Of Independence, sedition and legislative violence: how elitist laws have damaged the nation

Sedition, careful, careful how you talking … hey hey!

Sedition, careful, careful whey you walking

Incompetent idiots have genuine patriots

Always under escort in the sedition court.

The Mighty Sparrow (Sedition)

Photo: Slinger “Mighty Sparrow” Francisco performs as an emerging calypso talent.

The Sedition Act, used recently to charge Watson Duke (and earlier Michael Seales and Abu Bakr), is a dangerous law that has no place in our law books. This Sedition Act, along with marijuana laws, anti-loitering laws, vagrancy laws, and obeah laws, is part of a long list of colonial laws that are still on the books.

These laws were colonial weapons enacted to control and police black and brown bodies and create a society to mostly suit European and elite interests. So it is not that these laws are archaic, as argued by some, but rather that they were abusive and ill-conceived in the first place and certainly have no place in our modern society.

The Sedition Act, in particular, has been weaponized against the trade union movement, Black Power protestors and other persons who expressed views that challenged the colonial and post-independence authorities. All these laws have contributed to the underdevelopment of our country by denying the public access to a wide range of views, especially from those who have alternative perspectives.

The particular danger of laws such as the Sedition Act is that, given their origins, they are ambiguous and can be selectively activated at any time in ways that are against our democracy and free speech. There are other laws that can ensure a balance between the rights of free speech and responsibility.

If we were to look through the archives, especially around election times, I suspect we will find many cases of politicians making war statements that are seditious in the context of the Sedition Bill. Yet they have never been charged. Another example of how these laws are selectively used to crush protests was when anti-drumming laws were used to stop a protest during the Summit of the Americas.

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Certainly, any discussion of the validity of a law must include the original intent of the law. The Sedition Act of 1920 was used throughout the English-speaking Caribbean to repress dissent and resistance to the British empire.

The 1919 Labour Uprisings and Legislative Violence

The early 20th century was a significant period in the development of modern T&T. On one hand, the heterogeneous interests of coloniality that consolidated itself after emancipation continued to control the society. On the other hand, working-class resistance continued as soldiers who fought in World War I returned home with sharpened racial consciousness, given that they fought for Britain yet experienced deep and blatant racism there.

In 1919, just one year after the end of World War I, utility workers, dockworkers and railway workers went on strike against the backdrop of low wages and racism. Later in the year, dockworkers again went on strike, forcing businesses to close and chasing away the scab labour replacements. In response to the turbulent events of 1919, local whites were armed, marchers were fired on, arrested and some leaders were deported, British troops were increased and repressive legislation was passed to control dissent.

One of these pieces of legislation was the Sedition Act that was passed in 1920, just one year after labour riots. It followed a string of colonial legislation, from emancipation onwards, that also included the Vagrant, Rogues and Vagabonds Ordinance amendments (1838), Masters and Servants Ordinance (1846), Summary Convictions Ordinance (1868), Peace Preservation Ordinance (1884), the Shouter Prohibition Ordinance (1917) and Habitual Idlers Ordinance (1918).

The Sedition Act aimed to clamp down not only on speech but also publications that were seen as threats to the colonial order. Marcus Garvey’s newspaper, The Negro World, which was read across the colony, was one of the targets of this legislation, along with a long list other banned literature, which included Marxist, anti-imperialist, trade union and Black publications.

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The Seditious Trio: Garvey, Elma François and Butler

Marcus Garvey would again become a target when he planned to visit Trinidad and Tobago in the 1920s. According to historian Jerome Teelucksingh in his book Ideology, Politics, and Radicalism of the Afro-Caribbean, the Trinidad Guardian and the POS Gazette (both representing white elite interest) led a sustained defamatory campaign opposing this visit. Such was the fear of Garvey’s message that the Expulsion of Undesirables (Amendment) Ordinance was passed, thereby restricting Garvey from visiting the Caribbean until 1937.

Banning Marcus Garvey did not stop his influence, nor did it diminish the resistance of the working class. The emergence of Uriah Butler, Krishna Deonarine (Cola Rienzi) and Elma Francois was significant in the development of working-class collaboration that cut across traditional racial boundaries.

