Under the direction of the then governing party PNC, the House of Israel used violence and other means to disrupt Working People’s Alliance (WPA) meetings during the late 1970s, Joseph Hamilton testified yesterday and he said Dr Walter Rodney was not one of the two “sacred cows” who they were instructed against harming.
Hamilton, a former House of Israel priest, told members of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) into the death of Dr Walter Rodney that the PNC sought the assistance of the House of Israel in the wake of WPA’s successes in holding public meetings in Georgetown—an area that was considered as a stronghold by the governing party. He added a member of the ruling party later armed the group with guns as there was concern that the WPA might retaliate because of the “more suppressive” techniques used to disrupt meetings.
Rodney was killed on June 13, 1980, after a walkie-talkie given to him exploded and the PNC has long been accused of engineering the murder despite repeated denials. During the hearings, Rodney’s brother, Edward Rodney had testified that the House of Israel was a “hit squad” with links to the police and the then PNC government and among its members was Gregory Smith, the man accused of passing the explosive device to Rodney.
Testifying under oath at a public hearing at the Supreme Court law Library yesterday, Hamilton, a current PPP/C member of Parliament, said PPP leader Dr. Cheddi Jagan and WPA member Eusi Kwayana were the two opposition members the House of Israel were instructed not to touch. He recalled that in early 1978 the PNC sought the support of the House of Israel “because at that time the agitation of the WPA was very much part of daily life in Guyana.”
He explained that the role of the House of Israel was to picket and march in support of the government of the day and to participate in assemblies, rallies and whatever activities the PNC had at the time. He recalled that the organisation would provide buses to transport people to Georgetown and Linden based on the amount of support sought by the PNC.
He said the first engagement with the WPA was in Tiger Bay, where the House of Israel was asked to disrupt a meeting. He explained that they were informed by the leader that someone from the leadership of PNC called and asked them to disrupt the meeting and he was among the “dozen or 15 persons” who went to carry out the task.
They went dressed in civilian clothing, he said, before adding that he could not ever recall members wearing their uniforms to go to disrupt meetings. He said he knew they sometimes wore “African clothes.” The uniform, he explained, was worn during church services, May Day marches or PNC rallies.
Asked by the commission’s chairman Sir Richard Cheltenham about the techniques used to disrupt meetings, Hamilton fidgeted and bowed his head before he answered the question properly. “I would want to say that we were very clumsy in trying to disrupt the [Tiger Bay] meeting. I recalled attempting to disrupt the meeting… the WPA activists were very resolute,” he said.
After being continuously pressed, he said they would seize PA systems and amplifiers and clip their wires but this wasn’t successful at the Tiger Bay meeting.
At subsequently meetings, Hamilton explained, the group sought to physically disrupt, terrorise and threaten political opposition persons. “The methodology aggressively became more suppressive,” he said, admitting that it moved “into assault and physical violence.”
After being urged by the chairman to not be shy about what went on during that period, Hamilton, with some help from commission counsel Latchmie Rahamat, said the House of Israel members would beat people with batons and pieces of sticks or whatever objects were available at the time.
Asked if anyone was ever armed with a gun or a rifle, he said that sometime in 1978 because of what was happening, there was a concern that the party might retaliate. As a result, a request was made to government for arms/guns for protection purposes. “I recall sometime in 1978, six 9 mm pistols were handed over to the House of Israel…,” he said, and he identified a PNC official as the person who delivered the weapons to a building at Barima Avenue, Bel Air Park where they sometimes met to coordinate activities.
He said that at sometime, he would have had one of the weapons, which were rotated among members, depending on what was happening.
Hamilton recalled that some of the disruptions were coordinated with persons from the youth arm of the PNC, the Young Socialist Movement, then led by Robert Corbin.
He said there were other points of coordination and there was a relationship with Hamilton Green, the now deceased Robert Williams, and Emerson Simon, who worked out of the PNC headquarters at the time. He said that based on the activities, the coordination could have come from any one of these four persons.
Going into what was discussed during these meetings, he said the PNC took the position the Georgetown was the bedrock of its constituency and therefore no other political entity should hold meetings in the capital city. “There were some territories that would be a no go for other political parties,” he said, explaining adding that to do so would be an “eye pass” to the PNC.
Hamilton said that the instructions to the House of Israel during these coordination meetings were that there were only two sacred cows among the opposition elements—
Jagan and Kwayana—any other WPA or opposition member could have been harmed.
