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Police action backfires on PM

October 12, 2003
By Raffique Shah

THERE can be no argument that the people who engaged in protest demonstrations in Chaguanas and elsewhere last Monday broke the law. Or, I should say, they breached an ass of a law that has no place in our statute books. But so do thousands of others who break reasonable laws, and that on a daily basis. In fact, the Crime Committee established by Prime Minister Patrick Manning, in its media advertisement, harps on how many of us, on a daily basis, do things that are illegal-if we are to go by the very statute books that were invoked by ACP Oswin Allard before he arrested Manohar Ramsaran and others.

I shall not dwell here on the extent to which most, if not all, of us are "lawbreakers", even the self-righteous who raise hell about kidnappings and banditry and murders. Suffice it to say that whenever a motorist's speedometer tips over the 80km mark, he is doing something illegal (yes, look into the mirror, damn lawbreaker). And when, in so doing, he overtakes a cruising police vehicle, those cops are also guilty of ignoring the infringement.

But back to last Monday and the damn foolishness that took place, triggered by politicking MPs and insensitive policemen. I'd hate to think that Minister Howard Chin Lee gave instructions to the police; if he did, then he, too, must be a very stupid politician. The law that prohibits public demonstrations was enacted shortly after the events of 1970 during which some of the biggest anti-government marches ever were held, almost on a daily basis. It is one section of the infamous Public Order Bill introduced by the then PNM government. It met with almost riotous opposition from all quarters before it was withdrawn (after a PNM general council meeting strongly condemned it!).

That law was first invoked sometime in 1972 I believe when the then leader of the DAC, one ANR Robinson, and a handful of his supporters held a sidewalk march in Marabella. The police bundled them into a van and charged them. Its first real test came when I led thousands of protesting cane farmers in a midday demonstration through the streets of San Fernando in early 1974. Winston Leonard, Sam Dowlath and I were arrested and charged. Then in 1975, when the ULF was in its embryonic stage, George Weekes, Joe Young, Basdeo Panday and I led the famous "Bloody Tuesday" march that ended with scores of people being beaten by marauding policemen and dozens being charged with breaking the law.

It backfired on the government because of the sheer brutality meted out, and also because a number of working journalists fell victims to police stupidity. There was universal condemnation of the police action. And this, really, is the vital point that any government in office needs to be mindful of when either they instruct the police to take action or the cops do it based on internal orders. As I wrote at the start of this column, one cannot dispute the illegality of last Monday's protests. But it backfired on the Government in a big way.

It was Budget Day, which meant the Minister of Finance should have been centre stage for 48 hours-plus. Instead, what happened? Photographs of the arrests of two MPs and a handful of people who staged a rather small demonstration were plastered on the front pages of the dailies. It was top of the television news. Mr Manning's Budget presentation and measures he announced played second fiddle. Was that what the Government wanted? For a two-by-two demonstration to take precedent over the Budget? To give Panday, who appeared to be breathing his last political breath, new life?

It's one thing to say that those who break the law must face the consequences. And it's true that Panday will have his shrinking core supporters engage in illegal activities like protest marches in pursuit of civil disobedience and his vain hope of forcing the duly elected government to do-well, really, I don't know what. Call fresh elections? Institute damaging constitutional reforms like proportional representation? I know this, though: if Panday were in power and such actions were taken by anyone against his government, he would not have hesitated to use the police against them.

The march, a culmination of many calls by him for the people to take action on the issue of runaway crime, would have fizzled out but for the police intervention. It was small and calls for businessmen to close their shops in support went largely unheeded. Still, once the protesters were not blocking traffic or other people from using the road, why arrest them? Personally, I have always found that particular law to be in breach of people's fundamental rights, and downright offensive. A people must always be entitled, as of right, to adopt such measures if they feel aggrieved, or, as was the case here, if they feel Government is not being pro-active on an issue as serious as crime.

Indeed, the people of Laventille/ Morvant, more than anyone else, should be the ones to protest the seeming inability of the police and/or government to protect them from a crime wave that has struck them hardest. Unless government takes strong initiatives to curb crime, it will have to face the wrath of defenceless victims. Having said that, I must note that Panday and his UNC colleagues have gone out of their way to stymie efforts by Manning's Government to address the problem.

Now that the PM has announced his latest assault on crime through the appointment of newly-promoted Brigadier Peter Joseph to head a special police/military unit, we are hearing discordant notes from many of those who are howling for action. Worse, the Police Association has called on its members to boycott the unit. And I am sure Panday will use that call, by the body that represents those who arrested his marchers on Monday, as ammunition against Government. It is all very confusing, it reeks of politicking. Insp Christopher Holder does have a point about the legality of the creation of this unit.

If he opposes it, though, he (Holder) must show that his colleagues are quite capable of handling crime on their own. Thus far they have not convinced many. And there is nothing wrong with putting a competent military officer in charge of such a major exercise. It has been done elsewhere-in Jamaica a few years ago-with some success. I shall return to this issue in another column. Still, I believe that the police action last Monday gave Panday the lifeline he needed to gasp a few more political breaths before he expires-hopefully in peace.