Battling with the University for the University: Organizing, Friendship, and Performativity in the NYU Sanctuary Movement


[Photo: Ryan Quan from NYU News]

by James McMaster and Olivia Michiko Gagnon


What follows is not an account of escalating strategies and spectacular confrontations. That can be found in the news. Consider this a fragmentary homage to and audit of the ideological and intimate micropolitics of our movement.


We are two friends writing from within the Sanctuary Campus movement at New York University, but we do not write as representatives of NYU Sanctuary. We are trying to enact a practice that might echo what academic organizing feels like (an extended collaborative process of working it out, a slipping in and out of voice, capacity, contribution). Organizing can happen quickly, but writing––like friendship––can unfold a different temporality, holding space for a kind of tender contemplation that is also a kind of care, a tending to.




NYU President Andrew Hamilton has refused our request that he declare NYU a Sanctuary Campus.


We recognize the profound irony in seeking sanctuary within and from NYU. The moral crimes of this university are numerous. A profound debt-crisis has led many students to seek financial refuge in the criminalized economies of sex work. This fact, however, did not impede a 1.1 million dollar renovation of NYU’s presidential penthouse. Nor has the debt-crisis done anything to slow NYU’s 2031 expansion plan, which would add six million square feet to the university at an estimated cost of six billion dollars—a plan that seems to resent that NYU is only the third largest landowner in the city (behind the church and the state). NYU 2031 was also known as “the Sexton plan,” named for the university’s former president, whose tenure was dubbed “the imperial presidency” by the New Yorker, an allusion to the global satellite campuses (colonies) opened by his administration. The building of one such campus, NYU Abu Dhabi, notoriously came with reports of exploitative working conditions for migrant laborers.


In short: if we can win the Sanctuary Campus battle at NYU then maybe the battle can be won elsewhere.


The interdiscipline of Performance Studies—sometimes somewhere between theatre and anthropology, always traversing the aesthetic and the quotidian, our minoritarian space of study—provides a potent critique of our president’s position. To Hamilton, “Sanctuary” is an empty term insofar as it lacks formal legal status and therefore does not actualize the function of which it speaks, as the words “I now pronounce you man and wife” do within the marriage ceremony, to take linguist J. L. Austin’s famous example. We might pause for a moment here, to cast Hamilton as a student of Performance Studies, reading Austin’s seminal text for the first time. Structured as a series of lectures, it presents premises that it later disproves and reworks. Given this, it seems evident that our president did not read to the end of the text. Austin concludes that all language is performative. Rather than simply describing the world, language creates it. When Judith Butler writes of the doctor who proclaims “It’s a girl!”, that doctor is not describing the newborn’s a priori girlness, but rather producing the newborn as a girl.


All language is a doing; a mattering. Language matters (is important) because it matters (produces the material conditions of our lives).


We reject the coercive bifurcation of symbolism and materiality. When we insist on keeping “Sanctuary” in our mouths and on our posters, we do it with this in mind. We insist upon a full flexing of language’s performative force to usher in other worlds, worlds where it might be possible to live. To this end, “Sanctuary” names an ethico-political horizon toward which the university can performatively reiterate its commitment to the livability of minoritarian life.


Hamilton’s resistance to “Sanctuary” is also motivated by the belief that to declare Sanctuary would be to transmit a false impression of safety to the NYU community.


The sovereign subject of the ivory tower reveals himself as such by presuming such profound, minoritarian naiveté. Those of us that live in the future anterior tense of racialization, trans/gendered abjection, disability, and poverty realize that in the United States there is no future other than one in which we will have lost, will have died slow, accelerated deaths. We do not fear “Sanctuary” as the delusion of safety because such a delusion is nothing other than an illusion invented by the privileged few for whom safety has ever been an accessible shelter in which to make life.


