Road from Agricola
It goes without saying that anytime a public road is blocked and used as a beachhead to confront law enforcers that this must be strongly condemned. Anytime law enforcers are targeted with bottles, Molotovs and missiles this must be excoriated. Whenever citizens are set upon by thugs and hooligans and robbed as they were in the traffic jam caused on Thursday at Agricola this must be deplored. These are basic covenants that underpin law and order. The Agricola villagers who initiated the road blockage in anger at the preferential treatment given to the policeman accused of murdering one of their youths would know that the events of Thursday can only dilute public support for their just cause. It presents again for citizens the dilemma of ensuring that legitimate protests aren’t allowed to spin out of control.
The police showed admirable restraint on Thursday in the face of provocation. There was no excessive force. Cynics may say that the police knew that in the aftermath of a series of incidents where deadly force was wantonly used that there could be no repeat. However, what the five-hour standoff at Agricola proved again for the umpteenth time is that the police force is unready for the handling of large disturbances that escalate rapidly. This was pointed out in last Monday’s editorial as it related to the handling of the Linden unrest on July 18. The same failure was on display on Thursday.
Any blocking of a major artery for five hours stranding thousands of people living on both sides of the river would have to be categorized as a gross failure of law enforcement. Surely there was a series of options available to quickly quell the unrest the moment it began. It was however allowed to escalate and the police appeared not to know what to do except that they were aware of which options were clearly not available to them. There were no doubt multi-pronged approaches that a professional force would have been able to apply to tame the situation including detaining ringleaders on the spot, reaching out to community leaders (if there had been respectful relations in the first place) and using the impressive looking Perspex shields that the police displayed to charge at those flinging the missiles and arrest them. There was also the much anticipated appearance of the now infamous water cannon. Sadly it seemed unable to do the job and the Home Affairs Ministry will be under further pressure to justify this purchase.
There were other failures that evening. In the midst of the siege at Agricola, marauding gangs of thieves descended on marooned passengers along the East Bank and at river crossing points in the city as masses of people hurriedly tried to cross the river to get home. There was genuine terror, fear and losses among children and women in particular that evening. This was appalling but what does it say about the police force?
One mustn’t treat the force as disabled. Its responsibility that evening was to protect all citizens. Is the public to believe that if the force is fully engaged at one flashpoint, as it was at Agricola, that this renders it incapable of responding to emergencies at the same time in other places? Let’s say for the sake of argument that the police deployed 300 ranks to address the blockage of the section of the East Bank highway at Agricola what were back-up, reserve and other police units doing during this period? Why was it that so many ordinary people saw gangs committing crimes yet there was no police attempt to intercept them? What were the police at Ruimveldt, Providence and outposts doing along the lines of backed up traffic. Haven’t the police documented in the past numerous similar disturbances where criminals seized the opportunity to attack citizens? Is there not a protocol or plan for addressing this? For example police patrolling up and down the lines of stranded traffic on foot.
Much capital has been made by the PPP/C government and its affiliates of the attacks on citizens but why was there not a single arrest of a marauder by the police force? Who or what force impeded them from this? How many complaints have been lodged at police stations about robberies that night and what is being done about them? The police appeared to be absent from duty that night as people were being attacked. The Police Commissioner should explain to the public why his entire force in the city seemed to have been locked down at Agricola. The police must also make every effort to pursue all of those who committed crimes that evening and to prosecute them. It is clear that the force simply wasn’t ready that night and this was responsible for the long siege and the inconveniencing of thousands.
Now there is a furious blame game for what transpired. Those who poured out of the village on Thursday and blocked roads, set fires and pelted bottles bear the primary responsibility. What about the callousness of government officials? Shouldn’t high officials like Dr Luncheon be held accountable for insensitive and inflammatory statements like him being ready for a `rumble’ and pugilistic allusions while tensions run high about deadly violence meted out to several communities by the police force? It is the disdainful arrogance of senior officials like Dr Luncheon that has earned this administration much disfavour and made it a minority government. The disaffection stems from the view – that like in the case of the pirated textbooks – Dr Luncheon and others do not recognize the rights and hurts of those they believe reside in communities that are not friendly to the government. A classic example of this flowed from the mouth of the embattled Home Affairs Minister Mr Rohee several years ago when he opined that the people could not be concerned about torture allegations against the security forces as they were too busy clearing their Christmas barrels.
The crux of the matter remains that poor governance by the PPP/C is responsible for many of the flashpoints like Agricola and when it is faced with this truth the government adopts an adversarial position and immediately seeks to employ it to political advantage. That is the best that could be said for the spin placed on the events of Thursday by Attorney General Mr Nandlall and Presidential Advisor Ms Teixeira. Had the government agreed to much needed and reasonable reforms of the police force over the last twenty years, the killings that occurred in Linden, Agricola and on Hadfield Street would likely not have happened. Yet, they continue to happen year in, year out absent any sign that the government is prepared to accept its responsibility to push through reforms. This is what fuels the anger of communities like Agricola.
Communities like Agricola and Linden also calculate that the inflexibility of the government is completely out of order when it is recognized that a majority – albeit by a slim margin – voted against it. The government has to take cognizance of this and exhibit equanimity in addressing the concerns of all communities.
So what is the road from Agricola? In an editorial on June 4 this year entitled `Six wasted months’ we lamented the inability of the government and the opposition to fashion results for the public. We said then: “Thus far, the election results of November 28 have not produced anything out of the box. Manoeuvres by all three players carry the brand of the old-style politics of securing gains – and conversely – inflicting losses while being completely oblivious to synergizing commonalities for the benefit of the entire country. Each party has played strictly to deadening form. None seems certain about how to proceed so each has simply tried to protect its turf and expand influence.
“This is what President Ramotar and Messrs Granger and Ramjattan have to sit down and thrash out. How the entire country will prosper even in the shadow of a likely snap election. This is the challenge that presents itself and has thus far eluded particularly the government. It is attempting to proceed with the business of running the country as if it was fully in charge. How else does one explain a government not having brought a single piece of significant legislation to Parliament in the six months it has been in control? Will it bring anything this year? Obviously it knows that it would need an opposition vote to have any bill passed and that is why nothing has been presented. That is the nub of the matter. It has to be prepared to make mature compromises with the opposition during this period otherwise it will not be governing in the interest of all of the people.”
Nothing has changed since. The government’s sole strategy seems to filibuster and deepen divisions for later electoral profit while the lacklustre opposition is without a plan and in disarray. The only way forward and insurance against eruptions like Agricola is for the government to apprehend that its loss of majority support and control of the legislature requires it to make honourable compromises with the opposition. This is the only workable way forward.