Post 165.

Sunday was different.
 
After working for weeks to build support for Wayne Kublalsingh’s hunger strike, Sunday’s gathering was the first sign of popular momentum.
 
Individuals had been visiting the camp outside the PM’s office, and advocacy by Merle Hodge, Clyde Harvey and Peter Minshall was visible from early. Union and MSJ folk, led by David Abdullah, had joined, and were part of a larger show of solidarity by civil society. Columnists had begun to write of the Armstrong Report as national issue, and a route to justice for citizens challenging top-down government.
 
Along with women’s NGOs, feminists from UWI were the first to publicly demonstrate collective solidarity with the long struggle of the women of the HRM. For the first time, some of my students who came with me understood the difference between online and street activism, connected to the sacrifices women make to speak truth to power, and faced their own responsibility to be more informed.
 
However, planned only since Friday, through our small but collective effort, Sunday’s gathering of about six hundred was organic and genuine. Nobody was bused in. Nobody came to deny the highway they need to those traveling from San Fernando to Port Fortin. Nobody was paid or pressured. People came with their own flags. They gathered to hear why mediation was a strategy for a mutually acceptable end to this eight-year standoff. They prayed and softly sang.
 
There was an instant of magic when Minshall told everyone to raise their candles and deyas, for all of we is one with such citizen effort, and in that second the only two streetlights near us in Nelson Mandela Park switched off, perfectly on cue. One could have thought it was only Minshall’s obeah if it were not for the fact that Father Harvey was inside the medical centre praying with Wayne. As Harvey said, ‘Let the celestial light…’, electricity dipped in the room, same time Minsh in the park was doing his vodou.
 
Arriving, Mrs. Persad-Bissessar must have been struck by the numbers and the energy, as every politician notices when people take to the streets, and her assistants taking pictures would have recorded citizens like me who are not PNM, ILP, COP or anti-government. Worth noting, the majority of people there probably comprised the sleeping tiger of that ‘third’, untethered force who helped vote in the PM in 2010.
 
Amazingly, even when the vigil was over, everyone stayed waiting for her to emerge from meeting Wayne. People waited, without being asked, hoping that the miracle of a middle ground would be found, hoping for more than a PR play. The waiting led some to shout shame, and to threaten blocking the PM’s car. The women of the HRM began to resolutely chant ‘reroute’. Others stood silently, holding their lights, their peaceful presence voicing their principles and politics. Such multiple dynamics are the risks and strengths of the momentum ahead.
 
Aggressive polarization is also growing. On social media, it’s mostly insult and blame of the PM, Kublalsingh, anybody really.  The irony is that, fundamentally, and in quieter conversation, all ‘sides’ can realize we have shared priorities and needs for the best traffic solutions, wisest use of our budget, state transparency from truthful politicians, and least destruction of our children’s environment.
Despite circulating misinformation, political division, frustration and cynicism, our current lesson as a society is how to weld all these scattered pieces, emotions and agendas into at least one idea, precious and whole, on which we agree. As more join the fray, our challenge is to widen recognition of the common ground that is our reality.
 

DON’T LET SPIN WIN.

In citizen struggles to hold governments accountable, their Goliath is spin. Suddenly, we find ourselves pelting stones at each other, distracted from resisting strong-arm domination.

In the long battle waged by the Highway Re-Route Movement, the government’s response has only ever been such spin.

SPIN 1

Everywhere, government highlights the suffering of the people who desperately need a highway. This positions them as saviours, motivated only by their selfless commitment to caring, and makes anyone who questions them an unfeeling, privileged, foreigner-to-South whose only aspiration must be to unconscionably let people suffer.

Why is it spin? It absolves the government of actually addressing any of the legitimate claims that all citizens have to see the studies, such as hydrology reports and cost-benefit analyses and social impact assessments, that we are due as a nation, whether you are from South or North, particularly when 200 000 truckloads of aggregate from the Northern Range is at stake.

You might not understand the details, but these studies are the last forms of protection that citizens have against mega projects that will cost us, ecologically, financially and socially, more than they should. We should be defending the fight to have these studies properly done and in the public domain at all costs, if only for our children.

