Controversy at City College: The Morales-Shakur Center

Jeff Ingber
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Posted: Dec 05, 2016 9:47 AM
Controversy at City College: The Morales-Shakur Center

In the wake of the death of Fidel Castro and the impending transition to the Trump Administration, the push to have violent criminal fugitives returned from Cuba to the U.S. has taken on renewed vigor. With this in mind, it is instructive to note that a decade ago next Monday, City College of New York became the focus of national media attention when The Daily News made public that the school had named a student and community center after two infamous alumni, Guillermo Morales and Assata Shakur (formerly Joanne Chesimard). The newspaper’s front page displayed a picture of Shakur next to which blared the headline: “Disgrace: Joanne Chesimard is a fugitive cop killer. Why is City College allowing her name to be honored on campus?” Inside was an article reminding its readers of the criminal backgrounds of Morales and Shakur.

William “Guillermo” Morales was a leader, and the principal bombmaker, of the "Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña" (Armed Forces of Puerto Rican National Liberation, or “FALN”). The FALN, which claimed to be fighting for Puerto Rican independence, was formed by Castro surrogates and sought to impose a Cuban-style repressive regime on the island. From 1974-83, the FALN committed well over one hundred violent actions, making it the most active domestic terrorist organization in American history. The FALN’s deadliest deed occurred in January 1975 when an explosive device tore through New York City’s historic Fraunces Tavern, killing four people and injuring more than sixty others.

In July 1978, Morales was sitting at a workbench in his two-room apartment in East Elmhurst, Queens, screwing the cap on his fourth pipe bomb of the day, when the device exploded in his hands. The explosion ripped through the apartment, blowing out doors and windows. Morales’ face was severely damaged and he lost numerous teeth and his left eye. Also gone except for the left thumb were his fingers, torn off at the first knuckle and found stuck to the ceiling appearing like burnt sausages. Morales was sentenced to a lengthy prison term, but pulled off a miraculous escape from Bellevue Hospital’s prison ward with the help of fellow FALN comrades and Weather Underground radicals. He subsequently found refuge in Cuba, where he remains to this day.

Assata Shakur, after graduating from City College, became active in the Black Panther Party. She later joined the Black Liberation Army, and as a BLA member committed numerous violent felonies, including armed bank robbery, kidnapping, and murder. Shakur’s most notorious crime occurred on May 2, 1973 when, after she and two male colleagues were stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike for driving with a broken tail light, Shakur shot to death State Trooper Werner Foerster at point-blank range with his own service weapon. Shakur was convicted of Foerster’s murder and other felonies, and sentenced to life imprisonment. In November 1979, only months after Morales’ escape, three armed BLA members sprang Shakur from New Jersey’s Clinton Correctional Facility for Women by seizing two guards as hostages and commandeering a prison van. Shakur lived as a fugitive before fleeing to Cuba in 1984, where she was granted political asylum by Fidel Castro and encouraged to make anti-U.S. speeches espousing revolution and terrorism.

The establishment of the Morales-Shakur Center was an outgrowth of the 1989 student demonstrations and sit-ins at City College over proposed tuition increases. One of the concessions made to City College students was the designation of a third-floor room in the school’s North Academic Center building as a community center. Unbeknownst to the public, it was named in honor of the two felons. Over the years, students were granted autonomous control over the center, which had a separate funding and administrative structure from other clubs. The center was decorated with pictures of Che Guevara, Malcolm X, and other activists, and used as a meeting place by student organizers and community organizations.

In December 2006, a City College student, Sergey Kadinsky, took note of the center’s name in a manner that thousands of others hadn’t. “I didn’t know who Morales and Shakur were, and I’m pretty sure that most of the other students didn’t know either.” Kadinsky’s online research on their backgrounds led him to express his concern in writing to both the student government body and the college newspaper, The Campus, about the inappropriateness of the center’s name. After receiving no response from either, he sent his letter to The Daily News, which investigated. Within days, the college administration had the center’s signage taken down.

The story was picked up by major media outlets, and law enforcement representatives throughout the country spoke out. So did Joe Connor, the son of Frank Connor, one of four men killed in the Fraunces Tavern bombing, who said, “My father grew up in Washington Heights and went to City College…They don’t have a room named after him.” There was, however, strong push back from several college student groups to the sign removal, spurring rallies and protests, with allegations made of “educational gentrification” and “ethnic cleansing.” Kadinsky, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia, was repeatedly maligned online by fellow students, who branded him a snitch, a “right-wing fanatic,” and a racist.

In January 2007, a group of City College students and associated community organizations filed suit in federal court to force restoration of the sign and to prohibit the school from taking action against anyone who replaced it or from evicting the groups that use the center. As a result of the lawsuit and sympathetic City College faculty members, the center quietly remained in use by and under the control of leftist groups.

In January 2013, an inner voice compelled Joe Connor to check on the center. “I googled the center’s name and then called it. Sure enough, it was still there, so I went over and took pictures.” Joe called the college’s administration and sent them his photos, which showed the center’s double red doors containing a large black painted fist, a poster with a picture of Shakur and the words, “Hands Off Assata,” and a sign proclaiming it the “Morales-Shakur Student and Community Center.”

With the issue revived, in October of that year, the administration determined that the space being used by the center had been allocated to certain student groups without review and approval. The center was shut down, to later be reopened as an annex of the college’s office for career and professional development.

Nonetheless, the push to restore the Morales-Shakur Center lives on, intertwined with other radical causes, fanned by periodic rallies, supported by articles in liberal media sites, and touted in social media including a web site and Facebook page. Always, the past is ignored, facts are twisted, and a concept of “social justice” is hyped, one that focuses on ensuring that individuals, no matter their actions, contributions, or character, receive what is their “due” from society. In the case of the Morales-Shakur center, an “ends justify the means” mentality elevates monsters and crucifies the innocent.

As history teaches us, fairness based merely on entitlement is not justice. Friedrich Hayek, the great social theorist and political philosopher who lived through two world wars, may have said it best. “Social justice does not belong to the category of error, but to that of nonsense.”