David Petraeus: Voldemort Comes to CUNY

Monday, September 9, was David Petraeus’s first class at CUNY. As he left Macaulay Honors College, where he’s teaching, he was hounded by protesters. It wasn’t pretty; the protesters were angry and they didn’t hold back.

The protesters’ actions attracted national and international media attention—and condemnation. Not just from the usual suspects at Fox but from voices at CUNY as well.

Macaulay Dean Ann Kirschner issued a formal statement on the Macaulay website and then took to her blog in order to further express her dismay:

Before and during Dr. Petraeus’ class, however, a group of protesters demonstrated in front of the college.  That demonstration ended before the conclusion of the class.  Sometime later, while walking off campus, Dr. Petraeus was confronted by a group of protesters, who surrounded him and persisted in following him, chanting as a group, shouting at him, and pounding on a car that he entered.

Harassment and abusive behavior toward a faculty member are antithetical to the university’s mission of free and open dialogue. Although this may be obvious, this kind of behavior strikes more deeply at the heart of our cherished American right to express our beliefs without threats or fear of retribution.

CUNY Interim Chancellor Bill Kelly issued the following statement:

During the first two weeks of the semester, demonstrators — from within and outside the University– have gathered near the Macaulay Honors College to protest the presence of Visiting Professor David Petraeus.  By nature, universities nurture the reasoned expression of dissent, including the right of peaceful protest. CUNY has long embraced the responsibility to encourage debate and dialogue. Foreclosing the right of a faculty member to teach and the opportunity of students to learn is antithetical to that tradition, corrosive of the values at the heart of the academic enterprise.  We defend free speech and we reject the disruption of the free exchange of ideas. Accordingly, CUNY will continue to ensure that Dr. Petraeus is able to teach without harassment or obstruction. In so doing, we join with the University Faculty Senate in defending the right of CUNY faculty members to teach without interference.

Even the University Faculty Senate weighed in, sending all CUNY professors the following statement:

Protestors, reportedly including CUNY students, have harassed new Macaulay Honors College Visiting Professor (and former CIA head and general)  David Petraeus on his way to class, using epithets, shouting “You will leave CUNY,” and chanting “ Every class David,” expressing an intent to continue their verbal attacks. Because they disagree with Professor Petraeus’ views, these demonstrators intend to deprive him of his ability to teach and the ability of his students to learn from him.

CUNY has long-established policies  to protect the academic freedom of faculty, which are essential for the University’s operation as a center of learning.

The Executive Committee of the University Faculty Senate deplores all attacks on the academic freedom of faculty, regardless of their viewpoint.  In the past, we have been strong advocates for the freedom of Kristofer J. Petersen-Overton to teach at Brooklyn College without harassment or retaliation.

Professor Petraeus and all members of CUNY’s instructional staff have the right to teach without interference.

Members of the university community must have the opportunity to express alternate views, but in a manner that does not violate academic freedom.

(In an excellent response to the Faculty Senate statement, Petersen-Overton set the record straight about what the Senate did and did not do during his travails.)

That was two weeks ago.

This past Tuesday afternoon, students held another protest against Petraeus, this time outside a Macaulay fundraiser. About 75 people participated, and eyewitnesses say that the cops quickly got rough. According to one report:

“Protestors were marching in a circle on the sidewalk and chanting, but the police forced them into the street and then charged. One of the most brutal things I saw was that five police officers slammed a Queens College student face down to the pavement across the street from Macaulay, put their knees on his back and he was then repeatedly kneed in the back,” said Hunter student Michael Brian. “The student was one of those pointed out by ‘white shirt’ officers, then seized and brutalized. A Latina student was heaved through the air and slammed to the ground.”

This post from Gawker, with video, confirms much of these claims.

Six students were arrested, held in jail for 20 hours, and have now been charged with disorderly conduct, riot, resisting arrest, and obstructing government administration.

The CUNY 6

And where are Kirschner, Kelly, and the Faculty Senate? Nowhere. What have they said about this police brutality and its relationship to academic freedom? Nothing.

Indeed, Kelly posted his statement in defense of Petraeus yesterday, September 20, four days after the students were beaten up and arrested by the cops. And all throughout the day yesterday, as the intrepid Steve Horn reports, Macaulay’s Twitter feed was filled with bubbly affirmations of free speech and the free exchange of ideas—which are most threatened, apparently, by the strident language of student protesters rather than the brutality of the NYPD.

