The police force has always functioned as a coercive tool for the ruling elite
Stabroek News
February 1, 2002

Dear Editor,

The upsurge in police brutality and summary executions of so called criminals is understandably engaging the attention of many organizations and citizens. That the PNC may be using the situation to score points against its principal political opponent, the PPP, is beside the point. The point is that the police have been brutalizing and executing citizens without restraint and/or sanction from their civilian commanders the PPP government.

This is both a judicial and a political matter. In democracies where accountability is practiced, the judicial branch would have been under pressure to pronounce on and defend the right to life a basic civil liberty. But since the judicial branch in Guyana has never seriously and vigorously pursued and discharged its power of judicial review, for reasons that are both structural and political, the burden of restraining the police and protecting the civil liberties and civil rights of citizens fall squarely on the executive branch. Hence it is ultimately political.

Because the nerve and life of governance in Guyana is the cabinet and its directors, the executive of the ruling party, the PPP party and government must ultimately be held responsible and take responsibility for the reckless behaviour of the police force. The PPP's refusal to join the political opposition and other concerned groups in at least condemning this basic human rights violation must in the circumstances be interpreted as the ruling party's support of the police behaviour. The instances of top PPP functionaries and defenders seeking to justify the police actions as crime fighting and pointing to similar or worse police behavior under PNC governments is both politically unwise and insensitive. Regardless of our moral outrage at some of the crimes being committed in Guyana, we have to recognize that even criminals have rights and must be accorded due process. And this due process must come not after they are summarily executed, but before.

This brings me to the crux of the matter the larger picture, which often is the victim of a combination of political expediency, political ignorance, and political arrogance. The truth is that the police force in both colonial and post colonial Guyana has always functioned as a coercive tool on behalf of the ruling elite and against the rest of the society. The police force in Guyana and the rest of the Anglophone Caribbean has not been an agent of protection, mediation, and order among the citizenry, but a coercive instrument of a state that is constantly in conflict with the rest of the society, which it has historically sought to keep in its place. The major objective of those who have controlled the state has been at every twist and turn to deny the people their rightful place in the decision making process. The Guyanese state then, because of its authoritarian history and nature, has to be protected from the rest of the society; thus the military and police are key components of the state apparatus.

The state in Guyana has an added deformity that impacts on police behaviour it is not racially neutral. It cannot be in a racially polarized society, with two major groups of almost equal size, governed by a majoritarian winner take all system. The state reflects and responds to this burden of racial conflict. While the controlling hand of the state maintains its elite makeup, its racial outlook changes when the government changes. The upshot, therefore, is that the state is constantly in active class conflict with the rest of the society, and in racial conflict with half of the society, because it does not reflect the collective will of the society it seeks to direct.

In the final analysis, the police force takes its orders and cues from those who control the state. Since the state in Guyana is subordinated to the ruling party paramountcy declared or undeclared the police force ends up being a partisan political instrument. It cannot be impartial or neutral in either partisan, racial, or class terms because the state that sustains and directs it is not neutral.

Given the adversarial politics that characterizes fractured societies such as Guyana, and in which the ruling party and government overpower the state, every protest action against or disagreement with the party and government is seen as an act of war against the state. Every political action is seen in security terms something for the police to look into. On the other hand, the police in Guyana never investigate or prosecute members of the ruling elite without permission from the cabinet. So the police function is to protect the elite, which controls their livelihood.

Crime fighting, which should be a matter of service and protection to the society at large, also becomes a security and political matter. First, the policies or lack thereof of the leaders lead to mass economic, educational, social, and cultural, impoverishment which coupled with racial antagonism and political disempowerment represent the kiss of death. The state criminalizes the nation, but it deals with the criminals selectively, as it must because that is the nature of the society. Second, favoured criminals, high and low, are protected and those who are not created in the social and racial image of the state and its handlers are persecuted and prosecuted. So it was under the colonials and the PNC, so it is under the PPP, and so it will be until we recognize that proper governance is not about tinkering and grandstanding, but about revolutionizing the state, its rules, and the culture that feeds it.

In societies like Guyana there are three types of criminals the violent gangsters who maim and kill, the white collar criminals who loot the public coffers, and the petty criminals who are victims of bad policies and bad governance. Unlike the violent gangsters, the petty criminals are not on the fringes of the society; they are every day people "hustling" a survival. In their own way, they rebel against the very system that the political opposition rebels or ought to rebel against; there is common cause even without common agenda and organization.

