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Runoff bill rage grows

Protesters, cops clash outside Senate as...
Published: 
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Riot police subdue Osei McKnight during yesterday’s protest against the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 outside the Parliament building, Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain. PHOTO: SHIRLEY BAHADUR

KALIFA CLYNE and KEVON FELMINE

At least three men were bodily lifted off the heated asphalt of Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain, and bundled into a police bus yesterday after riot police, holding shields, pushed against a stubborn crowd of protestors they were attempting to move from in front of the Parliament building. Confrontations between United National Congress (UNC) supporters and people protesting the Government’s Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 had until then been mostly about picong, as arguments and insults were traded by both sides.

But the protest earned a violent taint when police tried to enforce an order from Senate vice-president James Lambert to remove the protesters from outside the building. This resulted in a clash between the protesters and the police. The bill, which seeks to change the electoral process by introducing a runoff provision, the right to recall MPs and establishing fixed term limits for prime ministers, has been met with public criticism and protest since it was proposed in Parliament on August 4.

With the sounds of African drums accompanied by chants of “go Kamla go”, and “move satan move”, officers rushed into the crowd, forcefully grabbed three men and bundled them into a police bus. During the skirmish, the men fell to the ground. As the men struggled under the police manhandling, other protesters expressed their outrage, shouting at the police and complaining of abuse. 

As the officers barged through the crowd, pushing down an elderly woman in the process, supporters rushed to protect the men who the officers targeted. The scene momentarily threatened to turn ugly as tempers flared but a calmer head by police thereafter seemed to quell the tension. The men were released shortly after, but the clashes sparked outrage among People’s National Movement (PNM) supporters, who surrounded police as they snatched the T-Shirt of Osei McKnight.

Already claiming that their freedom was being infringed on by the Lower House’s passing of the controversial bill, they cried oppression at the hands Guard and Emergency Branch police. After being struck during a brief skirmish, McKnight planned to report it to the Police Complaints Authority and Central Police Station. “We marching and protesting and while going down the road, the officer said that it was illegal to beat the drums. I stopped beating the drums and I asked him what about it was illegal and he didn’t tell me why.

“A lady came from behind me and told the police that he couldn’t stop us from beating drum and she started to beat the drums. “The police are using too much force against people. We are not coming out here to riot or war against anybody, we are coming up here because we are against something. We just want them (Government) to know we are not comfortable with this,” McKnight said. Senior police later said their colleagues only spoke to the people they held and released them to return to the protest.

Even Fixing T&T’s Kirk Waithe was told he had no permission to protest and the use of placards made their presence illegal. Meanwhile, scores of UNC supporters gathered on the southern side of the waterfront, showing their support for Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. The UNC supporters were mostly quiet but erupted in cheers whenever a Government Minister entered the Parliament compound.

Cheers turned into exuberant screams when Persad-Bissessar arrived and walked directly in front of party supporters, while a woman in a brown suit walked ahead of her encouraging the crowd to cheer. She was accompanied by National Security Minister Gary Griffith, former tourism minister Chandresh Sharma and Oropouche West MP Stacy Roopnarine. Roopnarine was heard moments earlier requesting that officers allow the crowd more freedom when Persad-Bissessar arrived.

The UNC supporters, however, were forced to compete with a boisterous group of PNM supporters. Tourism Minister Gerard Hadeed, who was heckled as he walked to the Senate, put his briefcase on the ground and started to smile and wave at supporters. But he retreated quickly as the protesting crowd started to chant “rats” repeatedly.

Al-Rawi stunned by force
PNM Senator Faris Al-Rawi, who was outside the Parliament when a brief scuffle between police and a protester resulted in two men being dragged to the ground, expressed shock at the way protesters were being treated. “Where is the supervision? Where are the police in khaki uniform?” he asked. When Al-Rawi complained about the lack of supervision for police, there were no inspectors around. This changed shortly after when two supervising officers arrived.

“I have never in my parliamentary experience seen police with riot shields, riot gear outside the Parliament of T&T,” said Al-Rawi. “A man was just wrestled down to the ground by about 12 to 14 police officers, right in front of our eyes,” Al-Rawi added. He said the crowd was relatively small in comparison to other protests. Police estimated the crowd to be around 2,000 people.

“This is the first time I have seen a crowd of this relatively small size, met with this type of opposition. It is really a very spectacular thing,” he noted. He said there was a delicate balance to be achieved between political will, good governance and the right to protest and hold a political belief.

Griffith responds
National Security Minister Gary Griffith said while it was a citizen’s right to protest they needed to operate within the law. “There is something about unlawful assembly. It is your constitutional right to voice your concern and they are doing that right now but the police need to ensure that people adhere to the law,” Griffith said. He said police were operating to ensure that everyone obeyed the law while allowing them to exercise their right to freedom of protest.

Griffith denied the police were being excessive in their interaction with protesters, saying there was a difference between crowd control and excessive use of force. “What the police are doing is to ensure that law and order is maintained. “If you have a massive show of force on either side of the political fence then it is the right of the officers to ensure all those people who are here are safe and secure and would have no acts of violence,” he said.

Asked whether the fact that the police presence seemed to mostly be among the protesters, Griffith said he had noticed that police were evenly distributed in both the area where pro-Government supporters were and where protesters in opposition to the bill had gathered.