Student center shutdown leads to protests, suspensions

Students say they’re being targeted for activism

October 31, 2013 | The Columbia Journalist

Over a week after City College reclaimed a space used as a student center, two student activists who had vigorously protested the college’s decision to take over the space were suspended from the university.

Tafader Sourov, 19, and Khalil Vasquez, 22, say they’re being punished for their leadership in recent demonstrations against college administrators.

On October 20, students at City College learned their Morales/Shakur Community Center, on the third floor of the North Academic Center, no longer existed. College officials had taken back the space on Oct. 19, saying they needed the space to expand career services.

The disappearance of the center—which was founded in 1989 and is a breeding ground for leftist activism on campus—has prompted three protests so far. Two of them have turned aggressive. On October 21, alumnus David Sukar was arrested for refusing to leave the North Academic Center. And later that week on Thursday, he was arrested and pepper sprayed after, college officials said, he used “his child as a shield” to “bypass public safety officers and enter the Administration Building.”

Sourov and Vasquez were at the heart of the action, along with students who wanted to get into the building for their classes and midterms. “[Campus security] actually grabbed me and flung me around,” says Sourov. “It was a tight grip.”

Then, this Monday, they were barred from campus. Vasquez says he was getting out of a class on social deviance when he was stopped, given a letter of suspension, and escorted off the premises. He’s protested at CUNY before—getting a baton to the head for protesting tuition fee increases in 2011, he says—but this was the first time he’s been disciplined.

Sourov says the university is suspending him not only for protesting the Center’s shutdown, but also as retaliation for his role in leftist activism. He and Vasquez are involved with a group called the Revolutionary Student Coordinating Committee, which protests ROTC programs on campuses and CUNY’s April decision to hire General David Petraeus to teach a seminar this autumn.

“We believe it’s tied back into our political line against militarization of CUNY,” Sourov says. “I guess they think if they target the two of us they’ll be able to stop the movement.”

The CUNY-wide group has 791 “likes” on Facebook. City College alone has over 13,000 students: over 20 percent of its undergrads are Asian or Black, and 33 per cent are Hispanic. Full-time undergraduate tuition is just over $5,700 a year.

The Morales/Shakur Center was named after Black Liberation Army’s Assata Shakur and Puerto Rican nationalist Guillermo Morales.

Guillermo Morales was a leader in the FALN, a separatist paramilitary that claimed responsibility for a 1975 bomb attack in New York which killed four people. Also known as Joanne Chesimard, Assata Shakur is the first and only woman on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list. She escaped prison in America after killing a New Jersey state trooper. The two—both City College alumni—live in Cuba. In 2006, the center itself sparked controversy for its extremist namesakes.

But its quick disappearance without student consultation or oversight has raised questions about transparency and freedom of speech in the university setting. While the center is shut down and students penalized, CUNY also drafted a “policy on expressive activity” this year, which would prohibit shouting or handing out leaflets without authorization.

On Monday, however, the demonstrations and shouts continued. Over 13 campus police officers stared down about 40 protesters at City College. The cluster of people—many decked out in backpacks, wearing olive green, black, red and grey—took turns holding a red cardboard shield with the black fist that makes the center’s logo. “We will fight,” they chanted, promising to reclaim the center “by any means necessary.”

City College spokesperson Deidra Hill wouldn’t respond to questions or confirm basic details about the university’s student conduct regulations. However, she did release the following statement: “City College follows a community standards process in which student disciplinary actions are confidential unless there is a need to know. City College continues to support students’ rights to exercise their constitutional rights and to ensure a safe and peaceful environment for the campus community.”

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