhere in the United States and around the world, had been struggling for years under increasingly punitive conditions, including skyrocketing tuition and debt, dwindling educational resources, and undemocratic administrations. But in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement that began in Zuccotti Park on September 17, 2011, they began to take action. Inspired by OWS’s protest against economic and political injustice, students in New York mobilized against the tide of policies and practices eroding the quality of their education and sentencing them to a lifetime of debt. In a short time, a vibrant student movement spread across the city, driven by indignation and in solidarity with other students, and generating a level of activism not seen in decades. The successes and failures of that movement provide some interesting lessons about student struggle in the context of capitalism in crisis, especially the need for sustainable organizing strategies to complement more spontaneous moments of uprising.

The Roots of Student Unrest: how capitalist crisis is undermining education

In many ways, students have been hit as hard by the catastrophic effects of capitalism as workers, the unemployed, and other sectors of the population. Most recently, decades of “neoliberal” and “austerity” policies have dramatically reduced funding for public education at all levels.1 At both public and private universities, programs and resources have been cut, while user costs, such as college tuition, have risen dramatically.2 All of this has dramatic effects. Students are being forced to work more and more hours to pay for their schooling,3 and/or take on significant amounts of debt. Many end up saddled with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans to repay, according to terms so draconian that the amount repaid can end up being many times greater than the original sum borrowed.4 And this is not to mention the countless individuals who do not manage to access, or complete, higher education programs.

Politicians and university administrations justify the policies that have brought education to this crisis point by saying that they are “necessary steps” to control increasing costs in “tough economic times.” However, just as we see in almost all other areas of society, these measures are really part of a radical restructuring to serve the interests of those at the top, at the expense of everyone else.5 Thus, tuition increases have actually gone hand-in-hand with a reduction in the amount spent on teaching, as administrations turn more towards low-paid temporary instructors.6 At the same time, administrative salaries, such as for presidents and provosts, have dramatically increased.7 In other words, a shift is taking place to make universities resemble corporations, where those at the top make hundreds of times more than those at the bottom.

Meanwhile, the federal student loan program is set to turn a bigger profit from student loans than any American corporation.8 In fact, student loans not only generate massive profit for private banks through interests, fees, and penalties, but they can now be “securitized”—that is, bundled and resold to investors. The federal government then guarantees these investments, which means that even if students default—and many do, since unemployment remains high, repayment terms are punitive, and loans can never be discharged through bankruptcy—investors reap their profits. This creates an incentive for more lending, regardless of whether students can reasonably afford to take on the loans or not.

In short, costs, risks and penalties are being shifted downward, onto the vulnerable (students and their families), while profits, protections, and benefits are being siphoned up, all in the name of bowing to the pressures of the market.

In this process, education suffers significantly. It is increasingly treated as a commodity—as something created and sold just for the sake of generating a profit. University administrations come to view their academic programs as revenue-streams, cutting those that aren’t as profitable, and treat their students as consumers, drawing them in with a rosy picture of their college “experience,” with less thought to actually providing them with quality schooling and career prospects afterwards.

This trend was obvious in the colleges and universities around New York City in 2011, and it was fueling student unrest. At the New School, president Bob Kerrey (the former senator from Nebraska who had also previously managed a chain of restaurants and fitness centers), undertook an expensive rebranding campaign while aggressively expanding the school, including building a brand new $300 million “University Center” in Greenwich Village. The project, financed almost entirely by bonds (that is, debt), funneled a small fortune to members of the school’s Board of Trustees.9 Meanwhile, the majority of the school’s library was placed in storage, students struggled with very low financial support, and tuition increased at a rate of 5% per year. 10 After a student occupation, the resignation of two provosts, and the passage of a vote of no confidence by the faculty, Kerrey was forced to resign. But he would go on to make headlines when he received a record three million dollars in compensation the year after he stepped down—a decision made by a small, ad hoc committee of his appointees to the Board.11

Public universities in New York meanwhile faced diminishing funding from state and local governments, and their administrations were compensating with policies that many felt compounded the problem. The Board of Trustees at the City University of New York (CUNY) was proposing a massive tuition increase—30 percent over the course of five years—which would undermine access to a historically important institution for the education of the working class in New York.12 To compensate, the leadership of the university was proposing a new “Pathways” program to help disadvantaged students, which on closer inspection actually amounted to little more than lowering curricular standards and a series of cost-cutting measures, such as reducing classroom time, which would hurt students even further.13 14

Similar problems existed at other universities around the city. In response, some organizing efforts had started taking shape. New York Students Rising (NYSR), for example, was formed in May of 2011, with the intention of uniting students at public universities across New York, decrying the fact that they “are under-funded, increasingly influenced by private corporate interests, and run by unaccountable administrators who receive a disproportionate amount of university resources.”15 However, their momentum—and their degree of coordination across different universities—was nothing compared to what would arise in the wake of Occupy.

