Lenina Nadal, interviewed December 27, 2008
Originally posted June 5, 2009 by slamherstory
Lenina Nadal, December 27, 2008
Lenina Nadal was a founding member of the CUNY Coalition Against the Cuts and SLAM. Having graduated in 1997, she returned in 2000 to help create SLAM’s organizer training institute. She is a filmmaker, playwright, and poet, and works for the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. Visit http://www.performingprofound.com
interviewed by Suzy Subways
Suzy: I was thinking about how SLAM started at Hunter and how the different clubs kind of created SLAM together, right? What’s the story of that? There was the Palestinian Club, the Black Student Union and, from the beginning, how did they come together and work in the CUNY Coalition and start SLAM?
Lenina: To be honest, I remember a couple of individuals, Chris Day being one of them, who did what Chris Day does, which is put something provocative on a flier and start stapling it around the entire campus. It was only a couple of individuals that said, “there’s something going on here.” At the time, I was working with the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), so we had our own campaign where we had began to tell students that tuition was going to be raised $1,000. So there was already publicity around campus saying that this is what’s going to happen. And then students started talking about this in classes. So even really before any particular clubs got involved, there was a lot of anxiety among the masses of students on campus, because $1,000 just seemed like a tremendous amount of money. However, I would say that there was one group, which was the Black Student Union, where you had members like Takala, a poet and activist, and Asha Bandele. So Asha Bandele and Takala at the time were in the leadership of the BSU, along with Kim Wade and a few other activists. And they were responsible for some of the major takeovers of the Hunter campus and other CUNY campuses in like 1990, 91. By the time 1995 rolled around, they were still in leadership, and while they didn’t play the central role anymore, they were continuing to raise consciousness among Black students on campus on these issues, and continuing to help the movement grow in their own way. And the other clubs that had a sort of political consciousness included the Palestinian Club and the Arab Club, which were very strongly affiliated, and right across the hall was the Puerto Rican Club, and that had some progressive membership that was kind of in and out. And I’d say those were the three that kind of solidified a people of color Left in terms of organizations on campus that were doing work.
But I would say that when it began, it was really a few students that said, “We’re going to do something about this. This is crazy.” And the only alternative that we were being offered was from NYPIRG, which was like, “Let’s go to our congresspeople, let’s go to our senators, let’s lobby, let’s see if we can change it from within.” But the frustration was already building up. And a lot of it was because working class students were feeling like their financial aid was going to be cut, their tuition was going to be increased, and this might be the last chance they had at a CUNY education. So the stakes were very. very high for all students. It was really a mass movement. It’s like most movements – the leadership can claim it, but they have to claim it after the masses have already said, “This is what we want.” Those of us who had been part of organizations or who grew up with leftist parents, we started to get to know each other and kind of see that we had something to offer to sustain a movement. In that sense, that’s how some of that leadership started to come together.
Suzy: Why did SLAM fight police brutality, prisons, and war, and not just work on strictly CUNY issues?
Lenina: SLAM grew out of an organization called the CUNY Coalition Against the Cuts. So there was definitely a focus on student issues. At the same time, there was this brutality going on in people’s communities, and the leadership from student clubs, the leadership from students in general wanted to prioritize those issues. And I think it wasn’t just local issues but also international issues. So the issue of Palestine, the issue of the navy occupation of Vieques, all of these things became things that people wanted to do work on. So you had to, as an organization, accommodate what the students wanted to work on that was radical, including the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, and political prisoners in general. So all of those things were things we took on because those were things that the base of students that was radicalized wanted to focus on. And just because I think that we had to distinguish ourselves from being a reformist movement around student issues. How were we different from NYPIRG, or there were groups that focused on teaching people skills in organizing, there was a group called GROW, there was another group called STAND that worked on student issues. So how were we different? And I would say the way that we were different was that we connected the issues of not being able to have access to education to the fact that there was also this repression and brutality within our communities. We tried to as much as possible draw these connections, and with that, to say “this is not just happening here, this is happening internationally, and how are all of these things connected? What kind of analysis do we have to have? A local and global analysis that will lead us to become better people, better revolutionaries. And in a way, that’s how we defined ourselves, or how we tried to become revolutionaries – by distinguishing ourselves in that way. How effective that was, we could argue about that. But I think that was really the intention.
Suzy: I was thinking about how once we lost open admissions, we were trying to come at it from two ways – we were trying to organize high school students to fight for access, but then it was also – I felt like when we were fighting police brutality, we were addressing the issues that were faced by people who would’ve gone to CUNY if they could’ve, and instead were stuck in these really violent situations of oppression. It was almost like we were serving our base, even the part of our base that was no longer allowed to go to CUNY. I felt very proud of that, because we weren’t just like “well, they’re not here anymore, it doesn’t matter.” I felt like SLAM was really so connected to the communities.
