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A glorious anniversary

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Twenty-five years ago on this date, June 16th, Kingstown was indeed “too small for the Carnival”, to borrow the words of veteran calypsonian, REALITY. For on that date in 1981, the streets of our capital were overflowing with thousands of Vincentians, not revelling, as we are wont to do in June, but marching – serious, determined and committed to take action in defence of their democratic rights.

In case you were not yet born, too young to remember, or too prone to forget, June 16, 1981 witnessed one of the biggest demonstrations in the history of our country with an estimated crowd of over 15,000 angry Vincentians demanding that the then Labour government led by the late Milton Cato withdraw two pieces of legislation introduced in the House of Assembly on May 7th of that year. {{more}} Those Bills, the Essential Services (Amendment) Act 1981 and the Public Safety and Public Order Act, were to achieve notoriety in the annals of our history and provoked mass unrest on a scale never witnessed since the October 21st rebellion of 1935.

The introduction of the “Dread Bills” as they came to be known, came in the context of large-scale social turmoil and dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The pot had been boiling for a few years amidst perceived worsening of living conditions. To add fire to fury, successive natural disasters, the volcanic eruption of 1979 followed by the destruction by hurricane Allen one year later had increased hardship for the majority of the population. But it was the man-made disasters of the incumbent government which brought the people on the streets. Let me refer to a letter of resignation by a member of that government, Health Minister Randolph Russell, himself not particularly noted for democratic tendencies, to illustrate the state of the nation. In his May 20 letter of resignation, this is how Russsell spoke of our SVG:

“We do not meet as legislators in caucus to discuss the general development of our country nor do we keep the public informed of the affairs … As far as I know, we have no development policy… Ministers and Representatives of the people have little to say in the development of the country…”

Russell deemed that the unemployment situation was “explosive”, went on to describe our country as being in a “Chaotic situation” and ominously stated that “law and order has gone to the dogs.” This was to be vividly manifested less than one month later.

It may instructive for those of us today to note his mention of “millions (in state funds) going down the drain…”, pointing to state enterprises like Housing Corporation, Marketing Board and Diamond Dairy (any bells ringing?). Interestingly Mr. Russell made a plea for airport development.

“Our airport needs relocating if we are to accommodate larger planes and to make it safe for landing…no real tourism development will take place without it….”

The government’s answer was to try and clamp down on freedom of expression, association and even thought. Its amendment to the Essential Services Act was aimed at undermining trade union freedom, including the right to strike while the Public Safety and Public Order Act was aimed at reversing all the democratic gains and rights of the Vincentian people achieved in the struggles against slavery, colonialism and minority rule. It even included a notorious “Intent” clause, virtually prohibiting even freedom of thought. But the Vincentian people rose to the occasion. In what was perhaps the finest moments of trade union unity and action, seven local unions immediately joined forces to establish the Committee in Defence of Democracy (CDD). One week later they were joined by another dozen or so prominent local organizations, broadening the CDD on a national scale to become the NCDD. A vigorous campaign against the bills was mounted with nightly public meetings in most villages.

But it was not just the unions and mass organizations. Thus the Christian Council in a letter to P.M. Cato called the Bills “Unnecessarily harsh” and aimed at “rendering trade unions ineffective”. The Bar Association too called for withdrawal, describing the Bills as “incurably bad” and “destructive of the protective provisions guaranteed by the Constitution”.

Still the government refused to budge leading to a massive demonstration on June 3rd, when an ultimatum of June 11 for the withdrawal of the bills was acclaimed by over 10,000 persons. When this deadline passed an even more thunderous response came on June 16th. One day later there was a general strike, partially successful but worse, Her Majesty’s Police officers went on a sick out on June 23rd, resulting in looting on a scale last witnessed in 1935.

The people’s protests made their mark, for the government was forced to let the draconian Bills die a natural death and democracy could breathe again. It is an occasion that we must NEVER FORGET, the lessons and implications are too crucial to our social and political development. A pity we let anniversaries like these pass quietly. Some of us, though, remember, learn and cherish our experiences, for the sake of posterity.

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