‘Infuriated’ CUNY Law Graduates Booed Their Commencement Speaker, Mayor Eric Adams
"We don't blindly follow your authority just because you're the mayor."
2:42 PM EDT on May 13, 2023
CUNY Law School is possibly the most radical and public service-oriented of law schools in the country. For forty years, it has trained students—many of them low-income and people of color—to become public interest lawyers, representing the city's indigent criminal defendants and helping them navigate the city's complex civil and criminal legal system.
And while some graduates do end up working for the city's District Attorneys or corporate law firms, many become public defenders, tasked with challenging the City's racist policing, and its arcane ways of delivering punishment.
"There's no better place to become a good public defender, and a good movement lawyer than CUNY Law School," said Misaël Syldor, the graduating class's full-time student class president (there's a separate class president for the law school's part-time degree track). "You can meet like-minded people, and people who were determined and principled in their concepts of justice."
On Friday, at the law school's graduation ceremony in Flushing, Queens, a former cop came to speak at the graduation—and graduates turned their backs and booed.
Eric Adams, who as mayor has pushed for cuts to public defender and public interest offices, railed against the state's bail reform efforts, and demonized the city's homeless, spoke to the graduation class, who were taken by surprise by the appearance of the mayor.
"We found out about it when we saw that he was on the program—it was a total shock," Syldor told Hell Gate.
Syldor said that the graduating class organized over a Whatsapp group they had been using since they started classes remotely during the pandemic, to quickly organize a protest against the mayor, whose presence they believed was antithetical to the law school's mission.
"We were trying to figure out quickly what sort of response we could do. The best we could do was to turn our backs on him, and of course, boo," Syldor said.
Syldor has accepted a job at the Bronx Defenders this fall, and the appearance of Adams, who has worked to make things far more difficult for public defenders, who are leaving offices in droves, struck a nerve.
"Many of us are ending up in positions where police are our adversaries, and he represents so much of what we believe are issues in our society, to have a former police officer be our speaker was infuriating," Syldor said. "Especially in the wake of Jordan Neely's murder, where Eric Adams refused to condemn his killer, where he choked a man for fifteen minutes, committed a public murder. Instead of condemning him, the mayor has sent police to violently repress people protesting."
Syldor also thought it was ironic that Adams would attend a CUNY graduation after cutting the system's budget—and other public services that New Yorkers rely on.
"He cut the hospitals budget, the library budget, the parks budget, education budget, any sort of municipal service that's good for society and contributes to real public safety? He cut," Syldor said. "Then he raised the budget for police. There are so many reasons why a CUNY student would be infuriated to see him on this stage."
City Hall has not yet returned a request for comment on the speech or its reaction. (City Hall's official Flickr account, which usually documents most if not all of Adams's public appearances, does not have any photos from the event).
After receiving boos and heckles during his short speech, Adams said that he himself has protested at times in life, but characterized the graduates as narrow-minded.
"To those who believe their beliefs are the only beliefs in a diverse city like New York, instead of being a detached spectator in the full-contact sport called life, get on the field," Adams said.
To Syldor, this moment in Adams's speech showed just how unfamiliar with the mission of CUNY Law School.
"He essentially called us petulant children. Called us detached people. But we were protesting him because we're not detached, we're conscious of the things he's doing and how he's harming our city and that's why we're protesting him," Syldor said. "We don't blindly follow your authority just because you're the mayor. It's not what we believe in. Not what we're trained to do. And not what we'll do with our careers as lawyers."
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Max Rivlin-Nadler is a co-publisher of Hell Gate. He's reported for Gothamist, The New York Times, Village Voice and NPR. You can find him walking his dog, Stiva, or surfing in the Rockaways.
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