A very strange year, 1969. I'm surprised I can even remember back that far, but the release of Ninth Floor - which I still haven't seen - by the NFB has triggered memories that I'm now sorting through. See, I was there when it all happened.
When the Computer Centre Crisis began with the occupation of the ninth floor of Sir George Williams University, I was 17 and also the "news editor" of the student newspaper, the georgian.
The georgian office was on the sixth floor at the south-east corner of the downtown cube some people called the "air conditioned nightmare." When I wasn't going to classes, I spent most of my time there -- a short escalator ride down from the seventh-floor cafeteria and all the action. In a way, I grew up in the georgian office, during the crisis and afterwards. I even lost my virginity there -- in more ways than one.
Of all the events I have witnessed in my life, this was one of the most traumatic. After it was over, punishment came down on all the participants. Names were blackened, lives wrecked, and some fine journalists never worked again in journalism. In the aftermath, everyone tried hard to forget and put it behind us.
The following year, drugs flooded the campus and the georgian office -- and even more memories were swept away. It was 1969, and our minds were being blown, almost daily, in overt and hidden ways.
Then Alan and I go upstairs to write up the story for tomorrow's georgian. It's a cold night in late January. Tomorrow will be the beginning of a long, slow siege.
Also that February, David Bowie would begin recording Space Oddity months ahead of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing on July 20. Also that summer, Brian Jones would drown in his own swimming pool. It was the summer of Charles Manson and the Sharon Tate murders. And would be followed by the winter of the Altamont Festival and the Stones' deadly performance of Sympathy for the Devil.
1969 The year we were told everything was about to change for the worse. What we're finding out, all these years later, is that some of these "mind-blowing" events were outright hoaxes. Not one was what it seemed at the time.
One of the people 'blackened' by his involvement in the computer centre affair, and by the stand he took at the time, was the georgian's Editor-in-Chief David Bowman. Interestingly, he has the same name as the astronaut in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was the inspiration for David Bowie's 1969 song.
David Bowman, a thin wiry ultra-white 23-year-old whose British accent and pale blond Afro set him apart from the rest of the georgian crew, was a clear-thinking, principled guy. As editor, he came out strongly and never wavered in his support of the black students in their demands for an investigation into charges of racism against their Biology professor.
He and other journalists at the georgian were aware that Principal John O'Brien's administration had mishandled the case, and were not being straight with the students. These suspicions came to a head in a controversial letter allegedly written by someone in the Dean's office, suggesting that the occupation could be ended by "breaking a few windows" and calling in the cops to eject the occupiers. That is, by faking a riot.
In the days leading up to the final explosion of February 11, Bowman and others, including former georgian editor Frank Brayton and some journalists from the McGill Daily, attempted to leak this damning letter which exposed the administration as planning what today we might call a 'false flag.' But before the story could get out and embarrass the Dean and the university, Bowman and Brayton were accused of having fabricated the letter as a 'hoax' -- and soon after, the 'riot' exploded.
The following day, February 12, the entire staff of the georgian were fired by the administration, with support from the student council. Dave Bowman disappeared -- I'm not sure I ever saw him again. In the summer of 1975, I ran into Frank Brayton while I was visiting Vancouver. Recognizing me after six years, he said "We all come here to lick our wounds." I don't know what became of him afterwards. Though gifted and charismatic, he always struck me as too sensitive for a profession where sociopathic personalities rise to the top.
So in mid-February 1969 I ended my short (three-month) career as News Editor of the georgian, Canada's most radical student paper at the time, or at least a close second to the McGill Daily, then headed by the team of Marc Starowicz and Mark Wilson. Actually, as I recall, I was more of a proofreader/intern, and Alan Zweig was the real news editor. He showed me the ropes, giving me taxi chits so I could travel back and forth from the printers, late at night, where he and others sometimes came to do layout. In those days, the georgian came out twice a week -- although it increased to four times a week during the height of the crisis and occupation.
I couldn't join the occupation since I was still living in the suburbs with my parents. All I saw of the riot was what everyone else saw who was standing on the street on Bishop Street that morning. Helmeted cops herded us onto the sidewalk, as computer cards rained down from the windows that, earlier, had been belching smoke from the mysterious fire that, to this day, remains a mystery. Why would occupying students set fire to their own barricade? For that matter, why would a group of them have invaded the cafeteria at 4:30 am on that fateful morning, overturning food machines and destroying furniture, as they blocked the stairwells in their ultimate takeover of several floors? Up to then, it had been a peaceful sit-in. What was the point of all that violence, while most of the 97 occupiers were upstairs sleeping?
I haven't seen Ninth Floor -- maybe it has answers to these questions. But even people who were there don't really know what happened, or who did it. How could the people on the ninth floor know what was going on down in the seventh-floor cafeteria? Or on the other side of their own barricade, for that matter? Nevertheless, all were arrested -- "white revolutionaries, Negroes, and ladies" as they were quaintly labeled -- and instantly branded as guilty criminals. "Why should we not throw the book at them?" the administration asked, with amazing confidence and self-righteousness, the very next day in the special issue evening students' newspaper. Awfully fast, when you come to think of it -- almost as if they had the presses ready to roll in the aftermath. Along with condemnation of the destruction came the blurred photos of the smashed computers, piled-up furniture and the famous lineup of arrested students with their hands up against the cinderblock wall.
On January 21, using questionable judgment, the georgian had run a front-page interview with a photo of black power leader Eldridge Cleaver, and the headline: STICK EM UP, MOTHERFUCKER - WE WANT WHAT'S OURS.
Who made that decision, I can't remember, but it certainly sent a message of cross-border escalation. This was no longer just about six students and their Biology grades at a second-rate university in a provincial city noted for mainly for its night life. Who was stoking the story, blowing it out of proportion, turning it into a race war in the making?
But now, the little details didn't matter. What mattered were the headlines. Shame, shame. The shock. The glare of international attention and condemnation. In any case, the staff of the only paper with an interest in investigating, had all been fired. We were in disgrace for supporting the 'rioters.'
From that moment on, we all began to dissociate. We were ripe for psychedelic takeover.