Reflections on building coalitions and grand narratives

It’s been a month since I announced my hiatus from updating this blog, so I’d like to resume by saying a few words about what I’ve been up to.

Since the beginning of April, liaisons from social justice-oriented groups at NYU, as well as liaisons from Cooper Union and the New School, began planning a student convergence on May Day in New York City. The idea was to stage our own student actions before joining the citywide rally and march as part of the student contingent. As the May Day liaison for NYU Students for Justice in Palestine, I helped form a coalition of groups ranging from Students for Economic Justice to Student Labor Action Movement to Dream Team. The role of each liaison was twofold: to help shape the plan of action, and to reach out to fellow group members (and any other contacts) to make sure people showed up on May Day.

In the end, we settled on a three-part plan. First, there was an NYU-specific convergence and speakout in Washington Square Park (at the heart of NYU’s campus) in which representatives from the various groups and initiatives took turns speaking about their cause and current projects. We then marched to Cooper Square for a citywide student convergence in solidarity with the students and faculty of Cooper Union, who are fighting back in spectacular fashion against the ending of free tuition by the school’s board of trustees. From there, we marched to form the student contingent of the citywide convergence, which took the streets in a march for labor and immigration rights from Union Square to City Hall.

Our speakout was invigorating. We drew a respectable number of people in the middle of Washington Square Park on a crowded, warm, sunny day. A couple of professors even brought their classes to attend. Our orators were spirited, and our crowd was not so much an audience as they were active participants: Although I was familiar with the practice of the “people’s mic”, I got to experience firsthand how truly empowering it is for everyone involved.

The atmosphere at the student convergence, which also included students from Columbia and CUNY, was electric. The rally at Cooper Square wasn’t just a chance for social justice groups to show solidarity with the students of Cooper Union: It was also a chance for students to rally around their opposition to a corporate system that prices much of society out of education while burying others in debt. Indeed, it was an all-too-rare opportunity for students from different schools to talk and make connections. The student contingent at the citywide meetup was considerably more difficult to manage, due in no small part to police attempts to split up the march – not to mention the sheer size of the convergence at Union Square, which also included labor unions, immigrant rights groups, and Occupy Wall Street.

Although several groups stopped sending liaisons to the coalition meetings after May Day, others stayed on to plan an NYU day of action slated for mid-May. At the same time, SJP began to discuss a Nakba Day direct action on May 15, the day on which Palestinians and the solidarity movement commemorate the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes by Zionist settler militias. The importance of the Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic) is that it’s not just a historical event: Israel’s founding violence is ongoing, and the displacement of Palestinians from their land continues in the form of Israeli state policies. I came to the coalition meeting intending to ask the other liaisons for support on the day of our action. When it became clear that the NYU day of action would fall on or around Nakba Day, I went a step further and proposed that the Nakba action actually figure as part of the coalition’s larger plan.

To my delight (and admittedly, surprise), our coalition partners were fully on board, and helped immeasurably in brainstorming and piecing together the most creative and effective direct action I’ve ever been a part of. I mention my surprise because the Palestinian struggle appears far removed, both geographically and in terms of scale, from the efforts of students and communities in the US to organize against tuition, debt, gentrification, and so on. The problem facing us was the problem facing the left today: In the absence of a grand narrative of liberation, a universal struggle that ties our fates to those of others, the strategy of power to “divide and conquer” has become a fact of life. The job of the left in the postmodern era is to find ways of forging alliances between different struggles in ways that do justice to the urgency and uniqueness of each.

There was no way around the issue. Our partners and I agreed that if our goal was to continue the coalition past May Day, with a mind towards reigniting the student movement, the NYU day of action couldn’t just be about Palestine. May 15 (the last day of Cooper Union’s semester) was also the date of a solidarity rally with Cooper students. The most obvious red thread running through the actions planned for May 15 was the image of the “global 1%”, which denies the human rights of education and housing to the mass of people. The caveat, of course, is that the way Palestinians are denied basic rights, the sheer violence of their oppression exceeds what most Americans can even imagine. Our messaging, while seeking to universalize the Palestinian cause in a way that US students could identify with, would have to maintain a healthy sense of proportion.

Since May 15 is the height of finals week, our action couldn’t be a march or demonstration that would depend on a huge student turnout. Instead, we were going to have to be gutsy and theatrical. Tactically, we had to create a momentary disturbance that would be visually striking – and not likely to be forgotten. Our motif, after some debate, was to be keys: Many of those who fled or were driven from their homes during the Nakba (and who remain in exile, barred from returning by racist policies) still have their keys.

The action went down like this: We dropped giant cardboard keys from different floors of NYU’s Bobst Library and did a mic check in the lobby. My friend Shafeka, in her brief address, decried the support of the US government, media, and population for Israeli state repression. She also called attention to NYU’s investment in corporations that profit from the brutal occupation of the Palestinian territories, investments SJP is organizing to end. On the floor, we spread a banner explaining our purpose and the meaning of the keys. The building is constructed such that virtually everyone in the lobby could see and hear us. For a few minutes, we brought the bustling hive of Bobst to a virtual standstill. Having caused quite a stir, we then dispersed and reassembled outside for a speakout.

Both actions were wildly successful in disturbing a public sphere usually devoid of political expression. Both actions would have been impossible without the handful of coalition partners who lent us their bodies, voices, and visual presence. On May 15, I got a glimpse of what can tie all emancipatory struggles together in an age of fragmentation and cynicism. What unites us is not just what divides us. If that were so, then all struggles really would be the same. They’re not. But they are connected. Do the words “the left” mean anything anymore? It’s up to us to decide.

A new century and a new globalized capitalism must change our methods, but never our sense of purpose. The words of one famous radical, long since Santa Clausified by the establishment, still ring true: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” The oppression of Palestinians may not impact the daily activities of students at NYU or Cooper Union. But whether we know it or not, it weighs heavily on who we are and how we resist.

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2 thoughts on “Reflections on building coalitions and grand narratives

  1. Pingback: Reflection on building coalitions and grand narratives | nyudiso

  2. Pingback: NYU SJP protest called anti-Semitic on Fox News (again) | The Red Fury

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