Knowing Our Past: Current demonstrations and histories of public protest in Guyana

By Nigel Westmaas

Nigel Westmaas teaches at Hamilton College

“The people are doing nothing. It is the Government who are rioting and shooting down the people”
(Guyanese worker to British soldier, Guiana Chronicle 5th December, 1905)

The recent use of rubber bullets against APNU supporters and other citizens by Guyanese police was a disturbing use of force and a rude and unfriendly start by the new government. But equally troubling have been the official and unofficial reactions from various sectors to the demonstrations in the wake of the elections.  We have witnessed groups and individuals emerging out of the woodwork as if social sleepers to valorize the PPP’s hegemonic despotism. These hitherto quiescent supporters, apparently salivating at the thought that the regime was back in office included, but were not limited to, the Private Service Commission, certain large businesses, government owned media, elements of the police force and yes, individuals within GECOM.  This “groupthink” as Ian Mc Donald describes it elsewhere, with all its support mechanisms, and pretences is manifested through particular trends of logic and unspoken codes. Apparently, these scribes and supporters wanted things to settle immediately after the elections so that they could get on with “business” as usual. But the disciplined protestors upset the flow.

Labour protest in Georgetown, circa 1950s

Quickly the state media, pundits, government spokespersons and even sections of the frightened, chattering class vented their dislike of the street protests.  One of the continuing phantom letter writers in the Guyana Chronicle deemed the demonstrations an “imbedded culture” of APNU, presumably a reference to the PNC and its historical support base. Dr Bud Mangal, a GECOM commissioner asked “why all the shouting and protesting?” Chairman of the elections commission Dr. Steve Surujbally described the post election protests as “politicking” and “grandstanding”.

Perhaps if GECOM had responded holistically to opposition concerns over time and other national figures had spoken out frontally and frankly against the democratic slide in the country, it would have nullified their collective “surprise” at these protests.

In modern Guyana what is labeled the business class and private sector commission represent old and new forms of satrapy to a PPP administration whose juicy contracts, social lines and general disposition have been largely based  on favouritism and “who knows who”. Transparency International, in spite of the Government’s protests, made the right call at their recent appearance in Guyana: Anti corruption laws without enforcement are “worthless.”

On the other hand there are the neglected sectors including the unemployed, small business people, sugar and bauxite workers and other sectors reliant on overseas remittances whose stake in Guyana has continued to slip. Slow anger assembles cumulatively over time from the hurt of broken promises, arrogance, favouritism, corruption and other abuses, depredations which took place under a “democratic” society fulfilled by periodic elections. By the time of the 2011 elections a certain mindset informed the holders and keepers of power, and can be summarized in the following narrative of government supporters that crept into the open after the elections:

(1) That “normalcy” would return soon after the elections and contacts, contracts, privilege and access to government officials would resume unaffected.

(2) That the private sector could ignore the principle of power sharing or constitutional reform (or as Ronald Bulkan in his on point criticism of the Private Sector Commission deemed it, “peace without justice”)

(3) That government  supporters could continue to turn a blind eye to media control of the state and other democratic infringements

(4) That supporters could continue to vent about petty crime and business security while ignoring major corruption and drug profits

(5) A continued tendency to blithely condone inattention to ethnic disparity and class oppression

(6) The continuation of “strong leadership,”  better known in Guyana  as “arrogance” of elected officials as the operating norm

Meanwhile all references to and responsibility for the demonstrations were left at the door of “opposition politicians.” No agency was granted the protestors – they are portrayed as simply manipulated and as having no legitimate basis for any grievance. After all the PPP had “solved” the racial and class problem in Guyana.

The cumulative response to APNU demonstrators is convenient memory. This convenient memory is not all the fault of the opinion shapers and state institutions but stems partly from what David Granger once termed an “amnesiac generation.”  The absence of consistent public education over the history of public protest is perhaps the cause of the confusion over the origin, contextual causes and outcomes of demonstration.

A “spark”, such as an election campaign and outcome (especially one so badly handled) are poignant and sudden reminders of grievances as in the famous case Cent Bread riot of 1889, triggered by the beating of a young black boy who went to purchase a loaf of bread and was hit on the head by a shopkeeper who happened to be of Portuguese descent. Before that incident class resentment had been simmering.

Historical Backdrop of Protest

Throughout Guyana’s history there have been many public demonstrations and protests in all forms, from mini marches to full scale riots centred on class and labour issues. Among the larger and most well known are the “ Angel Gabriel “ riots of 1856; the Devonshire Castle riots of 1872; the 1889 “Cent Bread” riot in Georgetown; the 1905 riots, the 1924 Ruimveldt riots; The Enmore martyrs of 1948; the racial disturbances of the 1960s; through to the present. Each of these, all but two of which were centred in Georgetown, had different causes, size and extent of impact. But what they all shared was what one can term the “slow drip” of discontentment effect, that is, the moments when the streets exploded was the occasion for the war, not the war itself.
Let us look briefly at some of these revolts.

