PNM stoked the Black Power fires
By Raffique Shah
HISTORY will record the first Black Power demonstration as having taken place on Thursday February 26, 1970.
But the seeds of that season of discontent which would follow that first march had been sown at least five years earlier when the PNM Government wrote into the statute books the infamous Industrial Stabilisation Act (1965).
The main thrust of the law was to control the activities of certain militant trade unions.
In the run-up to the passage of the ISA in Parliament, George Weekes and the OWTU had emerged as the most militant opposition to the Eric Williams Government.
The trigger that forced Williams to fast-track the law through its various stages in Parliament, though, had its genesis in the sugar belt.
There, the workers had lost confidence in Bhadase Sagan Maraj, who was known for his behind-the-scene settlements with British sugar company Tate and Lyle. And they had turned to Weekes, asking him to lead them.
Williams could not allow that.
Bhadase was his "anchor man" in sugar, the leader who would ensure that while he maintained a public stance against the Government and sugar company, he would secretly ensure that the workers did nothing to upset either the company or the Government.
Indeed, a journalist who wrote for the Daily Mirror and later the Express (he is Indian, by the way, and he has long quit the media), and who had developed a good relationship with Bhadase, told me how Bhadase, in a boastful but conspiratorial manner, had shown him two "pillow sacks" filled with pound (sterling) notes.
He had just returned from the UK, where Tate and Lyle had given him a "gift" in order to settle the sugar workers' wage negotiations at a decent level (three per cent over three years, I believe). So, in order to stop workers from turning away from the likes of Bhadase, Carl Tull, W.W. Sutton and similar stooges of the Government, the ISA was made law.
By late 1969, bus workers who fell under TIWU went on an extended strike that saw the coming together of a number of militants, many of them from outside the trade union movement.
Besides Weekes and his OWTU officers, and Joe Young and his TIWU men (Clive Nunez, Krishna Gowandan), there were others like Vernon Jamadar and Alloy Lequay (DLP parliamentarians), Lloyd Best and James Millette (UWI lecturers), attorneys Basdeo Panday and Lennox Pierre, and UWI students Geddes Granger, Syl Lowhar, Dave Darbeau, David Murray and Kelshall Bodie.
The bus strike, which ran for several weeks, was violently resisted by the Government.
As Darbeau recalls details of a meeting, which was called to decide whether or not the militants would block the buses the PTSC had planned to roll the following morning, Best laid on the table a lengthy dissertation.
As Best proceeded to expound on the options open to the striking workers and their union, Panday jumped to his feet and shouted: "Brothers, I did not come here for this. We took a decision last night. If no compromise by the Corporation or the Government this morning, we going to block buses. Either we going or we not going. Who decide we going?"
When the morning did come, there were heavily-armed police on one side, and militants on the other. Those who attempted to form a human blockade to prevent the buses from rolling were badly beaten by the police, tossed into a waiting Black Maria, and later dumped into cells at Police Headquarters.
Even before the bus strike, an incident at the Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Canada, had also served as a spark that lit the flames of the 1970 Black Power revolution.
There, Caribbean students, many of them nationals of this country, were arrested and charged after they had occupied the university's computer centre in protest against racism at the institution.
The February 26 demonstration here actually began as a mark of solidarity with some of those students who had gone on trial that day.
A note of interest: although several of the students were fined and given light alternative jail sentences, the one man who received the heaviest jail sentence, two years, was one Rosie Douglas, now Prime Minister of Dominica.
I recall these incidents that served as precursors to the violent eruption in 1970 to show that had the Williams regime not reacted with such naked repression towards the genuine concerns of students, workers and the unemployed, the revolution might never have taken place.
From the very first demonstration in 1970, the police used every opportunity to beat and arrest dissidents.
The Government-sanctioned violence against the masses culminated with the shooting to death of a young man, Basil Davis, outside of Woodford Square, on April 6. He was the revolution's first martyr, his funeral attracting a crowd that was conservatively estimated at 40,000.
The soldiers at Teteron Barracks looked on at these developments with much interest. There was no doubt where the loyalties of the high command lay-squarely with the Government, since most of the senior officers were Government appointees and open supporters of the PNM.
The bulk of ordinary soldiers came from families that held PNM party cards.
But they were also young men who, especially after the return from Sandhurst of young officers who came from the "flower power" generation of the 1960s, became aware of the racial imbalances that existed at the global level. And if one expected the fortunes of Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth to be any better in the newly-independent ex-colonial states like ours, that turned out to be a myth.
Copyright © 2000-2003 Raffique Shah