Lenina: I think that what was strong was that there were certain things that were carried on in SLAM. SLAM lasted, I would say, four generations. Four different groups of students were able to come into SLAM. Every year, you had new leadership because we were in student government, so we were in this institution, but at the same time it was an institution that had to be transient because people were graduating and moving on with their lives. And so certain values had to be maintained, and I think that was definitely one that was maintained. Because even as you look at the last group of people that were part of SLAM, they were still talking about police brutality issues, they were still making those connections and saying, “We can’t forget this. We can’t forget what’s going on in our own neighborhoods, and we have to pray for those people as much as we have to try to get into college, and we have to protest the Board of Trustees as well. That was really amazing for me to see that a radical movement can be sustained if it’s fed and if certain values are kept. And in a sense, it becomes almost like a culture. Instead of just a political organization, it was like “This is our culture. This is what we’re passing down.” So that’s pretty strong.
Suzy: I felt like people brought in traditions of resistance that helped build that culture. And I felt like it was one of the ways we fought the ideology, because there was all this like the Manhattan Institute, and they were arguing this Bell Curve ideology trying to keep people of color out of higher education with this racist ideology. And I felt like having a culture of resistance that defied that and was like, “No, there are so many cultures here, and you can learn so much from them.”
Lenina: I think one thing that was really interesting was that we did have such a diverse group of people there, and I think people learned about who they were when they were there. So a lot of people came out, in the years they were in SLAM, and then started to really engage in queer political theory and bring that into the organization and challenge people in the organization around that. We had activists like Peuo [Tuy], who’s Cambodian, and she began to really look into her personal situation. She’d never really analyzed that before, that basically, she needed to be – she was taken out of Cambodia during a very repressive time, and brought to the U.S. Her whole family was, and that’s basically what rescued her family. She was discovering, well, what are all those relationships? What’s the repression in Cambodia have to do with U.S. foreign policy, and how are all of these relationships connected and made? Or even John Kim, how he began to study Korean history. I’m sure he knew a lot of that before, because John likes to study a lot! But he also brought that to the organization, and I think he taught us a lot about – John’s not Chinese, but he taught us a lot about how China during Mao used pop culture and created a cultural resistance. He was saying, how can we have our cultural resistance, like embracing things like salsa, and different types of food, and even like vegan culture and punk culture – how are all these things part of our culture of resistance? In a sense, that’s what helped to feed Mao’s revolution, and that was going to help feed our revolution. So there were so many ways that people began to discover who they were. I think definitely the Puerto Rican students, because we had a department of Puerto Rican Studies, and Black students, we had access to these institutions that were created in the 60s and 70s, also by young people like ourselves who were revolutionaries, who wanted to see themselves in the history books, and all of a sudden we’re benefiting from that. And that’s transforming us as we’re participating very directly in a political process. So all of those things coming together created a very sensual space, and I think it was rare, because it wasn’t really so much a clash of cultures as a sort of joint discovery and understanding, and also dealing with questions of whiteness, and what does that mean? And how do white people participate within a movement when people of color and lower income folks, etc. have been isolated, and women have been isolated from leadership positions? How do we deal with all of that? I think we really struggled with that on a hardcore level, to the point of people walking out of the room. And then dealing with other things, like people being very nationalistic or very Afrocentric and creating barriers around that too. And we had to figure that stuff out too.
Suzy: I was going to ask about being a white person in SLAM. People were challenged in such a loving way that I’m in awe of it when I think about it now. The only thing I feel like that was a little weird, but I don’t know how we could have done it differently, we really needed to not let new white people join, or we needed a balance, and I think some of us really thought we were the good white people and there were these other white people, and we were like “Fuck them!” That’s something I would recommend people do differently, but I could probably put that in a different article. Most of the readers of this journal are white people, so I was thinking maybe people could comment on that. They have articles about like, what are the roles of white people doing solidarity with people of color’s struggles? Is the role of a white person to just do tasks like childcare and washing dishes? Maybe that is a good thing for people to do, just to just step back. There’s also this thing of white people should organize white communities in solidarity.
Lenina: Well it’s funny, because a lot of what I see now, I work at the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, and we don’t allow – it’s not just about not really allowing white people, but we’re in a majority people of color community, mostly Latino. So we want to make sure that’s the face of the organization. What we used to do in SLAM is sort of a model of what’s being done in a lot of these nonprofit organizations now that do social justice work, which is you really create spaces for people of color to be at the forefront in terms of their voice. Teaching people public speaking skills, writing skills, documenting skills. Skills where people of color and low-income folks will be able to use their voice more, be able to give feedback more, and therefore they’re a little bit encouraged to be in those positions. Some of them might not feel comfortable in those roles, and that’s okay too. The other day, I was working with a woman who’s a cleaning woman at our agency, and I asked her if she could help me make a few copies, and she had never used a copy machine before. There’s different steps people need to take to get there. But I think white people who have had some level of privilege, who are good writers or good speakers, or have had a good education, I think their role is really to be a trainer, a teacher, etc. And they can continue to write also, because they have access to audiences that will want to read what they have to say and what their stories are. I don’t think one thing cancels out the other. If you’re teaching someone how to be a writer, but you’re also writing yourself, that empowers that person you’re teaching even more, because they feel like, “Oh wow, I’m being taught by someone who really does this stuff, and who takes it seriously, not someone who’s going to sort of tell me to do it, and I don’t really know what their role is in this society.” So I don’t think it’s about denying oneself any of those things. But it is about recognizing that there is a certain level of privilege, so therefore you have to see if you can play any role in helping somebody else out who doesn’t have access to – or is afraid, for whatever reason, that what they have to say or how they’ll say something won’t be accepted, just because historically it hasn’t been.
