Unsettling the University: For Abolitionist, Decolonial Education Struggles – An Interview with Matthew Evsky (2/2)


– An Interview with Matthew Evsky (Part 2) –


In this interview, Matthew Evsky* speaks on ways that the education system is bound up with policing, mass incarceration, and settler colonialism.  How can we integrate education struggles with abolitionist, decolonial approaches?  For resistant alternatives, we can look to Liberation Schools and free, cooperative universities embedded in communities.  Facing major barriers to these from racism, we must call on white people to renege on their racist bargain with the state and capital.  How can we popularize such an abolitionist politics with narratives that convince people to be for annihilating the very system that gives them privileges?


Connecting Education Struggles with Prison Abolitionism and Anti-colonialism

CW: Picking up from Part 1 of our interview (“A Brief History of (CUNY) Time: Recent Radical University Organizing in NYC”), another thing I’d be interested in talking with you about is off-campus organizing, such as community organizing.  How have you tried to connect your organizing in communities and neighborhoods outside of universities—connecting with people in marginalized communities—with your university organizing?

Matthew: I have felt, in the experience of this past fall and spring [2011-2012], in some cases the overlap between the different kinds of organizing has been great and in other cases the separation has been particularly acute.  So, for example, I do feel like the Really Really Free Market has been situated somewhat nicely in relation to Occupy Wall Street.  Especially when Zuccotti Park was around, OWS was about mutual aid and about people sharing and cooperating in a very specific kind of way.  There were specific individual and philosophical overlaps with the Really Really Free Market.  Some of the RRFM organizers would take the goods that were leftover from the Free Market directly down to Zuccotti Park.  In the April 29th Free Market, a huge contingent of OWS organizers who were part of bringing mutual aid into the May Day actions helped to sort all of the stuff at the end of the Really Really Free Market and took the stuff that they wanted which they were going to then distribute in different mutual aid zones.  So, those kinds of connections between the RRFM and OWS have been pretty fluid.  In January, I was also working pretty closely with the Sustainability Working Group at OWS because they were pursuing doing skill-shares, bartering, and holding events where people exchanged goods and services.  So, a bunch of RRFM folks went to one of their events and they were working with us.


On the other hand, OWS in general, and I also think Occupy CUNY, has not done a particularly good job of being relevant to people in communities outside of Manhattan.  So, for the Bed-Stuy residents that I work with in Bed-Stuy Food Not Bombs, OWS is not relevant to them.  Now, the CUNY organizing I sort of feel is caught in the same kind of thing.  Obviously, Occupy CUNY doesn’t have the same kind of media buzz that OWS does, so it’s not even on people’s radar.  For example, Occupy CUNY hasn’t done a particularly good job of connecting with the colleges that are in places where they would be relevant.  There are some struggles going on at Medgar-Evers College, and the people who are engaged in their struggles are not the people engaged in Occupy CUNY.  So, there are cleavages in that way.

Also, I don’t think that education-based organizing has taken that leap to where it has become relevant to communities.  Occupy CUNY has worked with Occupy the Department of Education (DoE), and they had been doing mic-checking and general meeting disruptions of the Panel on Education Policy (PEP), which is essentially the board of directors of K-12 education.  We had been working with them a little, but not a ton. But, there are all these little pockets in Brooklyn as well as other boroughs where parents are trying to prevent their school from being shutdown.  And Occupy CUNY and OWS are not connected with those pockets of parents.  I don’t know the best strategy to do it.

The feeling I get right now in New York is that the campaign to stop ‘Stop and Frisk’ if not is, is going to be, the biggest and most important thing going on.  I’m beginning to feel that I want education organizing to focus on connecting itself to policing, and policing in K-12—essentially, connecting it to an analysis that is less about neoliberalization as a privatization or as accumulation by dispossession or instituting tuition, and more an analysis of the way in which schools are either pipelines to prisons or just increasingly more prison-like or have been prisons for quite a long time.  So, this entails beginning to work with people who are dealing with cops in neighborhoods and cops in schools, and tying that into how many cops are on CUNY campuses and how CUNY, maybe it has been late in the game, but clearly CUNY is instituting a lot of turnstiles, bag-checking, and things like this.  We need more tying of the education organizing into a reading of the capitalist-prison complex, and working with people who are trying to end the police state and doing prison abolition.  That’s the direction that I would like to see education organizing go in.  That’s a very personal reading, because those are some of the things that I feel I need to have a stronger analysis of.  But, I do think it will make Occupy CUNY and other education organizing stuff more relevant to communities than it is now.


