Post 166.

I told myself that I’d be there to support Wayne Kublalsingh’s second hunger strike, even if I disagreed with it as a strategy, because you don’t leave soldiers to fight on battlefields alone.

You might disagree with their battle plan, wonder at their choices, get vex that they don’t follow your suggestions, and anticipate the victories as well as onslaught of wounds, but soldiers who decide to die fighting deserve more than dismissive derision.

I mean soldiers who put everything into the trenches of citizen organizing for more than a decade for no personal gain, and who have fought without guns, mudslinging or dogs of war for communities’ sustainable needs. Soldiers who ran out big polluter industries which would have gorged on our precious island resources, exported the profits, and left our children along the South-West peninsula mired in waste. I mean soldiers who won’t give up our rights to state accountability for any version of development, and who won’t let politicians conveniently and falsely make us choose.

While these soldiers step into the deep fog ahead, steeled by will, experience and principle, there is work for us to do.  This is my tenth column on the HRM since November 2012, every word as personal as it is political. I’ve often visited the handful of older folk, sitting peaceably outside the PM’s office for more than 200 days, forever imprinting in my mind that image of their little tent facing the façade of prime ministerial authority.  Listening to the women of the HRM marvel at never imagining quiet, rural mothers could challenge the PM, I’ve seen examples of empowerment for young Indian women.

I came of age under citizen soldiers like Sheila Soloman, Angela Cropper, Norman Girvan, Norris Deonarine, Rhea Mungal, Desmond Allum, Michael Als, and more. Their ghosts stalk our apathy. They remind that history is made by individuals handing on a sense of people power to another generation. They forewarn that some successes may only be an edging back of government secrecy and domination, some will take more than our lifetime to achieve.

Through these weeks, I’ve listened to people saying the ‘environmental movement’ should just give up on this as if giving up is what Caribbean people do, as if one tenth of our budget isn’t a public issue. I’ve listened to others divide south from north Trinidad as if a nation is best guided by the spin of divide and rule. I’ve seen million dollar government propaganda distract from the billion dollar questions.

Perhaps naively, I hoped that, against such a Goliath, we could win with our little slingshots of truth.  I’ve also listened to Sunity Maharaj sagely caution me that, if I think back to the Amerindians, to the long struggle since colonization, I’d also remember that crushing, arbitrary defeat after defeat is part of our legacy.

I could write about the dilemmas of choosing a primary school where teachers will not beat my child, and the worry of sitting in parent-teacher meetings hearing that her confidence doesn’t match her vocabulary, but I find myself more concerned with the complexity of power and its hidden curriculum, less likely to produce solidarity than indifference and cynicism.

Our work ahead is to decide what this moment will mean.  When mega projects cost us more than they should, ecologically, financially and socially, I ask myself what Ziya will think of the sides I took, and my own accountability.

May soldiers also help her learn how to educate, advocate and mobilize. In your own future dark time, Zi my love, may they still haunt those aiming at your dream.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

On Wednesday 22 October, I visited Wayne at home. Lying in his bed, looking hollow but radiant on Day 36, he pointed to a sketch he had done of three men – Martin Luther King, Walter Rodney and Martin Carter.

I had written this entry the night before, hoping to explain my own involvement, what I understand true soldiers to be, and why Wayne didn’t need to live on to lead another future struggle – for that is our responsibility. It was late when Express reporter Kim Boodram had called to say she had seen Wayne and was horrified at his state. I felt darkness like a weight pressing on my fingers, wrists, arms, shoulders and neck as I sat at my desk listening. I had not yet ended this entry and found an articulation of my emotions in Martin Carter’s

‘This is the dark time, my love’.

His brown beetles are soldiers who trample the slender grass, who produce oppression and fear. I thought of independence as the change to our own forces of authoritarianism and the guerrilla citizens who help us learn how to defend ourselves. I thought of the jumbie Wayne, now in human body, but perhaps moving to another form. I thought of how I carry the formidable commitment of civil society within me, like a pantheon, and my hope that Wayne’s spirit would also usher us ahead.When he showed me the drawing, I read this to him, glad that Carter’s truths continue to haunt us. The next day was a gathering to shed light on the darkness of governmental secrecy and domination. Light, not violence, is our weapon. 

Gabrielle Souldeya Hosein

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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 160.

As Santa Cruz develops, almost completely unregulated, I’ve seen its green bamboo beauty turned to dust. One misty morning, standing at my kitchen window, my eyes clouded as I saw the forest on the hill in front of me being torn down. The sound of trees cracking as they fall is surely identical to a heart breaking. Besides their whispering with the wind, that crashing cry is the only and last sound those giants make. My joints hurt as I heard them splinter.

I thought of the birds who spent many days and nights in those trees, and who were watching their habitat fall to its knees. Above the tractor, I couldn’t hear their songs or their alarmed calls to each other, but if I felt helpless in the face of such harm, surely so did they.

I have power though. I could help build the movement to regulate development so that we learn better co-existence with the ecosystems around us. I could pursue changed processes and rules, and increase public commitment to different possibilities. Some trees will fall, but many could be saved even while we erect our own barren forests of asphalt and concrete. It’s a matter of choosing to challenge an unnecessary injustice to other species who have just as much claim as we do, and to do so right to the very end, sacrificing whatever is necessary as an act true, deep care. It’s a matter of vision. Not only what I felt as I watched those trees die, not only what alternative I could imagine, but what I pictured as my own responsibility for our image of development.

In Mon Desir a few hours later, a kindly man whose home is facing the same fate as the trees, gave me a neem sapling from his garden. If the government has its way, that little sprout, now given soil in Santa Cruz, will become a living memory of a habitat soon completely erased. Those tiny leaves made me reflect on how many days and nights it took to build a house, wait to reap from a plum tree, bury a baby’s navel string, cultivate a garden, grow children in the backyard, and give meaning to a landscape through generations of love. What will be lost when there is nothing but a highway extension, and what is our role in making development responsible to the souls and spaces it will irrevocably change?

Just as abundant wildlife are facing oncoming tractors, so too are families in Mon Desir. They are connected. For example, when mountains are quarried to build a roadway for future tar sand mining, both ecosystems and communities will be razed, leaving me feeling I should be doing more even after a long, long day.

Those families in Mon Desir have a right to due process, to promises kept, to transparency and truth. That highway extension is taking down whole communities, too few of us hearing their calls of alarm, too few defending yet another site from being leveled by the same governance issues: gaps in public planning, institutional lethargy, too few necessary state protections, and too little mix of development, community and sustainability. As I left Mon Desir’s spirit of resistance, I wondered how to protect those lives nested in Santa Cruz’s trees before me.

A neem plant, from a Mon Desir backyard threatened with extinction, will survive in Santa Cruz while the tree-cover of Santa Cruz, similarly threatened, will slowly be clear cut and paved? There is a vision and responsibility to more powerfully wield for such beloved homes to be defended and saved.