The Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) today referred Joint Trade Union Movement (JTUM) leader Ancel Roget to the Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) for ‘racist remarks directed towards certain members of the media fraternity’ during a JTUM press conference at Paramount Building, San Fernando on 4 August.
Roget, while attempting to clarify JTUM’s calls for the commencement of outstanding wage negotiations between the various unions and the government, waded into the media’s coverage of the issue.
MATT, represented by New City Chambers attorneys Dr Emir Crowne, Matthew Gayle, Crystal Paul and Jason Jones, highlighted an excerpt from that speech in its submission to the EOC:
“I want to make the point for those editors, those house niggers who scribe for the one per cent and who for the establishment, advance the establishment’s position, that this morning, I as the president of the Joint Trade Union Movement is not calling for more money or for ah being unreasonable, I’m not being unreasonable or so.
“I am taking the most reasonable position, the moral high ground of a position to say ‘listen, you ought to treat with all of those workers as with, with respect’. Any self-respecting editor who is not in the hands or at the behest of their one per cent slave, modern-day slave master, would agree with that position that himself, at the end of the day, is treated as a worker because that is how they see them.
“So even though you would carry out their dictates as your local, modern-day massas and write against the trade union movement that ‘election time, they are now coming to raise these issues’, I want to remind you house niggers in the Guardian and the Express and the Newsday and so on, I want to remind you that we have been raising these issues all of the time.
“And we will continue to raise them in this time, we will continue to raise it after elections. And is not no election. Election or no election, we will continue to raise it. That is the consistency of us.
“[…] You editors, you house niggers, your hard workers were out there, so you can spin these how you want, they were out there. We really do not care about any of you all anyway.”
Section 7 of the Equal Opportunity Act, 2000, which is entitled ‘offensive behaviour’, states:
- “A person shall not otherwise than in private, do any act which—
- (a) is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of persons;
- (b) is done because of the gender, race, ethnicity, origin or religion of the other person
or of some or all of the persons in the group; and
- (c) which is done with the intention of inciting gender, racial or religious hatred.”
MATT’s attorneys argue that Roget’s comments ‘engaged all three limbs’ of section 7.
“Mr Roget combined two racial slurs (that is ‘house negro’ and ‘nigger’) and directed them at members of the media fraternity,” stated MATT’s attorneys. “Mr Roget’s phrase—‘house nigger’—is utterly offensive, insulting, humiliating, and/or intimidating to certain members of the media fraternity.
“Second, it is clear that the phrase ‘house nigger’ refers to the race of certain members of the media fraternity. Indeed, it is a trite observation that the phrase need not apply to all members, rather ‘some… of the persons in the group’.
“Third, Mr Roget’s statements, when taken in their totality, were clearly intended to incite racial hatred toward certain members of the media fraternity… When Mr Roget’s statements are taken as a whole—including his hand gestures, facial expression, tone, body language and general demeanour—there is a clear invitation for members of the public to treat certain members of the media fraternity with contempt, hatred and derision.”
However, JTUM general secretary Ozzie Warrick said Roget’s comments were about class and not race and should be taken in the broader context of the issues he highlighted at the press conference.
Roget, before his controversial remarks, said workers are owed a debt and are merely attempting to start a national conversation on the topic.
“What we were pleading is for is a type of respect, […] let’s have the type of conversation that can arrive at a solution about how and when this debt can be discharged,” said Roget, immediately before he turned his guns on the media. “The respect of saying that: ‘listen we understand you hold up this country, we understand that without you we have no economy but at this point we cannot give you all that you deserve’
“[…] Quantify the debt and agree on a time frame…”
Roget felt this message was being distorted by newspaper editors who he referred to as ‘house niggers’. Warrick suggested that the reference, taken in context, was not racist.
“I disagree completely that his statement is a racist statement,” said Warrick. “His statement is what is called a contemporary social critique of class interests. He is referring to how people go against their own class interests for and behalf of another class; and he has highlighted something that we are burying our heads in the sand about.
“[…] He has used a term that may have irked us a bit; and yes it may make some people uncomfortable but this is the kind of uncomfortable conversation we need to have as a society.”
MATT’s legal team said Roget’s remarks were worse than those uttered by aspiring politician Phillip Alexander against journalist Kejan Haynes—in which the New City Chambers successfully represented the latter.
“The vile reference to ‘house niggers’ is an even more derogatory perversion of the term ‘house negro’,” stated the MATT submission. “The latter phrase has already received extensive consideration by the Commission in Kejan Haynes v Phillip Edward Alexander…”
And the attorneys told the EOC that Roget’s statements ‘have the very real potential of endangering the well-being of certain members of the media fraternity’ and urged the body to initiate an investigation.
“Journalists in the ordinary course of their work routinely engage in face-to-face contact with members of the public,” stated the submission. “Mr Roget’s statements have the very real potential of endangering the well-being of certain members of the media fraternity. Mr Roget’s words—quite literally—liken certain members of the media fraternity to ethnic/racial traitors who operate at the behest and whims of the elite.
“As President of the JTUM, Mr Roget is arguably the nation’s most powerful and well-known trade unionist. That his words have the likelihood to incite racial hatred is therefore further heightened. To that end, [MATT] asks the Commission to investigate the matter further, prepare a report and refer the incident as needed to the Tribunal for further actioning.
“This type of racist and vile behaviour should not be tolerated in a civil society, particularly one that values press freedom, decency and basic human dignity.”
Warrick denied that Roget was referencing journalists at all and again pointed to earlier in the press conference when the JTUM leader applauded ‘members of the media’ for ‘risking your lives to cover crime and criminal activities and so on, just so that transparency and accountability that is so much needed can be brought to all of these issues’.
“He didn’t identify any one person [and] he spoke highly of reporters who do the hard work of going after a story—but then that story is changed to fit a stereotype against trade unions,” said Warrick. “[…] Even as we advance our class interest, there are those who will work against those class interests. That is the content. It is not a racist statement.”
Warrick denied that Roget’s comments could serve to incite hatred against journalists. Rather, he said the union leader tried to identify the controlling interests at the respective media houses.
“He made it clear that he was referring to editors and not journalists you speak to on a day to day basis,” said the JTUM general secretary. “You think people don’t know there is a one percent that controls the business interest of Trinidad and Tobago?
“The idea of having persons in influential positions who seek to use that position to influence against persons of a different class is something that is no secret in Trinidad and Tobago and we talk about on the dinner table.
“What Roget has done is brought that conversation out into the open. This will make people pay closer attention to their class interests.”