Earlier this week, amidst mounting pressure from localized rank-and-file initiatives at over a dozen CUNY campuses demanding the university become a “sanctuary campus”, Chancellor James B. Milliken released a statement outlining CUNY’s commitment to protecting its undocumented students — or, more accurately, CUNY’s lack of any such commitment.
Every substantive commitment Milliken makes to protecting undocumented students is followed by a qualifier which renders it moot: “CUNY will take no action to assist in the enforcement of the immigration laws except as required by law”, “CUNY will not turn over student information to immigration enforcement authorities except pursuant to court order”, “CUNY will not permit immigration enforcement officials to enter its campuses except to the extent required by a warrant or court order” (our italics). This prevarication is consistent with the conspicuous absence of the term “sanctuary” from Milliken’s statement. It’s impressive how Milliken is able to use so many words to say so little, but then again, this is the hallmark of a successful administrator.
In case Chancellor Milliken is confused, we are not particularly concerned with CUNY volunteering the information of its undocumented students without a court order, warrant, or legal pressure of any kind. Such a move would be pointless, wildly unpopular, arguably evil, and in any case very unlikely. What we are concerned about is precisely the possibility of CUNY turning this information over under some form of legal pressure. This scenario is why we demand a sanctuary campus. And Milliken has made it clear we are not getting one. Just a lot of empty words.
Even more useless is Milliken’s promise that “CUNY will not permit immigration enforcement officials to enter its campuses except to the extent required by a warrant or court order”. Again, this statement effectively declares in advance Milliken’s intention to turn over undocumented students at the first hint of pressure, but that’s not even the worst part. According to a 1992 memorandum of understanding between CUNY and the NYPD, the NYPD is not allowed on CUNY campuses except in cases of emergency or if they are explicitly summoned. This memorandum was flouted in the surveillance of Muslim students at Brooklyn College, and in the murder of College of Staten Island cafeteria worker Corey Holmes by a cop who had no business on the CSI campus, neither of which were denounced by CUNY as violations of the memorandum. Further, we receive regular reports (which we can confirm with our own observations) that the NYPD breaches this policy on a daily basis, patrolling City College, Queens College, and other CUNY campuses, looking for trouble. If CUNY can’t honor its existing policy protecting students from harassment by the murderous cops, any further commitments are all the more wasted paper amidst an already dire environmental crisis. (In the above photo taken last month, NYPD car 5640 patrols Queens College in explicit breech of CUNY policy. Please send NYPD sightings to firstname.lastname@example.org — be sure to take a picture!)
The inadequacy of this commitment from Milliken only highlights the writing that’s already on the wall: the safety of CUNY’s most vulnerable cannot be trusted to CUNY’s bosses. Surely we can demand that college administrators pledge their support for undocumented students, as we can demand commitments against racism, sexual assault, inequality in hiring, and other social ills we wish to eradicate. When we secure administrative commitment on these issues, it can be a helpful tool, since we can strategically call upon the administration to honor its commitments, and use these commitments instrumentally in order to support and strengthen our own independent organizing work. But gaining these rhetorical commitments is not the end of our organizing, only a means by which we can build our power to act independently and protect ourselves. The same is true of departmental diversity initiatives, anti-austerity measures, and a host of other hot button campus issues. Basic CUNY history teaches us that we get what we want not by “speaking truth to power”, no matter how morally righteous our rhetoric, but by building power of our own capable of exerting real leverage. If we have some administrator on the record pledging support, that’s great. But it should be a very small piece of the overall strategy.
The urgent task facing CUNY under a Trump administration is to organize ourselves on the local level, to build our collective strength to take action outside of the official channels, and to prepare for decisive moments when we know that the Millikens of the world will abandon us, as they have done every time. In facing the dire threats Trump represents, we must foreground a broad-based social movement strategy rooted in the principles of horizontalism and diversity of tactics, deriving our power from the bottom, not the top. Therefore we must build in our departments, classrooms, clubs and organizations, communities, and anywhere else we have existing networks and the seeds of affinity and trust which movements require. We must activate our social and professional connections in preparation for the targeting of undocumented people in the CUNY system and outside of it. And we must prepare for our union, PSC-CUNY, to be effectively busted under Trump while by all accounts its leadership is as shockingly unprepared for this prospect as it was for the impending victory of Friedrichs last year. In the face of these threats and others, we must be organized to walk out of classes, shut down campuses, shut down streets, occupy buildings, descend on detention centers, march on City Hall, block highways, block bridges, go on strike, and otherwise draw on the full capacity of our social power as students, workers, and educators in one of New York City’s most vital working class institutions. This work is our responsibility, and if we don’t do it, it won’t get done.