Suzy: Why and how did SLAM become a women of color led organization?
Lenina: I don’t know if I’m the best person to answer that, because I had been involved in SLAM and then I left when I graduated in 1997 and then I came back 3 years later to work in SLAM at the Student Resource Center. When I left, there was no discussion of like women of color in leadership to any great extent. When I came back, there was a lot of this kind of PR, there were articles and funders that were identifying us as a women of color led organization. So there was something happening there that I wasn’t really privy to. I think people like Kai Lumumba Barrow and Rachél LaForest and Sandra Barros began to raise concern over that issue in particular and wanting there to be a lot more focus on empowering women of color to be in the top leadership positions, because it seemed like as SLAM was moving forward, a lot of people kept identifying a couple of white guys as sort of the puppeteers behind the project, and that was beginning to feel as if it was undermining the fact that there was a lot of women of color that were really making things happen and really moving forward the agenda of SLAM. So there was an effort to begin to identify the organization in that way.
Suzy: I forgot to ask you what years you were involved. How many years were you involved when you came back?
Lenina: About two and a half years.
Suzy: Which campaigns and projects did you work on?
Lenina: When I was a student, I was elected in a position, I was the student affairs commissioner. What I did in that role was work a lot with the student clubs, and I created a group called the club council, which I think they kept and they still have. It was an autonomous body where the student clubs would have to meet once a month and have a forum for like, we would give them updates on what we were doing as student government, and they would tell each other what they were doing in terms of the clubs, and make announcements. So it was about building community and understanding that the clubs really were your constituency. So I was functioning very much like a politician in that sense. The clubs are the ones that are going to vote, they’re the ones that care and really have an investment in this, because they receive money from student government.
And then in terms of demonstrations, I did a lot of support work. I would do security, things like that. I was sort of overall involved in everything at that time. It was just about what was going on at the time, so if it was the case around Anthony Baez, or the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, or, you know, dealing with another set of student cuts, I’d just figure out what my role was gonna be.
When I came back, I worked in the resource center, and I was focused on media at the time, so I created workshops for students where they could learn different skills and programs like PhotoShop and Final Cut Pro, and a couple of students who did media work, Peter Chung and a couple of other folks, we decided to make some PR for SLAM, so we decided to make some music videos, and stuff like that, that we would use for cultural events like poetry readings. In 2001, September 11th happened, so we all were raising a lot of consciousness around like, why was this happening, and what did U.S. imperialism mean, so we did a lot of forums, we did a lot of poetry readings. And then we started an organizing group. We used the SOUL curriculum, and we recruited about 25 students a semester, and we would teach them different organizing skills. [INSERTED March 12, 2009: Organizing skills like campaign development and power analysis, public speaking skills (soap box), press relations and messaging, graphic design and web design, and we also had political education where we engaged in defining imperialism, patriarchy, capitalism.] And we would also go through some political education, and that was both current events and also older texts. God, we did a lot of stuff! And we also had some workshops that were based on media, like websites that were very progressive or doing very interesting things to mobilize people, or filmmakers that were documenting movements within communities. We would do some film showings and discussions, or we’d have the filmmakers come and talk about what it meant to be a radical filmmaker. I think because we were beginning to see ourselves more as an institution, we were thinking about how do we treat people, you know? And we had the high school organizing program, so they had a video and editing instructor. And at the time, the young people were looking into the Anthony Baez case, so they did a short documentary about that.
Suzy: I wish I could get ahold of that…
Lenina: They’re in an archive somewhere, we have a lot of video stuff.
Suzy: Do you think it could have gone to the Tamiment Archives?
Lenina: It could have. Through the high school organizing program, and I think you were part of that, the creative writing workshop. I helped out with the video part.
Suzy: I forgot that you were away during that time. That was the open admissions struggle.
Lenina: Yeah, that was the last few years of open admissions.
Suzy: What role do you think SLAM’s militance played in our revolutionary politics? We were like, it was connected to where our hearts were at, like, “This is bullshit, we’re not gonna take it.”
