Finally it happened. It looked as if it would never happen. Guyana's university students in rebellion? In what was seemingly the most dormant campus in the region? This is not entirely true. They were student battles before but not on the scale and unified response of this particular action. Rebellions in the past reflected the political division in the society. While these divisions persist, this action distinguished itself from its predecessors because students, at least for three glorious days, put aside their political and other interests and focused their anger on conditions at the Campus.
But to recount the events.
On the afternoon of Tuesday,
March ] 9 the University of
Guyana Students Society held an
emergency meeting with
students in an open air meeting
near the faculties of Social
Science and Arts. The meeting
addressed by USG's first student
union woman President Sharon
Douglas had a number of issues
of concern on the agenda.
1) The first was the intended
plan, by the Beharry Group to
build a dormitory so near to the
UG cricket field that it would
have encroached on the playing
area - plans reportedly being
conducted in secret.
2) Complaints were made of a lecturer (then unnamed) who had allegedly tom up students papers and thrown them into a waste paper basket.
3) The general conditions on campus including the state of the toilets, whose smell seemed to have multiplied of recent. Of course in a context of the general deterioration of the University since the 1970s many more problems could have been raised on the state of the institution and each would have been as credible as the other. The living experience of students on campus would have been a recipe for riot in most other universities in the region and further afield.
Several reasons can be attributed for the student protest occurring when it did. One obvious source is the fact that students began fee paying from 1994 - a very important departure from the "free" days. Secondly, a new UGSS executive led by the body's first female president brought an improved "students first" attitude to representation, and as addressed earlier, this was a departure from the days of clear politicization and divide on campus. Thirdly, the lecturer's issue though by no means a universal one affecting all students appeared to precipitate the initial action.
In any case after
interventions and complaints by
several students the meeting
resolved to mount a picketing exercise and protest on campus the
next day. Wednesday March 20th from 2 p.m.:
Wednesday 2 PM: Scores of students place a road block in the vicinity of the Education faculty effectively stopping vehicles from getting access to the administration building where a meeting of the UG appointments committee was planned for the same afternoon. After a hour of loud chanting and drumbeating, the students now in larger mass, moved to the UG administration building to make their feeling felt. Here they continued changes which included "Student's power! No dictator!", " Ninvalle must go", "UG students join the struggle" and so on. After about two parades around the building the students decided to "drop in" on me meeting at the top floor. Scores of students then stormed the building reaching the third floor. The door of the top floor was blocked by US security but students allegedly forced their way pass these security personnel who were protecting it. The door later resembled a splintered relic of the action. The students entered the room where four members of the UG Council were present, including the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Mel Sankies, Deputy Registrar Vincent A!exander, Registrar lecturer. What happened next was a marvelous demonstration of student's power. Sharon Douglas and other students armed with a loud hailer asked questions of the assembled administrators in a hostage type situation while historian James Rose who sits on the appointments committee and was sitting apart from the proceedings smiled and nodded at times at the goings on and the tactics of the students. "What about the toilets? What about chairs? What is the position with the lecturer who tore up student's scripts? What about the Dormitory project? Are you going to deal with the library? What about books for the library? The leaking roofs? All these and more were questions fired at the Council officials. In response to questions of the controversial lecturer, Mr. Butters under duress finally said "that matter is being investigated". Other issues the officials blamed on the non release of funds by the Finance Ministry. After about forty minutes of relentless questioning the students left. They announced a boycott of classes the next day, Thursday. The dramatic invasion of the Council meeting had taken the struggle one step further in a magnificent display of student's power. More was yet to come.
Thursday 21st March 10 a.m.: Students many of then wearing the symbolic color ofthe day, black, begin massing By 10.30 am the student's in a noisy procession made their way around the campus. First treated to protest action was the University library source of many woes. The students entered the building despite attempts by guards, like the previous day, to stop them. In the process the glass door to the library was broken but eyewitnesses said it was the guards who accidentally broke the door, and not the students. The students went through the library and then made their way to the Faculty of Agriculture where they marched through the corridors chanting "Join the struggle now"! For the next few hours this was to be their method of guerrilla assaults on various faculties. Technology, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, Arts were all touched by the protesters.
The march next proceeded to the controversial "Back to Eden" snackette where numerous complaints had been lodged about food standards. Loud chanting and stamping of feet and calls for the proprietor "Ginger" to represent himself before the court of the students. Ginger was to arrive later - and give a poor defense of complaints on his snackette. The students proceeded to the UG dorms were there were consistent complaints of living standards. Peaceably but loudly entering the foyer of the dorm the students heard testimony of obnoxious visiting hours and saw live what the students were forced to cook on - described in normal parlance as a stove but hardly functioning in that capacity. The President Sharon Douglas, mike in hand, told the gathering of the UGSS's determination to take these matters up with the administration.