We are not naive. We realize that a public declaration of “Sanctuary,” for all of its inward facing benefits, also threatens to make the institution a target of the new regime’s white nationalist witch hunts. With regard to this concern, we would defer to those unlike ourselves who are most at risk for detention and deportation (even as we desire a university that would fight for those that need fighting for, rather than hide in amoral, apolitical ambiguities).


It seems that universities, like liberals, would rather blame the oppressed than make the sacrifices required for solidarity.


The opposite of Left is not Right but Wrong.


We meet our president’s concerns with a set of demands that functions as a definition, giving form to all that is on Sanctuary’s utopic horizon. We ask for guaranteed and expanded access to: emergency housing and funding for those affected by changing immigration policy; legal support; trans, reproductive, and mental health care. We ask for noncompliance with ICE and altered terms of engagement with the NYPD; a commitment to the continued admission and hiring of those affected by the Muslim ban; divestment from fossil fuel and private prison companies; and a public declaration of “Sanctuary.” We ask for basic necessities.




What were we doing before we came to an organizing meeting? How did we spend the time in which we now meet? What about what we were doing then made us want to meet? To ask what drew us to the meeting is also to ask what we brought to the meeting, which is also to ask what we didn’t bring, didn’t know, or couldn’t do when we got to the meeting. NYU hasn’t taught us how to organize (this would be its demise). But we try, nonetheless, to bring the skills it has given us to the meeting. We meet to figure out (together) how to bend these skills into new shapes, how to redirect these resources toward new shared projects.


The everyday act of organizing with NYU Sanctuary has forced us to reckon not only with identitarian hierarchies but also with those inevitably imposed by the University––made at times painfully obvious as faculty organize with advisees, TAs with undergrads, and so on. This reckoning can be seen as a re-skilling, one that emerges from pragmatism and aspires to feminism.


Tasks are delegated based on prior expertise and access to departmental space; availability and lived experience; privilege and questions of safety, visibility, and vulnerability. And sometimes we just pick something up because the silence in the room after the question “who can bottom-line this?” makes us feel awkward, or we want to prove ourselves. We re-skill because we have to. Because we are always in the midst of figuring out what we need and what others need from us. Because no one taught a class on how to draft an agenda or identify a target or speak to the press. Because skills are transmissible and recombinant forms of lived socio-historical knowledge. We’ve been re-skilling because we don’t yet fully know what we need to do to transform this fucked up thing we’re in.


We are left with no choice other than to pursue a feminist praxis of leadership, one that presents itself as the only possibility for organizing within the academic Left. If others might mistake us for leaders that is only because we attempt to attend all of the meetings, respond to all of the e-mails, participate in all of the actions, and rally others into our ranks. Leading is also that which is inclined to check-in with others, to hold space for frustrated feelings, to ask un-leading questions about bandwidth. Leaders open up space and time for others to walk into and through. We are imagining––together––new configurations of power, choreographies of making and holding space, of tagging in and out, of leading and ceding.


The relationship between leading and ceding also raises the issue of capacity. On one hand, those who lead are those with the capacity to lead. Paradoxically, though, those thrust into leadership roles because of their vulnerable position in relation to the Trump regime may also have the most limited capacities for organizing work. Capacity, here, can be thought temporally (I have time to make that spreadsheet), but it must also be thought energetically and corporeally in opposition to debility (I am able to get out of bed and go to the rally).


Simply put, this is not just about who leads, nor about how they lead, but about how a dialectic of leading and ceding makes evident that academic organizing’s organizing principle is feminist adjustment in the interest of transformation.




NYU Sanctuary has been an invaluable source of affective sustenance for each of us. What form does this nourishment take? Call it “organizing intimacy”: the feeling—born of fugitive planning and insurgent study—of being with one another and becoming more than the self in the struggle for social and ecological justice.[1] The term comes without romanticization as, too often, it comes with the unwanted romantic advances of masculinist entitlement, microaggressive illiteracies around gender pronouns and racial lexicons, and other modalities of indifference to difference that threaten the movement. To be with one another in the struggle might also be to struggle with and against one another, to have ugly feelings about the scrape of and with difference. This can be a place to begin.