Image by Katy Groves via USPrisonCulture.com

In that sense, I don’t have a strong sense where the adjunct narrative comes in.  If someone were to ask me the question, where does the two-tier labor system and adjunct organizing fit into that, I would probably look to the way people who analyze the prison-industrial complex try to talk about workers in other places and their relationship to the prisons.  So, it’s somewhat of a question of, if we are trying to basically stop this trend of turning all of our institutions either into prisons or into the place where you prime people for prisons, then what is your analysis about the really hierarchical and highly divided workplace in this place, in this case, CUNY?  How do you tie that into a critique of CUNY that is becoming more prison-like, or becoming an “adjunct” to the prison-industrial complex?  I don’t have an answer to that, but I would probably just look to some of the people who talk about this stuff.  It just feels to me, being around New York, the NYPD is this thread that ties through everyone’s lives.  Just because the NYPD’s so big, and they are doing things like surveilling Muslim students and hyper-locking down people of color neighborhoods, evicting protesters from Zuccotti Park, and training the so-called CUNY peace officers who are essentially NYPD, just by a different name.  I think that the police are the glue that ties everyone together, and not in a good way, obviously, but in a narrative way, and in an everyday life kind of way.

CW: I’m really glad you took the conversation in this direction of talking about how to tie education struggles with anti-prison and anti-police struggles.  Thinking about the kind of narrative that we tell about the university in our organizing, you mentioned the need to shift away from a focus on neoliberalism and privatization.  Are you also implying a need to shift away from a kind of defense of the public university that is tied with the welfare state?  That sort of public university vision, then, also necessarily includes the prison-industrial complex and a highly policed society, because it is an elitist institution that is tied vertically with the whole education system, and there are exclusionary mechanisms at each level that stigmatize them as ‘dropouts’ and push them into marginalized communities where they are policed and funneled into prisons.  If that’s your object of critique, then what sort of alternative vision do we want to propose?  Should our alternative vision be a truly open, non-exclusionary university?

Matthew: In my mind, there are a couple levels to this.  One level is people’s different opinions about the role of state institutions in being able to provide for people in ways that are not utterly paternalistic and punitive.  Personally, as an anti-authoritarian, and as somebody who studies anarchist thinking and my research involves talking to people who are anarchists—as well as other people—I’m not totally convinced that I want the state to be teaching people.  In that sense, I am certainly of the opinion that I don’t think nostalgically about elements of the welfare state, other than thinking about the importance of the struggle that led to the creation of them.  So, I think it’s important that people agitated in a way that led to using resources to create free, public education or any other elements of the welfare state.  But, as long as the state is the executive committee of the oppressors (to riff on Marx and Engels from the manifesto), then I don’t want them providing education.  But then, some people are going to say, ‘oh, the state has done incredibly efficient things with some of these programs.’  Or people will say, ‘how are you going to accomplish some of this stuff on community levels?’  I think those debates can play out, but one thing I would say is: as a settler nation—occupying the land that is not the land of the white settlers, and that is a part of an empire that has brought laboring bodies from a whole bunch of different places, but especially West Africa and Central America as well as everywhere else—I don’t see any examples in the university where pedagogy isn’t already saturated with settler, imperial understandings of the world and history and of epistemology. 

I think of it somewhat like this: we’re not just trying to hand over education, the dollars that go into creating public education.  I’m certainly not for just turning over those dollars to the people who want to just pocket them, whether that means admins who are making close to a million dollars or the bond holders of New York state debt who will make a ton of money just because they own that debt and CUNY is tied to those bonds.  I see that the university would have to be really different in order for it to be about liberation, and I’m not sure how we’d get to that.  And I don’t think it’s like we just give up on universities.  Moments when people who are excluded from them are gaining access to them—in my mind, that’s why it needs to come back to a really strong emphasis on racialized and gendered oppression in North American capitalism, and especially through these institutions.  You know, what does CUNY do for people?  Does CUNY provide life chances for New Yorkers of color?  I don’t know the answer to that, but I would guess it’s ‘no.’  It’s really unclear whether CUNY is actually doing anything for people on a structural level. There are probably some statistics that would say that it is, but I’m not sure.

Going back to your question of reproduction, I think the people who have been working on all the school-to-prison pipeline stuff have been getting it right.  The K-12 education system is producing the bodies that it needs for unemployment and incarceration, and it does that in very specific ways.  And I don’t think that people have been using those analytical tools to talk about CUNY.  For example, I think that the system of graduate education is now producing ABDs and not PhDs, and I think that it is producing ABDs so that it can then just blame the low wages that it has already decided to pay on the specific form of credential.  