Lenina: I really believe that we were of the sentiment that we had to find the most revolutionary way to react. And that was being more militant, at a time when, I think, we’ve been more and more encouraged, this society is constantly encouraged to choose comfort, to choose being passive, to choose doing things without doing anything, do you know what I mean? Oh, you can vote by pressing “A” on your remote control. You don’t even have to leave your house to participate anymore, practically. Is it something that’s also inside of you, like, this feels good? Yes, of course it feels good. Because you’re really connecting, and you’re really doing like you said, what’s in your heart, despite whatever the state says. You know it’s wrong that you’re marching for someone to remove their troops from your place on the earth, or a war that’s completely unjust and none of the American people support, and then there’s like a cop on a horse pushing you out of the way or telling you you can’t go somewhere, and it just doesn’t make any sense. You’re just like, “This is such bullshit.” And then you had a supportive community around that. So why not take over a bridge?
I think it’s funny because a lot of younger people are like, “I wish I was around when SLAM was around, and I wish I could have been there.” I don’t know, but I feel like we used to say that about the Young Lords, and the Young Lords probably said that about somebody else. So just do the best you can, you know? And the reality is that since our time, repression has increased. There is a Patriot Act. There are certain things that have passed that have scared people more than they’ve ever been scared. There was the attack on those damn Twin Towers. There was all these things that have happened since we did that kind of protest, so there is a little bit more fear in the society, though I don’t put it past anyone in this country to keep taking those risks. I mean, they are now in Chicago, in Greece, in Thailand. People still feel like, this is the way to get my voice heard and to change things. I hope it keeps happening.
Suzy: I was thinking about how when people were beaten up in the winter of 1995, right in the beginning of that time, people said it really radicalized them. It was at Hunter, on Lexington Avenue.
Lenina: We have footage of that somewhere. You should speak to Tami Gold.
Suzy: Do you think that radicalized a lot of people, getting beaten by the police or seeing their friends or comrades beaten by the police? We also had a lot of red diaper babies, so maybe they didn’t need to be radicalized like that.
Lenina: I think people had different reactions to that. I guess because I have that sort of privileged position of being a red diaper baby, so when I would see stuff like that, I would feel almost disempowered by it, like, “Oh my god, somebody’s getting beaten up – that’s so F’ed up!” I would feel sad. Other people might feel more excited about that or radicalized.
Suzy: You had a more logical reaction, whereas for me, coming from a conservative background, I’m like, “Oh my god, now’s the time, the state really is evil, everything I thought was wrong!”
What were some of the ways that SLAM becoming student government at Hunter made your organizing work harder or helped your organizing work?
Lenina: I think you’re hitting at the core of the nonprofit industrial complex. Any time anything becomes institutionalized, it loses a certain amount of energy and enthusiasm. And it becomes something else. I’ll start with the positive. The way that becoming student government helped our work was that all of a sudden we had money and we had power within the structure of our college. So we had access to all kinds of laws, CUNY by-laws, and understanding when all these important meetings were going to happen when real decisions were going to be made for students. When the United Student Senate was meeting, or when the Board of Trustees was going to meet, or when the Hunter Senate was going to meet. These bodies where important decisions were going to be made – whether tuition would be raised, whether open admissions would no longer be available to students, etc. We knew when those things were going to happen, so we didn’t have to do a whole lot of guesswork. We received all this information in memos. Most student governments would be like, let’s go to my meeting and just sit there and have my biscuits and tea, and just go along with whatever the administrators say. And we would raise hell in all of those meetings. So it was a different level of respect.
It’s funny, I always compare it to like running a small country – like, running Cuba or running Nicaragua. You’re put in a different place in the world, where all of a sudden you’re no longer this outside guerrilla. You’re part of a leadership that has a responsibility to a constituency and to other leaders in other parts of the world, institution, etc. It was similar in that way. And then the resources we had – unlimited copies, unlimited paper, anything we needed to organize, basically, we could purchase with student government funds as long as we put it on the books that this is what we were buying. Every so often they tried to tell us that that wasn’t in the students’ – we used to get in big arguments about whether bullhorns were in the students’ interest. And we would argue, “Yes, they are in the students’ interest, and any student can borrow the damn bullhorn for whatever reason they need it for. If they want to say, ‘Listen to Z100,’ they can do that.” But yeah, bullhorns, walkie-talkies, things we needed for rallies, for security, we would get into arguments, but most of the time we would win and we would get those resources. Plus, several organizations that right now are institutionalized, like Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) and the Taxi Workers’ Alliance, there was a whole bunch of people doing work around police brutality, and they could just freely come in and use all of our services. They could use our copy machine, they could use our space, our computers, our web access. When they didn’t have any space, they weren’t funded at the time, there was nobody in the city giving them money so they could find their own space, they would use our space. The Kilombo Collective, a teachers’ group, several anarchist groups, and we know how they are about space and money! So they got to take advantage of that. So we were helping a lot of organizations in the city just stay afloat and do what they needed to do. Hunter was becoming a real hub for organizing work, not just for ourselves, but in the city.