So that’s where we stand. The delicate flowers of academic freedom at CUNY wilt before the jeers and jibes of a few students but warm to the blazing sun of the state. A four-star general who led two brutal counterinsurgency campaigns in Eurasia, a former head of the CIA whose hazing rituals at West Point alone probably outstrip anything the NYPD did to these students, requires the fulsome support of chancellors, senates, and deans. But six students of color beaten by cops, locked up in prison for a day, and now facing a full array of charges from the state, deserve nothing but the cold silence of their university. So much tender solicitude for a man so wealthy and powerful that he can afford to teach two courses at CUNY for a dollar; so little for these students, whose education is the university’s true and only charge.

It’s a depressing scene, reminiscent of that moment in The Theory of the Moral Sentiments where Smith compares the grief people feel over the discomfort of the powerful to their indifference to the misery of the powerless.

Every calamity that befals [the powerful], every injury that is done them, excites in the breast of the spectator ten times more compassion and resentment than he would have felt, had the same things happened to other men…To disturb, or to put an end to such perfect enjoyment, seems to be the most atrocious of all injuries. The traitor who conspires against the life of his monarch, is thought a greater monster than any other murderer. All the innocent blood that was shed in the civil wars, provoked less indignation than the death of Charles I. A stranger to human nature, who saw the indifference of men about the misery of their inferiors, and the regret and indignation which they feel for the misfortunes and sufferings of those above them, would be apt to imagine, that pain must be more agonizing, and the convulsions of death more terrible to persons of higher rank, than to those of meaner stations.

This morning, my five-year-old daughter floated the proposition that “David Petraeus is Voldemort.” She may be onto something. In the same way that dark wizard turned around so many heads at Hogwarts, so has Petraeus turned our sensibilities upside down at CUNY.

A group of CUNY grad students and faculty have organized a petition against the police brutality; email cunysolidarity@gmail.com to add your signature. And there’s going to be a rally in support of students’ right to protest on Monday, September 23, at 2:30 pm, at Macaulay Honors College, 35 W. 67th Street (between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue).


  1. Cade DeBois (@cadedebois) September 21, 2013 at 9:25 pm | #

    From the mouths of babes!

  2. Linda J September 22, 2013 at 12:02 am | #

    Shame on CUNY for hiring him! Thanks to students for continuing to point out that egregious error.

  3. bensday823 September 22, 2013 at 12:32 am | #

    “Smith compares the grief people feel over the discomfort of the powerful to their indifference to the misery of the powerless.”

    David Petraeus only had to endure heckling on the street, those Smith was referring to endured actual violence on their persons. This strikes me as a slick attempt by Corey Robin to minimize the suffering of the actual victims of leftism, because they are “privileged.” In the 1920’s those victims were Kulaks and former Nobility murdered by Lenin and his Bolsheviks, today it is white farmers murdered in South Africa. A very clever attempt by Corey to get us to ignore the mountain of corpses that leftism creates, it may even earn him tenure!

    • foppe September 22, 2013 at 3:34 am | #

      are you being paid for your trolling, or is it just your hobby?

      • bensday823 September 24, 2013 at 7:07 am | #

        Not trolling. Just pointing out the subtext of Corey’s article.

  4. Mitchell Freedman September 22, 2013 at 1:38 am | #

    I hear Corey on this, but I am wondering as I finished his post: Is this all just posing at the end of the day? So the former disgraced general teaches at CUNY for a semester or so, and for a buck a semester at that. Columbia survived Kissinger in the 1970s–and there were plenty of protests then too. It just all reeks of symbolism and theater. I can think of other things these six students could have been doing and I don’t mean being in class, but other activist activities.

    • foppe September 22, 2013 at 3:39 am | #

      Huh? Because Columbia ‘survived’ Kissinger, the students who are protesting Petraeus’s presence at CUNY are poseurs? Why does that ‘argument’ make sense to you, and who are you to decide what protestors should and should not be doing with their time?
      Also, Petraeus has hardly been disgraced; nobody cared about his infidelity, that was just an act they felt they needed to put up, because that’s how the elite feels it has to behave in order to appease what they perceive as the masses, and what they think they have to do to seem responsible rulers.

