Protest action in the form of road-blocking, burning of tyres and debris, and placarding is nothing new. It is usually done to draw public attention to lack of water, impassable roadways, or the closure of schools for one reason or another.
What happened during the days from June 26 to June 30 was different. It followed the killing of three men in Morvant by police officers, captured on video and distributed widely on social media.
The protest in Morvant escalated into marches by scores of mostly young men in the streets of Port of Spain, blocking of the main arteries leading into and out of the city, and exchange of gunfire between the police and gangs, leading to the death of one woman in Beetham Gardens.
The number of persons killed by the police has increased dramatically in 2020. The Morvant killings are but the latest in a long series over many years and have attracted investigations but no resolution by way of either exoneration of the police officers or their prosecution.
There is little doubt that it is this lack of resolution in these matters which triggered the unprecedented protests. The communities of East Port of Spain see themselves stigmatised, targetted harshly by law enforcement, and discriminated against in the distribution of public goods—education, health care, housing, transportation, sanitation—and in the distribution of opportunities for jobs.
Economic and commercial activity in Port of Spain and environs have declined, leading to depopulation, further decline in commercial activity, and a flight to suburban communities. This has caused an increase in crime worsening the decline of the capital city.
The performance of schools in the urban fringe are well below the national average. Gang warfare among the communities is a fact of daily life, occasionally spilling into downtown Port of Spain. Even the celebrated Desperadoes steel band had to leave its panyard in Laventille.
In the face of the recent events, the debates as to root causes have begun anew in living rooms, in the newspapers, on radio talk shows, and in chat groups. Fingers are pointed in all directions, to the police, to the government, to unnamed political instigators, to the ‘one per cent’, and even to the people of the communities themselves.
However, it is unarguable that these communities have been neglected and hard done by for decades now. They suffer from poverty, dependency, and underdevelopment, compounded by a cycle of crime and violence.
We know they are there, but we don’t really see them, just as the rich man did not see the indigent Lazarus on his very doorstep (Lk 16: 19–21). We ignore them when they commit acts of violence against each other. We ‘see’ them only when they protest and cause damage to people or property. The Government will sometimes take notice. In 2013, Professor Selwyn Ryan’s Committee made many recommendations in its report: No Time To Quit.
Our Archdiocese has been concerned for many years with the poor performance of the many Catholic primary schools in east Port of Spain and developed plans to address them specifically. Like the sower’s seed on stony ground (Matt 13: 1–9), these reports, plans and recommendations have borne no fruit. We remain with the many excellent but purely palliative measures which may reach individuals or families within the communities, but which cannot address the deep-seated, systemic issues these communities face.
Like the committees before it, the Watkins Committee will no doubt make sound recommendations. This time those recommendations must become planted in the fertile hearts and minds of a receptive Government.
In addition, the wider national community must open its heart to support the extraordinary financial, educational, and spiritual assistance these communities need and deserve.
We will know we have succeeded when Despers returns to its iconic panyard.