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Home » Clarion » 2023 » July 2023 » New film about CCNY takeover

New film about CCNY takeover

A movement for Open Admissions

(Credit: The Five Demands, Courtesy of Icarus Films)

In April 1969, Black and Puerto Rican students shut down City College, which at the time was known as the “Harvard of the Proletariat.” Despite its location in Harlem, the student body was overwhelmingly white. The student takeover led to the extended occupation of the South Campus, classes being canceled and the resignation of the college president.

Students engaged in the occupation had five demands for their college administration. They wanted representation, a voice in their education, an education around their history, and to have educators understand the community’s needs. In The Five Demands, City College alumni who were student leaders at the time of the takeover reflect on the actions and the issues that led to their demands. Shomial Ahmad, Clarion’s associate editor, talked to directors Greta Schiller and Andrea Weiss about how they made the film and what motivated them to tell the story. Weiss and Schiller became interested in the story when Weiss was teaching film at City College of New York (CCNY).

Why did you set out to tell this story today? How are these demands resonant and reflective of current struggles?

We started making this film back in 2014 when we first learned of the 1969 takeover. Of course, we knew about the student protest movement nationally and were part of it ourselves, but not about what had happened at City College in 1969. We felt that was a huge omission from the historical record that needed to be rectified.

When we started making the film, we didn’t realize the extent to which affirmative action would be under serious threat as it is today, and the extent to which the basic questions of who is served by public education and what is taught in the classroom would be so contentiously fought over. We must be vigilant about any progress made, because, as we are seeing now, it is easy for it to be overturned.

You told the story of City College’s historic takeover through interviews with alumni, faculty and archival photos and footage. Can you talk about the process of how you sought out interviews?

We didn’t want to use scripted narration or “expert” historians in the film. We wanted the story to come from those who were participants in the takeover on both sides of the gate. Of course, it was impossible for us to interview everyone who was part of the takeover, and we had to make some hard choices. We wanted to make sure many different perspectives were told, in terms of the strike leaders (known as the Committee of 10) and, as one student striker referred to them, the “foot soldiers.”

We wanted women’s voices, we wanted Black American, Puerto Rican and West Indian perspectives, and we wanted a few white students to talk about their reactions to the strike. But mainly we were looking for good storytellers who could bring history to life.

STUDENT ACCOUNTS

Francee Covington, one of the former students and the only woman on the Committee of 10, recalled a professor humiliating SEEK students, asking them to stand and saying they were admitted to CCNY even though they weren’t prepared for college-level work. She manages to take that painful memory and transform it into an astute political critique of institutional racism: “For someone to say that Black and Brown people are arriving at CCNY without a proper foundation, who caused that to be? Who kept that in place?” she asks.

Likewise, James Small, a member of the Committee of 10, responds to another alum who explains that she was tracked in high school to be a nurse’s aide. He says, “You weren’t left out of college because you were dumb or because you couldn’t learn; you were left out because of the way that society is structured, and you weren’t structured into that process.”

What kind of CUNY and community resources did you tap into for the telling of the story?

Of course, the City College Archives were a huge resource where we were able to find mimeographed fliers, photographs, and newspaper coverage from the time. CUNY TV did a program awhile back on the origins of the SEEK program and generously let us use their outtakes (material that didn’t make it into their broadcast), which was extremely helpful because they had conducted filmed interviews with people who are no longer with us, including David Dinkins and Basil Paterson, both of whom were instrumental in ushering SEEK through the New York State Assembly, and Louis Reyes Rivera, one of the leaders of the strike. CCNY students, whether interviewed for the film or not, looked for materials in their own private collections, and we were able to get many photographs from them.

The establishment of the SEEK program in 1965 at City College was crucial in bringing Black and Puerto Rican students to City College, the flagship institution of CUNY. Talk about how its establishment set the groundwork for what would come later in terms of the student takeover in 1969.

There simply would not have been enough students of color on campus in 1969 if the SEEK program hadn’t been established. By then it had had four years of admissions, so there were enough students of color to take over and control 17 buildings. But it wasn’t just about the dramatic increase in numbers of students of color over four years; the SEEK program augmented the curriculum, it encouraged SEEK students to read authors who were people of color (hard to believe, but very few, if any, were in the canon at that time), it challenged and supported students to develop their critical thinking skills, and it helped empower them to the point where they took such a radical action.

INNOVATIVE CURRICULUM

The SEEK program was outstanding in that rather than teach a standard curriculum, it used a new approach that is now called scaffolding, which is now widely accepted. It met students at whatever level they were at and brought them along from there. It encouraged students to read books that they could relate to, and to write about their own experiences. It only focused on traditional grammar when they were more comfortable with reading and writing. For many students it was the first time teachers took their point of view seriously. As Adrienne Rich, a former SEEK teacher, said, “We were learning from and with our students as rarely happens in the university.”

Why do you think the story of one of the biggest college takeovers is largely untold?

Most people know about the student protests of the era that were primarily against the war in Vietnam. The student protest at CCNY resulted in Open Admissions, and it seems that over the past decades the university has not been particularly proud of that chapter of its history. Open Admissions was seriously underfunded, and there were considerable negative consequences from that lack of resources, but overall, with hindsight, one can see it was a huge step in the right direction. (It must be noted that CCNY could remain tuition-free during the Great Depression, when its student population was overwhelmingly white and completely male, but had to start charging tuition for the first time in its long history just six years into Open Admissions.)

For whatever its shortcomings, Open Admissions kicked open the door to higher education much wider for people of color in New York City, and that had a ripple effect across the country. We hope with this film, CUNY will embrace and feel proud of that chapter of its history.

The Five Demands will be playing at Firehouse Cinema from July 14–20. To find out more about the film, including upcoming screenings, go to thefivedemandsfilm.com.


Published: June 21, 2023 | Last Modified: June 22, 2023

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