Yet again, I found myself standing outside of the PM’s office watching the women of the Highway Re-route Movement peacefully but defiantly sit against the walls of the building, trying to give visibility to what happens when government disregards its own rules. They were not going anywhere and why should they when they have their very houses and lands to lose, potentially leaving them with money as compensation but no place to go and no community that is home.
I saw the police first try to reason with them, and then physically lift them out of the compound. I saw the actual tears in these women’s eyes, tears from feelings of frustration, defenseless, anger, disappointment and fear of loss. I could have cried right then too.
I saw how elite politicians pit police against people, forcing those who must enforce the law to simultaneously fail to protect people from state illegality. These women’s breaking of the law, by occupying the PM’s compound and blocking the pavement, was more morally valid than the police’s exercise of force. Officers were just doing their jobs, keeping their jobs, upholding one law for ordinary people and another for those on the inside of those walls.
Wayne Kublalsingh also watched from his usual spot across the street. Once my UWI colleague, Dr. Kublalsingh’s contract was not renewed because he missed classes while undertaking his breathtakingly courageous, 21 day hunger strike, and because the university decided he was a “risk” to students. When I heard that news, I could have cried then too.
Universities should provide intellectual and political leadership to nations and communities. Our job is to spark, engage in and educate about progressive social change through theory that informs collective and individual action.
Some of us are full or part-time, have family responsibilities or are at a career stage where we need to get tenure or secure promotion, and so we make decisions about focusing on our research or our teaching or our families instead of our politics. It was therefore our responsibility to make sure that colleagues who are taking risks we are not, over issues of governance and development that affect us all, get to keep their jobs too.
Research gives universities an international reputation, but so do their public intellectuals, whether they are Arundati Roy, Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis or Vandana Shiva. The university desperately needs students willing to take risks for democracy and sustainable development. As Sunity Maharaj sagely said to me, it is when you are taking a risk that it’s most important to speak out. Those are the kinds of theoretically informed, civic minded, ethical, politically astute and fearless students we need to produce, and the lecturers who can inspire that are role models to be held onto. Our message should never be conform to the status quo or we have no room for you.
On my way to the PM’s office, I passed Sea Lots’ graffiti that shouted, “ we not taking dat”. That, more than any campaign speech, is the national mood. Chaguanas West already told the PM that it felt alienated and even betrayed. Mon Desir is saying the same. People are resisting exclusion from decisions that affect their families and communities. Forget tears, one day all that will be left is anger which has less and less to lose in the face of power.
I saw real leadership in this small group of committed women, leadership that I do not see in our political and academic hierarchy. That’s why I was there on Thursday. Solidarity on the streets and from the university is necessary.