February 10, 2009
Concordia burns amid racial slurs
Discrimination and defiance: Computer Riot remembered, 40 years later
Five million dollars worth of equipment was damaged as firemen scrambled during the largest student riot in Canadian History.
Sirens reverberated through downtown Montreal as fire trucks and police cars rushed towards the three-year-old Hall Building. Surrounded by riot police clashing with protestors, the ninth floor of the jewel of Sir George Williams University was on fire.
Black smoke billowed from open windows and onlookers watched with horror and disbelief. “Let the niggers burn!” some yelled.
Forty years ago, on Feb. 11, 1969, almost 100 Sir George students made international headlines when their 13-day occupation of the Hall Building’s computer centre ended in flames. The demonstration had begun when the university’s administration allowed a Biology professor accused of racism to keep his post.
Perry Anderson was a young lecturer at Sir George, on track to complete his PhD. During the 1967-68 academic year, he was teaching Zoology 431, a prerequisite for medical school. Among the class of 48 students, 13 were of West Indian, or Caribbean, descent.
“When the term started, you could feel that something was wrong,” Rodney John, a West Indian student in Anderson’s class, told The Link in 2004. “Anderson would address the white students by their first names, and he would address all of the West Indians as ‘Mister.’ On the surface he was treating the West Indian students with respect. He wasn’t calling you ‘boy,’ he was addressing you as ‘Mr. John.’ But it was differentiation.”
Of the 13 students in Anderson’s class, none received a grade higher than C. Due to the lecturer’s behaviour and his discriminatory marking, the 13 West Indian students filed a formal complaint with the Dean of Students.
Over the course of the following summer, the Dean’s office prepared a report that exonerated Anderson of all charges. When the students who filed the complaint asked to see the report, they were told that they had been sent a copy, but that it had been lost in the internal mail system.
Outraged that they could not see the document absolving Anderson, the six remaining students—the rest had quit school or graduated—asked for the establishment of an open hearing committee.
On Jan. 29, 1969, the committee—composed of four white professors—met in H-110. After several hours, hundreds of students walked out in protest.
Robert Hubsher was a white, third-year Psychology student at the time of the riot. “I sat through the entire hearing, the more I sat through it, the more I became disturbed.”
Hubsher believed the hearing committee was biased and did not represent both viewpoints equally. “The point [of the riot] wasn’t the discrimination, the point was the fair hearing. To this day, I do not know if this professor was being discriminatory in his practices because [the issue] was completely avoided.”
As students like Hubsher and John walked away from the meeting, they remembered a piece they had read in the Jan. 28 issue of The Georgian—the Sir George Williams University student newspaper and one of The Link’s precursors.
“It so happened that on the previous weekend, [The Georgian reported] the administration set up a meeting with the police and chief of security. In that meeting they listed what areas they should protect in the event of a riot. Number one on their list was the computer centre,” remembered John.
What followed was a two-week stand off between the administration and nearly 400 students occupying the ninth floor computer lab and seventh floor lounge. On Feb. 9, lawyers negotiating for both sides reached an agreement and all but 100 students left.
The following day, the 100 students left on the two floors discovered that the university’s administration was still debating the agreement. Infuriated, the students began to throw furniture down the stairs and escalators, barricading access to the Hall building’s seventh floor.
Having lost control of the situation, the administration asked for the police to clear the building. The Montreal police riot squad entered the Hall building at 4:30 on the morning of Feb. 11. Within an hour, the seventh floor was clear. Protected by barricades and armed with fire hoses, the remaining students stopped the police at the ninth floor.
At 6:30 a.m., those outside the Hall building were surprised to see the first of hundreds of punch cards flutter onto Mackay Street. The area around the Hall Building turned white as 30 years’ worth of work blanketed the streets. The police responded by surrounding the computer centre.
The riot was finished by 1:30 in the afternoon as a fire in the compute centre—no one could confirm how it started—forced the students to flee. Five million dollars’ worth of equipment was damaged as 125 firemen spent the rest of the day dousing the flames.
Hubsher, who was arrested as he fled the computer centre, remembers the day. “People’s paranoia took over and it was very frightening as a 20-year-old to think how easy it was for a society to unravel. I still stand by what I did.”
John was protesting on the streets around the Hall building as the 97 demonstrators—55 white, 42 black—arrested by the police were led out.
“There were hundreds of students outside, many of whom I knew from class, yelling ‘Let the niggers burn.’ Had it not been for the line of cops between the mob and us, we probably would have been lynched.”
The largest student riot in Canadian history was over.
—with files from Jeff Campbell and Heidi Modro
For more information on the Computer Riots, including interviews with the participants, the aftershocks and a timeline of events, reach for next week’s supplement in The Link.
The university has not released any statement in accordance with the anniversary of the Computer Riot.