In April of 1969, around 200 Black and Puerto Rican students at the City College of New York brought classes to a grinding halt. For two weeks, the protesters occupied the school’s Harlem campus in demand of a more equitable education and a student body that mirrored the racial makeup of New York City. Culminating a nearly decade-long undertaking, filmmakers Andrea Weiss and Greta Schiller are exploring the historic action in a new documentary titled The Five Demands (2023), showing at the Downtown Community Television Center’s (DCTV) Firehouse Cinema in Chinatown today, July 18, through Thursday, July 20. Following last month’s Supreme Court decision to strike down affirmative action, the story feels more pressing than ever.
Weiss and Schiller have made a number of documentaries under Jezebel Productions, a company they founded in 1984. While many of their films illuminate erased historical narratives, this story especially hit close to home. Schiller has two degrees from City College, and Weiss has taught at the school for 20 years. Schiller never knew about the protest as an undergraduate, and Weiss said she first heard about it 10 years into her career at the university.
“It was such a hidden story,” Weiss told Hyperallergic in an interview. “We all know about the anti-war movement, but this had a much larger effect.” She credits the “occupation” with opening the doors of higher education to non-White people.
In the late 1960s, the free and academically rigorous City College had earned itself the nickname “the Harvard of the Proletariat,” but the school drastically failed to reflect the demographics of New York City in its admission process. In 1969, the school’s surrounding Harlem neighborhood was 98% Black and Puerto Rican. Citywide, Black and Puerto Rican students made up 40% of the high school population, but at City College, they comprised only nine percent of the student body.
Not only were these students not being admitted, but the few who did gain entrance were struggling to succeed inside the institution. In February of 1969, Black and Puerto Rican City College students handed the administration five demands: The establishment of a School of Black and Puerto Rican Studies; the implementation of a freshman orientation for Black and Puerto Rican students; student oversight of the school’s SEEK program (which recruited low-income students); a student body that reflected the 40% Black and Puerto Rican makeup of New York high schools (the real number was actually closer to 57%, which the students eventually called for in subsequent negotiations); and a requirement that all education students learn Spanish and take Black and Puerto Rican history courses. Unsatisfied with the school’s response, around 200 hundred students took over 17 buildings in the school’s South Campus in Harlem on April 22.
Police descended on the school on May 8. The school’s president resigned, the institution’s new leader told the authorities to remove protesters “by any means necessary,” and police violence erupted on the campus. The uprising continued for another week, and ultimately, City College agreed to three of the students’ demands and the entire CUNY system, which encompasses the school, implemented an open admissions policy for the following year.
The effects were immediate: The next matriculating class was 75% larger, and by 1971, the percentage of Black and Puerto Rican students had doubled. By 1975, the percentage of White students had dropped from 78% in 1969 to 30%. The policy lasted in this form until 1976, when CUNY rolled back its new plan in the face of budget cuts. The historically free City College began charging tuition and schools through the city resumed stricter admissions requirements, although the system-wide open admissions policy remained formally in place until the 1990s.
Weiss and Schiller tell the story through a series of interviews with protesters and other former City College students.
“I hope that people don’t just see it as this interesting little footnote to history: It’s not in the past, it’s still with us in the present,” said Weiss. She sees the story as instrumental in shifting the perception of higher education admissions.
“It was important to lay out why the American myth of meritocracy doesn’t work — because the playing field is so uneven,” Weiss said, explaining that she intentionally dedicated the start of the film to this notion before chronicling the protest itself. “We have this enormous resource — all these young people — who are not getting educated, even today. It’s a waste of an incredible resource we have. Society would be incredibly different if we just educated our young people.”
General admission tickets for Firehouse Cinema’s screenings cost $14. The Five Demands will play at 7pm today, July 18, 4pm on July 19, and at 4pm and 7pm on Thursday, July 20.