The Rise of Student Activism in the Wake of Occupy Wall Street

Occupy had its precedents too. For one thing, it was inspired by mobilizations elsewhere that year, including the wave of popular uprisings throughout the Middle East that came to be known as the Arab Spring, and the massive protests against anti-union legislation in Madison, Wisconsin.

Closer to home, it was preceded by another encampment, that June, parked across from City Hall to protest Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s latest austerity budget, which included a massive round of teacher layoffs. Nicknamed “Bloombergville” after the “Hooverville” tent camps that arose during the great depression, many of its participants went on to help plan the launch of Occupy Wall Street on September 17th, after the call was placed by the Canadian countercultural magazine Adbusters to peacefully occupy the symbolic seat of financial power.

When Occupy launched, its original intention was to point the finger of blame at the financial industry, which had caused a massive worldwide economic collapse through its own reckless behavior, and at the government, which had bailed it out rather than hold it accountable. However OWS’s concerns soon proliferated, quite naturally, as it attracted more participants, whose own experiences of injustice ranged from the racist policing policies of the NYPD to intolerable workplace conditions.

Soon after September 17th, students began meeting at their respective universities to discuss how to “plug in” to OWS, meaning both how to provide support to it, and how to bring its energy to their own campuses. Students already had issues like debt around which to struggle, and with Occupy Wall Street, those issues finally began to look like political practices that could be challenged, rather than mere economic inevitabilities. At New York University, a group formed calling itself NYU4OWS. One of its main activities became organizing lectures and teach-ins in public spaces such as Washington Square Park, to “bring education out from the classrooms into public spaces” and to symbolically protest the treatment of education as a “consumer good”16 . It soon became a collaborative effort with students from CUNY, The New School and Columbia, and the group renamed itself “The People’s University.”

Like many people in New York and across North America, students were being swept up in the excitement of this new political movement, especially as events unfolded. A September 30th OWS march across the Brooklyn Bridge had resulted in one of the largest mass arrests in American history.17 Galvanized by this, students at various universities decided to organize a walkout in protest. On October 5th, they streamed out of classes and then marched down to Foley Square, where they joined a massive rally organized by labor unions. The turnout from across the city was enormous, in part because many professors had cancelled classes in support of the action.

The momentum of Occupy was also generating an enthusiastic solidarity between students at different universities. The differences that existed between them—such as whether they attended a private or public institution—seemed politically insignificant. On October 15th, the first “All-City Student Assembly” was held in Washington Square Park. It brought together post-secondary students across New York City, who, borrowing from Occupy Wall Street formats (including the people’s microphone and an agenda-less, open-ended meeting), reported on issues at their respective campuses, from concerns about Columbia University’s expansion into Harlem, to New York University’s attempt to bust unionizing efforts among graduate students. The Assembly continued to meet weekly through the fall, and on November 17th, the two-month anniversary of OWS (and as it happened, two days after the eviction of the encampment in Zuccotti Park) it coordinated a “Day of Action” for education. A massive rally, including post-secondary as well as high school students, was held in Union Square, and then marched south to Zuccotti. Some students deviated from the march to launch a planned occupation at a study center at The New School. The occupation was meant to serve as an educational space open to all, and to draw attention to issues like student debt.

The occupation organized itself according to the same model used in Zuccotti Park, holding general assemblies to decide both logistical matters (food, personal security, holding the space, etc.), as well as its political program. A series of discussions and teach-ins were organized, some involving sympathetic professors or public figures (including the French socialist Olivier Besancenot). It organized radical film screenings, cobbled together a food supply, painted the walls with radical slogans, and maintained the space around the clock.