“The government cares about people’s suffering, Kublalsingh does not. Give in to state wisdom! No need for public documents or clear answers! Build the highway!”

This is the wafer-thin spin being offered like redemption at communion. The request for such studies and reports remains legitimate, especially for the people in South, but we are too busy pelting stones at each other to build our defenses and to take charge of our own power to decide for ourselves what is best for us.

Be clear, there must be highways and they must also not cut corners along the way.

SPIN 2

The government’s next tactic has been to say that the HRM has lost in the courts and therefore its claims are illegitimate.

First, the HRM lost the injunction because the judgment took too long to come and, ironically, construction was too far gone, not because their expectation to have answers was incorrect.

Later, they lost because shifts to the path of the Debe to Mon Desir Highway over the many, many months of the court case meant that the original claimants were not the ones in immediate danger, not because their struggle is illegitimate.

Their call for the studies, and the totally neutral, civil society led Armstrong Report’s call for the necessary studies, has never been illegitimate. That was never up for consideration in the courts. It is not even up to the courts. It remains a decision for us to make regarding the extent which we are willing to be ruled by secrecy.

Government spin tells us to leave what is ours to others to decide. But losses in court do not in any way make it less legitimate to say: Show us the Studies! Show us your justifications! Show us the properly done impact assessments! Show us how the billions will be spent!

It remains our national right to know.

SPIN 3

The third strategy has to been to call the HRM and Kublalsingh to account. Show us your foolproof alternate routes! Have they undergone rigorous hydrological assessment? Show us your medical records? Where are your documents to prove why we should believe you? You are avoiding answering for yourself! We have asked clear questions in the press and you are providing no clear answers! Charlatan! People with secret agendas seeking to distract the population from their real needs! You! You! You!

And, more stones rain down between citizens uselessly, for neither Kublalsingh, nor the HRM will be responsible for the damage to the hydrology of the Oropouche Lagoon or to the Northern Range or to long established communities or to our national deficit or even to the processes of accountability and transparency to which we are due.

Meanwhile, PM Persad-Bissessar, AG Ramlogan, Ministers Rambachan, Barath and Khan, and Carson Charles sit back to watch Goliath come out to challenge us, and we sit in our concerns, divided against each other, no better informed about or willing to represent our rights, retreating into gratefulness to our saviors regardless of the murkiness of their salvation, and questioning our power to get both the needed highway and every single page of due process which should already be in the public domain.

We fall for the idea that it is either or. Either highway or rights. Either transparency and accountability or much needed development. That’s just spin.

THEIR GOLIATH IS  SPIN

This is what spin does. It sets up false options. It tells us to decide from falsely limited choices. It distracts us from seeing that, yes, we can get all we deserve, and makes us be grateful for much much less. It makes us compromise so that next time we fear the bruises that we will rain on each other and we keep quiet so that spin and shadow become all we know. It makes us pelt stones at each other and let Goliath trample on in.

And that spins out of control. We don’t ask questions about corruption by the millions anywhere anymore. We don’t ask questions about untendered contracts. When citizens take the government to court just to get the information they keep locked away, we think poor souls, fighting a lost cause, they should just give in, we have lost so many times already, what is once more.

That is what spin does. It tells you that war is peace, when you know that peace doesn’t seek to kill. It tells you I beat you because I love you baby when you know it’s control behind violence, not care.  It tells you that you don’t need to see properly done hydrology reports or environmental impact assessments or explanations for why billion dollar contracts go untendered to corrupt companies because those are not also your needs when citizens are saying, yes, those are in fact our needs, and our rights, and we will not let you diminish what we know to be true.

Any government that avoids transparency is hiding something. Any government that pits citizens against each other is hiding something. Any government that pays Ernie Ross, the government’s biggest paid Ad Man,  millions of our money to fool us up about the right questions and answers are when we have been asking the right questions and not getting answers to them yet, is hiding something. Any government that turns to spin is hiding from truth.

The million dollar spin is coming to distract us from the billion dollar questions, to turn us against each other and to allow the government’s Goliath to make us give in.

