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CUNY Encampment Felony Charges Could Set A Dangerous Precedent

Above photo: CUNY Solidarity Encampment. Luigi W. Morris.

Ten CUNY students are still facing felony charges from the police raid on City College’s Gaza encampment.

If convicted, the ruling would set a precedent for prosecuting pro-Palestinian students and organizers across the United States.

Earlier this month, the Manhattan district attorney’s office dropped felony charges against nine pro-Palestinian protesters 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 students — who, in addition to being predominantly POC and working class, are consistently some of the most militant student intifada members — have been hit with the highest charges. This sends a message: when it comes to Zionist repression, the most vulnerable and most radical students will be the first to go. But the consequences of the CUNY 22 trial extend far beyond CUNY.

If convicted, we believe the ruling would set a legal precedent for prosecuting pro-Palestinian students across the United States — a blow designed to hamper 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 not even Columbia’s administration took against their students. Bordreau could pressure the District Attorney to grant amnesty. 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 were in solidarity with the accused. “C4P stands by our 22 comrades in their continued call for all charges to be dropped,” C4P said in a written statement. “Our administration should be celebrating and protecting these brave and principled individuals.” Instead of celebrating and protecting their students, 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.

How? It’s simple: if students 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, is also notable. The student intifada is led by undergraduates. 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 student organizers on a state and national level with the threat of felony convictions.

That CUNY kids are the first in the student movement to be served felonies also appears deliberate. Like public school kids from Cal Poly to UC Davis, CUNY kids have been helping to lead the student movement. This leadership stems partly 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 the 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, 46 Columbia students arrested for liberating Hind’s Hall announced that they were refusing to accept their plea deals in solidarity with the CUNY 22. CUAD discussed the move in a press conference, which sought to break down the false binary between legal and illegal protest. While the move successfully attracted press, its capacity to exact actual legal leverage is currently unclear.

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 student 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-Palestine student organizers a strategic opportunity: use the start of the school year, and an expanded zionist military front, to escalate for Palestine.

However, the student intifada must rally around the ten CUNY students still awaiting felony trials. These organizers are crucial to our movement; we cannot let them go to jail. If they do, it could increase the odds of potential jail time for pro-Palestine student organizers everywhere.

As for CUNY admin, the CCNY Gaza Solidarity Encampment represented everything we want our university to be, and it now has a choice: urge the DA to drop all charges 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 their own students and community members.

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