Before examining the context of our fiery protests, let us first turn to some events abroad that are relevant to the use and abuse of power.
“For now, each party’s biggest strength is the weakness of the opponent.” Does this statement resonate? It is in fact a conclusion drawn last week by the New York Times from early polls related to the rating of US President Joe Biden and the US mid-term election cycle.
The Times also concluded that “widespread concerns about the economy and inflation have helped turn the national mood decidedly dark—both on Biden and the trajectory of the nation.”
In the UK, Boris Johnson was forced to indicate that he will resign as UK Prime Minister. That will happen on 5 September, after a series of voting rounds by the Members of Parliament of his party and a postal ballot of its members to determine a new party leader.
Members of Johnson’s Cabinet revolted against him. In the words of the Minister of Health and Social Care when he resigned from office as part of the revolt: “the public are concluding [that the Government was no longer] acting in the national interest and was not competent.”
The resignation letter of the incumbent Chancellor of the Exchequer (equivalent to the Minister of Finance), who resigned at the same time, stated that “the public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously”.
There were also issues about the credibility of the Johnson-led Government following revelations of drinks parties, held in breach of the Covid-19 public health regulations—at which Johnson was present but had lapses of memory about his presence.
The relevance of these events is that a mature democracy keeps its grasp of a political leader in power and his or her political fate is not determined only by a four or five year election cycle.
In democracies like ours, where the constitutional checks on power lack the support of standards requiring propriety of behaviour in public life, prime ministers have little risk. While the country suffers, prime ministers may rely on what they are told by persons beholden to them.
The context in which our fiery protests takes place is the suffering under governments that are ineffective, while, at present, we have one that lacks empathy and is frequently unrepentant about mistakes—because it is not driven by fear of loss of office.
The reported apology by the Attorney General to last Friday’s meeting of the Law Association, even though loss of office was not a threat, was a notable exception.
Citizens feel driven to fiery protests, characterised by the burning of tyres and other material and the blocking of roads. The more frequent protests—disruptive but more readily dispersed—take place when villagers can no longer bear a lack of some public amenity such as water or passable roads, essential to tolerable living conditions.
Fiery protests in or adjacent to our capital of Port of Spain, following police-involved killings, are seriously disruptive, confrontational and, in 2020, resulted in the additional fatality of Ornella Graves—for which the police may also be responsible.
These protests are misunderstood and misinterpreted through the distorting lens of race and class. In the case of the PNM Government, the misinterpretation is compounded by cynical reliance on the residents of East Port of Spain as a body of captive voters.
Two weeks ago, fiery protests followed another round of police-involved killings. I warned that these protests have the potential to be a catalyst for wider social unrest and I questioned the sincerity of ministerial advice given to the protesters to take more “civilised and lawful paths”.
Ministerial repetition of the slur that protesters are paid has increased my concern. The Government tried that one in 2020 and it is trying it again.
Where is the evidence?
When people have lost their loved ones as a result of apparently unjustified deadly action by agents of the State, their grief visiting the scene and at the funerals is palpable via the media.
Does the human condition not matter at all when politicians say things to save their political skins?