Chilean youth leader Camila Vallejo. Courtesy Flickr user Eneas De Troya
The Student Uprisings panel at the CUNY Graduate Center on October 15 represented a continuation of cross-cultural exchanges of knowledge of social movement building in the spirit of the World Social Forum. To the excitement of New York City activists, students and educators, the event focused on how students can shape, lead and participate in social movements that advocate for democratic and accessible education for all.
From #YoSoy132 in Mexico City to the anti-austerity movement in Chile to the student strike in Quebec, student uprisings have been ubiquitous in 2012. Now eyes are on the United States as the missing piece of the student movement in the Americas. While we may be far from the kind of mass mobilizations of our neighbors, young people across the country are experimenting with different kinds of organizational structures and tactical approaches to achieve structural change, not just single issue organizing campaigns.
This event brought together some of the best and brightest that the continental student movement has to offer as mentors to budding activists: Conor Tomas Reed, coordinator of the CUNY Adjunct Project and a PhD student at the Graduate Center and Denise Romero Franco, organizer with Students United for a Free CUNY, New York Students Rising and a student at Baruch College; Jamie Bernett, a McGill University strike organizer and Irmak Bahar, a Concordia University strike organizer in Quebec; and finally, Noam Titelman, president of Confederation of Students of Chile and Camila Vallejo, Vice President of the Universidad de Chile Student Federation from the Chilean student movement.
Speaking first, Romero Franco began the event with the history of student activism in New York City, which included frequent and numerous protests and occupations largely un=noted in the media. Romero employed this narrative to discuss what a contemporary mass movement in the United States must include. “Our student movement must be anti-oppressive in its means and in its masses,” said Romero Franco, analyzing how oppression and privilege are inextricably tied, are experienced simultaneously, and are often reproduced in movements. She linked struggles of undocumented youth and students of color who are frequently targeted by police, and emphasized that a mass CUNY student movement must be inclusive by addressing all the issues of all CUNY students, both on campus and in their communities.
Conor Tomas Reed buttressed Romero Franco’s analysis by speaking to the internal tensions he has witnessed in New York student activism since 2006. He located the origin of these ruptures in the uncompromising ideological attitudes that are commonplace in activist communities. He observed how the heavy weight often put on ideology can imbalance practical goals, such as “consensus decision-making,” which he argued can lead to overplayed lip-service to process, and “autonomy,” which may result in a kind of combative individualism.
The two Canadian speakers told the inspiring story of how their movement achieved repeal of the proposed Canadian tuition increases by the new Quebec government as a direct result of mass mobilizations of students. They also touched upon an important point regarding the anglophone and francophone student strike organizing and explained the structure of Quebecois student unions, a crucial organizing vehicle in Canada.
Jumping directly into the story of Chilean student and youth participation in social movements, Titelman explained how neoliberal austerity measures have been used to dismantle the Chilean social service system for decades and how one cannot just fight the education system divorced from the larger political-economic system — an important point for US student activists as ours is the only country in which students spend more time attacking our administrators around education issues than the federal government. He also emphasized how in Chile, young pepople are fighting a pervasive logic, which for him was the neoliberal privatization strategy that “tried to treat education like any other good on the market.”
Vallejo–whose charisma and natural leadership are undoubtable–referred to the Chilean movement as part of a historical process, “The media is always attempting to take the historical context away and present the social movement that is something that is more spontaneous.” Similarly, to what we experience as US students as our administrators seek to erase the history of struggle on our own campuses, in Chile, this happens on a much larger scale. “We demanded a paradigm shift on the part of the government. The shift would be that education can transform society…” said Vallejo, “…not just reproduce it."
Significantly, the only question of the entire panel was asked by Vallejo of Romero Franco about whether repression against students had been codified in law in the US. Romero Franco responded fiercely, explaining how the practice of police repression and surveillance of student organizing has been rampant at CUNY and other universities nationwide. Romero Franco also cited Stop and Frisk, the Arizona “Show Me Your Papers” laws that profile people under suspicion that they are undocumented, and surveillance of Muslim Student Associations and the broader Muslim community as legal forms of criminalization of communities of color.
Vallejo had the last word as she calmly described the systemic violence that the United States has inflicted on Latin America for the past fifty years including supporting Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Inclosing, Vallejo implored the attendees to pressure our own government to remove military presence from Chile once and for all.
In reflection, student organizer at Hunter College and a member of Students United for a Free CUNY, Sharmin Hossain, was enthusiastic about what steps the student movement in New York City will take next. “I learned a lot from the multiple perspectives, and the framing of issues and how pivotal student unionism and student coalitions are is definitely a key takeaway,” she said, “The need to organize our student bodies into a collective space with participatory democracy and intersectionality of issues, while redefining and re-evaluating our normative ways of thinking was a big idea spread throughout the panel.”
This sentiment seemed to be shared by the majority of attendees.
As Titelman stated “I think there are things that unite all, but I think it’s important to recognize the differences in these realities. There are different realities that may have some common grounds. Our history defines the moment we are living right now.” Our continuous fights against cuts to higher education, police profiling of communities of color and LGBTQI people, and the deportation of undocumented Americans are inextricably linked but too often we do not work together. Looking to the future, the New York City student movement needs to echo Titelman’s call for a movement that acknowledges all of these struggles as a part of a structural problem in order to transform our “beautiful, noble, naïve movement to a beautiful, noble, effective movement”.