Most protests don’t achieve very much, especially student protests. Yet on March 24, 1976, at the height of the New York City financial crisis, a group largely comprised of Puerto Ricans from one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city began an occupation to save their community college. Today, Hostos is still standing.
The very creation of Hostos Community College was a testament to relentless organizing in the Puerto Rican community and the fight for equal access to education in by the student movement. At the same time that Hostos opened as the nation’s first bilingual college, the entire CUNY system, then free of charge, became an open admission system, allowing a more diverse set of New Yorkers access to a college education. Hostos, named for the Puerto Rican revolutionary and intellectual, Eugenio Maria de Hostos, became a hotbed for Puerto Rican activism, and a second home to Dominican immigrants, working mothers and students from across the South Bronx, one of the poorest places in the country.
By 1976, however, New York’s economy was in shambles. Mayor Abe Beame’s management was considered so inept that major decisions had been placed in the hands of the unelected Emergency Financial Control Board. The EFCB was harsh and unrepentant, slashing programs and laying off city employees. Hostos was on the chopping block, with rumors circulating that it would be merged into the larger Bronx Community College or just eliminated.
The students quickly organized to fight back. At first they did responded with blasé tactics like rallies, marches, and flyering. That kind of activity wasn’t going to move the EFCB, which was literally trying to avoid an international financial panic, and in mid-March news hit that Hostos would be closing. Organizers, which came to include not only students, but faculty and community members, began to escalate, taking over the Board of Education offices on the Upper East Side, which drew widespread media attention.
Early in the morning of March 24, an eclectic group that included ex-prisoners, Vietnam vets and a priest took over the college, all of which was contained in a former tire factory. All entrances were locked except the guarded front door. For the next nine days, Hostos Community College became a symbol of rebellion against austerity politics, a cause celebre among artists, intellectuals and radicals. The occupiers held workshops, watched political movies, slept on the floor, and turned the president’s office into a daycare center. All the while, their messaging remained focused on saving Hostos, a focus that kept the peace with the nearby police, who took no action.
In early April, a court order was sent demanding that protesters stop impeding classes. In a remarkable turn, the occupiers allowed classes to resume while maintaining complete control of the building, to the great consternation of the increasingly frustrated Hostos President de Leon. For the next week, the air at the college was more electric than ever. It reminded me of Occupy Wall Street, which reached its greatest heights immediately after Mayor Bloomberg’s failed attempt to remove the occupiers in October 2011. On April 11, Hostos protesters were finally given 24 hours warnings by the NYPD. A group of forty chose to be arrested as an act of civil disobedience, with a crowd of 1,000, including the local bishop, cheering them on and marching after the police cars to the Bronx courthouse.
The activists continued to battle, marching 10,000 strong on the EFCB and occupying Hostos twice more before the legislature passed a bill introduced by the Latinos in the Bronx delegation restoring funding for Hostos Community College. Against all odds, a group of poor, Puerto Rican students had triumphed and saved their college.
Other CUNY students took the occupation tactic to heart, using it to fight tuition increases and win benefits in 1989 and 1991. Meanwhile, Hostos remains a thriving Bronx community college, thanks in no small part to the activists who fought to keep its doors open.
**Today’s post heavily sources an account written by Professor Ramon Jimenez, Hostos Community College: Battle of the Seventies. J