Radical History 101

Panel Traces History of Social Movements at Concordia

The Computer Riot, which shook the university’s Hall Building in 1968, is an often overlooked portion of Concordia’s history.

There are some parts of Concordia’s history that you will not find in glossy student recruitment brochures. The 1969 Computer Centre uprising, the Netanyahu riots and the “cheese in” which led to the founding of The People’s Potato are not incidents administrators are keen to advertise.

Yet according to the folks at QPIRG, Concordia’s reputation as a hotbed of political activism is grounded in a history of social movements that students need to know about.

Co-presented by Free Education Montreal, überculture, the People’s Campus Coalition and Concordia’s Graduate Students’ Association (GSA), the “Real History of Concordia” panel took place last Wednesday as part of QPIRG’s “New Years Revolution” series.

Author and alumnus David Bernans, former Concordia Student Union president Sabine Friesenger and Montreal historian David Austin gave a lesson on the history of activism at Concordia, emphasizing its relevance for current struggles at the university over rising tuition and the battle for government transparency.

“Concordia is a contested terrain,” said Bernans. “Powerful private interests seek to shape Concordia along the lines of a private corporation under the thumb of a corporate dominated Board of Governors. And at the same time, many Concordia students, staff, faculty refuse to play along and they have their own agenda for Concordia as a public institution.”

Bernans was banned from reading from his novel North of 9/11 on campus in 2006, somewhat ironically, by administration in the wake of post-9/11 security fervour. While officials attempted to blame the censorship incident on a “clerical error,” documents released in 2009 showed that the writer was being spied on by university security personnel.

But the extent to which certain actions on campus, like the 1969 computer riots, have been perceived as serious threats to national security is indicative of their potential to cause change, said Austin.

“Those that were involved in these actions (during the computer riots) did not understand the gravity of their actions, or how they were perceived,” said Austin. “But being conscious of the possibilities of our actions is profoundly important in terms of thinking about and actually bringing about change.”

The “Computer Centre Incident” at Sir George Williams University in 1969 arose after several black West Indian students complained they were being deliberately failed by a professor because of their race.

When it seemed the complaints were not being taken seriously by administration, hundreds of students acted in solidarity by occupying the computer centre on the eighth floor of the Hall building. A botched negotiation resulted in $2 million in property damages and 97 arrests, and the adoption of a university-wide Code of Conduct.

“When they protested against that professor, in many ways they were exercising their right to oppose what that professor symbolized, which was an entire infrastructure,” said Austin. “It was about the institution of institutionalized racism.”

Friesinger, who was CSU president in 2001, witnessed another famous riot which prevented Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from being able to speak at Concordia, along with a variety of actions against the growing privatization of the university, which included exclusivity contracts with food service providers like Marriott. Reclaiming the right to serve cheese on the mezzanine led student groups to eventually form The People’s Potato.

“The People’s Potato was not just created to serve free vegan food, but to oppose this privatization process and to highlight the barriers to accessibility of education that came with this privatization process,” said Friesinger.
Leading the audience in a cheer of “Whose school? Our school!” from the panel, Friesinger betrayed her hopes for more student-led change in the coming years.

“Students are uprising now everywhere in the world,” she said. “I think it’s really the beginning of the end of an empire and a potential shift in the economic system. That’s something that we haven’t seen in a long time.”

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 20, published January 25, 2011.