Even in the midst of more organised labour struggles, there was yet another manifestation of legislative violence. In a brilliant lecture recently at the Caribbean Workers Conference, held at Cipriani College, sociologist Rhoda Reddock expressed that the 1932 Trade Union Ordinance, while opening up certain rights, at the same time limited trade unions in major ways by “limiting membership to wage labourers, excluding small tradespersons, artisans, domestics, small farmers, fisherfolk, self-employed persons etc”.

Also in 1932, the Cinematographic Ordinance was introduced, which in conjunction with the Board of Censors banned films for sexual content, violence, interracial relationship depictions and content hostile to the British empire.

In 1934, the Theatre and Dance Halls Ordinance was passed. According to Gordon Rohlehr in his book Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad, the bill required calypsonians to submit their calypsos for approval before they were performed. The bill also banned ‘profane, indecent or obscene songs’ and ‘lewd or suggestive dancing’.

Photo: Trinidadian labour organiser Elma Francois

All of these ordinances, Rohlehr wrote, were first aimed at keeping the colonial worker in a sealed vacuum of ignorance about the international nature of the struggle. Second, they sought to block communist and anti-imperialist ideas, and third, to prevent the emergence of the racially aware Black worker.

In the words of the banned calypso ‘Sedition Law’ by calypsonian King Radio: “They want to license we mouth, they don’t want we talk, they mean to license we foot they don’t want we walk”.

This legislative violence continued in the arrest and trial of Elma Francois and Uriah Butler for sedition. Elma François was the first person—and woman—in the history of T&T to be tried for sedition. She defended herself and won the case, while Butler was convicted and jailed.

In spite of the attempts, the first half of the 20th century was filled with many ordinary, unknown men and women resisting colonial, social and legislative violence. They worked towards decolonization, universal adult suffrage, and rights for women, trade unions, domestics and the working class in general.

However, as local writer Gerry Kangalee explains: “When the people of the Caribbean after the Second World War demanded independence and control over their destinies, we were diverted with political independence under the rule of middle-class professionals who implicitly supported capitalism.”

In fact, it seems that British colonial authorities deferred granting independence to Trinidad and Tobago so that the radical trade union leaders (who would have been more likely to upset entrenched dominant elite interests) would not get into the corridors of political power.

Photo: Iconic Trinidad and Tobago labour leader Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler.

Independence and the Threat of Unruly Natives

Despite the rhetoric of ‘massa day done’, Trinidad and Tobago’s transition from a colony to an independent republic did not shatter the global context of imperialism, nor did it transform the internal inequalities and colonial hierarchies.

Certainly, the corridors of political power were opened up to non-white persons, but the systems of colonial education, the colonial laws, the inequalities of land and resource distribution, and the ideologies of race, colour, gender and class superiority/inferiority continued. This led Caribbean thinkers to describe the country as a plantation society and economy.

CLR James writing prophetically in 1932 said clearly that no one expects that these islands “on assuming responsibility for themselves, [would] immediately shed racial prejudice and economic depression”. He goes on to say that the post-independence leaders will disappoint, deceive and betray the people.

Similarly, Frantz Fanon in his chapter The Pitfalls of National Consciousness, in the book The Wretched of the Earth, wrote that the “national bourgeoisie identifies itself with the Western bourgeoisie, from whom it has learnt its lessons.”

After Independence, Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams set about to make changes, however, his rootedness in British academia and middle-class background did not allow him to think outside of the boundaries of western capitalist development. Thus, in post-independence, we see a continuation of the repression of the colonial era.

The 1963 Mbanefo Commission to root out leftists, subversives and radicals; the house arrest of CLR James; and the brutal repression of the Black Power movement were all Jamesian and Fanonian prophecies painfully coming true. In addition, like the colonial period, we also see the use of legislation to brutalise dissenting voices into compliance.