As time went by, we became more and more a threat to the administration, and I know for a fact from inside sources we had, that we were a top priority of what needed to be gotten rid of, in terms of the Board of Trustees. There were very explicit conversations just about our organization, and how they needed to get rid of us because of all the stuff that was going on. We were a very unique institution in that sense, because we were not a nonprofit, we were a student government, and it’s not the role of what a student government is supposed to be at all, you know? And we weren’t like a student government that was a little bit progressive, like “Let’s get people to vote for Democrats.” No, we took very strong stances on Palestine, in a city where, to be honest, that’s a very marginal position and would get us into a lot of trouble. But it was that important to us, and taking a stance on police brutality was very important to us, and we didn’t give a shit. If it was going to mean losing student government, then F-it, you know? Which we eventually did lose. But then on the other hand, as all these other things were growing in the city, I think the CUNY movement was dying. Because Hunter all of a sudden had money and resources and power, and we weren’t at the same level as students at City College, or at Hostos [Community College], or at Lehman [College], or other colleges that we were allied with when we had the CUNY Coalition Against the Cuts. We had SLAM, and we kept trying to build it, but it just wasn’t really working. A lot of the people who were working and getting a paid salary in SLAM didn’t want to do student work. So here we are in a college, serving students, and people didn’t want to work on student issues. People don’t want to work on tuition, they want to work on international issues, or issues in their communities, like police brutality. So that became increasingly hard because, in the end, we were an institution, and we were getting money from students. It wasn’t too hard for the administration to tell the students, “These people aren’t really serving you. They’re serving this whole city, but they’re not really serving you.” So that’s the problem when you get money from any particular source, is that you’re beholden to that source of funding. And when you stop being beholden to it, and you stop seeing your responsibility to it, it has repercussions.
Suzy: Do you think the student body was changing?
Lenina: Yeah, the student body was changing. In terms of the end of open admissions, you began to see more and more students from other parts of the world, you began to see more students in these honors programs that were being cultivated by the administration, and they had a particular way of looking at politics. And more middle-class students. White middle class, middle class people of color, that were easily persuaded to the fact that we were a little too radical.
And I think also when you have a job, you say, “This is my job. I want to go home, I want to clock out.” So it becomes difficult, because it’s no longer really a movement for you, it’s your 9 to 5. So you’re not as much of a missionary or anything around it, you’re just kind of like, “I’m here, I’m doing what I have to do, and then I’m out.” And it also allows you to almost get sick of it, like any job. With anything, you start getting a little less committed. And people see that. And it’s funny because when I see like, how for instance, small businesses are encouraged to function, it’s like you have to constantly make the people who work there feel a sense of the team and a commitment to the cause, and I feel like we didn’t really do that, because we didn’t know how. So we were functioning the way I guess you would in a grassroots movement, where it’s like, “You know what? You’re not holding up your end of the stick here, what’s wrong with you?” as opposed to “Let’s go back to our mission, let’s go back to our values, and how are we really connecting ourselves to that?” What were we really doing to heal ourselves, to reinvigorate ourselves, to keep ourselves excited and to be engaged and understand why this was so important? When you don’t have that on a very consistent basis, it’s difficult. Especially when you have a whole movement that’s pushing – you have an administration that was connected to [New York City mayor] Giuliani and some of the higher-level leadership in the city, and they’re mobilizing against you, and you’re doing your darnedest to stay in there, but you’re not as unified, you don’t have as strong a connection to the body that was initially so all about you being there.
Suzy: Was there like a Red Squad?
Lenina: The Little Red Study Group?
Suzy: Well, that, I would love to ask you about! I was talking about the NYPD targeting… but please talk about the Little Red Study Group, if you want, and STORM.
Lenina: You’d have to ask Sandra about STORM, because I didn’t have as close a connection to the STORM people. When STORM came around, I was working in Sunset Park [a Latino neighborhood in Brooklyn] in a community organization. But I think what people saw in STORM was, “They’re us, in the Bay Area, in California.” There was that kind of identification and connection, and the same goals around women of color led organization. The same type of background, the same type of process. With the Little Red Study Group, that was bringing together a group of radical teachers, community activists and organizers – I was at that time more of a community activist – people who worked in more administrative roles in nonprofits and wanted to have a more radical nonprofit space, so we all came together and decided that we were going to begin to study Marxism seriously. And we looked into issues of – it was a little bit disorganized, I suppose, because it was like, a little bit of queer theory, a little bit of feminism, and we could kind of organize it any which way we wanted to. We studied a lot of Mao at the time. And I would say that it kept a really good core group of people that now has evolved into this group called the New York Study Group, which includes former members of STORM. And that group has actually carried a lot of those values about people of color leadership on the Left, especially amongst Marxist spaces. They had a really amazing conference last summer where about 250 people came. And it was very diverse, I think it was the most diverse Marxist thing I’ve ever seen in my life, and they were just really tackling a lot of these issues around race, gender, and class. I think a lot of that came out of SLAM and STORM’s core values.
