Last week, Natalee Legore, the host of Morning Brew, spoke for many when she stated: ‘we are not very clear as to why the police is able to take action in certain circumstances where people are gathered and not in others’.
It seems, she said, ‘that what is public and what is private seems to depend on what is going on’. That observation may well be a clue to resolving the legal interpretation of ‘public place’. However, in a society battered by rampant socio-economic inequality, we must first examine police conduct in the enforcement of public health regulations.
As Natalee firmly indicated, sensible commentators do not intend to encourage citizens to gather in numbers or in ways conducive to spreading the virus. Nevertheless, commentators will be attacked because the authorities look for any smokescreen behind which to try to hide from accountability for the use of powers that purport to suspend fundamental rights.
However, the welcome plain speaking commentaries that open Morning Brew and Morning Edition, as well as the incisive newspaper editorials, are not likely to yield to attempted intimidation.
Is there a real distinction between a ‘zesser’ party and a ‘pool’ party? These labels, like the ‘cockroaches’ label, may be used to feed on division and to incite contempt and resentment.
The recent party in Kelly Village, if open to the public, could have been correctly identified as a public party rather than a zesser party. In the pictures, fed through the media, we did not see ‘hot steppas in long gold chain and snake band, with Glock and Beretta’.
Consequently, to describe the misguided bunch of relatively young people, who were detained, as ‘zessers’ makes for catchy headlines and may boost reputation in certain quarters—but it constitutes grievously prejudicial language.
Against the background of the party in Kelly Village and the wedding in Valsayn, which citizens had critically compared in assessing police conduct last week, the admirable Dr Avery Hinds reminded us:
“There is no distinction between one type of gathering and another with regard to the Covid-19 risk. The virus does not discriminate between one setting and another if protocols are not followed to prevent the transmission of illness.
“Each person in a gathering presents their own web of exposure. We rather not play corona roulette. This is not the time to play this game.”
So it is clear that we should not be ‘jammin still’. However, jamming is an engrained response to hard times, bad economics and poor governance.
Stress levels are extremely high. Citizens have lost countless jobs. In-person contact with school mates, co-workers, friends and family is curtailed. Physical absences dampen the joy of certain occasions and burden others with greater sadness.
Trinidad Ghost’s Zesser Song recites ‘more zessing, less stressing’. The challenge therefore is to persuade people under stress to do the right thing on the blocks, as well as behind privately raised fences and hedges and closed doors.
That challenge is made more difficult when public trust and individual dignity have been repeatedly abused—including but not limited to recent derogatory references to ‘squalor’ in East Port of Spain and to Queen Street being a ‘toilet’. These references are made as though all our governments had no obligation to provide public restrooms and to take an effective lead in environmental management.
Regarding what is respectively private and public: a private place is one that is exclusively private, but probably not one to which the public is given access.
The colonial Public Health Ordinance, under which the coronavirus regulations are made, states that, among other things: a ‘public building means a building used or constructed or adapted to be used, either ordinarily or occasionally, as a public hall or public place of assembly for persons admitted thereto by tickets or otherwise’.
This may guide us in the interpretation of the words ‘public place’ used in the regulations—assuming that the regulations are valid.
If the government takes basket and moves against persons within the boundaries of exclusively private property, who unfortunately ‘doh business’, we may have interesting constitutional law litigation, with a favourable outcome for the government not at all a sure thing.