Protestors shut down city stores
-Boyer urges settlement of death squad issue
Stabroek News
June 26, 2004

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There was panic and tension in the city yesterday as pockets of protestors dressed in black forced the closure of businesses over the death- squad furore.

Confusion reigned amid a heightened police presence on Regent, King, Water, Main and Robb streets yesterday as the demonstrators, mostly women, commanded businesses to close their doors and join them in the protest.

While some store owners complied and closed for the day, others waited until the protestors moved off and reopened their stores. By 4 pm, there was some level of calm around town but citizens wasted little time in getting home.

President of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Edward Boyer in condemning the protest, estimated that millions of dollars in expected sales would have been lost on the usually busy Friday and contended that businesses should not be made to suffer because of unresolved political and social issues.

The protestors declared that they were reacting to government's response to the death-squad allegations and also the murder of self-confessed death-squad informant, George Bacchus on Thursday.

Several banks and street vendors were also forced to freeze business as the demonstrators, including a PNCR Member of Parliament, and other officials, moved around the city.

Speaking to this newspaper, Convener of the People's Movement for Justice (PMJ) Desmond Trotman said his organisation had earlier planned a picketing exercise for yesterday but this was overruled by the protesters who decided to take their own action.

Trotman said while the PMJ was not behind the protest, it supported and commended the resilience and courage of the demonstrators, who, for the first time since the marches began on the death squad allegations, ventured onto Regent Street. Efforts by this newspaper to solicit a comment from the PNCR MP with regard to the action to force stores closed, were unsuccessful. In the past, demonstrations on Regent Street had resulted in the looting of stores and beating of staffers and store owners.

Dressed in black

The demonstration started around 10.45 am with the protestors, dressed mostly in black, splitting up into different groups before swarming the city streets. A group first moved up Regent Street where they ordered the closure of all stores, including stalls in the Bourda Market. After a while, this group moved back down the street standing in front of the stores until the proprietors closed up. By noon, the police's Target Special Squad appeared, but the ranks did nothing more than ensure there was no looting or fights.

They did not dissuade the protesters from forcing the closure of the stores to the disappointment of many of the store owners who were obviously distressed.

Stabroek News saw one businessman standing in his doorway challenging the crowd to shut his doors. When one of the several women in the group pushed his door, he pushed back.

In an attempt to create panic, at times the protestors ran wildly on the street as if to indicate something was happening. In some instances, men stood in front of stores, while women hurled taunts and derogatory remarks at those proprietors who resisted.

At Bourda market, one vendor said they were ordered to close and this was enforced by a city constable.

The protestors later moved in the general direction of the vendors' arcade, stopping briefly at King Street then at Avenue of the Republic and Regent Street, where they attempted to form a roadblock. However, this only lasted a few minutes, because the police dispersed them, admonishing them not to block the roads. The officer told them they could walk around and do their thing but they could not block the roads.

The group leaders called it off at this point, moving into Hinck Street where they gradually dispersed. Several of the protestors then headed to Brickdam, where they reassembled in front of the Ministry of Home Affairs. While the protest was going on there was a van moving slowly behind the crowd with a small coffin resting at the back.

Business proprietors who were observing the action anxiously from their doorways were for the most part speechless, while at least one proprietrix said the action is going to affect business.

Trotman said yesterday's actions by the protestors would have sent a strong signal to the government that the citizens are no longer satisfied with its handling of the death- squad matter.

The government had announced the establishment of a commission of inquiry following a request by Home Affairs Minister, Ronald Gajraj who was accused by the late Bacchus of having connections with the death squad. Gajraj has consistently denied the charges made against him.

However, the opposition parliamentary parties rejected the commission on several grounds. And there has not been any determined move since then by the government to have the commission established.

Trotman remarked that the demonstrators yesterday showed a kind of courage that was lacking from the inception of the protests. He said the protestors felt that the normal marches and picketing exercises were not making progress and as such they changed their tactics. Trotman said "the assassination" of Bacchus had indeed agitated many and the PMJ will continue its struggle.

Business paying the price

Boyer said the business community was again paying the price for something it is not in control of.

He said many business people were disturbed at yesterday's events, noting that they were the ones who provide employment for citizens and contribute in a big way in revenues. He said the death-squad issue was something which had to be resolved by the political directorate responsible for running of the country.

Boyer observed that it has now become the norm for protestors to march down Regent Street whenever there was a national crisis and this, he said, must stop forthwith.

He said in no other country was business subjected to this sort of behaviour, urging that the relevant authorities take the necessary steps to prevent a recurrence.

Boyer noted that there was no report of looting, neither any incident of beating. But he said people were threatened.

The ruling PPP/C in a release condemned the protest.

According to the release the gangs threatened schoolchildren, store owners and shoppers among others in central Georgetown particularly on Regent Street.

The party said the demonstrators forced their way into the Brickdam Secondary School, harassing schoolchildren and their teachers.

The release said the PNCR, which it charged with responsibility for the protest, has been waiting on some excuse, which it created, to resort to these types of activity.

The party said not only did it seem to be a campaign of fear against the citizenry, but it is a calculated tactic by the PNCR to target businessmen and hold them to ransom.