Suzy: …I think SLAM was very successful in movement building and leadership development, but not so successful at winning things….
Suzy: I’ve been in a lot of groups where people are not nurtured as leaders, and people either have to just fight for it or just stay really quiet. I felt like we were really good at making our demonstrations fun and exciting and having cultural – and it wasn’t like we were just going through the motions, it was like a real event where we were expressing our actual emotions about what we were protesting. Some of the groups I’ve been in since are more focused on winning immediate victories, and I feel like they take a lot of shortcuts, like not doing leadership development. Or having actions where you feel like you’re going through the motions, but they win things. They actually identify which politician can get us this little piece of what we want, so we’re going to demand this little piece of what we want, rather than having an overall vision of the world we want to live in. It’s like, the winnable goal, or whatever. If you win, it actually benefits people. Do you think it has to be one or the other? Do you think that’s true about SLAM, that we didn’t win anything?
Lenina: [In a funny voice, laughing] We lost everything, but we had a great time!
Suzy: But we built a movement, and people’s transformation that we all experienced. Maybe I’m not remembering something that we won.
Lenina: We won a couple of little things, like we won a couple of years that – they wanted to institute this student ID card, which they have now. You go into the library, you have to scan your card. It’s like a Metrocard [the cards New York City Transit Authority sells to ride the subway or bus]. I think eventually, it’s going to be your Metrocard, your bank card, and your student ID card. I’m not sure what it is right now, but I know that you need it for everything on that campus. If you want copies, you have to use that card. If you want to scan yourself into the library, take books out, you have to use the card. We were very against that, because we knew that was going to lead to increased surveillance of students. Basically, if you have a card that is like your Metrocard/student ID, that means I can track wherever you are at any time. We were able to postpone that happening for at least five, six years.
Another victory – I remember a few of them. We increased student hours at the library. The library used to only be open until like 7 or 8pm. We were able to get the library to be open until 11pm, and I think even later during finals. That was something that we concretely won for students. So we didn’t lose all the time [laughing]. We actually were able to get a few things done, in that more reformist sense. I’m sure people can name things, also, if you consider some of the citywide protests and things we participated in, there were probably some reforms that came through because of those things as well.
And even in terms of CUNY, they raised tuition, but they didn’t raise it the full amount. Instead of $1,000 [in 1995] they raised it $700. Of course, the reformist groups took a lot of credit for that.
Suzy: Of course they did. It wasn’t those 20,000 young people fighting the police at City Hall….
Lenina: Yeah, exactly, it wasn’t the idea of 20,000 young people showing up out of nowhere, really, running around Wall Street – nah, that had nothing to do with it. And at that time, I remember, they didn’t cut, like financial aid as much. They reinstated SEEK [an academic support program at CUNY’s 4-year colleges for students who otherwise might not be able to attend college due to their educational and financial circumstances]. They wanted to cut all these programs. What initially was being proposed to be cut and what was actually cut was a lot less than what it would have been had it not been for those movements and that show of force by the students.
But our vision was so much larger. We wanted to see a school where we didn’t have to pay tuition, period. We really believed that that could happen. We really wanted to know, what would it take to transform the system of capitalism in the United States so that it was more equitable for people. We really wanted to answer those questions. And we acted upon it, I think, the best way we could. We attracted a lot of artists, and that’s why. We had a lot of artists in leadership. In a way, a lot of times, people would say, “You can’t be an artist and be a revolutionary,” but they were themselves artists. So what are you talking about? Or, you have to use all your art for this purpose. And not acknowledging that that was giving so much life to what we did, because we gave so much of our artistic selves to this movement. And because we were creative, we kept attracting creative people, in theater, in film, in painting, etc. So we always had the latest and coolest way of doing things. That was also a cultural thing, that was part of who we were. I think we would get a little upset if there was a flier that wasn’t fly enough. It was like, “Ugh, this font is all wrong! This graphic is completely not what we’re trying to say. Send it back! Come up with something better. No clip art!” I don’t think we really ever said to each other, “we’re really good artists,” we just were. And some of us became famous, too.
Suzy: Dead Prez and Mos Def were always doing shows for SLAM. How did people know them?
Lenina: I think Rachél knew Mos Def through school or something. She knew like every rapper ever.
Suzy: I have to ask her.
Lenina: And also because we were affiliated with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. And I think the first Black August was done with SLAM, and now it’s become a real tradition for MXG. But that first major concert we had with Mos Def, where we raised money for Mumia Abu-Jamal, that was with SLAM.
Suzy: That was huge. That was amazing. I remember there were 2,000 people there, and I remember Rachél getting on the mic and she looked so teeny, because there were so many people there. Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
Lenina: I think it’s important to just make sure that there’s different – it’s almost like a timeline, like there’s people who can take different parts of the timeline.
