Nina Davis / Sun Photography Editor

April 27, 2024

WILSON | I Was Just Suspended by Cornell University. Here’s My Story.

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My name is Nick Wilson, I am a second-year undergraduate in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations and yesterday I was temporarily suspended from the University for participating in a nonviolent encampment on the Arts Quad. I was suspended alongside three other students, all of whom received the same five charges, which included “[leading] or repeat[ing] chants throughout the day.” As of today, we have been withdrawn from all of our current courses, for which we may not receive credit, and we are not permitted to be on our campus (pending an unspecified grace period). The University initially threatened to evict me from my home on campus — but after an overwhelming wave of solidarity from faculty, Cornell Graduate Students United and the public writ large, administration agreed to allow suspended students to stay in residence halls for the remainder of the semester. Cornell would like you to believe that CML organizers are outside agitators who hate this university and seek solely to disrupt the lives and academic careers of our peers. That’s not true — I am a member of this community who truly wants to stay here and see my institution meet its values. This is my side of the story.

The first protest I ever attended — the first real one, where I felt that our actions represented a meaningful threat to those in power — was in Chicago in May of 2021, after Israel’s violent raid on peaceful worshippers in Al-Aqsa mosque. Israeli forces had used tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades on worshippers inside the mosque during Ramadan, and protestors the world over responded by speaking up and taking action. While marching with hundreds of friends and neighbors, I noticed one man nearby wearing a keffiyeh and carrying his daughter on his shoulders who was leading us in chants with a powerful, booming voice. After around an hour, his voice began to falter and quiet, and without much thought I found myself taking his place, leading the crowd in chants when he was unable. Often I was chanting in Arabic (a language I did not understand), but nonetheless I found that I was able to keep the crowd alive by taking his place. It was the first time I truly realized that my voice had power — power that could amplify the voices of the silenced and build community with my peers fighting for justice.

I applied Early Decision to Cornell because I believed it was the best place for me to learn how I could most effectively use my voice to fight for justice. I am a socialist and a union organizer — I believe that the structural oppression of our status quo is impermanent, that a better world is possible and that only collective action by the working class can bring that world about. The ILR School was the best institution where I could deeply study labor history, organizing strategy and tactics and labor law as an undergraduate. I was thrilled when I got in, and clearly saw a place and future for myself in the Cornell community. I found my path as an organizer in my junior year of high school when my AP US History teacher assigned us American labor leader, socialist organizer and anti-war activist Eugene V. Debs’s ‘Statement to the Court.’ In defending himself against charges of disloyalty under the Espionage Act for giving an anti-war speech, Debs says “While there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Here, Debs espouses the fundamental principle of solidarity, that an injury to one is an injury to all — and that when people are hurting, it becomes a moral imperative for us all to contribute what we can to their liberation. It falls to those with enough strength, knowledge, energy or resources to spare to do what they can. In my case, I have used my voice.

At the CML-organized die-in in Klarman Hall this March, Cornell University Police Department officers repeatedly attempted to silence a member of our community giving a speech to hundreds of their peers. Though it initially seemed as though the rally would be forced to an end as the officers approached, our community suddenly did something beautiful. Chants began surging through the crowd of “let him speak” and “the more you try to silence us, the louder we will be.” Police approached the speaker several times, and each time the crowd filled the room with sound. Not only did they make it clear that our community was observing CUPD’s unjust actions, but this also made the room loud enough that the officers were unable to be heard to threaten or arrest the speaker. A similar moment occurred on the first night of our encampment on the Arts Quad. Administration threatened suspension and arrest to all students within the encampment past 8 p.m., so hordes of community supporters arrived before then to support us. In excess of 300 community members linked arms and formed three human chains surrounding the camp, making it clear that police could not make arrests or collect IDs for suspensions without forcibly pushing through them. No arrests or suspensions were made that night.

Cornell seems to have learned nothing from these events. Their decision to pick off four student organizers reflects a belief that the Coalition for Mutual Liberation represents the top-down efforts of a few activist students. This is not the case. Our movement is international, with university students of all stripes across the world standing for an end to genocide. For each of us silenced by Cornell, untold masses on this campus and others will be compelled to take our place in the encampments. Around the encampment, I have already met countless students who said they had never come to a protest or political action on campus before — our movement grows by the hour and each new participant is just as much a part of what we’re building as I am. I could not be more confident in the capacity of my peers — who are immensely talented, principled and brave — to pick up the slack in my absence. This administration does not understand the massive swell of support virtually guaranteed in the wake of our suspensions.

I think all young people have at some point imagined what we might do if our government were to carry out a genocide. Looking back on the past, we hope to see a sliver of ourselves in the militant few who fought tooth and nail to end historical atrocities. But it is far easier to be anti-genocide when the bodies are cold, the blood is dry and an entire people, culture and history have already been eradicated. Bureaucratic institutions like Cornell have always told student organizers that we are naive, and that real change requires slow adherence to established systems and processes. But with each passing day, more innocent civilians in Gaza are killed or starve to death; more families are wrested from their homes and communities with no warning and no safe destination to leave for; more homes are destroyed, some with unmanned D-19 bulldozers produced by Cornell’s proud corporate partner Technion. It is incumbent upon all of us to take direct action to end the genocide in Gaza immediately, through the most effective means available to us. For Cornell students, that means fighting for divestment from weapons manufacturers arming the Israeli military, and it means fighting for an end to Cornell’s partnership with Technion, through which our University directly facilitates research and development of advanced weapons systems used by the Israeli military.

In an odd way, my suspension from the University I once truly loved gives me hope. Institutions like Cornell do not engage in conduct this severe and disorganized — arbitrarily selecting a handful of students for suspension on unclear and baseless charges — unless they truly fear our movement may succeed. The fight for divestment is the cause of humanity, and your classmates, friends and professors are currently in the Liberated Zone on the Arts Quad putting their bodies on the line for that cause. I am blessed to be surrounded by a warm and loving community, and have received countless messages from friends offering their homes, resources and emotional support. Though I am eternally grateful for them, when students ask how they can support me my answer will always remain the same — join your peers at the encampment. There is safety in numbers, and your presence will substantially decrease the risk of arrest or suspension for all of your peers already on the quad. If you haven’t come to a campus protest before, even better — bring your questions, concerns and fears and discuss them with the campers, who are immensely kind and compassionate advocates ready to share our values and beliefs. Now is the time to find your voice.

Divest now, free Palestine and I hope to see you all around campus again soon.

Nick Wilson is a second-year undergraduate student in the New York State School of Industrial & Labor Relations at Cornell University. He is an organizer with the Young Democratic Socialists of America’s Cornell chapter and Cornell’s Coalition for Mutual Liberation. He can be reached at [email protected].

Editor’s Note (4/27): This column has been updated to reflect the University’s new housing and dining policy with regard to suspended students.