Approximately 50 years ago, mainly young people—disillusioned by the continued colonial nature of the country, the deep racism, classism and limited opportunities—made brave efforts to improve things.
Instead of the then government, led by Dr Eric Williams, listening and properly engaging with these persons, the leaders of the movement were arrested, jailed, beaten and brutalised while persons were hunted, shot and even killed.
‘Law and order’ were not about the best interest of the citizens but about preserving the status quo.
Fifty years later, we are faced with unrests that parallel the Hosay Riots, the Canboulay Riots, the 1919 Labour riots, the 1930s Labour uprisings and the 1970s Black Power movement.
It is this eruption of discontent from those who are experiencing the depths of marginalisation and brutality that has historically brought about the greatest improvements of conditions in unjust social structures.
All of them were met with brutal violence by authorities. Yet when history looks back, all these events were important parts of the evolution of our society. By all indications, the present government has not learned these lessons and may repeat the grave errors of the past.
Since Independence, Trinidad and Tobago has pursued various development models ranging from Sir Arthur Lewis’ Industrialization by Invitation to Vision 2020/2030 to the People’s Partnership’s Seven Interconnected Pillars for Sustainable Development.
These frameworks have been disrespectful to our local history, culture and grassroot thinkers and thus have taken the country into a state of dependency, violence, wastage and environmental destruction.
Billions and billions of dollars have gone into ‘National Security’, paying foreign so-called experts, buying high tech surveillance equipment, anti-riot gear, and the infamous blimp, while individuals and organisations that have long being doing important work on the ground are ignored.
Imagine what improvements could have been made if our local indigenous organisations and grassroots intellectuals were supported to expand the work that they have been doing.
Instead, successive governments pursued a top-down neoliberal and capitalist model of so-called development which gave us fancy big buildings but failed to develop the potential of the people.
Failed mega farms, failed mega projects, legitimised corruption, token projects in marginalised communities and the close relationship between various governments and big business interests saw much of our oil and gas revenue squandered or stolen. Billions of dollars of state assets were also placed in the hands of elite interests (See Chagville beach).
It is not difficult to understand the roots of all of this. European colonial rule created a society with laws, institutions and ‘knowledge’ that were not in the best interest of all people but instead for the benefit of the mostly white elite.
This is what Caribbean intellectuals such as Lloyd Best and George Beckford called the plantation economy and society. Law and order operated not for the benefit of ordinary people but to protect the status quo.
When these laws were not enough additional laws were created, such as what happened in the aftermath of the 1919 and 1930s labour uprisings, and the 1970 Black Power Movement.
Colonial institutions and rulers placed its knees on the necks of ordinary peoples and they have remained there for 58 years of successive post-independence governments. At times, they have even added another.
With all the distractions and glitzy bling bling that oil and gas money can buy, many have been blind and desensitised to the fact that people in various stigmatised communities cannot breathe.
At a press conference, National Security Minister Stuart Young expressed that the ongoing social upheavals around Port of Spain are orchestrated and people are being paid to protest. The insinuation there is that there is some political motive behind the unrest.
It has been a trend with this government that whenever there are issues or people offer dissenting views it is usually dismissed as someone having some political agenda.
This is quite similar to the government’s claim that the crime spike in the last part of 2019 was a planned political strategy. And, it is disrespectful to the lived experiences of people from the Port of Spain communities, who know that when they go through the normal channels, they usually do not get relief or justice.
They know that the quickest way to get attention is to protest and burn tyres. Why are our leaders so quick to dodge responsibility for what is happening?
Why are they so quick to try to conspiracy theory their way out of any major situation that they should take responsibility for?
People in these communities are genuinely hurting and dodging responsibility and using strong-arm military tactics to repress peoples’ valid issues will lead to more social problems.
I do not know any sensible persons who think that any government in the last 20 years genuinely cared for them or value what they think. Even people who have traditionally been hard-line PNM and UNC supporters are fed up but do not see a way out.
