Crossing the Line
The right to peaceful protest is a vital part of democracy, and it has a long, distinguished history here in Guyana. Protests are a mechanism to highlight perceived non-adherence to the social compact so that the authorities can address any breaches – but they must be peaceful.
Like all rights possessed by citizens, the right to protest is not unfettered: it must be balanced against the right of other citizens to go about their lives safely and freely.
Last Thursday evening, the protest by some individuals in Agricola so egregiously violated all the tenets of peaceful protests that it is not surprising it was roundly condemned by all responsible Guyanese. The protestors crossed the line of peaceful protest even as the very premise of their protest action had been questioned.
Shaquille Grant, a young Agricola resident had been shot and killed by a police patrol. Murder charges were quickly issued against three policemen from the squad: two have not been served while the third had been charged before the court almost two weeks ago.
The protests began in front of the Magistrate’s Court in Georgetown because the mother and other Agricola residents claimed that the policeman in custody had been given ‘preferential’ treatment. When originally arraigned, he had been brought to court riding in the front of the van without being handcuffed. On Thursday, the court proceedings had to be aborted because of various actions by the protestors, including complaints that the policeman had again arrived seated in the front of the van.
The protestors prevented the removal of the prisoner until the afternoon.By then, in what can only be described as a carefully planned manoeuvre, new protests erupted on the Public Road of Agricola just as the rush hour began.
Tyres were thrown onto the highway and set afire, creating impenetrable clouds of acrid black smoke that brought traffic to a halt. Logs and other debris were also added. When the police attempted to clear the road they were attacked: some were injured.
A vehicle was torched as the policemen retreated. But it was the traumatic effects on the thousands of commuters, especially schoolchildren, by the protest actions, that highlight the line between legitimate and illegitimate protests.
It was not only the virtual forced imprisonment for five hours that violated the rights of these citizens, but the numerous robberies to which they were subjected when they attempted to seek alternative routes out of the melee.
The police showed tremendous restraint in dealing with the protestors, some of whom brandished cutlasses at them. That police, it must be noted have the right to use appropriate action “to prevent unrest, violence and crime, and for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
On Thursday night, the police bent backward to ‘accommodate’ the protestors, some of whom physically attacked them, while allowing the thousands of innocent commuters’ rights to be violated. There has been a diversion with fingers being pointed as to who might have precipitated the protests at Agricola. The government has pointed to the demands of the Opposition for the Minister of Home Affairs to be fired and the ‘incendiary’ rhetoric used to make those demands – including a time-based ultimatum that expired the night before the protests exploded.
The Opposition has countered that the trigger might have been the ‘provocative’ phrase used by the Cabinet Secretary that the government was ready to ‘rumble’ with the Opposition on their demands.
While it is important to determine if there are politicians that are deliberately working to provoke conflict in our society, it is even more important for our citizens to understand and accept their obligations to each other. The social contract is not only between the state and the citizens, but also between those same citizens. If we are to have our rights respected then we must respect the rights of others.
Those politicians calling for protest actions to place pressure on the government must be aware of the proclivity of some elements to cross the line of legality. They will be held accountable for the consequences.