Black Friday—45 years ago
February 17, 2007
Yesterday marked 45 years since Georgetown went up in flames because of an impasse between the then Government and the workers. By the time that day ended, Friday February 16, 1962 became known as Black Friday.
The Government had attempted to pass a budget that became known as the Kaldor Budget.
At the time, the country was self-governing, and it had to come up with its economic package, which the opposition challenged on the grounds that there would be increased hardship on the people.
But there were more than economic matters. The British and the Americans were caught up in the Cold War, when the Communist bogey was ever-present. The world was sharply divided between the Communists and the Capitalists. Russia President, Nikita Khruschev, had gone to the United Nations and was recorded with his shoe in hand proclaiming that he would bury the Capitalist west.
Guyana's Premier, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, was described as an avowed Communist, and the West surely did not want the Communists to have a foothold in this corner of the South American continent.
Already there was Cuba, and to have British Guiana as another Communist state was too much for the world powers to bear.
And so it was that the 1962 Budget was seen as another Communist move. That was the fuel fed to the people of this country, who knew precious little about Capitalism and Communism. They were easily led by the local Capitalists and the colonial masters. If the agent provocateurs said that Communism was bad, it had to be bad.
The workers were agitating for better wages, and since they were told that the budget was not going to afford them the chance to eke out a decent living, they had every reason to protest.
The International Labour Organisation and friendly trade union bodies were helping the local trade union organisation because they, too, were opposed to the Communist bogey and wanted to see the back of the PPP Government.
It was against this background that unrest brewed in the country, and it would have taken nothing much to spark a riot. Indeed, the workers were milling along the Water Street waterfront under the watchful eyes of the colonial police.
Smoke billowed into the sky when a rumour broke out that tear smoke had killed a baby. The police had been firing tear smoke canisters through the day to break up the pockets of workers that had been assembling all over the city throughout the morning, many obviously bent on causing trouble.
Peter D'Aguiar was the spearhead of the protest against the budget, and he seemed to have control of the public servants and the waterfront workers. Forbes Burnham could do nothing but play catch-up, since he was challenging Dr. Jagan for the leadership of the country.
But, like the government, so concerned was he over the situation that, like Dr. Jagan, he petitioned the Governor to use the British soldiers, who were at the time stationed at Atkinson Field, Timehri. The Governor dilly dallied, and did not release the troops until late in the afternoon when, by then, havoc was the order of the day and smoke covered downtown Georgetown.
No sooner had the rumour reached the ears of the protesting workers than they became violent and targeted the stores that lined Water Street. For the first time in our history, the word “looters” got into the local dictionary.
That day, 45 years ago, saw people breaking into stores and removing articles -- some so large that under normal conditions one man could not lift the article. But, on this day, people could be seen with fridges and other household articles.
The police arrested many, and for the first time people saw their countrymen lying on the ground with the British soldiers, who arrived into the city rather late, standing over them with guns poised. They saw businesses and valuable merchandise going up in flames. They saw young men pushing burning vehicles into one Camp Street building.
The events of that day permanently changed the face of sections of the city.
In the ensuing years, we were to have other violent protests that would further change the physical landscape. One may even conclude that that day in 1962 set the stage for some of the other fires that accompanied street protests; yet one cannot ever assess the impact of Black Friday, 45 years ago.
Yesterday saw Guyana making every effort to test conditions that may exist during the hosting of international events, and found that there are still some areas to be ironed out. For example, while security has been enhanced to unprecedented levels, there are still areas that need to be concentrated on.