But the occupation, which lasted one week, was also arguably a sort of turning-point of the student movement that fall. It was dissolved by other New School students who were not part of the occupation: they voted for its dissolution at a General Assembly meeting (these were, after all, open to everyone).18 These students had been dissatisfied with being unable to use the space for study, suspicious of the occupiers and their intentions, and generally bemused by the political activity that had exploded in their midst, and so voted for a “return to normal.” Moreover, serious divisions and tensions were arising for the first time amongst the student activists themselves. There were deep disagreements with regards to strategy, including whether to engage antagonistically or cooperatively with university administrations, and whether a commitment to non-violence extended to all acts of law-breaking, including the defacement of private property. Blocked in their attempts to achieve significant institutional or economic change, they began feeling and expressing frustration amongst themselves.

Student activism continued throughout the fall, however. On November 21st, the Occupy Student Debt campaign was launched in Zuccotti Park. The idea was to get one million student debtors (as well as faculty and parent sympathizers) to sign an online “debtors pledge,” after which they would default en masse until reforms were put in place to the student loan system, such as bankruptcy protection and interest-free loans. Participants in the launch event then marched to Baruch College, where the CUNY trustee meeting was being held to discuss the proposed 30 percent tuition increase. When students were refused access to the meeting, they gathered in the lobby and outside the building, where police displayed shocking brutality against them (a common occurrence throughout Occupy-related protests), pushing students to the ground, injuring several, and taking many away in handcuffs. Police violence, and subsequent student and faculty outrage, were significant enough to force the university to pay a third-party agency to conduct an inquiry into their actions. (The Kroll Report later found no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of police or campus security, and even, incredibly, no evidence of injuries to protestors.)19

The following Monday, on November 28th, CUNY trustees met again. This time, they cancelled classes so that the entire campus could be closed early, and the meeting held without interference, despite the fact that these forums are constitutionally mandated to be open to the public.20 A massive protest gathered outside, again met by huge police presence. As students shouted and demonstrated, the full tuition increase was approved. To add insult to students’ injury at being forcibly excluded from proceedings, the new budget allocated millions of new dollars to campus security.

Building Solidarity with Other Struggles

Part of the significance of Occupy Wall Street was how quickly solidarity was cultivated between various struggles. What started as a small gathering of activists exploded when “ordinary” workers, students, and community members joined in. One early example of this was a demonstration by 700 Continental and United Airlines pilots outside the New York Stock Exchange on September 27th, just ten days after the occupation had settled into Zuccotti Park. The show of force lent significant credence to the then-nascent movement, which was being derided in the media as a “dwindling” “carnival” whose “cause … was virtually impossible to decipher.”21

That solidarity proliferated in all directions. For its part, the student movement was equally enthusiastic about joining forces with both Occupiers and with labor. They organized marches to feed numbers to rallies organized by unions; they walked the picket line alongside locked-out Sotheby’s workers; they met with and lent support to their school janitors when the latter’s union entered negotiations for a new contract; and they enfolded academic labor concerns (especially regarding adjunct and part-time faculty) into their concerns about the future of post-secondary education.

There was also solidarity with parents, teachers and students in the public K-12 school system, who were protesting massive school closures and layoffs under the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The mayor’s office had created a “Panel on Education Policy” (PEP) to investigate “underperforming” schools and determine whether they should be closed in favor of opening private charter schools. Virtually every single school that came before the PEP was indeed voted to be closed. Frustrated by this, families and educators began showing up at PEP meetings in increasing numbers—the meetings were after all open to the public—eventually adopting the tactic of the “people’s microphone” to disrupt the proceedings and voice their opposition. At one meeting, the cries of protest were so loud that the Panel members were required to speak to one another through microphone feeds to noise-cancelling headphones. These campaigns, which went by names like “Occupy the PEP” and “Occupy the DOE [Department of Education],” were actively supported by university students, who attended their meetings and showed up to actions.

University students in New York also reached out to student movements elsewhere. They issued a statement of solidarity with those pepper-sprayed on the UC Davis campus on November 18, 2011. They attempted to organize nation-wide “Days of Action” to raise awareness of education-related issues on March 1st and April 25th 2012—the latter being the date that student debt allegedly reached one trillion dollars in the United States. In May of 2012, they organized “casseroles” marches, fast-moving marches through the streets, banging pots and pans (in French: casseroles), to echo those taking place in Montreal, where students were opposing not only a significant tuition increase, but a draconian law curbing protest and outlawing the massive student strike that was taking place there (for more on this, see the interview with Jamie Burnett on the Quebecois student movement in this collection).

