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Consequences of CUNY Encampment Felony Charges Extend Far Beyond Campus

If the students are convicted, it would set a precedent for prosecuting pro-Palestinian organizers across the US.

People film demonstrations as an NYPD officer surveils them at the City College of New York (CUNY) as the NYPD attack its protest camp on April 30, 2024, in New York City.

Earlier this month, the Manhattan district attorney’s office dropped felony charges against nine pro-Palestinian protestors arrested at City College’s encampment on the fateful police raid orchestrated on April 30. Thirteen protestors, however, could still serve felonies, including up to nine years of jail. While organizers have faced legal threats nationally, CUNY community members — who, in addition to being predominantly POC and working class — have been hit with the highest charges. This sends a message: when it comes to Zionist repression, the most vulnerable will be the first to go. But the consequences of the CUNY 22 trial extend far beyond CUNY.

If convicted, the ruling would, we argue, set a legal precedent for prosecuting pro-Palestinian activism across the United States—a blow designed to hamper not only organizing, but student organizing, in the semesters and years to come. The timing behind this political message is also deliberate. These convictions instill fear that state officials want to quell student dissent before the fall term begins, which is roughly when Israel, backed by the U.S., might invade South Lebanon, spreading the Gaza war to a much larger and deadlier scale.

The Encampment and the Raid

CUNY needed the Gaza Solidarity Encampment. We recall how protestors felt taken care of at their school for the very first time. We provided daily lunches and dinners, a medical tent for emergencies, and cultural programs designed for everyone, including children. These actions were guided by the CUNY GSE’s Five Demands: 1) disclose and divest, 2) academic boycott, 3) solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle, 4) demilitarize, and 5) a tuition-free, open admissions CUNY with fair contracts

Our Encampment was not restricted to students: it was open to all of Harlem, too. When CCNY announced that they were closing the university pantry due to the encampment, claiming they were “lacking necessary staffing,” organizers immediately responded by opening up their own food pantry. Extra meals were already being handed out to anyone from the neighborhood who needed them.

That all changed on April 30 when City College President Vincent Bordreau sent an email to the NYPD, telling them to sweep the encampment and arrest its participants. We were there on the fateful day and witnessed the brutality.

We were first locked inside CCNY. Police presence intensified inside and outside campus. Public safety maced protesters, its own students, and members of the press. We personally witnessed our fellow organizers get attacked by police and then suffer severe panic episodes; we later learned from organizers’ press statements that police broke the ankle of an undergraduate student and smashed the teeth of two protestors.

Children aged two and younger – –who had been safe in the encampment moments earlier — were suddenly a few feet away from violence. Officers initially refused to allow co-author Hebh and her two children to exit. It was only when protestors on the other side of CCNY’s fence chanted “Let them leave” that the police finally relented.

Setting a Precedent

That night, nearly 200 arrests were made, and many CUNY organizers were slapped with life-altering felony charges, an endeavor that was not pursued against Columbia’s students Bordreau could pressure the District Attorney to grant amnesty to all arrested. Instead, in a faculty town hall, he expressed “regret” at not sending police in sooner.

CUNY4Palestine, an organization of CUNY students, staff, and faculty, told us that they are in solidarity with the accused. “C4P stands by our 22 comrades in their continued call for all charges to be dropped,” said C4P in a written statement. “Our administration should be celebrating and protecting these brave and principled individuals.” Instead of celebrating and protecting their community members, however, CUNY is retaliating against them

But the CUNY 22’s charges are also an attempt to hinder pro-Palestine organizing at CUNY into the future as well.

How? It’s simple: if student activists, community members, and alumni know they could face felonies for pro-Palestine organizing, they could be much less likely to participate. Especially if they are undocumented, low-income, or POC. The sentencing length, with a maximum jail time of nine years, also feels notable. Putting someone in jail for nine years means that, while they can still participate from the inside, they will, upon release, have been aged out of their immediate organizing cohort.

That is: the impact of these charges extends far beyond CUNY; if successful, they could set a dangerous legal precedent, de-incentivizing pro-Palestine organizers on a state and national level with the threat of felony convictions.