The antagonistic political situation where there are little opportunities for independent candidates or small parties is an inheritance of a British Westminster style system of governance.
The dominant parties know that they do not have to do much work to retain their stronghold. Political hand-outs, token projects, and election trinkets are part of the processes that have done little for marginalised communities.
More than any other party, the PNM, with more than 45 years in power, has contributed the most to the underdevelopment of stigmatised Port of Spain communities.
Of course, other political parties in power have done little to reverse this. All the political parties that have been in power have to also take responsibility for the naked hate, classism and racism directed at persons from these communities—as efforts were never taken to have inclusive dialogues so that persons can understand shared and diverse histories to be able to relate better.
Parties in power have been far more interested in using the state machinery, including the state media, to bolster support for their political party instead of encouraging deeper awareness of the perspectives, history and culture of the people of Trinidad and Tobago.
It is part of the culture of political antagonism that makes it easy for persons from both sides of the political divide to put narrow political, ethnic and class interests above the interests of the nation.
While the Black Lives Matter protests have been forcing companies and power structures worldwide to confront racism and white supremacy, many of those issues are relevant here and have long been articulated by various local thinkers and activists.
Police Brutality and systemic racism are unaddressed legacies of our plantation society. For this reason, the dialogue about removing colonial statues are relevant and connected to the social unrest happening right now.
It is because the state ignoring efforts at decolonisation that many issues are left to fester in both marginalised and affluent communities.
We are in the sixth year of the UN Decade for People of African Descent but little to no acknowledgement or support for ongoing activities have come from the state. This is quite strange as the government and its various ministries are often quick to jump on the bandwagon of other United Nations commemorations.
Persons living in marginalised communities are quite aware that their lives mean nothing to many people in the society, including people in high positions of office. They are seen as lazy, dependent, expendable, criminal, useful pawns to maintain political power and ‘cockroaches’, who stand in the way of a crime-free paradise.
There are many stories of people having decent ideas and trying to meet with a member of the government to share their ideas, often with little success. There is also the feeling that the mainstream media contributed to the neglect and stigmatisation of these communities.
If there is a protest, crime, or a visiting politician, they are present—yet they are often absent for positive community activities.
Videos from Port of Spain show heavily armed police officers firing tear gas and beating protesters who were chanting ‘no justice, no peace’. In Beetham Gardens, police officers reportedly shot an unarmed woman who was among a group of protestors. Reports indicate that she later died at hospital.
Brutal repression of dissent is a strategy that was used by colonial administrations. Now, more than 58 years since independence, the announcement by the Police Commissioner for officers to arm themselves with riot gear, tasers, and pepper spray is yet another sign that we have not learnt from our past mistakes.
The harsh language, brutal police tactics and the huge rise in police killings are part of a mindset that says that certain lives matter less. Even if people think that all of the persons shot and brutalised by police are criminals, the job of law enforcement is not to be judge, jury and executioner.
It is deeply problematic to be encouraging law and order and an end to violence and also supporting the killing of citizens who were not posing any threat to the lives of police officers.
Genuine dialogue and bottom-up people-based development is the only solution. However, this would involve listening to the people, something no government has done well.
Racism and classism are two of the biggest obstacles to national development and given the composition of the Roadmap to Recovery team, there is no serious effort to tackle this. The emphasis is on the economy and recovering the status quo, with insufficient attention paid to the people who bear the brunt of the government and business sector’s poor choices.
The George Floyd incident in the United States provided an opportunity for white America to better understand its racism. Similarly, the police killing of three persons in Morvant and a pregnant unarmed Beetham woman, is an opportunity for many persons in Trinidad and Tobago to come to terms with their complicity in social abuses.
I am not only referring to those who overtly view these communities as full of menaces and criminals, but to a society in general which has been conditioned not to be interested in ordinary Black lives.