In 1856 a riot exploded in Georgetown, inspired by the promptings of a roaming preacher, John Sayers Orr aka  “Angel Gabriel”. While the preacher might have exhorted the crowds to rebel, there were deep underlying class resentments against Portuguese shopkeepers who were seen as “privileged” inheritors of white power in the urban setting to the detriment of the Afro-Guianese working class and unemployed. Historian Alan Adamson notes that while racial and religious elements were involved, the riot stemmed primarily from economic inequalities and the rioters made a clear distinction between “property which they attacked and human beings, whom they did not.”

Demonstrations and riots were not only confined to the main cities. Historian Tota Mangar, in analyzing the outcome of Guiana Devonshire riot in 1872 where 300 Indo Guyanese sugar workers demonstrators were met by 24 policemen resulting in the death of 5 workers, wrote:

“Public response to the 1872 Devonshire Castle tragedy, especially from the official section of the community was most unsympathetic…The labourers stood their ground ‘remaining in position insulting and defiant.’ It was clear that the labourers were emotionally charged. There were a mere 24 policemen against well over 300 angry and unified labourers. Interpreters were dispatched to persuade the workers to disperse but to no avail. Women and children were also active in the protest action and this was a significant development in Guyana’s history.”
A similar reaction followed the partially multi racial 1905 riot in Georgetown when a dock workers strike escalated into a full scale riot after a Riot Act was read by a Police Magistrate. Walter Rodney records that the “Riot Act was read and the police opened fire when the crowd failed to disperse. Four workers were seriously injured. Their bleeding bodies were taken first to Government House and then to the Colonial (Public) Hospital. Word of the Ruimveldt shooting flashed through the city of Georgetown, which was already in a state of tension. According to one report, “three fourths of Georgetown seemed to have gone stark staring mad.” In spite of the Riot Act, thousands converged on the streets, in the western part of the city from the Parade Ground to the Public Buildings. “

In 1924, waterfront strikes (the first time when pickets were used by the labour union) and attendant acts of violence in the city coincided with the East Bank sugar workers protests. Mainly East Indian sugar workers from the East Bank attempted to march to the city and were met by police fire at Ruimveldt resulting in the death of twelve Indo-Guyanese and one Afro Guyanese along with twenty-four injured. While the predominant composition of the 4000-5000 crowds on that day was East Indian, Afro Guyanese also participated in the march. And while there is historical confusion on the extent of the involvement of Hubert Critchlow and other Afro- Guyanese labour leaders in this demonstration it was, for the time, a signpost of multiracial protest and a unity of working class interests and desire for organization.

The civil disturbances of the “1960s”, (actually three different riots), which resulted in the loss of life on all sides of the ethnic divide, have left a profound and divisive legacy which remains unresolved. Most significantly in this regard, the “1960s”” has since become the principal yardstick for measuring public protest in contemporary Guyana, especially in the urban centres.

What does this brief historical record of demonstrations and riots in the past have to do with the present?

For one thing it illustrates that demonstrations are not strange or atypical in Guyana or anywhere else.

Second, it shows us that demonstrations are not “invented.” They originate in deeper, cumulative concerns/issues/antagonisms that find expression in a given moment, underlining the need for observers and critics not only to direct their attention to the fact of demonstrations but to seek out their root causes.

Finally, the stark historical and contemporary fact is that people of all races have at one point in time or other found the need to express their anger and frustration on the streets. This usually occurs when concerns are ignored, arrogantly dismissed, repressed or forgotten. It is a pity now that certain sections of the elites and media look at all urban demonstrations through the singular vision of the “turbulent sixties” or more recently through the prism of the protests that occurred under Desmond Hoyte’s “slow fyah, moh fyah” template.

The recurring issue is the fear of these demonstrations especially in urban centres and the sub text of race and class.  One of these sub texts is that when a large mass of especially Afro Guyanese congregate and march, there will be concurrent looting and violence. If we put together the longer historical record as well as the most recent post-election demonstrations, we see that this generalization does not match the reality.

It is high time that the record represent history and by extension contemporary events completely so that the fight for basic human needs are not so easily dismissed or labeled as “extremist”  or ”unnecessary.”

In actuality, the surprise over the recent demonstrations in the city should lie not in the fact that they actually occurred but that they were so peaceful given all the psychological, political and social humiliation that people had to endure where the only apparent redress lay in becoming an applicant or supplicant to the PPP regime.  In other words, the latent agency of the demonstrators, and their long ignored right to protest in open forms, had to be recognized.


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