Photo: Karl Hudson Phillips (via Trinidad Express)

The 1965 Industrial Stabilization Act aimed to block strikes and minimize subversive elements in the oil and sugar industries. The Public Order Bill pioneered by Karl Hudson Phillips in 1970 was a draconian bill (See Chalkdust’s calypso Ah Fraid Karl) that was met by widespread opposition before it was pulled. Yet political scientist Hamid Ghany expressed that the elements of the Public Order Bill were reworked into other pieces of legislation, including the Firearms Act 1970, the Sedition (Amendment) Act 1971, and the Summary Offences Act 1972.

It is by no accident that the Sedition Bill (and others) that has recently come under scrutiny was amended following the Black Power uprising. In fact, activists and leaders of the 1970 Black Power era felt the brunt of this law as they were jailed at Nelson Island and later charged with sedition.

Just like in colonial times, public dissent and disturbances inspired elites to pass legislation to consolidate their grip on society and to discourage persons from expressing views that threatened the status quo. So when in 2016 our minister of finance, Colm Imbert, boasted that despite continuously increased gas prices the people have not rioted yet, it is a long history of legislative violence that has brought us to this passive place.

Lessons of History

Looking back at the history of legislative violence, mainly against ordinary black and brown people, two lessons are clear. Firstly, despite some legislative improvements, many laws on our books from a colonial genesis were never meant to protect the interests and rights of the masses of persons. Quite the opposite, both colonial and post-independence elites used legislation as a weapon to maintain the status quo and stamp out dissenting voices.

This is made worse by the ‘savings clause’, that maintained colonial laws that would have been invalidated by the new constitution. In other words, although independence brought a new constitution, the ability of ordinary Trinbagonians to experience the full range of rights in it was limited by the ‘savings clause’ that elevated backward colonial laws over the new constitution. Trade unionist Cecil Paul gives a very strong example of this here.

Photo: Queen Elizabeth II (left) greets Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley (right) in April 2018.
(Copyright Office of the Prime Minister)

Secondly, 57 years of independence has shown the elite have little interest in overturning backward colonial legislation in a manner that is needed to bring new development to the society. The elite reaps the economic, social and political benefits of the present plantation society and economy.

In addition, they do not feel the brunt of the poor decisions that they make. They send their children to the ‘best’ prestige and private schools; family members often have lucrative state contracts; when they get sick, they don’t line up in public hospitals; and armed guards, gated communities and elite neighbourhoods generally keep the violence and crime at a distance. So there is no urgency to address the basic abc issues in our society.

Just look at how many mainly ordinary citizens continue to be brutalised by marijuana laws despite government acknowledgement (almost a year ago) that the law is problematic. It is in this context that the formation of a better Trinbago could only come from more informed and active citizens, vibrant social and economic co-operatives and more inclusive and robust public dialogue.

The brightest moments in the nation’s history was when its citizens stood up for freedom and revolted against [legal] slavery; when they stood up for labour rights despite legislation that sanctioned employer powers; when they sang, beat drums, played steelpan, marched, protested, worshipped, wrote, and wined in opposition to elitist colonial and post-independence laws and policies.

The best of the Caribbean has come from the seditious nature of the people. The most powerful aspects of Caribbean culture (think Kweyol, Reggae, Calypso and Steelpan) and the most important advances our country has ever made have come from this spirit of resistance. It is the inherent right of human beings to express different views, to question authority and to challenge unjust laws.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago citizens march for racial unity on 12 March 1970.
(Courtesy Embau Moheni/NJAC)

Although repressive colonial and post-independent legislation has weakened protest movements and pacified and divided working-class resistance, no legislation (including the Sedition Act) can close the eyes of those who see or the eyes of those who will see in the future.

To close with the words of Sparrow: “The people of a country shouldn’t ’fraid to talk their mind /If you guilty here is straight to jail without a fine/Betrayal of the people’s trust, to me is much more dangerous/Than what they talking ’bout”.

Editor’s Note: This blog was written by Dr Tye Salandy, who is a sociologist and independent journalist. He can be reached at tyesalandy@gmail.com. (A shortened version of this article appeared recently in the Trinidad Express.)

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