By late spring of 2012, the main organizing effort among New York students had become the “Free University.” First held on May Day 2012, it put on a full program of lectures in Madison Square Park for one day. Some were regularly-scheduled classes relocated from nearby campuses; others were one-time lectures or panel discussions on issues central to student struggles, or to Occupy. In September, another Free University was held, this time a week long, to coincide with the start of Fall semester classes. It again included local faculty and students, but also brought in student organizers from Montreal and Puerto Rico, in order to exchange lessons learned in the struggle. Students in New York were looking for long-term organizing strategies to continue and strengthen the fight in New York.

Practical Lessons from the Student Struggle in New York

A number of practical lessons can be gleaned from the student organizing that took place in New York in the wake of Occupy Wall Street.

On the positive side, what OWS accomplished, in general, was taking the hardships that have been meted out to students (and workers and everyone else) in the name of economic necessity, and recasting them as the deliberate measures of those who own and control our society and economy—in other words, as class warfare. That is not to say that these measures are the capricious or willful acts of a small number of people. They are in fact imperatives of the capitalist economy, seeing as it depends on constant expansion, on constantly finding new areas in which to make profits, and on increasing those profits at an increasing rate. But as OWS has shown, this just proves that capitalism is unsustainable and insupportable—it fails to adequately deliver “goods” like education, it ruins lives through debt, and it deprioritizes and sacrifices every other value in favor of profit-making.

The good news is that, because capitalism is a human creation, it can be replaced. The struggle to do so starts with resisting capitalist policies and institutions, and challenging the narratives that support them. Students in New York were attempting to do just that, by questioning exploitative debt practices and austerity policies in education (at a time, it is worth noting, when profits were reaching record rates).22

The question is, what kinds of strategies are effective? Much of the explosion of student activity in the wake of OWS came from excitement about a new movement taking place, rather than from patient, long-term organizing. The first student walkout that occurred on October 5th happened with only the scarcest planning, considering that the idea for it was hatched only days earlier. By contrast, the nation-wide walkout and rally planned for March 1st, which students had begun organizing in December, never materialized. Generating large, single-day events is much harder over the long term as individuals develop activism fatigue.

For that matter, we can also see the limitations of single day, one-off events, or more broadly, what we may call an “activist” model of resistance as compared to an organizing model. Students in New York, like their counterparts in Montreal, used large and visible street protests to communicate their demands and show their strength. However, only the Montreal students ground their universities to a halt with a strike, and only they were successful in fending off a proposed tuition hike (equal to that faced by students at CUNY).

Related to this, there are lessons to be learned with regards to democracy and organizing models. The massive strike in Montreal wasn’t planned by a self-selected group of student activists. Assemblies were created in every department, holding weekly meetings to decide what steps to take next. When a vote was taken to walk out on strike, it was felt to be a decision made by all of the students, rather than a small fraction of them. In New York, however, the student occupation proved contentious in part because of the isolation of the students involved, and over time the momentum for student actions declined, in part because these efforts only ever involved a minority of students.

Student struggles will always wax and wane, including in places with a long history of militancy. What is perhaps most important is that, while they rage on, those struggles train a new generation of students, through both positive and negative experiences, imparting lessons about how to be effective in future, which they can pass on to their younger comrades.


Students in New York started their struggles in 2011 at many disadvantages. They had a fragmented history of student resistance to draw from, they were dispersed throughout a variety of institutions, and they faced a multitude of targets—the New York state government, which makes budgetary decisions, their respective administrations, and the student lending agencies—each of which was difficult to strike at, and each of which could blame the other for growing student hardships. What students accomplished, in a very short time, was politicizing the policies that undermine them, and invoking the very idea of struggling against them in unity. As they reflect upon their own experiences, and look to those of students elsewhere, they have the opportunity to sharpen their strategy going forward.