I think we have to analyze what kinds of people the university is producing and then decide if we want to be those people, and if we don’t want to be those people then we have to struggle against it.  If CUNY is producing a whole bunch of people of color who go for two semesters or two years and then drop out with a lower-than-average but still an excruciating amount of debt and no life chances, and then a few people who are whiter and more privileged and who have a degree, I think we have to ask ourselves, do we want to be either of those people?  And I think the answer is no.  Then, from there, asking ourselves, well, why is it doing that?  Why is CUNY producing people who drop out after a couple of years?  Why is the K-12 pushing people out of school and into prisons?  Then, I think it ties back to forms of settler colonial occupation of this land.

Liberation Schools and Free Universities

Matthew: For me, once you get beyond some organizational ideologies about anti-authoritarianism and the role of the state, ask a very basic question like, do you trust the state to create a liberation school?  And I would just say, I have never seen it done in the past.  This is where historical materialism could come into play.  I don’t see any states, much less an imperial state, creating a liberation school.  That is where my feelings about universities are tending.  I’ve got strategic questions about what we can do.

I think we need to create liberation schools where we are not reproducing imperialist understandings of the world and of how to know things in the world.  We have really good examples of that.  The situation down in Tucson is an interesting example, because that Ethnic Studies curriculum had made its way into the school and was doing incredibly good work, but it’s being ruthlessly destroyed right now.  The teachers who are teaching it have been fired and the books that they’ve been teaching have been banned.  You could either use that example to say it’s possible to bring it into the spaces of the state, or you could use it as an example for why we need to create autonomous places where they can be protected.  But, I would just say that the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson is a good example.  Obviously, other examples are Freedom Schools and Liberation Schools of the American Indian Movement and the Black Panther Party.  These, in my mind, are the models we need to look to.  But, how that relates to organizing in the university right now becomes a little more of a challenge.  The struggle for Ethnic Studies is key.  I do think there’s something to bringing non-Western epistemological frameworks into the academy, it’s just that, from my position, I’m not particularly optimistic about it, because I don’t have a lot of power.  I don’t see a movement from within the ranks of the more relatively empowered people, meaning the tenure-stream faculty, towards liberation epistemologies.  If I were witnessing something like that, I think I might be a little bit more optimistic.  But, when I look at the faculty, I see a lot of people with more privilege but very little power, and mostly unorganized.  The people who are working in non-Western frameworks are amazing and their ability to write books about those frameworks and incorporate those kinds of frameworks into their teaching is important and amazing.  It’s just that from my perspective the prospect of doing this in a generalized form in state universities doesn’t look good.

CW: What about thinking of the new contingent majority, considering how contingent faculty are a majority of the faculty in the US, something like 70%?  Somebody else I interviewed, ‘James Anderson,’ has been in contingent faculty limbo, trying to apply for a job every year.  He was saying that there’s so many of us, either going into that position now or are in it, he was thinking that it’s not really worth it.  If you want to be a radical through your organizing and teaching, under the conditions of being a precarious academic, it’s so hard to make time to do that organizing within and outside the classroom.  So, he was saying that maybe instead of struggling to remain in academia for many years, he proposed that radical precarious academics could give it a shot for a year or so, trying to make it into the rapidly disappearing secure positions that do exist, but if we don’t make it, then to rise out of academia intentionally, and instead, to devote ourselves to intellectual work and organizing work and teaching in some kinds of movement-embedded popular education.  Of course, the problem then is, how do we develop those institutions, such as Freedom Schools, nowadays that could give us support, resources to do that, money to live on, or at least food and housing to live on?  Have you thought of any ways we could create these alternative forms of support for radical intellectual work outside academia while still trying to remain in relation with those who stick inside academia, and then through those connections, to expropriate resources from the universities and still be able to engage with universities in the spaces for struggle that they open up? 

