Student Activists Under Attack at City College of New York
for Honoring Black and Puerto Rican Liberation Heroes

By Brad Sigal

New York, NY - The New York Police Department is on the defensive because of mass outrage over the police’s murder of Sean Bell. Bell, a 23-year old unarmed African American man was killed by the NYPD in a hail of 50 bullets Nov. 25 a few hours before he was going to be married. His murder has sparked large protests against racist police brutality.

Two weeks later, the right-wing New York Daily News tried to create a diversion from the issue of racist police brutality by attacking student activists at the City College of New York (CCNY), accusing them of promoting “cop killers” and “terrorists.” On Dec.12 the Daily News ran a cover story and editorial attacking CCNY’s Guillermo Morales/Assata Shakur Community and Student Center, a student-run activist space on the flagship Harlem campus of the City University of New York (CUNY). The Daily News editorial demanded that Shakur and Morales’s names be removed from the Center.

The Center is named for former Black Panther leader Assata Shakur and Puerto Rican revolutionary nationalist Guillermo Morales. They were both students at CCNY in the 1960s that dedicated their lives to the liberation of Black and Puerto Rican people. Both were imprisoned in the 1970s and escaped and fled to Cuba, where they currently live in exile. Assata’s 1987 autobiography has inspired countless people to join the struggle for Black liberation.

When the Daily News article came out, the CUNY administration quickly joined in the attack on the student activists. CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein released a statement saying that the CUNY Board of Trustees never authorized naming the center after Shakur and Morales. He demanded the immediate removal of the sign bearing their names.

The Center has been named after Shakur and Morales for its 17 years of existence. Students won use of the space as a result of the 1989 CUNY student strike against a proposed tuition increase. Ydanis Rodriguez, a leader in the 1989 student strike and a leader of the Center’s community projects, states, “In 1989 when we ended our organizing movement against the tuition increase proposed by Governor Mario Cuomo, we were able to persuade the governor not to increase tuition. At the end of that movement, as part of the negotiation, we got that space to use as a student and community center. The center has been a very important place at City College because this is a real link between the university and the surrounding community, especially Harlem, Washington Heights and El Barrio.”

When the Daily News article came out, the City College administration asked the students to remove the sign themselves. The students responded immediately with a press statement saying they would not remove Shakur and Morales’s names from the Center. They expressed support for Shakur and Morales, who they said are freedom fighters for the liberation of Black and Puerto Rican people. In defense of Assata Shakur, the students’ statement said, “We know that many Black people who fought for better conditions in the 1970s were framed. We consider Assata Shakur to be one of the people who were wrongfully and purposefully framed for her activities. And we consider her a hero and role model for standing up for our people and putting her life on the line.”

After the students’ press conference, the attack against the students broadened when Fox News picked up the story, making it the top national story on FoxNews.com under the headline “Students Love Cop Killer Honored at New York College”. This was then picked up by many other news outlets.

On Dec. 13 the students attempted to meet with the CCNY administration to negotiate. The administration refused to meet when the students said they wanted their lawyer present and wanted the conversation recorded. Then taking unilateral action, on Dec. 14 the CCNY administration removed the sign with Shakur and Morales’s names from the entrance to the center. They threatened student activists with disciplinary action if they put the sign back up.

Students responded by calling a meeting to defend the center. Over 100 people came. From that meeting a rally was planned for Dec. 20 to confront the CCNY administration and show support for the Morales/Shakur Center. The rally will take place at 4:00 p.m. on CCNY’s NAC Plaza (outside of the Administration Building) on Convent Avenue between 137th and 138th Streets. Students are also encouraging supporters of the Morales/Shakur Center to contact CCNY President Gregory H. Williams to protest CCNY’s infringement on academic and student rights by their attack on the Center. Williams can be contacted at 212-650-7285 or by fax at 212-650-7680. Plans are also in motion to file a federal injunction to win the right to put the sign back up.

A Center for Organizing

The Morales/Shakur Center houses various activist groups and projects. Students for Education Rights was the group that led the student strike that won the space for the Morales/Shakur Center from the CUNY administration in 1989. Union de Jovenes Dominicanos and Dominicanos 2000 use the Morales/Shakur Center for their activities, including running a Pre-University Program that works with hundreds of high school students from the community. Student Liberation Action Movement is an activist group at CUNY formed in 1995 in opposition to another round of tuition hikes. The Messenger, which was started as an alternative newspaper at CCNY in 1997, uses the center too.

Much of the political activism that happens at City College comes out of the Morales/Shakur Center. According to Rodriguez, “The center has been doing a tremendous job in the last 17 years, organizing the students against tuition increases and budget cuts, organizing different forums against police brutality, against gentrification in Harlem and Washington Heights, and also the center is a space not only for students but also community organizations to have meetings.”

Defend the Morales/Shakur Center

As a result, it has repeatedly been the target of attacks from the CUNY administration. Earlier attacks included an incident in 1998 when CCNY’s then-president Yolanda Moses installed a hidden surveillance camera outside the entrance of the center to spy on student activists. Students discovered the hidden camera and went to the media and filed a lawsuit, creating a major embarrassment for the administration.

The administration has attempted at various other times to harass the Morales/Shakur Center. Their efforts have failed, and the Center has continued to serve its historic mission of student and community organizing. “This space was won through struggle,” is painted in large, bold letters on a wall inside the Center, as a reminder of the Center’s roots in struggle and its mission to continue organizing for change.

The Daily News attack on the Center is aimed to draw attention away from the New York Police Department’s racist murder of Sean Bell. But many forces in the community believe the attack on the Morales/Shakur Center must be responded to as well. CCNY students believe they have the right to name their Center after Shakur and Morales, who many people consider to be heroes in the struggle for Black and Puerto Rican liberation. According to Rodriguez, “I believe that people should support the Center because we have to maintain our freedom of speech rights.”

The struggle to save the Morales/Shakur Center is an important battle in the struggle for access to education and student rights. Because the attack has focused on defaming Assata Shakur and Guillermo Morales, it has also become a struggle in defense of the Black and Puerto Rican liberation movements.