The Berbice protests

Stabroek News
June 11, 2001

The protests against crime that erupted in Berbice last week reflect two troubling trends that need to be arrested.

One of these is the inability of local and central government authorities to respond in a timely manner to deep-seated concerns of residents and to gauge the true temperature of the situation. In this case, even their traditional supporters. Demonstrations that began on Friday, June 1 and were preceded by weeks of complaints snowballed into large, violent outpourings on Monday, June 4 that led to an attack on a magistrate, an attempt to burn a police station and the shooting to death by the police of a man.

Why were the neighbourhood democratic councils (NDCs), the regional democratic council (RDC) and other such organs signally unable to transmit these passionately-held views on the crime fest to Georgetown and to take their own steps to placate the agitated citizens of the area? It is an indictment of the effectiveness of these bodies and others who are entrusted with representing the people in these areas. Did the MPs who are assigned to this area draw the rapid rising of rage to decision-makers? Were they even on the ground trying to discern the real problems and what their solutions should be?

As we said in relation to the discontent that rose to the surface on the East Coast following the elections, the RDC and the NDCs bear responsibility for not taking a more activist approach to these problems.

Secondly, the riotous situation that developed outside the police station on Monday revealed a mindset that citizens are beginning to feel that the only way their concerns will be addressed is by behaving badly, blocking roads, pelting bricks and setting fires. This is the first protest against crime in recent memory that has degenerated into this type of pandemonium. It is more than likely that the residents of Albion were influenced by the example set by those on the East Coast of Demerara who for weeks fought running battles with the police, put burning barriers on the road and attacked passers-by before a political agreement eased the tension. There was also countrywide frustration at the situation on the East Coast and the protesters at Albion wittingly or unwittingly provided the counterpoint. Our fragile state cannot afford these extrusions of unrest at every turn in the road. Each problem must not become a crisis and the government, local government bodies, political parties, NGOs and others who have influence in these troubled communities must bring their weight to bear.

Few would deny that residents of the Corentyne had fallen victim to a pernicious cycle of bandit terror in the period leading up to elections and since. Residents say there were at least three dozen armed robberies including kick-down-the-door attacks. Ironically, one of the more recent robbery attempts came at the same time that a mob attacked the Albion Police Station. There was no relief whatsoever from the police during this onslaught of crime and residents quite rightly felt defenceless and cornered. It is not a problem peculiar to Albion or Fyrish or Port Mourant it is one that afflicts the entire country - some areas worse than others. The measures that are now being put in place following President Bharrat Jagdeo's visit to the area should have been implemented before. (Incidentally, how come the President announced the transfer of police ranks from Albion and elsewhere? Should this not have been the task of the Police Commissioner?) As we said in an editorial just last month, the Jagdeo administration has to take the fight against crime seriously and this must be reflected in this year's budget. Over recent years we have had no real respite from banditry, crimes are not being solved, no real evidence is being gathered and wanted men continue to be shot dead by the police. The public will now wait to see if crime on the Corentyne will subside and whether the steps announced by the President can be sustained.

The violence spawned by the Albion protesters must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. The physical and verbal attacks on Magistrate Krishendat Persaud and the torching of his vehicle represent a serious attack on the magistracy/judiciary and on the pillars of judicial authority. Similarly, the attempt to raze the Albion Police Station was a grievous blow to the tenets of law and order. The now familiar tactics of blocking roads and burning barriers oppress the ordinary, guiltless citizens of the country. Our problems will not be resolved by resorting to these extreme actions, they will only be further compounded.