The encampment continues on its 5th day, on April 29th, 2024. Nina Davis/Sun Photography Editor

May 13, 2024

WILSON | Ghosts of the Encampment

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“Yet there is no avoiding time, the sea of time, the sea of memory and forgetfulness, the years of promise, gone and unrecoverable, of the land almost allowed to claim its better destiny, only to have the claim jumped by evildoers known all too well, and taken instead and held hostage to the future we must live in now forever. May we trust that this blessed ship is bound for some better shore, some undrowned Lemuria, risen and redeemed, where the American fate, mercifully, failed to transpire.” — Thomas Pynchon ’59

When Cornell’s encampment is uprooted tonight, green and yellow patches of deadened grass will remain on the Arts Quad for some time — subtle discoloration indicating that at some point, something was here. After a few weeks at most, the grass will be mowed and grown anew, removing this temporary imprint. In three years, virtually all of the undergraduates who experienced life within our Liberated Zone will have graduated. Soon enough, our story will be reduced to the same vague murmurs of disquiet that eventually subsume all student protest movements. Or maybe history will conclude that we were correct, and our story will instead be co-opted into the University’s (and indeed the country’s) official narrative decades down the line.

The Liberated Zone, as Prof. Russell Rickford noted last week, was a site where political alternatives to the status quo were imagined and actualized in real time. We gathered to create an alternative to a university run by corporate interests with deep investments in genocide. In its place, we created the People’s University — one that existed only to educate and take care of its attendees. In key moments, one could glimpse this future that we constructed. Educators holding classes and teach-ins, those same educators learning from their students, protesters feeding, sheltering and looking out for one another — all unimaginable under the dominant paradigm of the deeply atomizing Cornell “community.” On our first night together, hundreds of community members proved that even the police were unable to dismantle our collectively constructed institution.

What we felt in those moments — the alternative futures we briefly caught sight of — will live within members of the encampment forever. But our imagined future of Cornell, especially under its new, right-wing leadership, will almost certainly never come to pass. In a way I feel nostalgic for this future, one which has never been and will likely never be realized — an emotion referred to by Derrida as hauntology. Every present is endlessly haunted by previous, doomed imaginations of the future. Wherever you attribute blame for the encampment’s “failure” to fundamentally change our university — Cornell’s administration, its Trustees, the Coalition for Mutual Liberation or the broader structure of neoliberal capitalism itself — we now live in a world where power seems to have succeeded in the battle at Cornell, nestled in a larger war for the soul of the American University still raging across the country. In the words of Herbert Marcuse, “Civilization must protect itself against the specter of a world which could be free.” These ghostly images of a better, more honest Cornell must be exorcized, lest they become tangible enough to threaten the legitimacy of our University’s current corporate form.

Assuming Cornell allows me back on campus to finish my education, I wonder if I will ever be able to cross the Arts Quad without hearing the excited conversations of politicized students, of acoustic guitar muffled by tent flaps, of my peers frantically drawing up the blueprints of a better world. I wonder if I’ll be able to attend meetings in Day Hall without hearing the distressed cries and chants of my friends as I was handcuffed and arrested. I wonder if I will be able to accept my diploma at graduation and tell the world for the rest of my life that I attended Cornell without feeling a pit of grief and disappointment deep in my stomach. The encampment may be gone, but for many of us Cornell will remain forever haunted.

Cornell is haunted not only by the transcendent but ultimately frustrated political visions of its students, but also by the University’s genocidal complicity which the past several weeks of protest have yet to uproot. Nearly two million Gazan civilians are now under threat as Israel advances its siege on the city of Rafah, a city previously marked by Israel as a safe zone for the many displaced civilians driven from their homes throughout the Israeli military’s ongoing genocide against the Palestinian people. Just as Israel directs civilians to leave Rafah for more “humanitarian zones,” it has surfaced that the nation is operating concentration camps where Palestinians are being tortured, beaten and forcibly amputated after being injured by handcuffs. Only an educational institution that is more committed to hoarding economic power than to complying with its core values would participate actively, via its investments and corporate partnerships, in facilitating this conduct.

To avoid having to face this discomforting reality, administrators have leaned on bureaucratic prevarication to obscure their own power and responsibility to divest. Current President Martha Pollack argued in negotiations with CML that divestment from the genocide in Gaza would be impossible due to the partial control of third-party investment managers over Cornell’s endowment.  Pollack’s argument is identical to one made over six months ago by CFO Chris Cowen after CML’s multi-building, multi-day occupation in December. Even before said meeting with Cowen, our demands accounted for this argument, calling upon Cornell to demand third-party investment managers divest its funds from weapons manufacturers under threat of withdrawing their capital from those firms. Cornell administration’s decision to meet with members of the encampment without even reading our demands is a form of weaponized incompetence, reflecting a refusal to engage in good faith with or even take seriously the cause of divestment. Exerting this kind of pressure on third-party fund managers is by no means “business as usual” — but ethical conduct during an ongoing genocide means pulling out all of the stops to halt the killing of civilians. In light of the Board of Trustees’ 2016 Divestment Guidelines, this negligence effectively constitutes genocide denialism.

Though Cornell administration’s recent depravity directed towards student organizers has made my life far more difficult and stressful as of late, I am part of a small and lucky club — those who saw for a moment what our University could look like. Despite these profound moments of clarity we remain for the moment, in Pynchon’s words, “held hostage to the future we must live in now forever.” Next time you stroll through the Arts Quad, perhaps you too will hear the last remnants of a better world — imagined but not yet forgotten — rustling through the leaves, or embedded somewhere in the song of a bird. If you can’t hear it, it falls to you and your friends to rebuild that future yourself, from the ground up, again and again until liberation. Best of luck.

Divest now, and free Palestine.

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].

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