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Friday, January 26, 2007

Hype and Circumstance: The Call to Shut Down Trinidad and Tobago

I don't like hype. I detest fluff. I can no longer take on allegations without even minimally plausible grounds to support them. I don't deal well with B.S. That's why I'd stopped listening to talk radio on a morning and had locked my dial on 104FM. But then Adrian Don Mora got into the commentary game between the music. And the news became more commentary than reporting. So I've given in. So I've resolved to spend more time picking sense out of nonsense and extrapolating the facts in the new reports from the quantum of "...it is alleged..." and various other covers for libel.

That said, I've listened with interest and some mirth at the utterances and public responses to the Inshan Ishmael-sponsored calls to "Shutdown or Shut Up".

The days of the protest creeped up on me unawares , so far under my radar did this new effort float. It was only when someone asked me whether I felt that maxis would be running on Thursday and Friday did I seek to find what was happening. Not many people seemed to know about Ishmael's call. The people who did either viewed it as the same exercise in futility that the Death March was, or felt that it was something that needed to be done to "embarrass the Government into action."

One commentator felt that only people that supported the PNM would ignore the call to shut down the country.

That comment was made interesting given that on the Wednesday night CNC3 News reported that the Downtown Owners' and Merchants' Association (DOMA), the Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU), the Communication Workers' Union (CWU) and the Route 2 Maxi Taxi Association had independently stated that they did not support the shut down. The South and Chaguanas Chambers of Commerce and San Juan Business Association heads all indicated that they took no position and that they gave their members no directive; businessmen were to operate according to their conscience.

Most interesting was the Leader of the Oppostion's very vocal indication that no one dictates any action taken by the UNC but the UNC. and as such they did not support Ishmael's call.

Two things have troubled me though.

The first was that there are rumours floating that people are being threatened to keep their businesses closed, something that Ishmael denied being involved with. I've not gone around and done a poll or anything, but I know a gentleman from Central who went to work on the Thursday without his required long sleeved shirt and tie. I'd overheard him saying that he left home dressed down because he didn't want to give anyone the impression that he had left home to go to work. If what is being said is true, then this is as much a troubling situation as the crime problem itself.

The second troubling thing arises out of Wednesday night's arrest and detention of Ishmael by uniformed and uniformed Police officers who, it is reported took Ishmael to Port of Spain CID. The arrest is not the troubling part though.

Subsequent to the arrest, Anand Ramlogan is reported to have been driving though Port of Spain when he got word that Ishmael had just been taken into custody and he went to CID immediately to seek Ishmael's release. That still isn't what's troubling me.

Ramlogan then gets on the horn to the Press and reports that Ishmael was snatched up by Police officers who did not identify themselves and who did not indicate for what he was being charged. He saidis reported to have said that Police officers led Ishmael's family and friends on a car chase down the Beetham Highway or Priority Bus Route (reports differ) so that they shake them off their tail. He also reported that when they went to Port of Spain CID, they were told that nobody by Ishmael's name was being held there. He is also being reported to have said that Ishmael was being held under the provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Act and that it was the Police's intent to hold him for the full 72 hours that the Act allows.

What is troubling is that the Press picked this story up and have been reporting it as if fact, with various addenda coming in during the day, including that the call to pick Ishmael up came from the political directorate, all seeming with no further substantiation. That the arrest was politically motivated was denied by Ministers facing the press in Thursday's post-Cabinet press conference.

While one daily newspaper on Friday was careful to state early in their article "...an attorney for the activist said...", another took no such care, putting down what was indicated by the attorney as if they were the facts of the case. At time of writing, I've not yet seen the third daily, and I'm dying to see what the T'n'T Mirror will have to say about the situation.

I will not go as far as saying that these allegations are ludicrous on their face, but rather will propose an alternate theory to the attorney's story. This is something that had the press done a little homework could have been discerned from their own archival footage and clippings.

We have a Police Commissioner under pressure. We are already at about a murder a day again. Vindra Naipaul-Coolman has been missing for more than a month and the Police have just spent many days following yet another lead, draining a pond in the process to try to find evidence.

In the same week, a Woman Police Officer and her family are slain in Pelican Extension Road. Although one suspect was shot on the same morning and five others had been reported held, the tragedy is still fresh in people's minds.

The Commissioner now has to deal with an Islamic activist who is vocally and vociferously calling for the shut down of the entire country, and at the same time calling him a political peon. Reports are coming in that persons are being threatened to keep their doors closed on Thursday and Friday.

Note that Ishmael has already built quite a reputation for himself, including attempts at bullying various people and bodies. He has also faced off with the Police before. He had featured prominently in a 2006 protest action in Woodford Square where about 300 Muslims called for the adoption of Islamic sharia law in Trinidad and Tobago. He made public allegations of anti-Islamic sentiment, later found false, on the part of the then Cable Company of Trinidad and Tobago (CCTT) when he sought to establish his Islamic Broadcast Network. As head of the Pre-Owned Automobile Dealers Association, he is both vocal and vitriolic in support of the continued and unfettered importation of foreign-used vehicles. He also featured prominently in a clash with Police in a boisterous (and I believe illegal) roadside protest for a pavement on a stretch of road in Bamboo Settlement.