Stay focused on getting both solutions to transportation suffering and solutions to government secrecy. This is about our money, our communities, our environment and our future.

Join for as much as we can get and as best as we can get it.

Don’t let such spin win.

#reroutetnt #democratizedevelopment #showusthestudies #reroutegovernmentspin

Post 164.

Close to the Highway Re-route Movement and Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh’s second hunger strike, there have been moments of self-reckoning, of seeking optimism in every step forward, and of continuing to weave passion for a better world with level-headed analysis about the actual terrain.

I’ve asked myself what constitutes a movement and how many must comprise its ranks? Are a handful of active individuals with wider, more passive public sympathy enough?

What happens when those few individuals become worn down, hopeless, unable to sacrifice more, and alienated by others who find them too troublesome or disloyal? What is our role in supporting them and how can larger popular energy be genuinely gathered rather than appear as manufactured momentum?

What does it mean when the public does not rally en masse behind citizen challenge to state power, but when that engagement is doubtlessly better for public life now and in the future? Wrapped in the mix of public dialogue are also PR spin, media control, prejudices, misinformation, anger, fear and an array of other pressing sufferations. How to effectively engage our volatile but potential paradise with clarity and conscience, knowing that the status quo is backed by elite silences, political party loyalties, narrowly calculated development models, entrenched interests with bigger resources, and complex histories of distrust?

It’s easy to sit back and criticize what ordinary citizens, fighting for one kind of justice or another, haven’t done, to have the privilege of hindsight in evaluating their strategy, or to misinterpret their failures as proof of their illegitimacy.

It’s easy to point to questions of ego or single-minded leadership as if reflection on ego, pride and single-mindedness isn’t part of our own being human too. It’s easy to be uninformed, to disparage and to resort to quick anger. Rather, we should be asking how we can build consensus, connect to each other in ways that reveal resolution, and hold each other as allies whatever our differences, for aren’t we all called on to create one nation?

Hard and honest answers are necessary for the consciousness raising, advocacy and organizing that seem endlessly ahead, whether in relation to governmental transparency, gender equality, ending violence or preservation of the only ecosystem we will ever have.

In reckoning, I’ve asked myself what kind of leader I want to be, navigating between clear personal vision and responsibility to a shared mandate. I’ve thought hard about how the revolutionary act of motherhood, a feminist commitment to public politics but also to family, must be a strategic guide. I’ve questioned the implications of using guilt or pressure, or even unfairly disparaging citizens or officials’ names, avoiding the manipulation, and divide and rule of politicians. I’ve wondered at the costs of giving your lifetime or your life to a political principle, and hope I could find any of that commitment, knowing that there should be no other way to live.

These past weeks of this unique hunger strike, whatever its outcome, have brought me up close with passion, for who feels it knows. Wayne’s individual defense of democracy, community and sustainability as inalienable from development’s meanings is only part of a much larger collective which will soldier on for rights, justice, accountability, compassion and more, in every way we can imagine, in the ways already ongoing, fearlessly.

When in doubt, there is always our own Caribbean history, reminding that change is always possible, and that we inherit a homegrown spirit of defiance instead of defeat.

These are dread times, but when have they not been? What to remember from this moment? To keep giving life to optimism, passion and uncompromising truth.

The (If I was…) Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago responds to the Highway Re-route Movement during the second hunger strike of Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh.

Set to Mrs. Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s campaign favorite, Celine Dion’s ‘A New Day’, this uncut edition of the PM’s Official Address to the Nation gives the facts and shows government’s commitment to truth vs spin.

#rerouteTnT #thepowerofprinciple #democratizedevelopment

Post 163. (Written to print on Thursday 2 October 2014)

Like many over the last years, I have read about the women of the Highway Re-route movement, been appalled by Roodal Moonilal’s dismissal of them as ‘bags of aloo’, and thought Persad-Bissessar should explain to the population why she first marched with these women when out of power, then ignored them once in.

