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.   

 

Post 81.

I’m not as bad as Stone, who once got lost in a parking lot, but I’m a very close second. I’ve been lucky to have good friends who are natural geographers and who would again and again direct me around streets in Woodbrook that I should know well and to the location of their houses, which by all rights I should be able to find blindfolded.

I was reflecting on this while getting lost near Monroe Road last week as I was trying to find my way to the National Muslim Women’s Organisation meeting.

This amazing group of primarily grandmothers is doing so many national activities and is so well organised that they would do a better job than the Partnership if they decided to put up a slate for the next election or decided to stage the most friendly, flowersy and motherly coup one could imagine, thus offering a Muslim women’s alternative to anything Abu Bakr would ever have conceived.

Coup is a bad word in Trinidad and rightly so, but we need much more of friendly on the political and national stage.

This became wretchedly obvious last week Monday as I watched Roodal Moonilal’s now-notorious character assassination of Wayne Kublalsingh. If Roody wasn’t several bags of aloo heavier than me, and because I wasn’t actually there with the UNC heartland getting a lesson in gutter politics, I wasn’t able to run up with a broom (borrowed from the back of an authentic Debe doubles stall) and sweep him and his dirt off the stage.

I’d have to have kept sweeping too, as Jack came up to do his best imitation of Ziya’s diaper before she learned to use the potty. You think I’m joking? I’m not.

I felt genuinely ill and sad watching them divide citizen against citizen, use the platform that we, the people gave them to legitimise insult and offence as a mode of political deliberation, and substitute the full depth of logical, transparent argument for the hollowness of bacchanal and crowd frenzy.

I had to stop myself from thinking that if Jack just died quick, quicker than he hoped for Wayne, there would be one less out-of-date politician sowing poison for future generations to reap as spoiled and bitter fruit.

You can understand now why I get lost driving. Being driven to distraction and destruction can make you lose your way.

To their credit, they were right, though. We should all know where Mon Desir is and Roody and Jack probably know the country better than most.

I therefore also felt inspired right then. Lost by a wrong turn and marvelling at the beauty of ordinary Trinidadian communities with their pink and yellow houses, undulating fields and pious flags, I decided that when Ziya got old enough, we would get in the car together, with a map, and just drive. Buenos Ayres, Busy Corner, Mundo Nuevo, Caigual, Cumaca, Princes Town and Poole as well as Chatham and Mon Desir, here we come.

She would learn to be a better geographer than her parents, she would see the communities for which Wayne was willing to give his life, we would visit all the Muslim women whose mission is about national harmony, respect and equality, and we’d talk politics so that Zi could chart her own path away from where lost politicians will lead.

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.