Student documentary depicts URI’s Taft Hall takeover in 1992 by Black Student Leadership Group

TD Scholar Cristóbal Bustos’ film captures URI history

KINGSTON, R.I. – Jan. 5, 2023 – To current University of Rhode Island students like Cristóbal Bustos, the events of fall 1992 are considered history. The ’90s may be back in style and many students appreciate the music or fashions of the day, but events at URI from the 1992-93 school year exist in another time period, a generation ago. With little awareness, students walk by Taft Hall, unaware that on Nov. 10, 1992, over 200 students took over the building, one of the oldest on campus.

In the fall, one of those student leaders joined forces with a current student, hoping to change that, to bring to light events in University history that changed the course of the University and had a significant impact on the URI of today. 

Cristóbal Bustos ’25 of Cumberland recently debuted a film that aired at the University’s Taft Hall takeover commemoration earlier this fall.

The film depicts how goals set by student leaders of the day in the Black Student Leadership Group and Uhuru Sasa have become a reality, such as the Africana Studies major and a new Multicultural Student Services Center located in the middle of campus. The film explores the controversy over a truncated Malcolm X quotation at the entrance to the Carothers Library and Learning Commons and other conditions on campus that led to heightened racial tensions. 

URI President Marc Parlange has assured the URI community work is underway to remove the quote.

As the work began all those years ago, the seeds for this new undertaking began with a conversation. Earl Smith, the late assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and member of the Black Student Leadership Group at the time of the takeover, mentioned to I. Lanre Ajakaiye ’95 that he had video footage of the Taft Hall takeover. Ajakaiye didn’t know anyone had it and had never seen it himself. After viewing it, they discussed the idea of making it into a documentary. They brought in Malcom Anderson ’94, the former president of Uhuru Sasa and spokesman for the Black Student Leadership Group during the takeover. Anderson traveled from Maryland with a box of news articles and information he had kept throughout the years. Merging their collections produced a critical mass and ultimately a promise fulfilled, to Smith, to see the video completed. 

Sophomore Bustos was a burgeoning young filmmaker; though he was a student in the Talent Development program, he was unaware of the Taft Hall takeover. At Ajakaiye’s invitation, Bustos joined the project, hammering out a story line before setting out on a series of interviews to have a documentary ready for November. Ajakaiye could not be more pleased with the final result.

“It forever captures one of URI’s most powerful moments of strategic, student civic engagement with many of the participants now being leaders throughout the state at very high levels,” says Ajakaiye, a community developer in Providence recently appointed the chief development officer of the United Way of Rhode Island.

Bustos quickly received an immersion in the program’s history, and the activism of students of prior generations, creating the 30-minute documentary shared in front of a full and appreciative audience during a commemoration ceremony and speaking program in the Higgins Welcome Center.

“Cristóbal’s project is a necessary component that should be included in the history of the University,” said Robert Britto-Oliveira, assistant director of URI’s Multicultural Student Services Center, who coordinated the program. “His commitment to telling the story of a movement that took place before he was born was commendable.” Britto-Oliveira says that the organized, reflective component added through Bustos’ work adds a new dimension to the sharing of this story. “As a direct beneficiary of the movement, I was moved by the final product and the community’s response to it. It is imperative that current students and Talent Development scholars have a thorough understanding of the events that took place in 1992. One of the main reasons I organized this event was for them to learn from the past in order to prevent the same traumas experienced 30 years ago from continuing to repeat. Given that this documentary lives and is accessible, current scholars can now opt to have a better understanding of the power that their voice possesses and how to organize effectively to produce positive change.”

Bustos says the experience pushed him in many ways. “I think I went from introverted to extroverted for this project!” he laughs. He appreciates the opportunity given him.

Translating those dusty videocassettes, mixing them with live current footage of participants looking back, makes for a timely and relevant documentary. The video provides a poignant look at the events of that fall, not only for guests and participants but also for others interested in learning more about it. 

“I had no idea what happened in Taft Hall going into this,” Bustos admits, “but learned through the process. Many students don’t know this history. I know I learned a lot.”

Bustos also visited the archives at URI’s Carothers Library and the Providence Journal and explored materials given to him by Ed Givens, assistant director in URI Talent Development.

A film/communications major, Bustos intends to keep putting his lens on important topics but is planning to switch to public relations as a major. Outside of his work with the film, he is also involved with Brothers On a New Direction (BOND), an organization on campus for young men of color. 

The documentary is not only a look back, it’s a report card of sorts to show what progress has been made on the BSLG’s initial goals (hiring of a school diversity officer, more minority staff in departments such as the Counseling Center and Career Services, increased funding for minority scholarships) and what are still to be achieved (creation of a Native American studies program, for one).

“Things have improved at the school,” Bustos says. “Students today should be grateful for the work that has been done but there is always room for improvement.”

Bustos plans to keep up his documentary work, including a focus on social justice, saying, “It’s about accountability.” He’s now working with the Community, Equity and Diversity office, assisting with social media and continuing to put his videography skills to good use. With two years to go at URI, he hopes to pursue an entrepreneurial path after graduating. “I want to work for myself,” he says, “and the documentary helped me realize that filmmaking is my passion.”

Bustos appreciates that documentaries are a means to learn more about the world, learning by doing, by asking.

Now Bustos’ work is going into URI’s archives, as part of the school’s social justice history. 

See the documentary and follow Bustos on Instagram at Crisp Captures @crispcaps_.