Sedition is described by the Oxford dictionary as engaging in conduct or uttering speech that incites people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch.
But was it sedition or the “right of struggle” when it came to world leaders like United States civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr and former South African President Nelson Mandela or even Trinidad and Tobago trade union leader Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler, who all rejected the heavy-handed order of the day which seemed to encroach on basic human rights and equality?
The issue has been on the public front-burner recently after Public Services Association president Watson Duke was charged with sedition for comments he allegedly made last November while defending workers at WASA, T&TEC and TSTT. Duke is currently out on $250,000 bail.
Political analyst Winford James opines the Sedition Act was born out of oppression.
“We should not from a political standpoint be supporting a law that has been developed against us to keep us subjugated, quiet, acquiescent and compliant,” James admonished.
In an interview with the Sunday Guardian, he explained Trinidad and Tobago was ruled by Britain and the law was established by the monarchy to maintain a state of affairs to keep citizens subjugated because the law, over time, has been politics.
James noted that it is politicians who make law and although they call themselves legislators, they legislate law from a political perspective very often.
“If you have former colonies now ruling themselves using the laws that were developed by those who oppressed us before, you are likely to find the laws developed, as they were from a perspective of the colonial master to keep the local population in check,” James said.
“You get the very clear impression that those laws may not be in our best interest. You can’t automatically support law like that.”
He said this is one of the reasons why when T&T became independent in 1962, the law was not really to prosecute, because it was then realised that those types of laws were contrary to our aims as people - a people who were becoming more autonomous and a country in charge of running its own affairs. But even so, he said the laws are still on the books.
“Because they are on the books we might feel that we ought to enforce those laws. But the infrequency of enforcement suggests that we understood that those laws could only be conveniently invoked,” James said.
Referring to the reason for the recent contention surrounding the Sedition Act after Duke’s detention, James said, “In the case of Watson Duke, the first thing we must be thinking, this is a law that has been invoked conveniently because of the long infrequency, the long lack of activation that has attended the existence of the law.”
James spoke of a highly regarded religious leader being charged with sedition in 2005 and before him dating back to 1937 when Uriah “Buzz” Butler was charged under the Sedition Act.
“I can’t imagine a trade union leader being charged with sedition. So when it was announced Duke was arrested and charged for sedition, this made my eyes open wide. This is astonishing and it’s not supportable,” he said.
He said even if Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley didn’t agree with it, being the Chief Executive, he couldn’t go against the work of the Director of Public Prosecution and the police.
“As a commentator, I am free to say this is absurd. And this doesn’t mean that I am right, because ultimately the court determines rightness. But even if the court rules in a particular way, I don’t have to agree with them from a political standpoint.”
In the same breath, James clarified that his perspective was not to say that he was against laws that were designed to protect sovereignty. But he said there was a sovereignty that T&T was establishing and developing and it’s not something that suggests that the British were right.
“In my opinion, the British were wrong from where they were coming from. So it is really disturbing to see in 2019, our police, DPP and other agents of the state are trying to enforce a law that is contrary to our interest. We have to develop our own laws in relation to where we want to go.”
Historian: T&T a culture
of rebels and resistance
While James looks at the Sedition Act as a law created to oppress and subdue its subjects, historian Gerard “Gerry” Besson, who gave some of the earliest examples of rebellion dating back to the 1800s under Spanish rule and then throughout the British conquest, said T&T had a culture of resistance. And from its primal time, he said T&T had proven to be a very difficult society to govern.
Additionally, Besson said there was the tendency embedded in our culture and nature to glorify either the rebel leader or the “smart man” or the sort of zig-zag person…the Anansi personality we label as a cultural hero.”
Besson said the first upheaval to take place in Port-of-Spain after the emancipation of slaves came in 1849 because of some misunderstanding of a law that was passed because people were attempting to burn down the government buildings and they had to call out soldiers to restore order.
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Referring to the line in one of Trinidadian war historian Gaylord Kelshall’s book, Besson said Kelshall put it quite right when he wrote: “We always forget the men who supported law and order.”
Ascribing the 1937 Fyzabad Riots during the trade union uprising led by Butler as a prime example of this, Besson mentioned police officers Corporal Carl King and Inspector William Bradburn among those who were all killed during the riots, but he said nobody remembers them.
