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Dear editor: Basil Davis’ 1970 funeral is historic, although we’ve lost hard-won gains

“[During the 1970 uprising] Basil Davis pleaded that [an] arrested man had mental problems but was well known and harmed no one. The police officer shot the unarmed, pleading Basil Davis at point blank range killing him on the spot.

“The shooting death of Basil Davis outside of Woodford Square, which was then called the People’s Parliament, led to an unprecedented outpouring of public outrage and grief, potently expressed in the largest funeral that Trinidad and Tobago has ever witnessed. Estimates of the crowd range up to 100,000…”

Photo: Mourners march through Port of Spain during the funeral procession for Basil Davis on 9 April 1970.
(Courtesy Embau Moheni/NJAC)

The following Letter to the Editor on the symbolic funeral of Basil Davis on 9 April 1970, during Trinidad and Tobago’s 1970 uprising, was submitted to Wired868 by Khafra Kambon, the director of Pan-African Affairs at the Emancipation Support Committee of Trinidad and Tobago and a former central committee member of the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC):

I am writing this on 6 April 2020, exactly 50 years after a young man from Barataria, a regular ‘brother on the block’—moved by the messages of the ongoing revolutionary Black Power upheaval at the time—appealed to a police officer to release another young man who had been arrested and was being taken to Police Headquarters.

Basil Davis pleaded that the arrested man had mental problems but was well known and harmed no one. The police officer shot the unarmed, pleading Basil Davis at point blank range killing him on the spot.

The shooting death of Basil Davis outside of Woodford Square, which was then called the People’s Parliament, led to an unprecedented outpouring of public outrage and grief, potently expressed in the largest funeral that Trinidad and Tobago has ever witnessed. Estimates of the crowd range up to 100,000. I cannot tell. I can only concur with the Mighty Duke: “Oh Lord, ah never see so much crowd…”

Makandal Daaga, then Geddes Granger, and I attended an important meeting in South Trinidad that morning while Clive Nunez and other NJAC leaders managed the initial funeral proceedings in Woodford Square. When we reached to Morvant Junction on our return Daaga and I found ourselves in the midst of the funeral procession on its way to the cemetery in San Juan.

Photo: Students vent their feelings during the funeral procession for Basil Davis on 9 April 1970.
(Courtesy Embau Moheni/NJAC)

I stood atop the first hill on the road to Second Caledonia and for several minutes watched the massive passing crowd, a seemingly endless flow of people densely packed from pavement to pavement on that Eastern Main Road.

Looking east from my vantage point I could not see the beginning of the procession and looking west towards Port of Spain I could see no sign of an end.

It took us a long time to reach anywhere near the front of the procession dominated visually by flags the truck borne coffin, draped in the red, black and green. We only made it because there was a pause for a few minutes outside of the Davis home in Barataria to pay respect to his mother and other family members.

One of the remarkable observations of that day—I did not see a single uniformed police officer in vehicles or on the street.

This funeral, less than two months after the State’s mishandling of a small but significant demonstration on February 26, was a clear indication that people were not just burying a young man who stood up unarmed in a plea for justice and humanity. It symbolised in its unprecedented scale, its unorthodoxy in dress—with bright colours replacing black and white—in its passion, that the people were burying in their hearts and minds an unjust order.

Photo: Mourners march down Frederick Street on 9 April 1970 for the funeral of the slain Basil Davis.
(Courtesy Embau Moheni/NJAC)

It was a cry for a new society, based on values of justice, morality and equity; a demand for economic independence with participatory structures for political and economic control; a challenge to the people to achieve racial harmony based on mutual respect and understanding…

It was an unmistakable signal to the state and to the local and foreign elites who supported it that the messages of the Black Power movement, led by the National Joint Action Committee, had penetrated deeply.

Less than two weeks later the government felt the depth of rebellion. A team of NJAC leaders and sugar worker activists, who had called for the organisation’s support, mobilised the workers over an intense two day period, brought the entire industry to a standstill and planned a march into Port of Spain on 21 April.

At that time WASA workers were on strike. Other public utility workers were about to strike. Many more strikes were imminent. The desperate response of the government was a State of Emergency, officially announced on the morning of 21 April, hours after several persons identified as leaders of the movement had been kidnapped by special police units in pre-dawn raids.

On another front, selected army officers, including Rex Lasalle and Raffique Shah, had been arrested and imprisoned at their Teteron base. But they would quickly be released by other soldiers.

In his tribute to Basil Davis, the Mighty Duke, recorded the mobilised people singing: ‘Power in the Hands of the People Now’.

Photo: Mourners march to the sounds of African and Indian drums during the funeral procession for Basil Davis on 9 April 1970.
(Courtesy Embau Moheni/NJAC)

Unfortunately, despite the demonstrations of people power over an intense two month period, despite the army revolt and many positive changes in government policy and people’s values, the power of the people had not been institutionalised. Many of the hard-won gains, therefore, have been substantially eroded. These include the psychological gains, the rise of self esteem, African-Indian unity, the rise of national ownership in the economy and much more.

Brother Valentino warned: ‘Trini have a funny way of forgetting; their history to them like it doh mean nothing…”

For us to progress as a nation we need to remember, again in the words of Valentino: “the history that went down here in the 1970’s…”

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