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40 years and still going

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Last Thursday, February 2, a very significant milestone in my personal history quietly passed, as is my usual approach. It marked the 40th anniversary of my entry into organized social and political struggle. On 2nd February, 1972, a group of young committed patriots, myself included, came together to form what we called the Black Liberation Action Committee (BLAC).{{more}}

Some of the co-founders, such as the late Chriswell ‘Bobel’ Burke, himself a former student of mine at Bishop’s College, Kingstown, Junior ‘Spirit’ Cottle, Michael ‘Black Messenger’ John of calypso fame and his fellow-calypsonian, Bernard ‘Reality’ White, and veteran pannist Stratford ‘Pico’ Harry, had had previous experience of political organization, having been involved with the organization for Black Cultural Awareness (OBCA), with the late Jim Maloney and Robert ‘Patches’ Knights. But it was my first entry into that all-encompassing world that was to dominate my life henceforth.

The formation of BLAC came at a particularly turbulent juncture in the political development of St Vincent and the Grenadines and the Caribbean as a whole. Our country, and all of its neighbours in the eastern Caribbean were still colonies of Britain, some, like ours, under a curious arrangement called Associate Statehood, whereby we were supposed to be responsible for our internal affairs, whilst Britain controlled external relations. No foreign policy for us then, no opportunity to develop links with Brazil, or Taiwan, or Cuba or Venezuela, for it was Britain who determined who our friends should be. ‘Children of the Empire’ we were still then.

It was a status which irked all progressive and anti-colonial patriots. The Educational Forum of the People, with a leadership including the late duo of Eddie Griffith and Kerwyn Morris, PR Campbell and Dr Kenneth John, had continued much of the anti-colonial agitation and education carried on by George McIntosh and Ebenezer Joshua in the past, and had awakened a younger generation thirsting for not only knowledge, but action to reclaim our independence, national pride and heritage, and to end the shameful colonial domination.

This is the generation which gave birth to the brazenness of the Young Socialists Group, led by Caspar London and Hugh Ragguette, who had the courage to declare themselves “socialists”, at a time like that, and to the formation of a group such as ARWEE in Diamond Village, in the heartland of the plantation economy, with Oscar Allen, the late Earlene Horne, Simeon Greene and Solomon Butler in the forefront, preaching land reform and decolonization.

Those were the so-called “Black Power” years, as the ideology of black liberation swept through the young people in our region, influenced partly by developments in North America, but shaping our own path and learning rapidly via such experiences as the 1968 student revolts over the sacking of Dr Walter Rodney in Jamaica, (in which our own Dr Ralph Gonsalves played a prominent part), and the 1970 uprising in Trinidad and Tobago. It was a harsh baptism in a world where the ideology was very much misunderstood and of which Caribbean leaders were mortally afraid.

That fear and suspicion gave rise to extreme reaction on the part of some of our leaders. Within weeks of the formation of BLAC for instance, there was the visit of Princess Margaret of Britain, sister of Queen Elizabeth. Margaret had achieved some notoriety in international circles, (and in whispers in local ‘high society’), for her alleged shenanigans on Mustique island. On hearing the news of her impending visit and the mobilization of schoolchildren and students, the local progressive movement planned a protest, aimed at highlighting continued colonial domination of our people.

Reaction was as hysterical as it was brutal. The political leadership spoke out in disparaging terms against what it termed “the lunatic fringe” who would dare to demonstrate against the monarchy. On the day of the official welcoming rally, the full might of the Royal St Vincent Police Force was mobilized to stop the protesters, even before they could get near to the royal party. Several brothers and even a female secondary school student were manhandled, beaten and arrested. Such was the official reaction to ‘Black Power’. That level of brutality was to be unleashed again with even more devastating effect in 1973, following the murder of the Attorney General, blamed on leading advocates of the movement.

I recall these not just for historical purposes, but to indicate the sort of pressures one had to face in this society of ours, once you had embarked on the route of my calling. Many a fine brother or sister succumbed along the way, victim of a combination of discrimination, victimization, social and family pressures. It was not easy to either get jobs, or, if lucky enough to be so employed, to keep one. It called for real sacrifice, committedness and a profound belief in the correctness and justice of one’s cause.

Those were the qualities which were able to see me through over all these years. Much has happened and has changed in those four decades, when we have moved from a semi-plantation economy under colonial rule, to national independence and beginning to chart our own course in international waters. We have witnessed Paramount Chief Chatoyer emerge from the stigma of a half-clothed savage, who tried to defy ‘civilization’, to recognition (albeit still grudgingly in some quarters), as our First and up to now, only, National Hero. It has been a rich experience, as I will relate further in my next column.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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