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Protest stalls NYU

Roughly 65 students from New York University and nearby colleges, all affiliated with a campaign called "Take Back NYU," barricaded themselves in the John Ben Snow dining room at the university's Kimmel Center for University Life for about 40 hours last week.

The protest, which began last Wednesday and ended Friday, has led to the suspension of eighteen students, and none of the group's various demands were met.

The group blocked the doors to the dining room with tables and chairs and pledged to stay inside until a list of 13 demands was met. The demands included public release of NYU's budget and endowment figures, student representation on the school's board of trustees, scholarships for Palestinian students, tuition stablization, universal public access to the school's main library and amnesty for those involved with the protest.

"What really united the list of demands was a desire for student empowerment, transparency, accountability and attention to human rights," said Emily Stainkamp, a freshman at NYU who was inside Kimmel for the duration of the protest.

Locked in

The TBNYU campaign began in 2007 when a campus group, Students Creating Radical Change, joined with about two dozen other groups to form a coalition, Stainkamp said.

The dining room was closed Thursday. The number of students inside the dining room during the protest remained steady, although students left throughout the day Thursday and on several occasions evaded guards to enter the eatery.

According to a statement released Friday by James Devitt, the university's deputy director for media relations, the university offered to have a dialogue with students if they left early Thursday night - an offer the protestors rejected.

"We had all these back-and-forths - they'd tell us to leave, and we'd say no. They'd tell us to leave again and we'd say no again," Stainkamp said. She said students on four occasions requested to discuss their demands with the administration, but on each occasion were told the university would not negotiate before students left the eatery.

Late Thursday afternoon, Director of Student Activities Bob Butler told the protestors that anyone remaining in the room after 1 a.m. would be considered a trespasser.

Throughout the course of the protest, those inside conveyed what was happening through a live video feed and updates to the group's Web site. NYULocal, an NYU blog, maintained a live blog and used Twitter to document the occupation from inside the Kimmel Center.

At the 1 a.m. deadline, word of a planned rally had spread to the NYU community, and approximately 200 demonstrators gathered on the street below the Kimmel Center both to endorse and to criticize the occupation, according to the Washington Square News, NYU's student newspaper. Police also converged on the scene, and one student demonstrating outside was arrested.

"We were chanting from the balcony, people were singing in the streets. Lots of folks showed up to support us," Stainkamp said.

Emma Kaywin, a junior at NYU who was in the crowd during the rally, described the scene outside the building as "intense," and said that the police officers used pepper spray to control the crowd, an account confirmed by other media reports.

With the protest still in progress on Friday morning, NYU closed the entire student center. According to Stainkamp, administrators told the remaining protestors at that time they would be willing to negotiate.

"We sent five (student) negotiators out in good faith," she said. But upon leaving the dining hall, the students were told they were suspended, and the university would not negotiate. Shortly thereafter, the remaining protestors were unwillingly escorted from the building.

"The gates to the room opened up and about 30 (administrators and public safety personnel) rushed in. They were pretty physically rough with us, and they told us we were all suspended," she said.

By 2 p.m., about 40 hours after the demonstration began, all the protestors had been cleared from the building, their demands unmet. According to Stainkamp, 18 students were temporarily suspended, and they have been banned from all campus buildings, cut off from meal plans and work-study jobs and removed from campus housing, while any final punishment is determined.

'A big risk'

In an official statement, Devitt said NYU condemned the actions and explained the university's response.

"Robust dialogue is a customary, normal and expected part of the interaction between students, faculty and administration at NYU. But it is not appropriate for it to take place while there is an ongoing violation of university rules," Devitt's statement said. "Despite specific warnings to stay off the Kimmel Center balcony, (protestors) broke the lock to gain access to the balcony. The protesters also injured an NYU security officer during a scuffle."

"Despite the protesters' stated principles that the protest was to be non-destructive and non-violent ... these actions dishonor NYU's commitment to free exchange of ideas, reasoned debate and legitimate forms of protest," the statement said.

Stainkamp, who is currently living with a friend off campus, believes the punishment was unfair.

"This was all without any kind of due process. All of this happened without a hearing or any charges being formally brought against us," she said.

Stainkamp said students involved in the protest may face expulsion.

"We knew we were taking a big risk in doing this," she said.

The campus reacts

Reaction to the demonstration at NYU has been mixed.

As of yesterday afternoon, Stainkamp said about 600 people had signed TBNYU's online petition in support of the occupation, and a separate petition circulating among faculty currently had more than 170 signatures. In a Washington Square News poll of 211 students published yesterday, 65 percent of respondents say they did not believe the students should be expelled.

Kit Gallant, a junior at NYU, opposed the occupation and the group's demands.

"As for their specific proposals, I think they were pretty misguided. Some were pretty valid, but they also had some really strange and excessive demands," he said, citing the groups' call for scholarships for Palestinians as an example.

He also said the group does not have broad support among students.

"They speak for a very small part of the NYU community," he said, adding that he believed the group's tactics "turned off about 90 percent of students."

Scott Kaufman '11, who transferred to Brown this year from NYU and said that he had never heard of TBNYU before last week, agreed.

"Just because they're willing to do something over the top doesn't mean they have the support of students," he said.

Kaywin, who briefly joined the protesters inside but is not a member of TBNYU, said she believes many students supported the group's general efforts, but not the occupation.

"I think a lot of people agree with the demands but don't agree with the way it went down," she said.

But she said the demonstration was important in that it started students and faculty talking about campus issues. "This was a radical thing, but it was something that happened and now a dialogue can start," she said. "It's action compared to inaction."


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