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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post 119.

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.   

Post 111.

Standing on the road in front of the PM’s office on Tuesday, I had to shake my head that the Highway Re-route Movement and Wayne Kublalsingh are back under the hot sun. Respect and more power to them. They’ve been in this battle since 2005 and there is no doubt they are fed up, even as they stand firm.

They stood respectfully at the side of the road with their placards saying, Heritage Before Highway, Save Homes, Communities and Thousands of Acres of Agricultural Lands, Mega Money Project for Millionaires, and most wretchedly or perhaps powerfully of all, Listen Prime Minister, The Voice of Truth is the Voice of God. They’ve organized camps, sit-ins, protests, meetings and vigils. These are neighbours and members of humble families saying things other citizens of the republic are also saying or shouting or bawling every night on the news. Old and young are out in the sun to sort out the future of their own homes, but their struggle puts the rest of ours in clear view.

Our elites are all terrified of stepping out of their air-conditioned SUVs, they’re living in enclaves looking like upscale barraccoons, and moral national leadership will not come from them. These are business people, they do charity. As a class, they won’t be the ones who get laws into place for domestic workers’ rights or against illegal quarrying and for environmental sustainability. The poor are focused on getting water in their taps more than once a week or finding taxis that will work on bad roads or securing small work however they can, but when the state runs out of money or its debt payments are too high or when social impact assessments remain undone or when representation sheer fails, they are the ones who suffer most. They might be too busy trying to eat to think about the failures of democracy, good governance or unsustainable development, but these will reach in and starve them first, which is why thirty or so, everyday folk standing on the roadside saying ‘Abide by the Armstrong Report’ is our business too.

Watching them, I found myself wondering how this movement could do more than grab media headlines and public attention, how they could awake the sleeping giant of popular emotion, which is what made Wayne’s desperate hunger strike so successful last year, and what they could do to make other citizens from Icacos to Toco understand and care. If we don’t care, the PM won’t either. Progressive change is always a momentum from below, when citizens let politicians know that they will feel if they don’t hear. Like the Highway Re-route Movement, all most of us need is for those at the top to actually do the things they know are right, follow the rules, just even follow through. Then women, men and children wouldn’t have to stand in hot sun to find out if the PM will do what she knows she should without having to be told to.

It could be protests to protect mangroves from Movietowne or the savannah from Carlos John’s license to pave or Toco from a shipping port or Chatham from a smelter or heritage from a highway. Here we are again is all I could think as I got in my car to get Ziya from daycare and get myself to work, leaving Wayne and the others to struggle for decision-making processes that the nation is rightfully due. When government acts above the law, today it could be them, tomorrow it could be me or you.