They continued marching around the campus storming any class which dared to continue as normal. Several of these were disrupted, the chairs and desks placed outside the offending classroom. In the Agriculture Faculty chairs were taken downstairs. A class I the Geography room was disturbed with :the chairs seized and dispersed elsewhere. In the appropriately termed "stables" classrooms near the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences two classes were terminated by loud changing and removal of chairs. Both lecturers here "cooperate" with the boycott. The students next went to the gangplank where they assessed the situation. Sharon Douglas, Troy Torrington and others from the Executive went to a meeting of the Council scheduled for 1.30 p.m.
The rest of the students moved to set up a roadblock by the Security Lodge. This proved inadequate as vehicles used the field to avoid the protest point. Strategy subverted the students decided to go to the main gate and establish the barricade. By this time it should be noted that the mass of students had dwindled to a few dozen of the more militant, the rest awaiting the outcome of the meeting at the Council. At the front gate the UG sentry barrier was lowered and the students allegedly padlocked it to the opposite fixture and gathered in increasing numbers in front and behind. The next hour witnessed the pile of vehicles and people on both sides of this main artery to the university campus. As access was denied on both sides the tension grew. Someone called the police and they first arrived in the shape of three officers who cajoled, pleaded and threatened the militant students for their co-operation in removing the barricade. But the students stood firm explaining to the officers that this action was necessary for the administrators to listen and "hear" their resolve on this occasion. Time passed. By about 2.45 p.m. the riot squad had arrived in a landrover and minibus. The officers again approached. No said the students. The riot squad took up their military position about a hundred yards in front of the students who by this time had linked arms and were preparing for assault. It came at approximately 3.15 p.m. as riot police decked out in new "South Korean" type helmets waded into the students and attempted to break the barricade. A large scuffle ensued. Grabbing, pushing, pulling and lashing out, the police gradually overcame the students. The ringleaders were first targeted and pushed or pulled under arrest to the waiting vehicle. Jonathan A dams was among the first arrested. Linden Harry, who was on the other side of the barricade was thrown bodily over and landed on his back - was arrested. Gerhard Ransaroop's hand was busted as he attempted to block a baton. Also arrested. He later required five stitches. Others arrested included Mark Waldron, Stanislaus Reid, Dennis Wiggins, Mohamed Khan, Sharon Ousman, and four women were arrested in all including this columnist. Fifteen of the men were taken away on the spot with the four women while Sylvester Craig was held incommunicado for several hours. The students were first taken to the Sparendaam Police Station., names were taken and later, on orders, the group was taken to the Brickdam Police Station, because according to one policeman, Brickdam had enough space for the large group. At Brickdam the women were separated from the rest and taken to La Penitence Police Station. The women who had expressed a desire to stay with the large group were forcibly removed from Brickdam. Some of the men who attempted to intervene on their behalf were shoved against a wall. As the four women were being pulled out of the station Bibi Husein's kurdah was partially torn off her head.
The men were booked at Brickdam, and placed in a cell where they remained for about forty minutes after which they were taken outside to await word of their release from the commanding officer of Sparendaam under whose jurisdiction they were arrested. The lawyers arrived first Arthur Alexander then followed by Randolph Kirton and Glen Hanoman, Fr. Malcolm Rodrigues had by this time arrived with the mother of one of the detainees in solidarity. The lawyers were given access to the detained students as scores of other students waited outside the Brickdam Police Station in solidarity. Time passed. By 6 p.m. the police had apparently heard of the march from the campus approaching the city and quickly handed out self -bail forms. The women were also released from La Penitence.
The released students joined the march of approximately 3,000 at Visengen road. The march originally planned for the police station in which the students were placed, turned to the President's residence both as a protest against police brutality and also to let the President hear their concerns. It was not to be - while the march and demonstration were effective, the President was not available to see the students as he reportedly was at a meeting away from the residence. Contact was however established between the UGSS President and President Jagan and a meeting was set between the sides a few days after. This was not to the satisfaction of the gathering who believed that the President should treat the matter with more urgency.
The next few days saw the students gain some degree of satisfaction for their action as the campus toilets began to be repaired. Other concessions were made to the UGSS executive including a joint commission of the Council and student representatives to oversee campus improvements - including the urgent requirement of drinking water outlets. The snackette was also investigated. An the promised meeting with the President materialized when the Guyana Head Of State received a delegation of students at the Office of the President on Monday, March 25th.
The action was an overall success and received widespread support from the public. There were however a few letter writers and commentators who sought to associate the student's action with extremism, citing the barricade. This is patent nonsense. The barricade inconvenienced some for a few hours, small pressure for years of student agony. It was in fact a glorious moment in the unwritten struggle of UG students. More accurately, the whole episode demonstrated a great degree of student restraint in the face of an unbearable situation. Worse has happened for less on other campuses around the region and in the world. Ultimately it was the police that rioted, to paraphrase one historian. Riot squad on Campus? HAIL THE STUDENTS!