Cooper Union Student Protest: Cleaning Up their School

By Max Liboiron.

Around one hundred Cooper Union students are in the third day of occupying the office of their president. The protest comes after a vastly unpopular decision by their board of trustees, lead by school president Bharucha, to end their more than 100 year tradition of a tuition-free school. They are fighting against an accelerating trend of introducing financial barriers to education around the world. And they’re keeping it clean.

I’ve written elsewhere about how power struggles are often waged via dirt and discard. The Cooper Union protest is no different. Yesterday, Cooper Union higher-ups cut off access to water and bathrooms, removing the ability to keep and stay clean:

TC Westcott, Cooper Union’s vice president of finance, arrived at 5 p.m. to tell students that they had an hour to leave, or face the school’s judiciary process. Security guards cut off use of the 6th and 7th floor stairwells, and students found that their bathroom doors had been bolted shut, along with a wooden board tamped over the water fountain.

If this protest follows an age-old script, at some point someone in power will declare that the sit in is threatening health and safety via poor sanitation, and that eviction is necessary for clean up.  It’s not political, it’s just household chores.

Perhaps in anticipation of this, but much more likely as a material and symbolic action that shows they care for their school, the sit-in students have posted countless animated gifs and images of them cleaning up the president’s office.

This short video was posted about ten minutes ago:

Cleaning the President’s Office

Last night, as the police came on campus, they were vacuuming, and posted the process on their twitter feed. 

A photo of the blackboard in the office shows the student’s activist plans, and cleaning is mentioned more than once:

Cooper Union Student Occupation

Dirt and cleanliness are about dividing the line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviours, about us and them, and about safe and unsafe. By making housekeeping such a visible part of their protest, whether conscious or not, Cooper students are making larger statements about their role in their institution, about inclusiveness, and about care, caretaking, and citizenship at Cooper Union.

We stand in solidarity with the students of Copper Union.


Max Liboiron is a postdoctoral researcher with the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing and the Superstorm Research Lab.