Tuesday 25 August 2009
Studio 66, Barataria, Trinidad and Tobago.
Gabrielle Jamela Hosein
Launch of “The RAG File – Writings of the Aluminium Smelter Wars”
Welcome to all.
It takes many threads, many narratives and many voices to weave one story of a social movement. Often, the threads of these stories cannot be neatly sewn up and knotted because, in reality, the victories of social movements are only rarely complete.
Nonetheless, every narrative can help weave the kind of cloth mas men like Minshall make: deceptively light and simple, to be carried everywhere and to be taken out onto the road in a gesture of exuberant rebellion.
‘The RAG File – Writings of the Aluminium Smelter Wars’ contains many such threads, many narratives and many voices. Together, they give us, like Minshall’s fabric, something tangible to hold, to examine and to use to express our sense of who we are back to ourselves. This fabric is more precious than silver or gold or aluminum. It is what we wield when we want to claim spaces and sacred practices as our own.
Caribbean people can’t lose these threads, these narratives because without them we become undone, and the fabric of our society unravels. We forget, we fear and we risk failure. In Trinidad and Tobago, we know so little about our own social movements and our own rebel histories and herstories. We come from a region marked by revolutions: the Haitian, Bolivarian, Mexican, Nicaraguan, Cuban and Grenadian. We live in a society where too little has been published about the power of 1970. Perhaps, future generations will not even know about the struggles fought just then so that they could love themselves, experience equality and live with radically changed notions of rights and respect.
When we are handed the story of one such social movement in Trinidad and Tobago, woven together with anger, love and a passion for justice, we are truly blessed. It becomes a moment for us to celebrate not only the rebels in our midst, but also our writers. It becomes a moment for us to stop and listen to the many voices in this narrative. There are the voices of environmentalists, patriots, fathers, grandmothers, workers, feminists, nurses, children and farmers. Some of these speak directly to us in the chapters by Fitzroy Beache, Attillah Springer and Shivanna Mahabir. Others speak through the writings by Burton Sankeralli, writings which lead us date by date from 2006 to 2009, in no chronological order, as if the western calendar matters less than what we do with our time. Here is the documentation, one narrative with many voices complexly interwoven into a story of, perhaps, one the most important social movements of our generation’s times.
The many citizens, whose voices and spirits are invoked here, gather together from many directions to form something called the ‘anti-smelter’ movement. Yet, what stands out is that this movement is so much more. Its colours not simply two toned or for or against, but ‘river come down’ kaleidoscopic. This is a movement that refuses easy enemies and false battles, especially against ourselves. Ordinary citizens join because of what matters to each individual. This highlights a key aspect of successful social movements; their openness, flexibility, scope, wide ranging relevance to everyday life and ability to allow women and men to directly and democratically determine their own existence. As Burton writes, ‘ours is a struggle to preserve and sustain the vital integrity of our space in its totality’ (92). As he also writes about the Rights Action Group (RAG), this is a struggle which ‘does not seek narrow ideological purity’, but seeks a membership ‘of those committed to transformation – those of a socialist orientation committed to radical economic/political structural change, cultural activists, those committed to a spiritual vision of human life and society, those involved in the arts or simply decent human beings prepared to walk wherever such decency leads’ (147).
Walking where such decency leads makes us folks who are not against industrialisation, but unregulated, dangerous, unnecessary, excessive, unsustainable industrialisation. The narratives that we create must hold tight to the threads that reel back to questions of energy reserves, water availability, waste disposal, health, community destruction, false party promises, ethnic and class divisions, and the privatisation of gains and socialisation of losses.
Using essays, speeches, letters, plays and Midnight Robber poetry, Burton provides us with an important little book for a big revolution. I use the word revolution because what we require is really a radical transformation in how we, as a post colonial society, think about development, natural resources, progress and wealth. It’s not the kind of thing Ministers of Finance take seriously, but our economic planning cannot speak in 20 year terms or for that matter 50 year terms. Sensible planning must think in terms of generations. What can I say? Generations of the world, unite!
Matching ancient ways with future approaches, the short pieces are ideal for introducing a range of issues to those yet to become allies, especially the young, and for inciting debate and discussion amongst those already in the ranks. Burton’s style of writing conveys the impression that not only can every cook govern, she or he can publish. On the question of publishing, I was intrigued at Burton’s insistence that his anti-smelter work was pro-PhD when, in fact, little writing can be done while driving across the country, listening to citizens of all kinds, speaking up everywhere necessary and supporting actions that must be organized. Yet, this book proves me wrong and has only increased my admiration for someone who can organize, theorise and write – and sing and pray, perform poetry and enact praxis – seemingly all at the same time and in one book.
So, tonight, I want to celebrate this publication by one of our own, our companero Burton Sankeralli. This collection of thoughts, reflection, personal vision and call to arms is something CLR, Rodney, Martin Carter and Elma Francois all understood. I must here also invoke the late Lloyd Best. Even Ganesh Ramsumair, the hero of Naipaul’s Mystic Masseur, began his long march by publishing his own books. I want to congratulate Burton on adding a step to the great Caribbean tradition of radical thought and collective action. Two hundred years from now when researchers and future generations want to read the voice of scholars who were actively weaving the story of social movements with many threads, many narratives and many voices, this book will be here. May we all carry this book everywhere and take it out onto the road with every gesture of self-determination and exuberant rebellion. May these words help, however we play our role, to change our world. May we win this war, ‘bringing people together as community to engage this new peril and new possibility’ (89). May we draw our energy from ‘the eternal possibility of love’. ‘Bonds splinter, dreams die but struggle continues…’ (166). No Smelter!