Street Theater and Arrests Mark Feisty Cooper Union Anti-Tuition Protest

Cooper Union protesters gathered at Union Square
(Photo © Ben Sutton)

NEW YORK — "Where are the cops?" So one Cooper Union student asked another as they crossed the plaza behind the Manhattan university's Foundation Building during yesterday afternoon's protest against the administration's recent decision to begin charging graduate students tuition in 2013. Three hours later, the students, their signs, and their professors would be barred from the public space by dozens of NYPD officers all gathered to arrest one alumnus perched atop a nearby monument to Peter Cooper, who founded the tuition-free school in 1859.

However, the protest's beginnings were relatively calm, with no more than 50 students, alumni, and faculty members gathered in the small plaza, some climbing the Peter Cooper statue, others kicking a soccer ball around, while nearby instructors who'd decided to conduct their classes outdoors went about their business — it's almost finals week, after all. Shortly before 4pm the protesters marched up to Union Square to join a larger group already assembled in a rally against student loans, the commercialization of college education, and capitalism. The protesting students brandished signs with slogans like "Debt-Free Degrees" and "Keep Cooper Free, Keep Cooper Wild," and pushed a large foam effigy of school president Jamshed Bharucha with a giant dollar sign on its forehead.

The artist Emily Roysdon, a visiting instructor at the school teaching there for a semester, followed the group on its march north. "I don't know if it's a coincidence," Roysdon told ARTINFO, "but I think my entire class is here. I guess there's a certain affinity between protest and performance."

The protest in Union Square was indeed marked by performances, not only by the ubiquitous Reverend Billy and his Church of Earthalujah choir, but also by groups of protesters dressed as bankers and prisoners, who enacted a showdown between debt-ridden students and the one percent. "Higher education means higher profits," chanted the bankers' leader, "Fannie Mae." Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein was also in attendance, assisted in her rousing speech by a man dressed as a Roman centurion (a possible running mate?).

The protesters, by this time numbering 200 or more, then headed back downtown towards Cooper Union, escorted by a huge fleet of police officers on foot, riding scooters, and in cars. Returning to the previously quiet public plaza behind the Foundation Building ahead of the crowd, Jesse Kreuzer, a Cooper Union alumnus who graduated last spring, climbed back atop the Peter Cooper monument with his sign, "No Tuition, It's Our Mission." It would take several tactical NYPD vehicles, dozens of extra officers, members of the fire department, and a vehicle equipped with a cherry picker-like mechanism better suited to rescuing cats stranded in trees to eventually get Kreuzer down.

Meanwhile many protesters continued on down to Wall Street, while Cooper Union students awaited the fate of their former classmate. As the NYPD cleared the small plaza between the Peter Cooper monument and the Foundation Building Sara Abruña, a senior at the university, was arrested.

"She was on her way to class," Mateo Cartagena, a fellow student, said. "Next thing I know they're slamming Sara on the ground. She was a senior. We just had our senior show last week."

Kreuzer, meanwhile, was one of many disenchanted and underemployed graduates of the elite art, architecture, and engineering school in attendance — albeit the most highly visible one. As he was taken away in handcuffs the crowd diverged from its cheering for free tuition and chanted "Free Jesse Kreuzer!" Predictably — but no less disappointingly — both the students' call to free their colleague and free future Cooper Union students from debt seemed to fall on deaf ears. Bharucha was rumored to be planning an appearance at the protest, but was nowhere in sight at 7pm as the crowd began to disperse.

Tonight the group Friends of Cooper Union will hold its second summit and panel discussion on keeping the school tuition free in the Foundation Building's historic Great Hall at 5:30pm.

To see images of the tuition protests, click on the slide show.