That CUNY community members are the first in the student movement to be served felonies also feels deliberate. Like public school kids from Cal Poly to UC Davis, CUNY members have been helping to lead the student movement. This leadership stems, first, from the demands themselves, which uplifts the Palestinian resistance, emphasizes divestment, and stresses labor connections by demanding, for instance, fair contracts for all CUNY workers. That being said, CUNY organizers have also been a crucial part of pro-Palestine groups working across NYC like Within Our Lifetime and Palestinian Youth Movement, connections that will only grow more valuable as these groups escalate against the upcoming presidential elections. As the felony convictions reveal, it is not only the most vulnerable who have been attacked but also the most radical.

The Consequences

Unfortunately, this repressive behavior is not new for CUNY. It is, instead, part of a larger effort to expand both zionist investments and what scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore (who, ironically, teaches at CUNY) calls organized abandonment. As Gilmore tracked in Golden Gulag, which analyzed the rise of California’s prison industrial complex, organized abandonment occurs when social services — in this case, accessible public higher education — are replaced with carceral infrastructure, such as the $225 million dollar Cop City that Mayor Eric Adams is building in Queens. That is: NYC is replacing CUNYs with Cop Cities.

Despite the impact that the CUNY 22 trials could have, the media has barely covered it. On June 20, in an attempt to bring attention back to the case, an autonomously organized press conference where the 46 Columbia arrestees who were detained for liberating Hind’s Hall announced that they were refusing to accept their plea deals in solidarity with those facing “the most extreme repression across the pro-Palestine movement.”. They discussed the move in a press conference, which sought to break down the false binary between legal and illegal protest.

Meanwhile, as the last of the American encampments are cleared, the US-backed settler colonial genocide in Gaza is accelerating. The IOF attacks the Jabalia and Nuseirat refugee camps with impunity, while famine intensifies throughout the Strip. The zionist imperialist war has targeted Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, and will likely invade South Lebanon in August. U.S. troops have been reported on the ground in Gaza since October, demonstrating not only U.S. backing for this genocide through funding and arms but also direct involvement.

Taking this global context into account, we can see how the CUNY 22 trial fits into the U.S.’s broader geopolitical strategy. If the state can convict pro-Palestine organizers of felony charges, it will have successfully erected a massive impediment to campus organizing before the new school year begins — and right as the U.S. and the zionist entity intend to escalate internationally. As Al Jazeera recently reported, “Israel is ready for an ‘all-out war’ in Lebanon and has plans approved for an offensive targeting Hezbollah.” As “defeating Hamas” increasingly appears like a dead-end, a new military front distracts public attention while likely ensuring continued U.S. military support.

Despite this calculated, vicious repression and violence, the American empire and the zionist entity have accidentally handed pro-Palestineorganizers, especially student organizers, a strategic opportunity: use the start of the school year, and an expanded zionist military front, to escalate for Palestine.

In order to do that, however, we must rally around the CUNY community members and protesters still awaiting felony trials. These organizers are crucial parts of our movement; we cannot let them go to jail. If they do, it could increase the odds of potential jail time for pro-Palestineorganizers everywhere.

As for CUNY admin, the CCNY Gaza Solidarity Encampment represented everything we want our university and our community to be. Now, it has a choice: urge the DA to drop all charges against protestors and finally be on the right side of history, or continue down a path of choosing the status quo and profit over the safety and liberation of its own students and community.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that those facing the felony charges are CUNY students, when they are, in fact, CUNY alumni and community members. The article was corrected on July 5, 2024, to reflect this. The editor has also included a note from the authors, below.

Authors’ note: It is important to note, and correct, that those who still face felony charges are not students but protestors and CUNY alumni who have identified with the goal of the CUNY Gaza Solidarity Encampment. The charges against students have been dropped, and now the prosecutors and CUNY itself are running with the argument of the “outside agitator.” There is no outsider when it comes to demanding our institutions to divest from apartheid, occupation, and murder. The only agitator is our institutions that use tuition and the community’s public funds to invest in war and destruction.

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