Terror in the city

By Michael DaSilva, Steve Ninvalle, Desiree Jodah and Albert Alstrom
January 13, 1998

Mobs took control of political protests in the city yesterday after a court ruling against the PNC, unleashing terror and havoc which resulted in the government last night banning public demonstrations and gatherings for a month.

The peaceful protest organised by the People's National Congress (PNC) degenerated in downtown Georgetown yesterday, as a section of the crowd became agitated after news of Chief Justice Desiree Bernard's decision, to discharge the orders nisi she had made on December 19, 1997.

At 11.35 am, a few thousand protesters who had just left the Customs and Excise Department on Main Street, joined another contingent which had started to assemble outside the High Court since 8.15 am. On arrival at the court, word about the Chief Justice Bernard's decision started to spread. While some mature persons milled around and debated the decision, some younger ones called on others to "take the matter into our own hands."

One group headed for Regent Street, while others refused to move. On seeing the mob approaching, store owners began locking their doors while pavement vendors packed their goods and left hurriedly.

PNC candidates, `Kads' Khan and Edmund Khanoo, went to Regent Street and pleaded with the groups there to retreat and follow the others to the Square of the Revolution. While some obeyed the instructions, others objected vehemently. Khanoo told them that if they went and started "anything stupid," persons could lose their lives.

At 11.45 am, a first stone, thrown by a member of the crowd, shattered the show window of Esso Service Station, at the corner of Regent and King streets. Members of the mob then almost went berserk, snatching jewellery, money and anything else of value from passersby. Heading east along Regent Street, they invaded the Bourda market, looting from stalls and beating people in their path.

The Quick Reaction Group (QRG) and members of the Tactical Services Unit (TSU) arrived on the scene and several arrests were made as policemen tried to restore order. Police advised everyone to return to their homes and while some obeyed, others played cat and mouse with the officers, moving from one street to the other. While the police were busy cordoning-off Regent Street between Camp and Alexander Streets, the marauding mob looted the premises of Royal Woodworking Store on Alexander Street. Owner of the store, Deopaul Raghubir was among over 17 persons injured, after he was trapped when attempting to pull his doors shut. A window of his vehicle was damaged and Raghubir fired his gun, injuring a man.

The man, who alleged that he was not part of the mob, but was standing on Regent Street when the incident occurred was shot in the left leg. The bullet made a clean exit through the upper portion of the leg.

Reports from the Georgetown Hospital said that some of the people treated had received pellet wounds from police shotguns as well as being beaten or were beaten alone. Among those injured were Anand Persaud, 25, of Better Hope, East Coast Demerara (ECD); Kofi Mc Donald, 18, of Buxton, ECD; Kenneth Bridgemongal, 80, of Ogle, ECD; Sharon Layne, 25, of Albouystown; Maxwell Jaickerro, 27, of Henry Street, Werk-en-Rust; Desiree Edwards, 38, of Russell Street, Charlestown; Janet Price, 48, of Beterverwagting, ECD (who was admitted to the hospital); Marlyn Campbell, 32, of Friendship, ECD; Nettie Alert, 22, of Slow Street, Beterverwagting, ECD; Roxanne Pollard, 34, of Buxton, ECD; James Seaforth, 30, of South Haslington, ECD; Mark Cameron, 24, of Public Road, Kitty.

Regent Street, the heart of Georgetown's business activity was brought to a virtual standstill by the protest.

At Indra's Fashions, an employee was beaten and had his wrist watch and wallet with driver's licence and $1,000 taken away. The man said he was taken by surprise and as he attempted to put the padlock on the door, members of the mob grabbed him and took the items away.

The show window of Bhena's Shoe Store at the corner of Regent and Camp Street was broken and one of the workers was roughed up by the mob. The store, however, was empty. Repairs were in progress when the protesters struck. The show windows of C&F Meat Centre on Regent Street were all shattered by stones and pieces of wood, while windscreens and windows of several cars and mini-buses were smashed.

The owner of House Proud Store on Regent Street said that the windscreen of his 4X4 vehicle was smashed by the mob and his store was also stoned.

"How could this be a peaceful protest?" he questioned. He estimated that repairs to the vehicle and showcases, which he claimed were made of special glass, will be over $250,000. As a precautionary measure the store will not be opened today.

And at about 2 pm business places throughout the city, with the exception of Ashmin's Trading on High Street and the Chicken House on Regent Street, were battened down and deserted.

Owners whose business places were damaged by the mob were frantically nailing zinc sheets and plyboard over the open spaces left by the broken glass. In the aftermath of the rioting, broken pieces of glass were visible on the pavement and the road.

There was a hub of activity at car and bus parks as persons scrambled to get home.

"Only God knows when this ting gon stop," an elderly Bourda Market vendor said sadly.

In another section of the city meantime, Athina's Variety Store was looted and vandalised by a mob yesterday afternoon after what some store officials claim was a blunder by members of the Guyana Police Force.

According to an official of the store, policemen from the Quick Reaction Group (QRG) arrived at the premises at around 3.10 pm yesterday and arrested armed guards of a licensed guard service contracted to protect the store. The police, the official claimed, then kicked down a door of the store and ordered employees to lie on the ground declaring that they were searching for unlicensed weapons.

The store, located at the corner of Longden and Commerce streets next to the Buxton mini-bus terminal, was looted after the police left with the guards.

"We were in van ready to take away the day's sales when the police arrived, took away our guns and arrested us," Patrick Peters, a guard with the Aradaz Protective Service said.

Peters said that the police ignored attempts by them to produce documents, which would have confirmed their legal status to carry the weapons.

Crime Chief Floyd McDonald told Stabroek News yesterday evening that the men were part of a security service and were authorised to be in possession of the weapons. He also confirmed that the men had been in the process of securing the day's earnings when they were held. They were subsequently released.

Raj Kumar, another guard, claimed that when he was arrested and taken from the van, the money from the day's sales was left unprotected.

"The police actually caused this thing to happen," Kumar said. "If they only had more patience and do their job properly the guards not have been arrested and would have been able to protect the store from the looters."

It was alleged that the looters used the same door that the police kicked in, to gain entry into the building. Up to press time the store owners could not estimate losses and damage to the building, which was also stoned.

It is believed that the police acted on information provided by a group of people who claimed that the three guards had guns in travelling bags which they were taking out to a waiting mini-bus. The guards were arrested by the police and taken to the Brickdam Police Station.

While this was taking place in the city, back at the High Court, the protesters who had remained there performed a mock ritual. Using candles of different colours and a knife in a calabash they chanted incessantly, "We gun wuk pon she." Several of the protesters, holding the calabash walked to the gate of the court.

The protest march, which began yesterday morning at 9.45 am with about 300 protesters, moved off from the Square of the Revolution heading west along Brickdam. They were led by `Kads' Khan.

As the group approached Camp Street, it grew in number. Passing the High Court through King street, some members of the crowd joined others outside the High Court, while the remainder (about 1,500) went to Customs Department.

They arrived there at 10.45 am and were very quiet for about ten minutes before breaking the silence with their regular chants. They left at 11.30 am after failing to get employees to leave their jobs. By this time the number of protesters had increased.

After the disturbances in central Georgetown, thousands of protesters assembled at the Square of the Revolution in the afternoon where they were addressed by PNC's General Secretary, Aubrey Norton.

Norton brought the gathering up to date with the High Court case yesterday morning and briefed them on further steps the party will be taking soon. He stated that the party will be filing a court petition to show that the results of the December 15 elections were rigged.