We were very visionary to embrace the idea of the cultural revolution, and we weren’t just about the idea of the economic revolution and the political revolution. When we saw things being presented, we understood that it wasn’t just about the message, it was also about the way we delivered that message. It wasn’t just about these capitalist pigs, and socialism was the answer, it was about how the hell does that relate to hip-hop? How the hell does that relate to the coolest haircut out there, or whatever it is. We understood that that was equally important. That was really visionary because, I would say more and more as I’ve gotten older, in my thirties, I see that more of these battles, the battle of leftists and progressives are being almost completely fought over the internet, over Youtube, over Facebook. More and more, it is about presentation. It is about what’s packaging the message, which is what an artist does, right? An artist takes a message and creates almost like a metaphor for that. And brings it to you in a way that you understand it. That’s what poetry was for us. It’s like, we’re going to take this boring message, something you’d read in a newspaper, and present it in a way that you can understand this like something that happened to your mom or could happen to your best friend, and make it that personal and that real for you. And that this is about love and kindness and getting excited, and it’s not just about a new, different type of order in this society. So I think that there was definitely an element there that we were all artists, and because of that we understood why that was important.
You talked about that demonstration we had [where Hunter students were beaten by police in 1995], and it was one of the first spontaneous takeovers of a street that we had done. We knew that the tuition was going to be raised – this was in 1995. And there was a speakout that was organized. A whole bunch of clubs got together and organized this speakout. And it was also with some of the professors, like Professor Ewan (sp?), he was a media professor, he was involved in that. So the media students created all of these tombs, and each tomb said something about the death of open admissions, the death of democracy, the death of freedom and free speech. So these tombs were like a physical representation of all the values in our society that we felt were dying. And then out of nowhere, a group of like five theater students were marching around, and also wearing veils and they were all in black, and they had a drum, and they were saying, “Death to CUNY!” “Death to students!” and this kind of thing. And what happened was, those students – at the very beginning, talk about art leading a movement – they were the ones that marched into the street. And it was those five or six students that marched into the street, and everyone went rushing into the street after them to, in a sense, protect them and give them support. Because here they were, holding up Lexington Avenue, a huge freaking street, major traffic. And we were able to hold that street, because we had about 200 or 300 students there, plus the way the architecture of Hunter is, you can see everything from anywhere in the school, pretty much, like if you’re on the bridge. So a lot of students could watch and see what was going on and rush down to join the demonstration. And those that weren’t just kept looking on. And then the police came later on. But from the very beginning, it was theater, it was art, you know, so I think that we’ll never forget. That was just a continuous part, the blood of the movement.
I thought another interesting question you asked was about all of our different backgrounds, and what we were learning, and I think that was also a cultural aspect too.
Suzy: I was thinking about that a lot at the CUNY Social Forum. It reminded me of the decolonization of the mind, and how the relationship between the university and the community was like it provided a place for that to happen, and to bring that back to the community. That transformation, together and within one’s self, is so priceless, and I feel like SLAM really got that. And to have that be happening within people from so many different cultures and countries is pretty amazing. We were fighting for ethnic studies too, because of that. We were like, we need this, it’s just as important, or more important than just studying a trade. They wanted to take it away from us because it was threatening to the status quo for people to be studying that. And I remember that being explained to me. I remember Chris and Jed doing a lot of explaining of stuff to me, because I went to a private college. I went to Antioch for 2 years, then I went to the New School, which I loved. And Chris was like, “You have to transfer to CUNY,” and I was like, “I don’t want to do it.” And then I was like, okay, actually I really do want to do it. And I did, but it’s so bizarre how these things happen. They really explained to me how important those things were. Maybe I understood already, but I just remember that discussion when some Trotskyite groups were like, we should fight for the nursing program, because they were going to cut ethnic studies and nursing and all these things at the same time, and we had to figure out which thing to work on, or if we could work on all of them, and the Trostkyists were like, we have to just work on nursing, because that’s working class. I guess we kind of fought for all of them, didn’t we? I’m thinking back to ’95. And I couldn’t believe it when I was up at City College a few months ago, African American Studies is not a department there anymore.
Lenina: Yeah, a lot of those programs have been downsized.
Suzy: I see it as an attack on the movement.
Lenina: My parents were involved in the struggle at Brooklyn College for Puerto Rican Studies. And Puerto Rican Studies is actually still Puerto Rican Studies, and they have a department. I admire them for that, because I was involved in the student movement and I left. I was like, OK, next thing, I’ve gotta move on. But my father – he’s stayed at Brooklyn College the whole time, and he’s almost like a griot at this point, someone who holds that whole history. And every single adjunct that comes in, he says, “Let me tell you what this department is about and what it is that you – this is why you’re teaching here. This department comes out of a struggle, so when you’re teaching, you have to keep that in mind. You’re on a mission here, to continue encouraging students to struggle and fight for their rights.” So I feel like that’s part of the reason why that department has been able to survive, but a lot of the other departments, you know, the professors, again, just saw it as a job, and they forget that, like, this is your job, but where does it really come from? What is the history behind your “job”?