Thus those who preside over the state cannot distinguish between real criminals and political rebels. Mr. Donald Ramotar, PPP's General Secretary, lets the cat out of the bag when he writes in the Mirror (Sunday, January 27) that the PNC has utilized criminals to terrorize mainly "Indo Guyanese businesses and stallholders." This statement is instructive. First, it supports my thesis that the PPP does not distinguish between criminal elements and political opponents. Second, it locates race at the center of the scenario the victims are Indians, and the criminals are Africans. The victims are PPP supporters and the criminals are PNC supporters. The PPP must demonstrate to its supporters that it can protect them, that it is not "soft on crime" to use American term.

Is there any surprise then that the targets of the police are poor, black communities and poor, black youth? Is there any surprise that during the PNC rule the police concentrated most of their firepower on poor Indian communities? This has to be the end product because this is the reality of Guyana. It is immaterial whether the government actually orders the police to summarily kill these young men. The police act not just on explicit orders, but also on implied orders or causes. They know the codes, for this is how they are socialized. Because they are a political force, they understand what actions are more likely to be sanctioned by the authorities. They understand that if they act recklessly against Indians and Indian communities they are more likely to be sanctioned. Remember Albion and Corriverton? Of course it is difficult to get the entire force to carry out nasty work every day, so they create the Black Clothes and the Death Squad.

Part of the confusion in the black community is that the police are for the most part of their own race group and they, the black masses, were led by the PNC to wrongly believe that their ˘kith and kin÷ in the police force and the army would not turn their guns on them. The police will vote for the PNC, but in the final analysis they take orders not from Mr. Hoyte and the PNC but from the PPP party and government. It is the government that determines whether they are promoted, fired and how much they are paid. And in poor societies these bread and butter issues and matters of prestige and upward mobility take precedence over party loyalty. Ours is a political police force with institutional loyalty to civilian commanders and not a military police force with institutional autonomy.

The PPP as controllers of the state have to walk a tight rope. It has to show its supporters that it is taking a hard line against the criminals who target mainly Indian businesses. It has to signal to the PNC that it is prepared to confront the perceived alliance between the PNC and the criminals. It has to be careful not to antagonize a police force that is predominantly black, a factor that is always a crucial consideration in a racially volatile situation as Guyana's. But it also must prove to its supporters in the international community that it is not descending into a police state. And it must try at all cost to minimize the political temperature, which when it gets hot puts the government on the defensive politically and otherwise.

I am not a member of the PNC and cannot tell that party how to conduct itself, but as an observer of and sometimes participant in the nation's politics, I have to point out a few things. While the PNC may see the opportunity to launch a new phase of "making the country ungovernable," the PPP may not mind the anti police sentiment among Africans that is sure to create some distance between the police and the PNC. The PNC has to accept that while the PPP, as managers of the state, must bear full responsibility for the murders; the problem is not simply PPP recklessness. It is a structural and political problem, which the PNC nurtured during its term of office and, which it continues to nurture by stubbornly refusing to use its leverage to help dismantle the state system that facilitates this and other atrocities in Guyana.

The PNC must recognize that condemning the consequences while upholding and glorifying the root causes cannot right wrongs. You cannot bring the PPP "to its senses" by sitting down with the PPP in a dialogue that just serves the purpose of legitimizing the PPP. I say "Dialogue yes, but dialogue to bring the PPP to its senses." Dialogue and marches, without a commitment to shared governance, both in shaping and implementing national policies, and in bringing the masses of people in their communities and their organizations into the decision making process, is politically counter productive.

In the final analysis, this matter of police brutality and execution, points to the larger problem in Guyana the problem of governance. Unless and until we move to the point of fashioning a state that includes and reflects the collective will of the Guyanese people, Guyana will continue its flight into chaos, instability, dictatorship and nothingness. The police will continue to kill with impunity until real and fundamental changes are made.

In the meantime I make two simple recommendations toward a short term solution. First, the courts should immediately be rescued from party paramountcy and allowed to sanction the law enforcers without fear of reprisal. This means removing the power to appoint judges and magistrates from the sole control of the President and locating some of it in the National Assembly, which should be empowered to confirm the officers of the courts and determine their salaries by a two thirds majority. Further, clearly spell out in a Charter of Civil Liberties and Rights the rights of the individual and the constraints on the government from infringing these rights. Finally, empower the courts to activate Judicial Review of all acts of the Executive and the Legislative branches and their arms.

Second, the police force must be uprooted from the clutches of party bosses and placed under the management of an autonomous Police Commission set up by and answerable to an empowered National Assembly. There should also be Police Review committees in every community to monitor police activities. All policemen and women should undergo regular courses aimed at familiarizing them with their constitutional and moral responsibilities to the society.

Yours faithfully,

David Hinds