Organizing intimacy is generative of friendship, which is also to say queer kinship: the atmospheric sense that we will hold the line as tightly as we hold one another, the feeling that we have one another’s backs on the streets, in the melee, when they come for us.


If organizing produces friendship, friendship powers organizing. Our work with NYU Sanctuary came by way of our involvement in the graduate student union, an involvement motivated by our disgust for 45 and maintained by our desire to remain in relation to the intelligent and exceedingly friendly individuals in the union organizing room. They made organizers of us by making friends with us. We have attempted to do the same.


But as Sara Ahmed has argued, liking someone is often to be like someone.[2]  Could it be, then, that the likeness of friendship produces a racialized form of sociality, an affective force-field that holds us together even as it keeps others, unlike us, out. NYU Sanctuary is coalitional: untenured women of color and undocumented undergraduate activists, graduate students affected by the Muslim ban and graduate students unaffected by any of our new executive’s executive orders. However, our core organizers are more white settler than indigenous, more model minority than black. From within this reality and as something of a caveat, we see the call to shift from Sanctuary Cities to Freedom Cities as a generative critique, a fugitive movement, an invitation from and toward others we have yet to befriend.


Our healthy paranoia from within the field of friendship and the space of affective sustenance extends beyond questions of likeness. It is possible that this sustenance attaches us to the university in a manner that monopolizes our insurgent energies, conscripting them in service to the renovation of an unsalvageable institution. We are, after all, not in homeless shelters nor conducting prison visits.


Our autocritical inquiry: To what extent is the Sanctuary Campus movement a technology of compensatory capture?




NYU Sanctuary works from and with(in) a politics of recognition wherein a “victory” would consist of Hamilton recognizing us as subjects deserving of the provisions articulated in our demands.


And so, we return to the irony of asking that NYU become something other than itself. We lean on an idea––a fantasy perhaps––that states, cities, and schools might one day feel bound up with us in some unsolvable knot of mutual debt, where debt is understood not as a life-threatening set of monetized relations but, rather, as the unpayable surplus value of our interdependency.[3]


If, on the other hand, Hamilton continues to refuse to meet our demands and declare Sanctuary, he will confirm that he, like all sovereigns, is too sovereign to lead us. In such a case, we—the numerous departments, senates, institutes, student groups, and individuals that have resounded the call of Sanctuary—would be responsible for its performative enactment, for bringing it into being.


With regards to the San Francisco State College Strike of the 1960s, Karen Umemoto writes: “Though these movements did not produce major changes in the economic or political structure, they strongly affected popular ideology and social relations. They also resulted in the formation of mass organizations, and produced a cadre of activists who would continue to pursue their ideals.”[4]


Paraphrasing Fred Moten: you’re already doing the thing you mean to be doing when you get together to figure out what to do. There are demands, and then there are the things you’re already doing when you get together to figure out what those demands should be and how to achieve them. There is the vertical work of recognition and the horizontal work of movement-building and making friends.


The invocation of student movements past reminds us that the era of Trump has rendered us split temporal subjects: the systemic violence we are experiencing, like the resistance we are enacting, is both old and new. Like those before us, on whose shoulders we stand, whatever happens in this battle with the university for the university, we will have to reckon with what the Sanctuary Campus movement must become, what we have already become, and what it will mean for those still to come.




James McMaster and Olivia Michiko Gagnon are active organizers with NYU Sanctuary and PhD candidates in the Department of Performance Studies at New York University.





[1] Here, as in much of this essay and in our work, we are indebted to Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Wivenhoe / New York / Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2013).

[2] Sara Ahmed, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (Durham: Duke University, 2012), 39.

[3] Here, again, we lean on Moten and Harney.

[4] Karen Umemoto, “‘On Strike!’ San Francisco State College Strike, 1968-69: The Role of Asian American Students,” Amerasia 15, no. 1 (1989): 4.

Leave a Reply