    • Chelsea Manning☮♥ (@shushugah) September 22, 2013 at 6:08 am | #

      It’s a fair question you ask, and there’s more, in that originally Petraeus was going to be paid $200,000 for his part adjunct position, and Reserved Officer Training Corps is being introduced again to CCNY, Medgar Evars etc… something that hasn’t happened since 1971. This is the militarization of CUNY, not just one seminar being offered.

  5. Jon Butter (@JonButter2) September 22, 2013 at 8:47 am | #

    It just all reeks of symbolism and theater.

    When the cops beat the shit out of you in a play the actors pretending to be cops just pretend to hit and kick you. But it does reek of something bad, I’ll give you that.

    The obvious retort to you is that if what those kids were doing was empty symbolism (even to the point of reeking), why the brutal response?

  6. Mitchell Freedman September 22, 2013 at 10:08 am | #

    Foppe asks who am I as in who do I think I am? I am simply expressing an opinion. That should be enough. Either dialogue or not dialogue, but don’t play Stalinist Fox News games about my legitimacy. On the merit of your response, I would say the students were misled and ended up as poseurs. They were certainly rude and thinking as a mob as one sees from the video. Just re-play the video with Petraeus as an abortion doctor and the students as pro-life protestors. The protestors don’t deserve to be beaten, but your sympathy factor goes down for them, up for the single individual, and you wonder at the theatre of it all?

    Chelsea Manning (I’m not sure the real Manning is happy you chose his/her name as a phony moniker): I am not against the Reserved Officers Corp. coming in. The whole ROTC fight back in the aughts and late 1990s struck me as also wrong as it was reeking of Tea Party and anarchist tactics that undermined the institution of government far more than seeking a change of a particular policy.

    Jon Butter: I supported the protests before the general got there, and I am definitely on the side of the students who got the shit beat out of them. My query is why the protest at this point? Petraeus was wounded when he had to come in for a buck. And I think ignoring the guy at this point is a better plan. Still, it is time now to protect and defend the students no matter how much I disagree with their actions. I just wish they chose something else, again my opinion expressed here, which obviously some disagree with.

    • Jon Butter (@JonButter2) September 22, 2013 at 10:50 am | #

      MF: I had some sympathy with the view that those kids could have been doing something more useful with their time, but now I think it’s at least debatable. Protest *is* a kind of theatre, notwithstanding my earlier comment, and I’d say this bit ‘worked’, in that it provoked an obvious overreaction.

      What I take from this post is this: it seems to be a standard issue American Liberal position that all bets are off (ideologically) when any hint of true insolence creeps into this sort of protest. Yes, the 1st Amendment is fine and all that, but the General *gave up* the outrageous salary, and publically *admitted* to (after he was caught) his affair (with his hagiographer!!). He’s suffered enough! Those kids weren’t nice.

      IOW, you can protest, but here are the rules about what you can say and do. First off, you have to be nice when you protest or we’ll kick your ass….

      IOW, those kids were were insolent and deserved to have their asses kicked.

      Does that sound ok to you? Not to me.

      • Mitchell Freedman September 22, 2013 at 11:10 am | #

        Actually, there are rules. Speech becomes action when the circumstances create a likelihood of assault, which is what has happened with certain anti-abortion protests.

        I did not say “all bets are off.” As a liberal who learned the lesson of why it was wrong for Clark Kerr to act as he did with Mario Savio, I am saying protect and defend the kids who suffered at the hands of the State. I just think the discourse is helped with some measure of acknowledgement that the kids are not perfect, either.

        We don’t have to start singing Phil Ochs’ “Love me, I’m a liberal”….

  7. Jon Butter (@JonButter2) September 22, 2013 at 12:23 pm | #

    “Actually, there are rules. ”

    What are they, exactly, please? How do you know that protest ‘create[s] a likelihood of assault’? Sounds pretty squishy to me. Is a rule a rule if it’s squishy?

    I’m sure no one said the kids were perfect. I think what was said was that there is a huge, and weird, disparity between the concern shown for the delicate feelings of the General and the feelings of kids who were beaten and arrested for protesting rudely, not to mention the implications that disparity has for our public ethos. Little violins for mild embarrassment, but shrugging for the beating and arresting.

    • Mitchell Freedman September 22, 2013 at 2:16 pm | #

      The main rule is where speech of a group becomes a threat to the individual. The case law with anti-abortion protesters is what you may wish to review.

      • Jon Butter (@JonButter2) September 22, 2013 at 6:29 pm | #

        Those kids were a threat to General Petraeus? Really? I will hold my laughter long enough to ask you what case law says that non-violent unarmed protesters must or ought to be beaten up and arrested rather than just arrested.

