By: Rev. Dr. Ulston Patmore Smith
Dear citizens of Antigua and Barbuda:
Let me state a full disclaimer – I am not an adherent to anti-vaccination. As a matter of fact, I believe that this Covid-19 pandemic is both real and significantly destructive. Thus, I would urge persons to get vaccinated. Additionally, my aim here is not to lend support to any political persuasion within the arena of party politics in Antigua and Barbuda. I am merely sharing my thoughts and asking for the possibility of said thoughts to be part of the national discourse of the recent and unfortunate developments in Antigua and Barbuda. You may classify and name it however you choose, but I speak of the protest/rally that was held on Sunday 8th August 2021.
I was not at the rally but had the privilege to view the numerous video clips that bombarded the Facebook platform. Though these videos represent only some perspectives and vantage points, the general conclusion is that the protest, though loud and highly emotionally charged, was relatively nonviolent in nature. It would appear, that the chaotic, aggressive, and sometimes destructive behavior resulted as a consequence to the use of tear gas and rubber bullets by the police. It cannot be justice that one can instigate an opponent to fight and then justify one’s actions to defend oneself against said opponent.
I listened to press conference of the commissioner of police with deep sorrow and disappointment. He used a catchphrase, “we are a nation of laws”, which lends itself nicely as a great talking point. The way in which he pivoted to this phrase resembles an attitude in the United States of America when persons demonstrate a lack of compassion for human life. Then try to justify their actions. I hasten to say, it is a weak argument there, and it is a weak argument here.
I’ve heard it said that “Laws are made to be broken”. This statement is folly beyond measure, and I take no part in it. A more humane attitude should embrace the reality that there is need to reform our laws often enough in the pursuit of a more just society. This has to be the measure of how we act, for laws are often influenced and determined by the rich, powerful and well-connected, sometimes to the detriment of the dispossessed and powerless. The only true safeguard that nations in the pursuit of justice have, therefore, is constant reform. History has taught us, that we cannot simply rely on the goodwill of those with money, power and authority to come to the aid of the dispossessed and powerless.
The use of force on Sunday, 8th August on the people of Antigua and Barbuda was unmerited. A point made in the press conference was that permission for the march was not granted. To this end, it appears as if this information justified the use of force. Am I to understand that the use of force, which includes the deployment of tear gas and rubber bullets is a measured and reasonable response to peaceful protesting for the Royal Police Force of Antigua and Barbuda? There is nothing reasonable about this. It is even more sad that the police further stated that other levels of force available to them were not use – as if to say, that they exercised some degree of restraint and that the protesters should count themselves lucky. This is another weak argument used only by those with power, authority, and brute strength. Unreasonable use of force can never be justified simply because all of its force was never deployed.
This is such a ‘bitter pill to swallow’. If the action of the police was politically influenced, this would have been easier to stomach. However, by their own admission, the police acted independently of political urging. Therefore, it begs the question, are the protocols that they used the only options available to law enforcement in our twin island state? If the answer is yes, then it further underscores my appeal for reform. If the answer is no, then what are these other options that could have been utilized?
This particular situation where persons are objecting to being vaccinated is a very sensitive and deeply rooted matter. It is not a simple matter of partisan politics, or “I just want a particular group out of power”. Persons have concerns, objections and fears about their health and how the use of this vaccine will affect them. What we experienced on Sunday, 8th August 2021 was an attempt to give breath to those concerns and frustrations by persons who may be otherwise voiceless and unheard. We want persons to listen to the health experts and comply, but the experts themselves do not always agree with all the details. Furthermore, we are learning new things about this virus all the time. So, there is need, not only for calm and reason, but an intentional posture of listening to others.
The events on Sunday, 8th August 2021 also reflect a significant breakdown in communication by the police.
It should have been instructive to the leadership of the force that police officers were already on the scene. The decision to use force compromised the wellbeing of the officers on the ground who were amongst the people. As a matter of fact, based on the videos that were circulated, it is evident that police officers were caught in the midst of the tear gas and rubber bullets and were also running to safety. So yes, there was a serious break down of communication in the management of the force deployed. Please note, before anyone gets the wrong impression, I am not at all suggesting that anyone should lose their job over this. I am asking for a more meaningful conversation on how we live as citizens in this country.
There must always be a protected avenue to peaceably demonstrate dissension in a civil, democratic society. The response of the police was an attempt to silence the voice of the people. This is not the hallmark of a free society. The only thing missing from this is a photo opportunity similar to the one done by the former president of the United States in front of a church with a bible in hand.
Notwithstanding, a more responsible approach on the part of the protesters was expected. Instead, we witnessed a carless disregard in the way the protest unfolded. The demonstration was done in a way that reflected scant regard for public safety. We are in a pandemic that has taken the lives of thousands, crippled the economy of nations and interrupted the livelihood of millions. Yet several persons were seen without a face mask, or with masks down on the chin, and in very close proximity to each other. This attitude lacks empathy for those who are severely affected by the pandemic. The protesters could have adhered to the recommended health protocols without diminishing the purpose and ethos of the rally. One may be more inclined to be sympathetic to a cause when there is a demonstration of discipline, reason and a willingness to objectively listen to the other side. These are not normal times. The chanting of slogans was indeed loud, but I dare say, if people had their masks on and were social-distancing, the sound resonating from the rally would have been deafening. The cause would have been catapulted into a movement. Alas, a missed opportunity for emotions were running high.
The outcome of this event highlights the necessity for ongoing training for the police force, especially in the area of crowd control and the management of peaceful protests or demonstrations. Additionally, there is need for police reform inter alia ongoing training and rules/types of engagement. How do we respond differently to a nonviolent protest as opposed to a violent one? How do we de-escalate volatile situations?
These areas that I’ve mentioned are by no means exhaustive. They represent a small sample of potential avenues that require our attention . Might I suggest that the Royal Police Force of Antigua and Barbuda commission such a reform in an intentional and meaningful manner through the engagement of a comprehensive cross-section of disciplines available in and out of the country to achieve a positive end. It may require partnering with other police forces in the region and farther afield. This approach will give the reform the scope and depth required in an effort to better the nation.
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