Babylon, P.Q.: Punk Rock U: History repeating

Punk Rock U: History repeating

Bernans: "It should be fun - I'm going to bring my guitar"

I loved Concordia. Concordia was, for me, "Punk Rock U."

When I was there, at the downtown campus studying photography, you could smoke butts and drink beer while doing your reading in the cafeteria. Hell, some of my profs would even haul the occasional case into class. You could watch the cops from Station 25 get crazy with Sex Garage protests downstairs while the newly elected, dyke-dominated student council got crazy with the Concordia Student Union status quo upstairs. Unlike the demographic of my previous alma mater, the University of Western Ontario, I didn’t feel like I was stumbling through a daily Aryan nightmare, a rarefied and blond hair-ified world that the Third Reich – or perhaps Toronto’s Rosedale district – had secretly won.

And, if you were so inclined, you could also get an education, an education that extended well beyond the insular walls of the usual institutional experience. Which is what happens when you have a downtown campus that hugs the darkest heart of the Montreal bar scene, and your favourite local punk bands are playing three floors up from your film class.

Concordia had, and to a certain extent still has, a rep, such as it is. And more importantly, a history, though it’s not necessarily a history university administrators are keen to exploit. The university has long been a flashpoint for political activism and has the burns to show for it. Notably, the Computer Centre occupation and riot in 1969 over charges of racism at the university, which saw 97 people arrested and over $2-million in damage; the November, 1999 student strike, characterized by numerous demonstrations and clashes with police; and most recently the infamous Benjamin Netanyahu protests of 2002, which forced the cancellation of the Israeli prime minister’s appearance at the university after protesters clashed with riot police inside the lobby of the Hall Building.

Concordia is nothing if not colourful. That said…

In advance of anticipated province-wide student actions this year opposing the Charest government’s plan to drastically hike post-secondary tuition rates, Free Education Montreal, QPIRG Concordia, Uberculture and the People’s Campus Coalition are co-presenting a panel discussion entitled The Real History of Concordia: From Computer Riots to Corporatization. (At Concordia’s Hall Building, the CSU Lounge, 7th floor, on Jan. 19 from 4 to 6 p.m.). Consider it a rallying of the troops.

The panel features author and former Concordia student, union activist and political science professor David Bernans, Sabine Friesinger (president of the Concordia Student Union during the Netanyahu riot) and David Austin, co-founder of the Montreal-based Alfie Roberts Institute (which aims to effect positive social change within the black community).

"The event is intended to give Concordia students a sense of the history of the institution that they’re a part of," says Bernans, "because a lot of them probably weren’t even born when the Computer Centre riots happened, and a lot of them would have been pretty young when the Netanyahu riots took place – two of the watershed events in Concordia’s activist history. So this will look at how Concordia activism has shaped the university and continues to shape the university, and what part activism might play in the university’s future."

Bernans himself has something of a fascinating backstory, having at one time been the subject of some rather bizarre harassment and intimidation that he alleges took place at the hands of Concordia’s post-Netanyahu security apparatus following an attempted reading from his 2006 book, North of 9/11. The whole story, as told by Bernans, can be found at http://artthreat.net/2009/11/concordia-university-spied-novelist. Leave time for a shower afterwards.

A lot of what Bernans plans to focus on at the panel event centres around the importance of, and the loss of, student-identified space and how important it is for students to shape the university in their own image.

"Corporations are succeeding in shaping the university in their image because of the way that Concordia has [indulged] security and post-9/11 paranoia, and also for economic reasons, namely the need for funds from corporations that want to target students. What’s happened is that students used to mobilize in the lobby of the Hall Building. That’s where they mobilized against racism during the computer centre riots; that’s where we mobilized for the 1999 student strike.

"But at a certain point, following 9/11, the university said that students could no longer use that space. They said it was a fire hazard, but they also had all kinds of security concerns, especially with what the university considered to be an unholy alliance of anarchists and Palestinian activists on campus. So they blocked that space off to students, and then not long afterward gave it to Tim Horton’s.

"That’s what I’ll be talking about, and how students can challenge that and how it’s been challenged in the past… The space that’s been lost must be won back and the only way to do it is by taking it."

Worried that Concordia will try to shut down the event?

"I don’t know if I’m worried," says Bernans, not sounding very worried. "I think if they do try to shut it down we’ll just [starts laughing] have to take the space. If it doesn’t happen, I’m sure we’ll find another space. I think probably the university has learned its lesson in the past… in my case anyway. If they want to help us get publicity, [shutting the event down] is probably the best thing they could do."

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