Again, culture, values, all these things are so important to be passed down. Even if you’re not there, how are you making sure that people understand the significance? Kids go to schools that have names, like this is named after [Puerto Rican independence fighter Pedro] Albizu Campos, or [democratic socialist] Norman Thomas, and they don’t know who these people are. And that might actually affect your education in a serious way. [Educational reformer] John Dewey, or all these people that made an impact on society because they were radicals.
Suzy: That’s a really good answer to the nonprofit industrial complex. INCITE talks about this in the domestic violence movement, people doing it like a job and it’s not a movement anymore. What if they did like you’re saying and talked about the culture of resistance that it came out of, and their vision of transforming society, and ending domestic violence?
Lenina: It’s funny how we become alienated from history. Because we’ll still study the history of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, we’ll study history in movements, but sometimes we don’t study the very immediate history of our movement, of our organization.
Suzy: Even with this library struggle in Philly, what I didn’t realize is that some of those libraries, the communities fought for those libraries. It’s just like frigging open admissions, they fought for it and we’re losing it, we’re fighting to keep them. I didn’t know there was a movement to get that library, I didn’t know that history. So systematically reminding ourselves of our values and vision. That’s a good focus for the article.
Lenina: Where are you going to end it, though? Does it end at the end, does it end where we all kind of left the thing and were like, “That’s it! We can’t do anything else!” It’s tough. I feel like the end of student government, of having that base in student government – we were there for eight years and then we lost that base. So we tried to have an advisory council and keep things going, but I think there wasn’t enough of a shared vision on who should be the leadership of a renewed, grassroots organization. And so nobody really wanted to be the leadership anymore. And so that became very difficult, because in many ways, I think many of us are still waiting, or looking for that core group. We still share so many of those visions, we still carry that everywhere we go, you know? No matter what we do. I was talking to somebody today, I was saying, you know, wherever we go, we’re rabble-rousers, we push things. We get ourselves in leadership positions where we have a voice and we can move forward whatever organizations we’re in, or publications we work for, or whatever it is. But we still haven’t figured out how to coalesce again, I guess. But then again, it’s okay, like, a plant dies, anything dies, it’s okay. And new things get born.
Suzy: When I saw people from SLAM at the U.S. Social Forum, I was just astounded looking around, like people were doing such different things, but all really amazing things. Maybe that’s what the movement needed, the gift that we can all bring to these various movements. I brought everything I learned in SLAM to the AIDS movement. I don’t know if I’ve been able to… Sometimes I worry that I was so spoiled by having such a great group, and I can’t get inspired. I don’t work with ACT UP. And ACT UP Philly is a great organization, but there are a lot of problems in it. I’ve tried to change those things, but I realized that I couldn’t, and I left. I’m really good friends with a lot of people in ACT UP and I do support stuff for them, and they know what my critiques are, and in some ways I’ve been able to support the efforts of some people to challenge some of these things, but I just don’t want to work with that group, and it breaks my heart, because I feel like I should be, but I can’t bring my politics into it. Their politics are definitely just reformist. Maybe that’s why I can’t get inspired. They define their demands based on what they think they can win, and I can’t, like, I can’t do it.
Lenina: I think that ties into this whole cultural question, because we were more focused on changing the way people think, right? And I think we really did that more so than winning a particular goal, which doesn’t necessarily change what you think. Just because I win a new school in the neighborhood or whatever, I’m glad for that, but it may or may not radicalize me. Maybe I’ll gain some skills, but it may or may not make me think about how exploitative capitalism is as a system and if I really have any real power fighting against that. Or is there another way to think about how we deal with media and its effect on us, and our effect on it? I feel like some of the most amazing, transformative experiences are experiences where you lose. I would even say that some of the globalization movement, when the anti-globalization movement, I guess, right? Some of those protests, like against the RNC, that was so deeply transformative in terms of like, wow, we could actually build sectors of society with just who we have. We could build a little media sector and a little law sector, and a little sector of doctors, and we could really make this happen on our own. And we didn’t win crap in that, you know? So maybe it is up to the reformists to win things, and for us to engage in those and be supportive of them winning small gains, but to be focused more on changing a culture. If a culture is all around comfort and luxury and consumerism and you’re able to change that, it just has a longer effect on people, you know?
Suzy: and not in a judgmental way, like, “You went to Starbucks!” or something, but on a really deep level of knowing yourself and what humanity is capable of, so much more. That’s amazing, I love that you’re linking all these things to culture, because I hadn’t thought of it that way. It’s a really good focus for my article.
Lenina: I feel like once you finish all the interviews, you’ll see where it needs to go. I think Rachél will be very interesting too, because she’s still organizing, very much so. In a very similar type of space, a union, which I think is like a student government, in a sense of like you have a base of members, and you don’t know every single one, but you’re responsible to them. You’re accountable to them.