I saw press photos of their sit-ins outside the PM’s office, their camp being illegally demolished by Jack Warner and their brave blocking of tractors.  Knowing that, amidst looking after sick family, managing traffic stress and earning a living, no citizen anywhere petitions and protests time after time without valid reason, I wanted to learn more about why this movement had not given up.

By the time of Wayne Kublalsingh’s first hunger strike, I came to understand that there were billion dollar non-tendered contracts at stake, unnecessary destruction of parts of the Oropouche Lagoon, massive, avoidable quarrying of the Northern Range, and demolition of long-established religious and familial communities.

In the two years since that strike and now, I visited affected homes and saw for myself the number of times the women in this movement continued to peacefully petition and protest, just asking for the reports that were never done and the alternatives that were never considered. Or, maybe they were, we don’t know because the government has never publicly detailed how.

Fifteen days into this second hunger strike, I’m left feeling overwhelmed at how much it takes for citizens to be heard. Does it really take this much time and sacrifice to successfully secure accountable government? People are critical of Kublalsingh’s choice of strategy, but the alternative is lifelong commitment to disallowing corruption or lack of transparency in whatever form. None of us may choose to die, but how many of us make this other choice instead?

It’s the same challenges, coming again already in Tacarigua and ahead in Invader’s Bay. At some point we have to say we won’t give up in exchange for a smelter, port, rapid rail, entertainment complex, stadium or highway. We want development, but development that is more than concretization. Development includes a right to information, truth and the best plan possible for future generations, not just the partial truths and wasteful plans that governments choose. After all, who bears the costs? We do.

The women of the Highway Re-route Movement have called on other women to gather in a show of support for them, today at 12.15pm, outside of the PM’s office. I’ll be there because there is a truth to their petitions and protests that echoes all over the country, regardless of the ruling party, almost regardless of which megaproject is some politicians’ dream. Transparency, accountability and truth are principles that, above all, need our clear-eyed people power. Every state masterplan should show us necessary studies and justify skipped tendering processes so that we cannot be repetitively fooled and fleeced.

Citizens may debate strategy, may not even like each other, and may disagree, but we are our only source of solidarity. Politicians will say yes to our face and then lock us out on the street. They will not account for billions spent unless we insist that is it ours, not their money. They will hire PR guys to convince us we are each other’s enemy.  But, plain talk, no communities spend eight years of their lives petitioning and protesting unless truth about injustice is at the heart of their cause.

Join the HRM women today at 12.15. I’ll bring Zi. These are the lessons about government, development and citizenship she is going to have to learn from early.

Post 162.

Feminism is getting hotter. Sparking a global spring, girls and women are taking on the world political-economic order on the ground and through technology. More power to this movement for equality, equity, and transformation of all forms of domination. Welcome to a moment that tireless struggle has again born.

Once the dilemma was about the ‘I’m not feminist, but…’ kind of feminism, the belief in and practice of its politics that nonetheless ran from the backlash stereotypes associated with its identity and community.

However, going more mainstream has attached feminism to wider practices and representations, raising questions about the relationship between feeling powerful and undoing powerful hierarchies, as well as making us look harder at feminisms mix with capitalism, its long-marketed racist and sexist ordering of women, and its containment of the broadest goals of empowerment.

Take bootylicious feminism, also seen in Nicki Minaj’s dancehall queen version. Beyonce’s brand champions women as flawless and sexy, smart and powerful, economically in control and unanswerable to the politics of respectability. It also sells sex as it sells feminism. Indeed, here, sex sells feminism, potentially popularizing a narrower project than dismantling the beauty myths still packaging the meanings of female sexuality. What do hypersexual feminisms do for kinds that are not or refuse to be sexy?

I’ve wondered about this when my friend Nicole was shamed for playing Jouvay topless but for nipple coverings, and in an old shortpants, making explicit just how little pretty mas nakedness has opened a space for women’s non-prettied bodies on the road, on their own terms, even on Carnival days. I’ve thought about this when women face censure for shamelessly breast-feeding their babies. I’ve reflected on this as I envision the postcolonial feminisms I want for my little brown girl.