Matthew: This is something I think about.  It is a challenge, because the social reproduction of the people who are engaging in the project is a major part of its sustainability.  I think it’s actually really interesting too, because I don’t know that much about how the teachers in the Freedom Schools of the past were compensated, whether that compensation came in the form of money or in-kind donations or some kind of social currency.  I don’t know the answers to those questions.  On top of it, the way I envision it is that these projects fulfill dual functions.  They actually help to make and create the communities that can sustain them, and they are the communities that we’re not actually connecting with.  So, to return to the question, why is it that Occupy Wall Street is not relevant to people in Bed-Stuy who come to Food Not Bombs every Saturday afternoon to help one another share food?  In some way, it has to do with the political economy.  The people who were in Zuccotti Park didn’t have much connection to the people in Bed-Stuy.  Since I’m not particularly technically minded, it just blows my mind away that the mutualism of Zuccotti Park was sustained by trans-national donations.  Zuccotti Park basically survived because Twitter allows a form of organizing that was local but was trans-nationally funded.  I certainly imagine Liberation Schools to be embedded in communities in a way that is much more like mutual aid societies of previous eras.  There’s some sort of geographic or place-based community that constitute a membership, and that membership collectivizes in order to allow some members of that community to teach the children of that community.  Maybe it sounds idealistic.  But I think that’s the kind of thing that we’re talking about.

The other model that I think about is more of a cooperative business model.  I’m somewhat blown-away that a bunch of contingent workers who are PhDs are not joining together and creating a university.  Are there barriers to creating a university that I’m missing?  Or is it an element of the lack of organization?  Or is it the slim chances, creating a psychological dynamic?  I just think, this is a moment when cooperatives are flourishing and people want to start them, so why not start a cooperative university?

CW: I’m in.  Let’s do it.

Matthew: Yeah, I think it could be a good way.  I’m sure there are people who understand university finances more than me who would be like, ‘no, that’s not possible.’  But what do you do when there’s a crisis?  You join together with other people that you know and you use collaboration in order to make a living.  Sometimes that just comes from my personal philosophies, but there are examples of it everywhere.

CW: Two thoughts on why it’s tricky.  One is that accreditation is pretty expensive. Further, while it’s easy to make an online cooperative university, making an actual, grounded-in-a-place university is really expensive.  You also need staff, service workers, maintenance workers—people who are often ignored in universities when we talk about radical organizing, even though they are sometimes the most militant radical organizers.  So, those are a couple challenges.

Matthew: Right now I’m reading this book called Grassroots Medicine. It’s about the last four decades of free clinics.  I somewhat think of free clinics as the hardest thing to start.  Not because I’ve started one and I know how hard it is compared to other things, but because you are trying to do something that involves highly skilled labor—not that I think that medical doctors are potentially more skilled than you or I, but they are skilled differently. The professional societies that oversee medical doctors have a lot more magnetism than the professional societies of academic work.  And, they are also actually more powerful and want to prevent doctors from giving their services for free.  Then, on top of it, the work that they do requires specialized tools in a way that teaching doesn’t.  Also, it requires the kinds of maintenance and staff support and bookkeeping that you’re talking about, and they’re also exponentially more in a health care setting than in an education setting.  I’m just bringing it up as an example.  The proliferation of free clinics, in a sense, when I think about that, I think, ‘why not the proliferation of free schools?’  Obviously, some of the reasons are because, well, there are a lot of schools that are still relatively cheap that people will go to.  Maybe I’ve just been working too long on this philosophy of ‘everything that possibly can be done for free should be done for free,’ but that’s sort of how I’m feeling.  A cooperative probably wouldn’t try to provide its services for free, but it could, or it could just blatantly be a free school that people teach at.

On Popularizing Abolitionist Politics: The ‘Who, Where, and How’ of Radical Conversations

CW: Why don’t these free schools just take off?  I think there are a lot of obstacles.  I think part of the problem is that we lack a clear story to tell people of why it’s important.  I think this might relate with what you were talking about earlier, about how in struggles within universities people are stuck in a kind of defense of public, state-based education.  Shifting out of that mindset requires some kind of more popularizable critique of the relationship between education and capitalism and the whole prison-industrial complex and policing—understanding why the whole dominant model of education is so fucked up, and then seeing free schools as a non-and-anti-capitalist alternative.  We have the critiques already in a kind of academic, theoretical way, but a real challenge is popularizing those critiques.

Matthew: I think the barriers are huge.  We overestimate barriers that are more kind of bureaucratic—and for good reasons.  There’s quite a bit of effort that must go into these things.  They can be precarious.  They can be fleeting.  They are not asset-building investments.  But, I think we underestimate barriers that are more kind of like, ‘what are we gonna do?’  And we underestimate racism as a barrier.  That narrative that you’re describing, to me, has to come back to racism.  In many ways, we’re asking white people to go against a certain kind of bargain that they’re playing with the state and with capital.  Asking people to be like, ‘oh, you should commit to this form of education, as a teacher or as a student.’  In my mind, the only way it’s going to work is a strong form of solidarity that is very much about understanding how we’re all connected in a globally exploitative, racialized, hierarchical system—and in way that is not about people feeling guilty about privilege, but is more about people actually desiring of destroying the system, annihilating the system.  When they’re approached with the compromises that they can make, the compromises that go against everyone’s liberation and go for their own privilege, we need to have a narrative that speaks to saying, ‘no, I’m for annihilating the system.’  How do we do that?  In my mind, that is the barrier.

