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US$10k: The price of a Guyanese life

Published: 
Sunday, March 10, 2013
Outside Track

A Commission of Enquiry on February 28 proposed two to three million dollars as a “favour” for the families of each of three men shot dead at a July 18 protest over electricity prices in the bauxite mining town of Linden. That’s Guyana dollars. A million Guyana dollars is around US$5,000 or TT$32,000.

 

Dead are Ron Somerset, an 18-year-old technical student; Allan Lewis, a 46-year-old construction worker; and Shemroy Bouyea, 24, who worked in a snackette. In poor health himself, Bouyea supported two mentally challenged brothers.

 

Those who were merely injured got small change. Sheila Austin was not part of the protest. She was shot in the right leg and the hand while looking frantically for her nephew. For her, the commission proposed $50,000 Guyana dollars—around TT$1,600. The tone of this section of the report is brusque and dismissive.

 

Until the 1970s, Linden was a bauxite boom town. Today, it is a drab sprawl, plagued by poverty and unemployment. Ethnically, it is mainly Afro-Guyanese; politically, an opposition stronghold. Residents still get low-cost electricity, a legacy from the old days. Last year’s budget proposed to phase out the subsidy.

 

On July 18 last year, an agreed protest march came to an unscheduled halt, blocking the bridge over the Demerara river. This is not just any bridge. Close to 100 metres long, it is the only crossing point south of Georgetown, and lies astride the road to the gold and logging camps of the interior. In spite of advance intelligence that trouble was coming, no action was taken to secure the bridge ahead of the march.

 

A detachment of 20 armed police from the Tactical Services Unit, dispatched from Georgetown early, went to the bridge at 11 am, then withdrew. The atmosphere was relaxed. Protestors sang songs and played small-goal football. At around six, police were told to clear the bridge before dark. They returned, and followed what they say is Guyana’s procedure for crowd dispersal.

 

Police bounced shots at the ground. Pellets ricocheted. There was panic. Dark was falling. For reasons which are not clear—and not investigated by the Enquiry—the power supply blacked out. An angry crowd later fired an office building and the local headquarters of the governing People’s Progressive Party.

 

 

If its aim was to open the road, the police action was a dismal failure. The route to the interior stayed blocked for almost four weeks, until August 13. On August 21, after a long month of negotiations, the government signed an agreement with the opposition-controlled regional council. Committees were to discuss Linden’s depressed economy and the vexed question of electricity rates. A local TV channel would be community-run from September.

 

More than six months on, community TV remains a promise, and neither committee has started work. Practical proposals to kick-start Linden’s economy? Some way off. Implementing them? Don’t hold your breath. Dispersing the bitterness? Priceless. In other countries, protesters break the law. The Occupy movement in New York, London and 82 countries worldwide dragged on for months. Nobody got shot.

 

The Enquiry was chaired by a Jamaican former chief justice, Lensley Wolfe. Members were former national security minister of Jamaica, KD Knight; two senior retired judges from Guyana; and T&T’s Dana Seetahal. It held that the police fired in self defence and to scare the protesters, because some of the crowd were throwing stones and bottles as police ranks advanced towards the bridge; but it adds that “lethal force was not justified.”

 

Police witnesses claimed that their force did not fire the death shots. However, the Enquiry found no evidence that anyone besides the police had a gun—and noted unreliable record-keeping in the police Arms Book. If the police felt threatened, they had options. They could have pulled back out of bottle-pelting range. The bridge had been closed all afternoon. If it was blocked overnight, the sky was not going to fall.

 

Reinforcements can add numbers. Riot shields can deflect bottles; batons can force a retreat. Guyana’s police in 2011 spent US$185,000 on a German water cannon. It stayed in Georgetown until after the shooting. They have rubber bullets—unpleasant but not lethal.

 

The Commission proposed a full management audit to lay ground for police reform. There have been perhaps eight initiatives of this sort since 2000, the most recent announced on December 31 last year. A full Commission of Enquiry into the Disciplined Forces made 164 proposals in 2004. Parliament debated a review of them in 2010. It is not clear what has happened since.

 

Guyana has a 50-year history of violent protest. There has been plenty time to think about crisis management and crowd control. And about the price of a life.