Bullhorns and guns

Last Tuesday evening, Courtney Crum-Ewing was walking the streets of Diamond with his bullhorn urging people to go to the polls on May 11 and vote out the government, when around 8 pm, gunshots rang out, and he slumped lifeless to the ground.

This was no ordinary killing. Not this time the asseverations of those close to him that his ‘execution’ was a mystery, or whispers from the community that he had unsavoury connections; this time everyone thought they knew the motive. And to all appearances at least, they were not mistaken in their ascription. After all, this had the patina of the political.

Aside from the unspeakable loss for family and friends, Mr Crum-Ewing’s murder was a loss for the country at large: for its covenant as an open society, for its self-respect as an upholder of civil liberties, for its commitment to freedom of expression. While no one can deny that our democratic credentials have become seriously eroded over the years, in more recent times it was not until last week it appeared as though we had reached the point where a group of renegades saw a bullet as representing the appropriate response to a political opinion.

Mr Crum-Ewing was something of a rarity; he was a lone crusader against what he thought were the wrongs of the society. Recently he had been campaigning alongside APNU+AFC, although he was not affiliated to any political party as such. His activities were regarded as a nuisance by some and his life had been threatened on more than one occasion. This is in spite of the fact that campaigning for the Attorney General to resign, or exhorting voters not to stay home but to vote for the opposition is hardly illegal. Were this not so, then all parties would have to avoid the hustings and stay mute in the run-up to elections.

It is not many who have the intrepidity to campaign alone, particularly in a dark area like Diamond at night, but Mr Crum-Ewing’s undoubted bravery may eventually have proved infectious to other political activists when the election campaign got really under way. Not only is his death a loss to the coalition, but the manner of his passing may well intimidate its members. But then one must presume that this is what his killers intended: not just to silence him, but to silence others as well. If that was indeed their aim, then we have moved well beyond the boundaries of a recognizable democratic polity.

But it is also a loss for the PPP in a different sense. This was an act not without adverse political consequences, and most of those consequences will be borne by the ruling party. This is not to suggest that the PPP qua party was in any way responsible for this killing; the idea that the mandarins of Freedom House sat down one sunny day to plot such an outrage is quite unthinkable. However, they must understand the public perceptions which have been created by this act. Mr Crum-Ewing was an activist perceived to be working with the opposition; he was arrested for his protest outside the AG’s Chambers; he was threatened several times and at least one of those threats was allegedly reported to the police; he was gunned down while exercising his right to free speech; and he was killed only two days after some crude and racially inflammatory language found its way into an address at the Babu John ceremony, which, it might be noted, is becoming increasingly less of an occasion for commemoration and more one of ‘bashing’ the opposition.

The government as is frequently its wont when confronted by an unanticipated event, initially reacted in an ill-judged way. In the first press release on the subject which emanated from the Ministry of Home Affairs, there was a condemnation of the killing, but it was also stated that, “The Ministry notes the deep coincidence between the fatal shooting incident and the earlier swearing in of the new Commissioner of Police.” All that can be said about this is that it was utterly “bizarre,” to use the term so aptly employed by the opposition alliance, and left everyone nonplussed about what connection the ministry could possibly have divined that was a mystery to everyone else.

The following day President Donald Ramotar had a more appropriate response, deploring the murder of Mr Crum-Ewing, and telling the police to “leave no stone unturned in finding those who perpetrated this crime.” He then went on to urge police officers “to find the intellectual authors of this criminal act” should there be any, because people were already describing the murder “as the first political assassination,” and these kinds of comments could be construed as seeking to instigate violence.

He did not spell out who might be seeking to incite the violence, but one assumes it was an oblique reference to opposition elements. If so, the combined opposition, as well as prominent figures associated with it nullified his remarks by calling for peace and calm, and for no retaliation; the ballot not the bullet was how some pithily phrased it. It might be observed that the opposition are not fools; why should they seek social disorder when that could not possibly help them to achieve their ends, unlike the poll of May 11 which offers them a much more realistic approach to attain their objectives?

For his part, President Ramotar was reported by the state paper as having said in an NCN interview that neither the government nor the ruling party had anything to fear from Mr Crum-Ewing. He is right of course. But since the one-man protestor was associated with some opposition positions, there will inevitably be hypotheses circulating that there may have been wild men lurking beyond the penumbra of Freedom House who mistakenly thought he did represent a problem for the party. However, that is not the only hypothesis which could be, and no doubt is being advanced.

Mr Crum-Ewing was shot execution style, so his killers conceivably could have been hired. If so, then it would be necessary to identify the “intellectual authors,” as Mr Ramotar said, and have them arrested. The thing is, everybody across the board is calling on the police to carry out an objective investigation and hold the perpetrators. For a Force which has such an abysmal record for solving serious crimes, more especially high-profile murders, and which is not noted for its objectivity, a certain cynicism will be entertained by the populace about whether anyone will ever be charged, and if they are, whether it will be the right people. The public waits to see if the police will surprise them after all.

In the meantime, the ruling party needs to rethink its strategy of vulgar, violent speech. This is exemplified by former president Bharrat Jagdeo, who did his reputation no favours at Babu John last Sunday, and spent the early part of last week defending the indefensible. Apart from the crassness of it, this is the kind of language which tends to raise the temperature and sends the wrong message to the wild men. There are wild men of one kind or another supporting all the parties one presumes, and as such, therefore, it is incumbent on each of the latter to conduct a civilized election debate, concentrating on programmes and rational arguments, and keeping the mercury in the political thermometer as low as possible.

As it is, Mr Crum-Ewing has become more powerful in death than he ever was in life. He and his bullhorn have now become a symbol – a symbol of free speech, a symbol of courage, a symbol of democracy. That is the symbol which should resonate with us. A gun has no place in political debate.

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