CW: Yeah, how do we popularize an abolitionist ethic and politics—toward abolishing white supremacist, capitalist, hetero-patriarchy?

Matthew: It’s funny, because in organizing, I’m not about appealing to the masses, in a specific kind of way.  Typically speaking, I don’t like watering down messages for ‘the masses.’  I think it does become an interesting question of, how do we tell a story about why we’re doing what we’re doing when the reason why we’re doing what we’re doing is abolition?  And when we’re telling that story to people who gain privileges from that thing that we want to abolish?  I do think that that’s part of our challenge.  ‘Why are you guys doing this free school? Well, we think that liberation is something that requires a very specific framework for understanding the world, and we think in order for people to be liberated we have to annihilate this system of capitalist hetero-patriarchical…

CW: But saying it without that jargon.

Matthew: Exactly.  And saying it either in a strategically covert way or in a compelling enough way that showcases to people that you have things to gain by participating in this.

CW: Yeah, it’s really tricky.  At an organizer training for the IWW, we were talking about how to talk about the IWW’s anti-capitalist politics with people who you’re trying to organize with who don’t hold explicit anti-capitalist positions.  I think that just in the course of talking with people about their jobs and their everyday lives, you can talk about it in a way that’s really clear and uses everyday language.  Asking questions like, ‘why does this company make so much money while we get paid so little?’—that’s basically a way to talk about capital accumulation and exploitation of our labor.  And then bringing race in, such as with a question, ‘why do most of the black people work behind the counter while the white young drivers get paid more?  What’s up with this dividing us by race?’  I think it’s through building relationships with people through organizing, through living together and working in our workplaces and neighborhoods together, that I think we can push ourselves to articulate those critiques in more everyday ways. 

Matthew: That makes me think of something I think about a lot: when people talk in abstract terms about radicalism or about anti-capitalism, there’s a tendency to have very specific, prescriptive understandings of the ‘where, how, and whom’ of those conversations. Like, ‘well, those conversations will happen here because these people are the people that will challenge the system because of their income status and their this that and this.’  I actually think that those questions change in very specific ways.  So, just the question of ‘who’ and ‘where’ will people engage in that conversation that you’re talking about—just a basic conversation that is free of jargon, that is about everyday lives, and ultimately leads to building strong connections that are moving towards liberation.  If you just asked somebody, who and where are they most likely to have that conversation, what’s the answer?  Where is that going to go on?  That’s not going on in our universities.  I think, quite obviously, if you say, ‘it’s going to go on in the workplace.’  Well, maybe it will.  It depends.  Is it going to go on in infoshops?  Where is that going to happen?  Or is going to go on at block parties?  Or at neighborhood assemblies?  Or at Zuccotti Park?  In my mind, that’s a very materialist question.  I think that’s a project of geography people to create the places where that conversation will go on.

CW: Can that happen anywhere, but we just lack the skills and confidence to make those conversations happen anywhere?  There’s no real outside to capitalism and white supremacy.  Any situation we’re in could potentially have those kinds of conversations.  Maybe some of us feel more comfortable in an occupy assembly or something.

Matthew: Well, I definitely think that they’ll happen anywhere, and can happen anywhere, and I definitely don’t think that there is a specifically autonomous space.  But, I just mean it in more concrete ways.  There are specific things that are barriers to having that conversation.  For example, if your workplace is highly surveilled and extremely disciplined and there’s a potential for people to be fired, then that creates an environment where that conversation could go on but is probably not going to go on.  Or if your church has a specific kind of institutional philosophy and the pastor has this kind of approach… All of these spaces that we interact with in our everyday lives—they could be it but they have characteristics that maybe go for it or go against it.  And, I do think the key is to make every space more for that.  We should be making our classrooms more conducive to that conversation.  We should be making our churches, our workplaces, and our homes more conducive.  That’s sort of how I think of it.  That doesn’t mean that every place is going to get the full attention of our effort.  But, it is up to us to make that space happen.


*Matthew Evsky is the pseudonym of a graduate student and contingent faculty member at the CUNY Graduate Center.  This interview took place on June 11, 2012.  This is Part 2 of the interview.  Read Part 1 here: A Brief History of (CUNY) Time: Recent Radical University Organizing in NYC.