Historic Caribbean student demonstration now on film
Tuesday, March 25, 2014
Caribbean people have changed history: some of them were Trinidadian Henry Sylvester-Williams, who hosted the First Pan-African Conference in London in 1900; Jamaican Marcus Garvey, who started the Black Star Line in the US in 1919; and Trinidadian Kwame Ture, a leader of SNCC and Black Panthers in the mid-20th century US Civil Rights movement. One group of Caribbean people who has also made history is the West Indian students who took over the computer lab of Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, in 1969. (The university is now part of Concordia University.) Referred to as The Computer Riot or the Sir George Williams Affair, it changed not only the university—which would make important student-centred reforms afterwards—but also its participants, who went on to influence revolutionary events in the Caribbean as well. Trinidad-born filmmaker Selwyn Jacob is now documenting the historic event a release from the T&T Film Company said. A producer with the Canadian Film Board, Jacob was in Trinidad in February and March to shoot footage for the documentary feature The Ninth Floor.
In an interview on March 10, Jacob said he had long wanted to make a film on the dramatic event. He said that as a young man, he promised himself, “If I ever did make it to film school… I’d like to tell this story. It was a bit of ambivalence for me. I wasn’t the aggressive type of student. I wondered if I were in that position what I would have done.” The incident, variously referred to by historical and journalistic sources as a riot or as a protest, had its roots in 1968 when six West Indian students protested allegedly racist grading by one of the university’s lecturers. School administration didn’t respond in a way black students found reassuring. On January 29, 1969, some 400 black students occupied the school’s computer lab on the ninth floor of the Henry F Hall Building to protest the school’s position.
It was the largest school occupation in Canadian history, according to Concordia’s student newspaper, The Link. By the end of the protest, which lasted until February 11, computer equipment had been thrown out the window, the lab had been set on fire and the school reported damage to the tune of CAN$3 million, The Link says. According to a Wikipedia article, the protesters said the police set the fire and police blamed the protesters. During his trip home, Jacob filmed interviews with surviving protesters living in Trinidad. His was one of nearly two dozen film shoots facilitated by the T&T Film Company (TTFC) in the past five months. In an interview, Jacob said about the Sir George Williams Affair, “It was an incident that split people along racial lines and within groups. Why would they damage the people’s computers? In a nutshell, that has been something that has been with me for my entire life.”
According to the release from the TTFC, while Jacob was in Trinidad, he and Canadian director Mina Shum interviewed artist and author Valerie Belgrave who had been one of those barricaded in the computer lab along with her late ex-husband Ian “Teddy” Belgrave. They also interviewed protesters Lynn Murray and Terrance Ballantyne, and Mark Chang, who was then the president of the West Indian Students Society at the university. Additionally, they interviewed two people who had not been in the protest itself: Hugo Ford, one of the original six students whose complaint led to the riot, and Bukka Rennie, a student there at the time. “The event triggered the revolutionary movement in the Caribbean, in terms of when people started thinking of national pride,” Jacob said. “That nationalism sort of filtered into the Black Power movement—a sense of black pride, nationality and independence.” He said it also might have contributed to the Grenada Revolution, which began on March 13, 1979. Having already filmed for three weeks in Montreal, Jacob and his team came to Trinidad to scout in February, and then filmed for nine days. “We’ve got the bulk of the film in the can and I’d think we’d spend about eight or nine months in editing,” he said.