        I won’t argue case law with you because you might be a lawyer and I am not one. But I will assert that you are evading the issue at hand, whatever the (case) law, in its exquisite arbitrariness suggests.

      • BarryB September 23, 2013 at 7:59 pm | #

        De gustibus. I think the main rule is where the calm of an extremely powerful and well-connected man is threatened by a small group of powerless individuals who dare to take ineffectual action.

  8. Mitchell Freedman September 22, 2013 at 8:12 pm | #

    Guess we didn’t watch the same video. I ask you one final time: Watch it with Petraeus as an abortion doctor and watch the people screaming, including the guy who shows up on the right side of the screen in the red shirt, as anti-abortion protestors. Just because the guy is a general does not mean he was not objectively–and I mean objectively–being harassed to a point that someone would reasonably say he should have at least some need for physical protection. You think badly of Petraeus and so do I. But I am a lawyer and I am saying these protestors were going after him personally and were arguably and I mean arguably acting beyond their First Amendment rights.

    And since people on this comment thread are so emotional, I will say again the government had no business beating up these students, either. Arrest maybe, and even then the CUNY officials could have provided Petraeus better security. That would have been the proper response by the government.

    • Jon Butter (@JonButter2) September 22, 2013 at 9:30 pm | #

      I guess we’ll just have to disagree. We did watch the same video but we didn’t see the same thing. The fact is that Petraeus is not an abortion doctor, and the people harassing him – unlike the strident abortion protesters we have in mind – have no political power, i.e. no leverage with a major political party or public officials. They are also not themselves part of an organized national group with a history of violence against the class of person they were harassing. They are kids being insolent and rude to a *very* powerful man.

      Either they deserved to get beaten up or they didn’t. You and I both say they didn’t deserve it, but you have no sympathy for them. I don’t get that. Were they dumb or over the top? Perhaps. Did they therefore deserve what they got? No.

      Is it remarkable that lots of Liberal people expressed concern for the bruised feelings of a public person who got confronted in a public place, but none for kids who were brutalized by the cops? I think it is. There is a whiff of ‘well what do you expect to happen?!’, a measure of complacency. I think we need to un-rhetoricize that question: what I expect to happen in a liberal democracy and civil society is that a.) cops control themselves in the face of a few not-very-formidible and unarmed young people, and b.) when cops do use too much force, that people who supposedly care about civil society not just shrug and say ‘I don’t condone it, but they were asking for it’. Maybe they *were* asking for it. So what?

      • foppe September 24, 2013 at 6:02 pm | #

        Don’t forget to notice how the equanimity over police brutalization is reinterpreted as ‘unemotionality’, and how this is seen and cast as a virtue…

  9. Marc Brenman September 22, 2013 at 10:07 pm | #

    Can’t teachers at CUNY be fired for moral turpitude? And isn’t Petraeus guilty of that, since he was fired as CIA Director for carrying on an extra-marital affair?

    • jonst September 24, 2013 at 5:33 pm | #

      I’d love to see how that proposal would go over, firing “teachers” for “moral turpitude” because they engaged in what you call “an extra-martial affair’.

      No video of the students’ arrest? Seems a bit odd to me…

    • Jon Butter (@JonButter2) September 24, 2013 at 9:20 pm | #

      Do you really want people to be fired for ‘moral turpitude’? I don’t. It’s ridiculous.

      I’m not on campus or connected with the school in any way, so my opinion is at quite a remove, but here it is anyway: I think the crime is not that Petraeus is teaching a class at CUNY; he’s certainly not my ideal of a prof at CUNY or of anything else, but he’s not just some boob, and he’s not dripping with blood in the same way Henry Kissinger is/was. What’s appalling about it all is how blase the Conventional Wisdom has become about things which should appall us.

      The prime example: that it didn’t even *occur* to either DP or the administration that paying Petraeus a six figure salary to teach one class (or several classes for that matter) was outrageous, is itself outrageous. That police behaviour which would once have been called outrageous (stop and frisk anyone? ‘Free speech zones’? SWAT stuff used on unarmed protesters?) is now seen as debatable and even inevitable, is also crazy. On a lesser note, that anyone cares that this guy had an affair (middle aged man + an affair?! OMG, do tell!!) rather than that he had an affair with his *hagiographer*, is, if not outrageous, at least weird.

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