PROTESTS AND PEDAGOGY
We are once again in a season of protest.
In 1969 students at Concordia protested anti-Black racism by occupying the university’s computer centre for two weeks. Outside, others carried signs which marked their connections to a worldwide struggle for Black rights.
On the 14th day of their occupation a fire was lit. It caused nearly 2 million dollars in damage and imperiled their lives, forcing the protestors to hack their way out of the computer centre with an emergency axe.
The police -- called by the university’s administration -- assaulted and arrested nearly 100 people fleeing the fire. Some of those same students were jailed anywhere from 6-16 months, threatened with deportation, and Trinidad and Tobago (which had only gained Independence 7 years earlier) bailed out ten of their nationals due to bails set extraordinarily high (ranging from $1,000-$15,000).
In remembering this event today we ask what duty of justice do we owe the past and what are the connections to the present? Should the Trinidad government be repaid the bail money? Was 1960s Canada really any less racist than the segregated US? Why in a nation of apologies has there been no apology issued for this event?
In this moment, institutions around the world are grappling with the legacies of slavery, anti-Black racism, and police brutality. Protests and Pedagogy convened this conversation as part of a two week programme in February 2019, meant to remember and reflect on the 1969 protests. We shared these videos with Concordia to re-ground the issue of reparative justice. Such a lens moves beyond the corporate discourse of equity and inclusion which dominates universities’ “diversity management” policies.
In the US, Ivy League schools such as Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia are questioning the symbolic and material afterlife of slave ownership found in the source of endowments. In South Africa, a movement to decolonize universities by challenging white curricula, and removing imperial statues had ripple effects. Oxford University debated its imperial ties and Glasgow University has become the first British university to admit it benefitted from slavery, and is seeking to make amends. In Canada, prominent universities like Dalhousie and McGill also had founders who were pro-slavery/slave-owners respectively.
In the world-wide context of universities beginning to address their relationship to slavery and anti-Black racism, does Concordia carry any responsibility here? And what is that responsibility? Is it financial responsibility and/or a responsibility to seek truth and to reconcile with those original protestors and the communities to which they now belong, and for whom the events still emphasize a legacy of discrimination and enforced inequality? After all, those students were among the most talented from their Caribbean islands, their aim was to enter medical school, and many of their lives, although still remarkably successful, were transformed by these events. Canada in the 1960s distanced itself from racist practices in the US, as it does now, through the image of a polite, harmonious nation, but should the politics of an apology extend to the Black community as a whole in Canada?
A starting point for Concordia would be an institutional apology for calling the police on Black students in 1969, but also attention to the further demands the students made in 1969 including their call for Black Studies at what was then Sir George Williams University, now Concordia.