The Regent street war
October 29, 2000
The City Constabulary's war with the vendors has to stop. Regent street is not the Shankhill road in Belfast or the front line in Ramallah. And the confrontation is not one involving ancient enemies whose perceptions have been distorted by centuries of bitterness. This is simply a dispute about where some small business people should sell their wares. So why such a toll of physical injury, including two serious cases involving a stabbing and a shooting?
Once the injunction which the Regent street vendors had obtained against the Mayor and City Council had been dismissed, it had to be acted on. What is surprising, however, is that this dismissal appears to have caught the authorities unawares, and devoid of any back-up plan. What we have, therefore, is the clearing of the city's main commercial thoroughfare by strong-arm methods, but no constructive alternative being offered to enable the vendors to earn a living.
It should also be said that the City Constabulary's use of force has been excessive in the circumstances. The beatings last week cannot be defended, while the shooting of a vendor in a house on the corner of Regent and Wellington streets was unacceptable. A release from the Mayor's office alleged that the wounded vendor had been armed with a cutlass, but this has been contradicted by eyewitnesses. Even supposing, however, that he had been in possession of a cutlass, the firing of shots in a flimsy house where young children were present was nothing short of irresponsible. It is difficult to believe that the shooting was necessary in order to effect the arrest of the man in question. Of course, all this in no way redeems those vendors who allegedly stabbed a constable in Camp Street last week - a thoroughly reprehensible act. Violence will not help the vendors to get back on Regent Street.
The problem with violence is that it has a tendency to escalate, making the solving of a simple problem infinitely more complicated than it would otherwise be. In addition, when situations get out of hand in Guyana, there is always the danger that the confrontation will transmute itself into something unrelated to the original difficulty.
Hawking wares on the street simply cannot continue indefinitely, and the Regent Street vendors are just the first to face that reality. One expects that the new plan for Georgetown is going to take their situation into account and make provision for them. In the meantime, however, what everyone is seeking is some kind of interim solution. That cannot be achieved by stabbing or shooting; it can only be effected if the Mayor and/or the relevant officials sit down with the vendors and come to some kind of agreement.
Over the years the vendors have proved themselves people of initiative, and in the last week or so their leaders have demonstrated their eloquence on the nightly news. They too should put their minds to long-term solutions which will make it possible for them to earn a livelihood. These conceivably might be more complex than the arrangements to which they are accustomed and could involve small co-operatives, or limited loans for micro-enterprises for example. In the meantime they, no less than the Mayor, need to display a preparedness for negotiation and compromise. Trying to return to sell on Regent street in defiance of the law is not the answer.
And where the Mayor himself is concerned his aims are right, but his methods are off-centre. Talks with the vendors need to be opened immediately, and proposals put to them as to where they can sell temporarily. Further pitched battles in the heart of the capital are something which we could all do without.
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