He reiterated, “Trinidad has this culture of glorifying the rebel leaders and at the same time it possesses this ongoing undercurrent, like a sort of a hot-spot just beneath the surface, all you need is the charismatic individual, whether it is Abu (Abu Bakr), Dennis Granger or Butler, to spark the undercurrent of resistance.”
He said every administration, whether it was the colonial or first independence administration, was always very aware of that “so it is out of that kind of background that laws to govern sedition and treason were created and are on the books.”
Speaking to the age of the Sedition Act, Besson said all laws are old and that was the nature of law. But he pointed out that it was also the nature of law that it should be upgraded and should be rethought through at various times when the society evolves and changes.
In the meantime, however, he said the fact of the matter is that two realities existed in Trinidadian creole culture -the glorification of the anti-hero and the other is an inclination to resistance.
“Resistance expresses itself as anti-employer resistance; anti-government resistance; anti-establishment resistance; anti-colonial resistance or anti-slavery resistance. What we have is a culture of resistance that expresses itself from time to time in violence through a charismatic leader coming to the fore. This is why these laws must exist,” Besson resolved.
He said from a historical point of view, these are the facts. And this was the basic canvas against which this recent upheaval is painted.
Calypsonians brace yourself
Veteran calypsonian Dr Hollis “Chalkdust” Liverpool says the century-old Sedition Act has been a major hurdle to artistes through the decades.
“Calypsonians have faced the challenges of the Sedition Act more than anybody else,” he said.
“The challenge is how do you say certain things without upsetting the apple cart and being taken to court.”
Some of the earliest artistes to find themselves running afoul of the act were the likes of Patrick Jones, also known as Chinee Patrick and Neville Marcano, known as the Growling Tiger. The latter was charged in the 1940s after singing a calypso about the then director of education, an Englishman, who was caught driving under the influence of alcohol.
When the Growling Tiger sang that Jones was not fit to lead the ministry, he was charged for sedition.
“In those days it was a big thing to sing against an Englishman,” Liverpool told the Sunday Guardian. He added, “The British government may have had a different motive than from today. It was an act that they saw the calypsonians as challenging them.”
Even the eight-time Calypso Monarch himself had instances where he flirted with the sedition law. Liverpool’s 1972 hit “Ah Fraid Karl” took aim at then-attorney general Karl Hudson-Phillips. In the four-stanza song, Liverpool sang about how he refused to sing about topics that offended the then People’s National Movement (PNM) government because he “‘fraid the Sedition Act.”
“When I sang ‘Ah Fraid Karl’ a lot of people were scared. My family was scared I would have been jailed,” Liverpool explained.
The contents of Liverpool’s composition came a year after the Sedition Act was amended. The original 1920 law required there to be an incitement to violence but in 1971 that part was removed, meaning mere speech could be seditious. Criminal defence attorney Wayne Sturge says this is when the Sedition Act became a “real danger.”
In admitting that parts of the 99-year-old law are still needed today, Sturge advocated for a total repeal of the law.
He said, “There are aspects of the sedition act that remain relevant but there is no need to have it in a Sedition Act. For instance, if you incite racial division, that is also in the Sedition Act and that is still relevant in our country, but we don’t need a Sedition Act for that. What you need to do is perhaps have a race relations act.”
Sturge said he would like to see T&T follow in the footsteps of the United Kingdom (UK), where the Sedition Act was repealed and has been put into statutes that deal specifically with things like racial hatred.
“If you amend it, you’ll be left with very little,” Sturge said.
“It will make no sense keeping it. So what you do is you take the parts that you still need and enact certain offences dealing with racial divisiveness and other things.”
With the recent charges against Duke, Liverpool is concerned about his fellow singers.
“I’m concerned because somebody will want to say something on Watson Duke and the Sedition Act and they’ll have to be very careful. We have always had that challenge, a mountain in front of us when composing. I’m not worried about it because calypsonians have gone through that many times.”
Many have seen Duke’s recent arrest as an attack on freedom of expression. However, Liverpool doesn’t believe the Rowley-led Government is trying to stifle public opinion.
He said, “I don’t think the Government today is trying to silence anybody, but the act remains so probably there is a need to review it.
“But certainly you need a Sedition Act. Any society needs a sedition act but it depends on how far you are going to go.”