He explained they were termed “scared cows” because to harm Jagan would have spiraled the racial/ethnic conflict, while in the case of Kwayana, he was still seen as a respectable black leader in the black community and it was felt by the leadership of the PNC that to harm him might force persons to the WPA.
Asked if he received any specific instructions related to Dr Rodney, Hamilton said they did not receive any instructions as it related to him. “Therefore Walter Rodney would have been in the basket of persons who could have been harmed,” he said.
Hamilton also testified about the murder of Roman Catholic priest Fr Bernard Darke, who was killed in July 1979. Bilal Ato, a member of the House of Israel cult, was tried for the murder.
Hamilton recalled that Rodney and Dr Rupert Roopnaraine were charged with the arson of the Ministry of National Development building on Camp Street and the court was to sit on Saturday, which was a first in the history of the country. He said that while at Buxton that day things were tense but not busy and later he had to return to Georgetown. When he arrived at the House of Israel headquarters, he met females and children and was told that the brothers had gone down to the court for the Rodney trial. He said he boarded a car to the court but was unable to reach his destination because there were thousands gathered.
He recalled getting to Brickdam, where he saw thousands of people coming and recalled seeing persons from the House of Israel.
He also recalled seeing a white man taking pictures and later saw him stumble and fall down. According to him, a brother handed him the camera, which he collected and later took back to the House of Israel headquarters.
He later learnt that it was Fr Darke who had been stabbed and who later died as a result of the injuries. He said he had secured the camera because it might have had damning photos of the cult’s activities that day. He, however, added that they never looked at what was on the camera but later a member of the House of Israel took the camera and sold it to the leader’s mechanic, who later brought the pictures and negatives and turned them over to the leadership.
Hamilton said he joined the House of Israel in the first quarter of 1977. He was 23 at the time. It had held crusades in his home village, Triumph, and he had become interested in its teachings, including its interpretation of the bible. During this time there were issues related to African struggles and he explained that this was what attracted him when he went to the House of Israel meetings, which would last about a week or two.
He said that group’s theories were centred on three or four pillars: the fact that original Jewish people were black Africans; self-love as an African; and self-reliance—that is, relying on yourself as a people. The bible, he said, was used as a source for a methodology that was relevant to the day and the time, instead of as simply a long lost book. It was put into a historical perspective rather than religious alone, he said, noting that the bible was the source that the body relied on as the pillar of teaching.
Explaining the religious arm of the organisation, he said the intention was to establish churches or temples in all the Afro Guyanese villages along the coastal belt. He said when he joined the House of Israel, churches were set up already in a number of regions.
He told the commission that at the time, the leader was Edward Washington, who, before he came to Guyana, was known as David Hill Jnr.
Hamilton said he was actively involved in the House of Israel from 1977 until about 1987.
Hamilton had become a House of Israel priest for several villages/districts from late 1979 into the early 80s. Among the communities was Buxton, where Hamilton said he was responsible for carrying out church duties as well as to deal with economic opportunities within the district.
Though a priest, he explained, he was not a senior member as there was another level above that which was referred to as the quasi-Cabinet. The quasi-Cabinet was made up of persons entrusted with specific responsibilities that were not theological in nature but more socio-economic. He recalled that “Jomo,” “Omawali” and “Ali,” were among those at the helm of the organisation, with Washington as leader.
Responding to a question about funding of the organisation, he said that the members were engaged in the sale of plantain chips and nuts. They were also engaged in agricultural activities, construction and engineering. He said a part of what was made was offered to the church while the remainder was retained to continue the business. The money was handed over on the last Sunday of every month.
Hamilton, who said that his African name was “Asim,” went on to explain how he came to leave the organisation. He said that in November 1986, after the trial and conviction of Washington and others, he was tasked with guardianship of Washington’s three minor children who were living in the United States. He said lasted for about a year until they were handed over to relatives, at which point he had started to separate himself from the group. His relationship with the organisation, however, did not properly end until the 1990s.
Hamilton said he returned to Guyana in 1990 and while he remained friends with members of the organisation, he did not have any active role as a member.
Just before Hamilton took the stand, Kwayana was cross-examined by Selwyn Pieters, lawyer for the Guyana Trades Union Congress and Christopher Ram, lawyer for the WPA.