The chord of resistance, however, cannot be unstruck. This much became apparent in May of 2013 when, for the first time in its 154-year history, Cooper Union announced that it would begin charging tuition. Students immediately occupied the President’s office, issued press releases, exposed the gross financial management of their institution, and demanded a repeal of the tuition proposal, as well as a seat on the Board of Trustees. The administration expressed its sympathy with the occupiers, but insisted that its hands being tied by financial necessity. Students refused to move.

Originally posted: July 16, 2015 at Recomposition

  • 1Tamar Lewin, “Financing for Colleges Declines as Costs Rise,” New York Times, March 6, 2013, A17.
  • 2Catherine Rampell, “Why Tuition Has Skyrocketed at State Schools,” New York Times, March 2, 2012, accessed May 26, 2013,
  • 3Rob Lieber, “Battling College Costs, a Paycheck at a Time,” New York Times, February 10, 2013, BU1.
  • 4Student debt now exceeds both credit card and car loan debt in the US. See Meta Brown et al, “Grading Student Loans,” Federal Reserve Bank of New York website, March 5, 2012, accessed May 26, 2013, and Maureen Tkacik, “Column: The student loan crisis that can’t be gotten rid of,” Reuters, August 15, 2012, accessed May 26, 2013,
  • 5A recent article in fact makes the case that, for the amount that the federal government currently spends on post-secondary education, the tuition of every student in the country could be covered. Instead, these federal expenditures are funneled into programs that help generate private profit through loans. Jordan Weissmann, “How Washington Could Make College Tuition Free (Without Spending a Penny More on Education), The Atlantic, March 8 2013, accessed May 26, 2013,
  • 6“Adjunct” staff now make up 76% of classroom instructors. Tarek Barkawi, “The Neoliberal Assault on Academia,” Al Jazeera, April 25th, 2013, accessed May 26, 2013,
  • 7Richard Vedder, “How to Tell if College Presidents Are Overpaid,” Bloomberg, May 12, 2013, accessed May 26, 2013,
  • 8Shahien Nasiripour, “Obama Student Loan Policy Reaping $51 Billion Profit,” Huffington Post, May 14, 2013, accessed May 26, 2013,
  • 9This includes John Tishman, whose Tishman Construction was awarded construction management, and Douglas Durst, whose Durst Organization acted as developer.
  • 10In 2011, Eugene Lang College, the undergraduate liberal arts portion of The New School, was granted the dubious honour of ranking as the fifth most expensive college to attend in the United States. “Most Expensive Colleges for 2011-2012,” Campus Grotto, October 6, 2011, accessed May 26, 2013,
  • 11Jack Stripling, “Lucrative Payments to Bob Kerrey by the New School Irk Critics in a Time of Austerity” The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 31, 2012, accessed May 26, 2013,
  • 12Until the mid-1970s, CUNY did not charge tuition at all, and admission was open to all those who wanted to attend—the fruits of a struggle by black and Puerto Rican students in the late 1960s.
  • 13Michael Busch, “What CUNY Pathways Means for Undergraduates,” The Nation, January 16, 2013, accessed May 26, 2013,
  • 14
  • 15New York Students Rising, “About,” accessed May 26, 2013,
  • 16People’s University, “About,” accessed May 26, 2013,
  • 17Al Baker et al, “Police Arrest More Than 700 Protestors on Brooklyn Bridge,” New York Times, October 1, 2011, accessed May 26, 2013,
  • 18The occupation general assembly had agreed to make decisions on the basis of a two-thirds majority, rather than consensus. For insightful commentary on the occupation, see Arya Zahedi, “Reflections on the New School Occupation,” Insurgent Notes, January 14, 2012, accessed May 26, 2013,
  • 19The report, titled “Review of the Events Occurring at Baruch College on November 21, 2011,” can be accessed here: For commentary, see “12 Things to Know About the Kroll Report,” Occupy CUNY News, January 25, 2013, accessed May 26, 2013,
  • 20“The meetings of the Board of Trustees of The City University of New York are open to the public, and the Board welcomes the interest of those who attend.” City University of New York, “Meetings of the Board,” accessed May 26, 2013,
  • 21Gina Bellafante, “Gunning for Wall Street, With Faulty Aim,” New York Times, September 23, 2011, accessed May 26, 2013,
  • 22Yepoka Yeebo, “Corporate Profits at All-Time High as Recovery Stumbles,” Huffington Post, March 25, 2011, accessed May 26, 2013,