In light of all this, and the fact that the last fundamentalist Islamic activist that the country had to deal with did shut down the country for six days and had us under curfew for longer, as Commissioner, I would have wanted to have a quiet chat with the gentleman. I doubt that Ishmael would have come in to chat alone, but would likely have walked with entourage and full press coverage.

It was an unfortunate move arresting him though, especially given how quickly several usually anti-Government bodies had been back-pedalling when asked about support for the shut-down. But then, the Commissioner had already come out and said that hard lines will be taken against anyone deemed to be restricting people's right to free movement and trade.

I don't know what the standard arrest procedure is in Trinidad and Tobago, but I know for certain that it is not the reading of rights that we see on American television. But remove the innuendo and inflammatory text from Ishmael's reported speech about his experience and it seems that he was handled in the same manner as any other person taken in by the Police. Despite the statements of his "I was passing through town and I heard that Inshan had been arrested and I rushed to his aid and I am telling you that they plan on holding him for 72 hours" lawyer, Ishmael was charged for an offence on the law books of Trinidad and Tobago, was released on bail and is to face a Tunapuna Magistrate on Monday.

But let's say that Ishmael is to be considered sincere in his efforts and he garners broad support for his public disruption. What happens next? Let's say we respond to the call and show solidarity... We wear black... We drive with our headlights on all day... We march the streets of Port of Spain with Ishmael... We placard... We sing... We beg the Government to do something about the crime situation... At the end of the day, what difference does it really make if on a personal level we sit back and do nothing else? Anybody remember that rant from last year?

We want the Government to take a hard line on crime now so that we can get on with our lives again, yes? But are Trinidadians really ready for that?

A hard line means that every time people burn rubbish and tyres in the road, the Police are to pick up and charge every-damn-body for gathering illegally and for disturbing the peace. There may be charges too for destroying public property dependant on what is destroyed, and possibly even assault of Police officers as they attempt to bring people in. But then the bleeding hearts will say that they Police moved too hard and should be chasing criminals instead.

A hard line means that the Magistrates' Court system will be swamped with illegal parking and various other traffic offences. But then the people will say that the Police are being wicked and that they were only "taking a chance" to run into a store for two minutes (which somehow turned into half an hour) and the Police should be up in Laventille looking for criminals.

A hard line means that people caught wearing camouflage will face fines and conviction, and that even after being stripped of their camo in the street. But the people will say that the Police are being advantageous and that the camo doesn't even look like what the soldiers wearing.

The likes of Anand Ramlogan and other purported human rights champions will lose their minds when Police and soldiers begin killing people known to be criminals but against whom evidence is not forthcoming. And the people will smile silently in their closets at this, even as the security forces gun down the odd innocent in between and commit murder for the sake of the beleaguered populace.

But they can't focus on the last because they have to stretch themselves thin to try to marshal an indisciplined and ungrateful populace.

We can't regulate ourselves on the nation's highways. We need highway patrol.

We can't put our garbage away properly. The municipal corporations must now hire and deploy litter wardens to charge people for illegal dumping.

Every Monday morning is a protest march or action requiring Police to calmly remove debris or keep the protesters corralled so that they do not affect free passage of people who are not involved in the action. And the funny thing is that the Police are doing that whether the action has been legally sanctioned or it has not been approved by the Police Commissioner. As a side note and I can't state chapter and verse, but the Summary Offences Act states that the Police Commissioner must be notified at least 48 hours in advance of a gathering or protest march so that sufficient Police presence can be provided. This is to ensure that the action proceeds in an orderly fashion. I have in recent years seen only one march denied, and that because it would have coincided with some major event in Port of Spain.

Let it not be said though that I am not also frustrated about the crime situation. I do have a friend who was shot in 2005 for nothing other than being a nice guy. His killers are yet to be tried for his murder though several in the St. Barbs neighbourhood apparently know exactly who they are and may have witnessed the shooting.

I tire though of the complaining that the Government is doing nothing. I'm fed up to my craw of the constant griping that their strategies are not effective, especially when no counter measures are suggested or, as is the case with the Opposition, steps are taken to block legislation that is designed to help the situation.

I'm fed up of hearing that we live in a totalitarian and oppressive state, when in truth people can gather (illegally in many cases!) in front of the Prime Minister's office no less and either be invited in to chat, or have Joan Yuille-Williams come out to meet them in the Savannah to actively take notes and act on their grouses.

I am bloody embarrassed to hear people continue to cry in international circles that Indians are oppressed in Trinidad and Tobago when the largest murti outside of the Indian subcontinent is supposed to be the Ganesh statue in Chaguanas, Divali and Indian Arrival Day are embraced celebrated by the entire national community, and when someone blurts "yuh racial or wha'?!" in response of a simple difference of opinion, the antagonist who has been accused of improper motive will back away quietly and let the ignoramus have their way.

We complain and complain and complain... and sadly, we hardly ever acknowledge when things do go right... But that's enough ranting for one night...

In my next article, I will issue a challenge to my readers for reasoned and holistic, if not reasonable, solutions to the nation's ills. If the Government really doesn't have a clue, maybe we can do some research and give them practical solutions rather than bitching about the assertion that they don't know what they are doing.

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