Cuomo Protesters Met With Police Force

Photo courtesy of the Office of Communication and Marketing.
Photo courtesy of the Office of Communication and Marketing.
Photo courtesy of the Office of Communication and Marketing.

On Tuesday, Sept. 16, Gov. Andrew Cuomo spoke on campus to announce a $10 million award to SUNY New Paltz for the construction of a 20,000 square-foot “Engineering Innovation Hub” located close to Resnick Engineering Hall, which will focus and expand on the college’s 3D printing program.

The award came as part of the governor’s SUNY 2020 Challenge Grant, a competition where SUNY schools were tasked with developing and submitting an idea which combined education, job creation and regional economic development.

Campus officials learned of Cuomo’s potential visit Monday and it was only confirmed late Monday afternoon, SUNY New Paltz Media Relations Manager Melissa Kaczmarek said. Cuomo’s announcement was held in the Multipurpose Room (MPR) on the second floor of the Student Union building (SUB). The event was kept private – by invitation only – in order to maintain the integrity and security of the occasion, according to a campus-wide email from SUNY New Paltz President Donald Christian. A broader, campus-wide invitation would not have been possible, he said.

The second floor of the SUB was closed to students and faculty without an invitation and certain traffic areas surrounding the building, both vehicular and pedestrian, were restricted for the duration of the governor’s stay on campus, lasting from noon to 2 p.m. Sign postings and campus officials in and around the SUB did not detail the governor’s arrival as the reason for the closings.

Student activists made aware of Cuomo’s presence on campus organized a demonstration advocating the governor to ban hydro-fracking in New York, with the intention of posting outside the SUB Atrium where past demonstrations, including ones held during Cuomo’s previous visits to campus, have been held. Upon the demonstrators approach, a University Police Department (UPD) officer stationed outside the atrium informed the group — numbering about 10 individuals — that they were to move the protest to the front wall of the Samuel Dorsky Museum facing the SUB, to which they complied. Individual students were not stopped from entering the building.

“We thought that it was unfair that we couldn’t protest closer to the event, that we were placed out of sight, out of mind, so to speak. So I asked if everybody would like to walk forward past our ‘free speech zone’ and try to get closer. We agreed on that,” Julian Mostachetti, a member of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) present at the demonstration, said.

According to Mostachetti, the group walked forward and were stopped by the UPD officer who said they were to remain at the far wall. The students then asked if there were any other protest zones, as well as the reason they could not be in front of atrium as they had in past demonstrations.

In the exchange between the demonstrators and the officer, which was captured on a cellphone video and later posted to social media, the officer says “it’s in the student handbook” that the students cannot get closer. When his reasoning was challenged as false by the students, the video shows the officer — growing increasingly agitated — telling the group several times to move back, eventually unholstering and threatening the students with a canister of pepper spray.

“Well there’s about to be some pepper spray sprayed here in a second if you don’t move,” the officer says in the video. “I’m not making this stuff up. You can go in there for all I care and jump the governor. But move.”

When questioned further, the officer said that his order’s authority came on behalf of Student Association (SA).

“[The officer] said it was written in the SA constitution that we had to be 50 feet away. Being pretty intimate with the SA Constitution I told him that that is false and the Constitution makes no mention of protesting or being 50 feet away,” Nadia Ali-Rahi, a student senator at the demonstration said. “Coincidentally, I was also a student advocate last year and we work closely with the student handbook and it too does not say we have to be 50 feet away.”

The pepper spray was not used and the students returned to the designated protest area soon after. In an aside to Student Association President Osato Okundaye after the group had dispersed, the officer can be heard saying that he did not have an explanation, only that there is a designated protest area.

“This is what my orders are,” the officer says. “It’s not like I want to do this.”

Fernando Cintron, an intern and board of directors member for NYPIRG who was at the protest, said the group did not act hostile toward the officer or attempt get past him and that his threat of pepper spray was unjustified for the situation. Cintron said he and his fellow protesters felt that their right to demonstrate without interference, as per the Student Handbook, was infringed upon by the officer.

“The officer said he was just doing his job,” Cintron said. “But if your job is to pepper spray and arrest students that are peacefully protesting, then you should go back and read the Constitution.”

In a letter released on Wednesday, Sept. 24, addressing the incident, President Christian said administration acted on the request of Cuomo’s security detail to establish a wide perimeter around the SUB. He said administration has not typically restricted where students may demonstrate, but the governor’s visit was not a typical occasion.

“Because campus staff were managing many other last-minute details for the event, the students who sought to file a Facilities Use Form for the demonstration were unable to do so,” the letter said. “We have identified this procedural gap as one that we will fix in the future.  As a result, University Police were unaware of the intended demonstration, a contributing factor in the interaction between a police officer and student demonstrators that we wish could have been avoided.  If we had received more advanced notice of the event, we would have managed these dynamics differently.”

In regards to the officer’s threat of pepper spray against the students, Christian said that he would not second-guess the split-second decisions that an individual officer needs to make in a situation where he was not present.

Christian said the policy in the student handbook the demonstrators believed the officer violated, stating protests were not subject to interference, had an attached provision that stipulated certain disruptive conduct where a demonstration could be subject to interference.

“That policy (Rules for the Maintenance of Public Order, Document Number 3653) reads ‘peaceful picketing and other orderly demonstrations in public areas of campus grounds and buildings are not subject to interference provided there are no violations of the rules in section I.A. of this policy (emphasis added),’” Christian said. “Section I.A lists several forms of prohibited conduct including obstructing movement of people and vehicles, deliberately disrupting or preventing peaceful and orderly conduct of classes, lecture and meetings or deliberately disrupting or preventing another person from expressing his or her own views.  Such prohibited conduct might in some circumstances interfere with the regular conduct of college activities or the free speech rights of others. The bottom line is that both rights to free speech and the responsibility of campus officials to respect other institutional values and activities are stated in this policy.”

Christian said the administration believed that students were allowed to express their views in a public way, though not where they intended to.

The demonstrators did not agree.

“[Christian] talks about us violating a police request. Well, there are two categories of police statements, requests and orders. Orders are legal, requests are not. The word of a police officer is not the law. Police do not invent the law as they please,” Mostachetti said. “Although I was scared at the time, in retrospect this whole episode and its response feels absurd.”

Ali-Rahi felt similar.

“I personally am shocked that this happened and did not expect this at all,” she said. “Why did the cop need to be so confrontational? We were simply asking one question: where was the documentation that said we had to be so far back, in the ‘Free Speech Zone’ that was created?”