There’s feminist struggle for sex positivity. Existing double standards shame women in ways that men, even those who are molesters, rapists or adulterers, don’t face, and strippers, sex workers and ‘skettels’’ usually scorned behaviour means they are least protected by the law, unions, immigration officials and health institutions. This must change.

The question isn’t whether women have a right to make the choices they do. Instead our attention should be on the choices available, and the ones still determining women’s greatest rewards, pleasures and value. It’s no coincidence that just as girls have been ‘taking over’ education, media and labour markets, they have been increasingly pressured to still embody specific femininities and stilettoed super-sexiness. What does this mean for feminisms’ trenchant critique of women as objects for consumption, and for black and brown women’s refusal to reproduce reduction to their bodies at the expense of their humanity?

Freedom from sexual and other forms of  violence. Choice regarding marriage, children, and same sex desire. Access to reproductive justice, including safe and legal abortion. Transformation of the colonial gender stereotyping still pervasive in contemporary pop culture, advertising, nationalism and tourism. Value not for how we look nor for the femininities we do, but simply because we are. The kinds of economic rights that mean we neither gain greater wealth nor greater vulnerability from the exploitation of our bodies in public and private life. For me, this is what feminist goals of sexual liberation mean.

All women know there is no pure place for resistance. This is more rather than less reason for thinking critically about diverse instances named feminist. It’s reason for differentiating between the gender consciousness we now have of rights and inequalities, and feminist consciousness that aims at more than women’s individual wealth, choice or leveling of power to a radical re-imagining beyond current terms and boundaries.

Post 161.

The hardest thing about loving someone is having to live with their decisions, particularly when they take paths that you would not advise or choose, leaving you disappointed, alienated and unwilling to tolerate more. I don’t mean people who hurt you or make excuses. I mean people who deserve your loyalty, but with whom you also lose patience or wish to be freed of or pointlessly hope you can change.

Do you leave or stay? Argue or give in? Force them to follow your direction, and lose their uniqueness, agency and independence even though you get your way? Do you focus on their failure to fulfill your needs or focus on their need for you to be there, accepting them for the honest-to-goodness souls they are, as much as they are imperfect and as much as it feels easier to walk away?

Relationships, whether with parents, children, siblings, friends or partners, make us all ask these questions, for those we love often drive us completely mad or lose our respect, make themselves burdens or unintentionally hurt our feelings, or stumble along, annoyingly, not being like us and not protecting us enough from their vulnerabilities, egos, and their long, uneven road.

In such moments, I wonder if and when to set boundaries, and what kind. Or, committed to care for another, how much do you sacrifice to share your capability and your power? What about your desires? What about the principles by which you declared you would live?

How much can love ask us to give?

Driving home after work, with Zi cocooned in the car, I wonder what each moment’s lesson is. How to honour our differences? How best to support the unyielding freedom fighters in our midst? How to be feminist and woman when there is no pure place for resistance?

I endlessly discover the need to learn more patience. Just when I think I know exactly the right analyses and goals, it turns out that if I waited a little longer, an insight and appreciation I needed to be a better person appears. Nothing teaches humility like realizing you were not actually being your best self despite righteous certainty, and someone was loving you anyway. You are gratefully relieved they let you walk your own path, without threatening repercussions or anger, enabling you to grow, so you could bluster about a little more gently.

I’m constantly realizing I must be more kind. Surely, patience and kindness go together, because one slows down your breath enough for you to notice the god in the other person, their breath connected like yours to their emotions, to their short time on the planet, to the aspirations and defeats that fill their spirit and their days. Just when I think I’ve figured out how to be responsible for my actions, I discover I can cause hurt, and in the darkness of regret, pray everyone knows we all make mistakes.

Kindness goes beyond clearly demarcated deeds. It is in seeing that none of us wants to fail or be abandoned, and every one of us wants to be able to count on those we love, when no one else knows our dreams or fears, or will care for our diminished sense of self. When disagreement, disconnection and resentment are options, kindness is in somehow being present with peace in your heart.

The hardest thing about loving someone is recognizing that frustration and compassion combine to challenge plans and expectations for how things should be. Today’s lesson is to learn to care less selfishly just as it is to learn to love more carefully.

 

 

 

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