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CUNY Gave $4 Million Contract to Security Firm That Claims Protesters Are Using ‘Guerrilla Warfare Tactics’

Strategic Security Corp announced the contract in a press release that used the #StoptheSteal hashtag and warned that campus protesters are working to “instigate violence and chaos.”

A guard working for Strategic Security Corp patrols City College. (Luca GoldMansour / Hell Gate)

The City University of New York bypassed its spending approval process to okay a contract worth up to $4 million with an ex-NYPD sergeant's private security company that boasts of receiving training in Israel, tagged its announcement of the university deal with "#StopTheSteal" and described the student-led protests as engaged in guerrilla warfare.

In a resolution posted May 9, CUNY's Board of Trustees said it had invoked emergency procurement protocols to approve an emergency contract with the Long Island-based Strategic Security Corp. The company was tapped to send security guards to the City College campus immediately following the April 30 confrontation between NYPD officers and campus protesters that ended in close to 200 arrests

In its press release, the company described conditions on the ground at "college campuses nationwide" as a "surge of pro-Palestinian demonstrators" who, the company said, had been infiltrated by "seasoned agitators deploying non-permissive asymmetrical guerrilla warfare tactics to actively resist, inflame crowds, and instigate violence and chaos." 

The NYPD and Mayor Eric Adams have also blamed "outside agitators" for campus protests—but have provided little evidence for the claim.  

Strategic Security Corp. notes on its website that members of its team "have received formal training in Israel and at the FBI training academy in Quantico, Virginia"—and touts the firm's experience working for the Department of Homeland Security at temporary border facilities for asylum seekers in Arizona and Texas. 

CUNY will spend nearly $600,000 a week on round-the-clock staffing of 100 guards for City College per shift, for three shifts a day, according to the resolution—a budget that would last just over six weeks at that spending rate. 

The Board of Trustees' resolution also budgets for another $2 million for fencing and other "security materials" for the company, as needed. The resolution notes that the contract "may be canceled by either party with 24 hours written notice."

CUNY's press office told Hell Gate that "as demonstrations escalated across the nation, including at CUNY, we realized additional security was needed to manage protestors' right to peacefully demonstrate and support CUNY Public Safety officers on our campuses. This firm is one of half dozen security vendors that CUNY and its campuses have contracts with."

By Monday, May 13, Strategic Security Corp. guards were seen working on City College campus during a Students for Justice in Palestine protest. The press office declined to say when the contract's official start date was or how many hours have been spent so far—and declined to comment on the hashtags used on the company's announcement, which also included "#freedomfromfascism"; "#NYPD"; and, somewhat curiously, "#FreePalestine."

The rapidly approved contract marked a significant departure from CUNY's normal procurement process—especially for purchases over $500,000—which require multiple competitive bids and proposals from a list of New York state-approved security contractors. Then, contracts must pass through an evaluation committee and a purchasing department to settle on the lowest-priced quality bid.

But the resolution stated that emergency measures were "required" after the presence of the CUNY Gaza Solidarity Encampment "became increasingly unsafe and hostile"— allowing the college to move ahead with the approval of just four out of the 17 members of the Board of Trustees.

"The taking of such immediate steps required that the University and City College administrations to act swiftly and invoke the University's emergency procurement protocols to retain and procure additional public safety personnel, staff, equipment, goods, and services, at a cost that exceeds the limitations placed on such procurements, and potentially without the authorization and consent of the University's Board of Trustees," the board wrote in the resolution.

Strategic Security Corp, a nationwide private security organization headquartered in Smithtown, Long Island, announced a partnership with a "New York City Educational University" on its website on May 2, a full week before the CUNY Board of Trustees publicized their resolution. 

In its statement, the company noted it would "provide 300 licensed security guards with conflict resolution, de-escalation and law enforcement experience per day to supplement campus police and the NYPD," and then tagged the announcement with a grab bag of hashtags, including "#StopTheSteal."

Asked to explain why his company used the hashtag "#StopTheSteal" in the university contract announcement, the company's CEO, Joseph Sordi, wrote in an email to Hell Gate, "They are just trending hashtags that pertain to the current climate." Sordi defended the choice, saying he was well aware of the phrase's association with the January 6 insurrection of 2021: "Yes as we have seen an uptick in protests and outrage nationwide post this event," he said, referring to January 6. 

Some CUNY faculty and staff members, who have decried ongoing budget cuts by the university, were outraged by the quick decision to spend up to $4 million on outside security officers.

Francis Clark, the director of communications for PSC-CUNY, a faculty and staff union, described the contract as part of an effort by the university "to suppress free expression and assembly" on CUNY campuses.

Clark added that CUNY leaders have been justifying their decision to cut $128 million from college budgets in the 2023 to 2024 academic year—which included mid-year cuts and layoffs—by pointing to budget cuts at City Hall and the expiration of federal stimulus funds.The union contends staff and students have suffered due to reduced class offerings, larger class sizes, and the refusal to bring back some adjunct faculty members.

News that CUNY had bypassed normal vetting protocol for the contract came out on May 9. That's the same day as the university announced that it was converting its Board of Trustees public hearing, scheduled for Monday, May 13, to a virtual hearing, and that speakers would have to register by noon on May 10.

CUNY officials later revealed that only individuals who had pre-registered to give public comment would be allowed to join the meeting or view the livestream. A CUNY spokesperson told Hell Gate that by law, the hearing was not governed by New York’s Open Meeting Laws and therefore was not required to be public. 

A CUNY spokesperson added that speaker testimonies would be published online at a later time. 

PSC-CUNY's Clark blasted the decision.

"PSC members and CUNY students were forced to testify in the private vacuum of a Zoom meeting rather than an in-person public meeting with the board. This only makes sense if there was an emergency situation like what happened during the height of the pandemic," Clark said, "The only crisis happening here is the public officials on the CUNY board are hiding from their duties to hold a hearing that's open and welcoming to public discourse." 

In response to the hearing's move to virtual, student and faculty organizers planned their own public forum on the same day, blocks away from where the original hearing was set to take place.

Flora de Tournay, an English professor at Queens College who attended this "People's Hearing," which was meant to demonstrate that the academic community can run CUNY without the Board of Trustees, said CUNY's decision shouldn't stop the community from demanding accountability.

"A militarized NYPD was not enough for CUNY to repress community members peacefully and passionately and rightfully advocate for a free Palestine," de Tournay said. "This is why we were not able to give public feedback in a public forum, because they do not want resistance to this initiative."

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