Striking buses take East Bank by storm
Traffic laws flouted; policemen abused
Commuters ejected, forced to walk miles By Nigel Williams
Stabroek News
February 2, 2002

Thousands of mini-bus operators and motorists converged on the East Bank Demerara road yesterday in a massive motorcade and march against alleged police harassment, fines and the banning of amplified music on their transports.

The protest, which was organised by the Justice For All Party, was attended by operators and members of the public and included drivers from most of the mini-bus routes in Guyana. The operators assembled at about 11 am yesterday at the Square of the Revolution and after being briefed by television personality Mark Benschop and C.N. Sharma the motorcade, proceeded north into Vlissengen Road, west into Lamaha Street, down Main Street and then onto the East Bank Public Road.

Led by Benschop who was driving a red Toyota Sunny car PGG 9167 the procession proceeded in grand style, blasting out popular tunes. With their horns blaring, and despite the presence of police outriders, the men used the moment to display their disrespect for the law by overtaking vehicles in front of them, climbing on top of their buses' roofs and waving placards accompanied by loud chants.

Along the journey, those operators coming from Linden, Timehri and other parts of the East Bank were held up by the protestors. Several of them were forced to empty their buses, abandon their passengers and join the motorcade. Those who did not comply, had their tyres ripped apart, windows forced open and beer and other alcoholic beverages thrown on them. Many commuters who were on their way to work were forced out of buses and had to walk to their destinations.

Motorcade: The strike action by mini-bus drivers took a twist yesterday when the operators decided to hold a motorcade in and around the city in an effort to hammer home their point. In this photograph the motorcade could be seeing moving along the Avenue of the Republic. (Aubrey Crawford photo)

"I have to reach to work for two o'clock but I am already late. These men don't have anything to do. What will I say to my boss?" a woman asked.

She indicated that she resides at Land of Canaan and is employed by Brans Security. When this newspaper caught up with her she had been stranded at Peter's Hall. While heading up the East Bank road the men made several stops at police stations to check on their colleagues who had been detained for playing music. The contingent of police officers accompanying the motorcade swelled, but this served little or no purpose, since the operators continued their provocative and outrageous acts.

Using a loud speaker, Benschop directed the motorcade. On arriving at the Grove Police Station he halted the motorcade addressed the operators and then summoned one of the men into the station to ascertain how many operators had been detained. A police officer on duty at the time refused the man entry into the station's compound saying that those who were in the station were being detained because they had caused accidents.

The officer implored Benschop and his followers to avoid blocking the station's entrance. After protesting for a short while at Grove the men headed back for the city. This time around there were clashes as buses drove extremely close to each other and operators were heard abusing each other. Even though the road was congested many drivers were speeding and some drove on the road's shoulder forcing pedestrians off.

At Providence, pandemonium broke out when ranks on duty there stopped the car Benschop was driving. At this time all of the operators abandoned their vehicles and stormed the station. The officers there were inadequate to handle the build up. Vehicles travelling in the opposite direction were prevented from passing as the protesting men parked their mini-buses in the middle of road and even when the police asked them to remove same they verbally abused the ranks. Benschop was asked to exit his car, but he insisted that he hadn't done anything and it was unfair for him to be placed in police custody.

When the police demanded that he should leave his vehicle, Benschop closed his car doors and windows and was seen speaking on his cellular phone. For over 45 minutes there was a large build up of traffic at Providence. From every corner of the crowd that gathered in front of the station the concerted cry was: "We want Mark, We want Mark." While the operators were shouting and disobeying the orders of the police, a roadblock was put up but it served no purpose since the men continued to block the station and demanded that they were not moving until Benschop was allowed to go.

When he was finally released, the crowd roared and immediately returned to their respective buses. Throughout the latter part of the journey Benschop was heavily guarded by some of the operators and his car which was leading the motorcade earlier was placed at the centre of the line.

On their arrival back in Georgetown, the men who had promised to converge at the Square of the Revolution before dispersing were seen blocking several of the city's streets and continued to chase passengers from buses. Some of the mini-buses were forced to use different routes so as to avoid being assaulted by the protestors.

Meanwhile, up to late yesterday evening hundreds of commuters were left stranded on the East Bank Public Road. Many of them, who had been travelling to Linden had their buses turned back and were walking to Georgetown. Commuters who were evicted from as far as Prospect on the East Bank had few options so they kept walking alongside the motorcade. Some of the operators assisted some who were stranded while others blatantly refused to help the struggling commuters.

At every corner on the road curious onlookers gazed in awe at the situation unfolding before their eyes.

Several persons missed their flights because they were unable to get to the Cheddi Jagan International Airport, Timehri on time as a result of the motorcade. With the large build up of traffic and the mini-bus drivers trying to compete with each other on the roadways those who had flights slated for 2, 3 and 4 pm were definitely affected.

Stabroek News spoke with Carl Singh, who resides at Lusignan and was scheduled leave the country yesterday at 4 pm. When this newspaper caught up with him at about 3:30 pm, he was stuck in the traffic at Peter's Hall. The man who was Canada bound said he left his home at around 12 noon and was scheduled to check in at 1 pm, but he was definitely going to miss the flight.

The man who is also a mini-bus owner, contended that the police were the guilty ones with regard to road fatalities. He said that music could not result in accidents and even if there were to be seatbelts there would still be a lot of road deaths. The man alleged that some members of the police force were in the habit of issuing driver's licences to persons who had not written any tests. There were also reports of overseas visitors who were left stranded in hire cars and mini-buses; some were even ejected from buses by the protestors.

Chaos reigned in Georgetown yesterday morning. Mini-buses plying Route 50 (Georgetown/Rosignol) were the earliest to assemble, followed by those operators from West Demerara, both Route 31 (Georgetown/Wales) and Route 32 (Georgetown/Parika). There were a few Route 44 (Georgetown/Mahaica) operators, but there was a large number of Route 41 (South, North, West and East Ruimveldt and Lodge) buses.

Route 45 (Main/Lamaha/Alberttown) were also present as were those from Linden, Crabwood Creek, Kitty/Campbellville, and Timehri. The only mini-buses that did not participate in the motorcade were those plying Route 72 (Georgetown/Mahdia). In the buses were scores of protestors, including touts, rocking away to music, hurling taunts at policemen and drinking beers. Many of them were neither conductors nor drivers but they used the time to bus-ride and enjoy the many free beers that were available.

The operators said that even though they had gone to such lengths to protest the government and the police were still adamant about the proposed laws and so they would continue to strike. However, while many of them were striking and commuters continued to struggle for transportation, some of the so-called 'Cork Balls' were seen working and other popular buses which were on strike earlier in the week returned to work. The men are hoping to form an association and are currently working on a proposal to take to President Bharrat Jagdeo and Minister of Home Affairs, Ronald Gajraj at a meeting they hope to arrange shortly.