posted 2011-11-22 15:20:20

Unexpected Clash Occurs in Baruch Lobby During Board of Trustees Public Hearing

Confrontation between CUNY Peace Officers and Students escalates.  NYPD participates despite denial from Chancellor Goldstein

By John Bolger and Jenady Garshofsky

Additional Reporting by Bridgit Boulahanis

Confrontation between Campus Peace Officers and CUNY students in the lobby of the Vertical Building at Baruch College. Photo by Mimiko Watanabe
Hundreds of students, faculty, and adjuncts from CUNY schools gathered at Baruch College Nov. 21 to protest a CUNY board of trustees public hearing. At least 100 students and staff entered the Baruch Vertical Campus lobby shortly after 5 p.m. seeking to attend the hearing. However security staff denied most of them access, stating that the hearing was full to capacity. Twelve Public Safety officers armed with batons stood in formation guarding access to the Baruch turnstiles as students refused to leave the lobby. The officers rushed the crowd and a skirmish ensued.

At least six NYPD officers were also involved in the confrontation, three of which were ranked sergeant or higher.

Peace officers were working under the direction of Gabriel Eszterhas, vice president for administration and finance at Baruch, and John Mckee, director of Public Safety at City College. McKee warned the crowd over a megaphone that if they did not leave the lobby immediately they would be arrested for trespassing. According to a statement from CUNY two warnings were issued, however at least one of the warnings was aborted mid-sentence by McKee who appeared to recognize that the warnings were not audible over the noise of the crowd.

When the showdown broke out, hundreds of students outside the lobby made an effort to enter. Eszterhas and several peace officers rushed to the entrance and fought over the door, which was being pulled open and closed by opposing sides of the scuffle. Eventually the entrance was secured and no additional students gained entry. The crowd of hundreds outside banged on the glass exterior of the building as they watched the events in the lobby transpire.

Peace Officers hold batons waiting for orders shortly before the eruption. Gabriel Eszterhas, Vice President of Administration and Finance stands in front . Photo by John Bolger 

An unidentified alumni and teacher at Baruch spoke briefly to students in the lobby just before the incident broke out. "It breaks my heart," she shouted to the students, "to see this happening in the school I love."

As the conflict continued students were thrown into the lobby revolving doors and forcibly spun out to the exterior. At one point, students in the lobby used a tall signpost to barricade themselves from the advancing officers. The barricade was short lived. Baruch students observing the events from an elevated area of the lobby booed and threw papers and small objects into the crowd bellow, ostensibly aiming for security officers.

During the scuffle, Sean Nasab, a Baruch student, said, “this is absolutely crazy. [The police] should not be shoving students like this.” Glenda Ullaurn, a City College student, was also at the confrontation. "A lot of people are starting movements, but police are making them [the protests] aggressive," she said in the lobby. "Look, the police are surrounding the students and fighting them. We can’t deny what is happening, we can’t deny this."

The majority of peace officers responding to the event were part of SAFE, CUNY Public Safety’s emergency response division. Officers from Hunter College, Baruch College, Hostos Community College, Medgar Evers College, Queens Community College, City College, and Bronx Community College were also present.

Campus Peace Officer wields a baton. Photo by Mimiko Watanabe

A statement released by the Chancellor Matthew Goldstein one day later admitted that NYPD were outside the Baruch lobby, but contradicted Envoy photographs regarding their use inside the building. "While there were New York City police officers outside of the college building, CUNY chose to use its own Public Safety officers inside the building," the statement read.

Envoy editors took irrefutable photographs of at least six NYPD officers inside the Baruch lobby during the clash. One photograph shows five NYPD officers. In the photograph, there are two NYPD officers standing directly behind the frontline. Two sergeants are also visible, one has been identified as Sergeant Jeronimo. Another photograph shows two NYPD officers, ranked sergeant or higher (as indicated by their hats), standing next to each other behind the frontline.

According to a statement given by CUNY the night of the scuffle, 15 students were arrested by peace officers. The statement made no reference to the NYPD, although five students were later transferred to the NYPD’s seventh precinct. The following week at a meeting of the board of the trustees, statements given by board members also made no reference to the NYPD.

Tiffany Huan, 20, a member of the Envoy staff, was arrested during the struggle. Video footage taken from the upper lobby shows that she was grabbed by her hair and pulled into a group of Public Safety officers who threw her to the ground. She was then dragged on the floor and her wrists were bound with flexicuffs. She was one of the five students held overnight by NYPD.

McKee and Eszterhas were contacted for this article, however both declined to comment.

Gabriel Eszterhas directing officers. Three NYPD officers are visible in this photograph. Photo by John Bolger
Dr. Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, was at the public hearing as the events unfolded 14 floors below. “The faculty and staff are in 100 percent opposition,” she said. “We will not stand for violence against students at a public hearing.” The students were protesting, among other things, the board of trustees decision earlier this year to increase tuition by $1,500 over the course of five years.

A statement released by CUNY claimed that students "surged forward toward the college’s identification turnstiles," provoking Public Safety’s reaction. However, a response issued by the CUNY Student General Assembly called CUNY’s statement "a categorical lie." Video footage circulating on the internet appears to verify that students had in fact not surged towards the turnstiles.

"WE CONDEMN the use of police violence against CUNY community members who were protesting peacefully at the public board of trustees public and budget hearing at Baruch College on November 21, 2011. We also reject the official statement released by the administration of the City University of New York regarding those events," the statement read.

Both students and faculty are calling for accountability, however the CUNY administration's official stance on the matter is that no wrongdoing occurred.

Two NYPD officers standing behind the front line. They are both ranked sergeant or higher, as indicated by their hats.  Photo by John Bolger

John Mckee, Director of Public Safety at City College, lowers megaphone shortly after aborting a warning to the crowd mid-sentence.   Gabriel Eszterhas stands in the background.  Photo by John Bolger

Gabriel Eszterhas at head of struggle to seal the lobby entrance. Photo by John Bolger

This photograph shows three positively identified NYPD officers, two of which standing directly behind the surge frontline. There are two unconfirmed NYPD officers also in this photo, both potentially ranking sergeant or higher.  Photo by John Bolger
Updates: The Envoy conducted a follow-up in-depth video analysis of the protest: At least 25 NYPD officers were present in the lobby.

CUNY retained Kroll Inc. to investigate the Baruch protest, here is our analysis of the Kroll Report: NYPD Involvement Understated by Kroll, Chancellor Exempted for False Statements

More Kroll Report Analysis: The Myth of the Broken Windows