Post 148.

Last week’s images of men burning an effigy of Wayne Kublalsingh powerfully illuminated how poor governance and manipulative political leadership can turn citizens against each other, and how we become our own vulnerable bobolees by failing to focus collective attention to our common cause.

Yes, the Debe to Mon Desir dispute is over a highway extension, and it has been emotive, frustrating and vexing to those of different views, but that is not the issue that deserves citizens’ anger. The issue is how state officials and institutions’ failure to be transparent and trustworthy creates and legitimizes blame, intolerance and violence as modes for public deliberation. Beware.

Without full information, different stakeholders resort to accusation. Without a sense of the connected ways we are affected, we deepen popular division. In attacking one another, we undermine necessary national pressure for state accountability.

Some of those desperate for improved transportation are angry with the HRM, as if their struggle lacked legitimacy. Why not also be angry that the UNC, including Roodal Moonilal, Jack Warner and Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar, first supported the Highway Re-route Movement protestors, then turned against them? They stepped beyond the law while invoking it conveniently. They failed to provide the planning, hydrology, cost-benefit and impact-assessments that were due. They mystified their own and state institutions’ irresponsibility, knowing this non-tendered project lacked the necessary studies. Our current leaders caused escalating confusion and conflict among citizens by saying one thing and doing another. Should they feel the heat of a match and gasoline?

As Justice Aboud concluded: “It seems to me that what runs through the evidence is the absence of a clearly formulated policy statement in response to the HRM activities…When a person no less than the Prime Minister promises a review she must be expected to understand what that term means and to have said it with sincerity. Instead of dealing with the HRM in a straightforward and consistent manner…she took a series of steps that are now made out to be half-promises – or no promises at all – to appease, or defuse, or otherwise deal with the activities of the HRM….In the end, the promises of a review and a consideration having been made, the claimants were entitled to believe that the process would have been meaningful and that they would have been consulted. Their expectations were therefore legitimate.”

Public debate over aluminum smelters, quarrying and more is how we sort out what is in our best interest. In each of the struggles ahead over what that means, whom it will cost, and what our rights are to know and decide, there will be sides. Do we then hang by the neck, hack into pieces or set each other’s bodies on fire, even symbolically? Don’t all legitimate expectations regarding citizens’ rights deserve the protection of due process, even if we disagree?

Tacarigua, Chagaramas, Point Fortin, Chatham, La Brea, Toco and Debe, what if one day the government considers your rights annoying, wrong or inconvenient because they are pitted against others’ rights, needs, kickbacks or votes, should you have no defense?

Development is more than infrastructural. It must include democracy. Progress is more than economic. It must be founded on state officials’ credibility and state institutions’ conformity to regulations, policies and law. Citizenship is more than a vote. It must protect our right to challenge all forms of state domination.

I got worried seeing that effigy. It normalizes violence. It conveys fear to neighbours. It sends the wrong message to another generation. It entrenches elite access to conveniently explosive behaviour. Be careful. Citizens will always need each other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Post 80.

What happens when you fill ordinary people’s heads with the idea of being good citizens is that they become hungry for responsible government.

What happens when you emphasise the importance of civics to children is that they become hungry for the kind of participation that is accountable to their voice, their views and their needs. What happens when citizens start to believe in putting country first is that they become hungry for transparency and accountability from our national institutions.

What happens when we erect statues to Gandhi and Cipriani in our most populous cities is that we become hungry for people of conscience to move amongst us, ordinary mortals drawn from our ranks but answering to a more transcendent sense of justice.

Dr Wayne Kublalsingh’s hunger strike shares the belly pain of those of us hungry for an end to illegitimate authority, the kind that tells us what to do but will not tell us why so that we can decide for ourselves.

His act of conscience draws on no moral authority beyond his own body or beyond his own belonging as Trini and Tobagonian to the bone. We are distrustful of this as a society and yet we know it so well. Office, patronage funds, legislation, fancy suits and big words have always exercised control, but they have never fully consumed our hearts, and our sense of what is fair, reasonable and right. We make peace with power but remain hungry, and quick to anger and rebellion, because the promises we believed continually leave us empty.

Writing this, my gut hurts because no citizen should have to starve just to show how hungry we all are for government that knows a way beyond division, corruption, secrecy and domination. No good citizen should have to risk death so that those of us alive today do not gorge on the sustenance of future generations: ecosystems; agriculture; community; family; local businesses and a non-violent state.

In the public debate, most don’t know that Wayne is fasting simply for the public release of the impact assessments, the hydrology reports, the cost-benefit analyses and the technical reviews of the highway section planned from Debe to Mon Desir. He is not fasting to stop the highway, he is hungry for information, for answers which should be out there but which he must beg for like crumbs, like a vagrant lying on the street outside an all-inclusive party. What is frightening is that he is not alone. His hunger for answers, his simple request to be given some room at the table, is heard every day in citizens’ grumblings.

As a new generation, Ziya’s generation, begins to realise that we are fast consuming all and leaving only our debris behind, they too will feel the pangs of hunger for some other way ahead that can only be found together, without insult and injury between each other.

Wayne, know that your hunger shows ours as stark, unnecessary and untenable. Prime Minister, know that our hunger has been centuries in the making, but that you can help us as we struggle to find a different way to survive and thrive.

People of this Republic, know that beyond all the polarising politics, is a citizen like us filled with love for his nation and nourishing our hunger with his care. Let us not feed this moment with division and hate when we are hungry for common ground and consensus across our communities.

Activists, poets, robber-talk lyricists, conservationists, politicians, trees, fish and everyday peeps, i created this at a moment when the T and T state was spending somewhere between TT$200 000 000 and $500 000 000 (yep, millions) on hosting CHOGM, the Commonwealth Heads of Govt meeting…at the same time when we – that is, ALL of us, really needed to get our act together on the Copenhagen conservation and climate change commitments…nuf said.

Tuesday 25 August 2009
Studio 66, Barataria, Trinidad and Tobago.
Gabrielle Jamela Hosein
gabrielle.hosein@sta.uwi.edu

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!
Thank you.
GJH