By Danielle Frederick
August 21, 2018
As I watched the assault on the Member of Parliament for Laventille West and the Local Government Councillor for the area by their constituents on August 14, 2018, I was saddened by the knowledge that what was playing out was a culmination of long unaddressed social and political factors that none of the actors, on either side, would acknowledge long enough to address. Let me be categorical in my condemnation of the actions of some residents of Beetham Gardens towards their Member of Parliament and Local Government Councillor. These men, Minister Fitzgerald Hinds and Councillor Akil Audain, represented the entire political class, and those chasing them represented the underclass created and sustained, in part, by the political class.
I think it is safe to say that most ordinary citizens regardless of who is in power, experience the levels of frustration that the residents feel when dealing with public services and officials but choose to vent their frustration in different ways. One such example happened in 2012 when Dr Rowley was waylaid in the Debe market by some vendors, a market he commissioned. This incident serves to show that the citizens are not required to genuflect before any public official in the course of them doing there duty, therefore calling the residents of Beetham Gardens ungrateful for the perceived inactions of their political representatives is unecessary and unfair. Also, any politician who believes that this is a Beetham/Hinds/PNM thing would demonstrate a severe lack of understanding of the population’s feelings towards the political class. This goes beyond party lines and is a manifestation of the frustration of the poor, used and abused population fed up of the talk and inaction, of the pappyshow and lies, of the grandstanding for the sake of the camera, in other words ‘Poor people fed up!’.
The situation after the flooding in Beetham Gardens is a disaster and both men, as is their responsibility, went to offer moral and tangible support. What they were met with were frustrated citizens. Yes citizens, because some forget that the people living in Beetham, Sea Lots, Gonzales, Prizgar Lands etc. are citizens and they too are entitled to the same amenities, services, and where necessary, concessions as other citizens. It is disturbing that in condemning the behaviour, fellow citizens, are behaving as if persons living in these areas should be grateful for mediocre and haphazard governance. Why are they not allowed to feel frustrated by the governance shortcomings that annoy us all? Some behave as if infrastructural improvements in the Beetham area from independence to now is a privilege for which the residents should behave as if the PNM administrations granted them a personal favour. They did no such thing, any and all improvements are their duty and a part of national development. In fact, PNM has held political power the longest in this country for uninterrupted periods of our history. What is especially disturbing about this fact is that they have been the only party to represent the constituencies of Laventille and Port of Spain. Let that sink in, then think about the infrastructure which currently exists in these areas and ask yourself ‘where is the favour?’
The residents have been called disrespectful, I wanted us to unpack what is truly disrespectful. Is it not disrespectful to have a Local Government corporation operating for six years in such a way that allowed for the theft of 22.5 million dollars? The CEO, Accountant, Auditors of this corporation are not before the court or a disciplinary body for dereliction of duty or failure to provide fiduciary oversight! Our rainy season is characterised by flooding which causes loss of property, damage and business downtime i.e. country wide trauma, therefore, isn’t the fact that we have no mitigating process to reduce that trauma, to date, with all of the monies that has flowed through our economy, depraved? Or, could it be, what we found disrespectful were ordinary people not making politicians feel safe in spaces that they have allowed to become unsafe?
I would caution us to resist the urge to reduce this conversation to simply ‘Beetham residents misbehave, again’ because that would be letting the politicians and technocrats off too easily. An instance of an area with persistent neglect that is fixable and manageable is a small dumpsite on the Old Road before the MacFoods factory. This dump site is habitually overflowing. Simple questions such as ‘is the site adequate for the size of the population it services’ or ‘should the pickup frequency increase’ could be asked and answered with fixes within the power of both the politician and technocrat. But who is minded to ask them and find a solution, moreover who has to live with the repercussions of the neglect? Do the residents determine, evaluate, award and renew garbage pickup contracts? Do they determine the policies and evaluation mechanisms that determine where resources are allocated? No, they do not, but they live with the outcomes of unqualified political appointees, contract kickbacks, overworked, under-equipped public servants, state machinery being used for private businesses and a lack of governmental oversight. But the people of this area are not the only victims; we all are victims of ‘bobol’ Local Government Corporations, untouchable contractors who no matter the poor quality of their work continue to be engaged and paid to fix work they originally did.
The residents are not blameless. They have consistently voted for the PNM regardless of the poor representation, abusive parliamentary policies, lack of political will to address the deficiencies of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service and outright corruption done in their name. They should also be held accountable for allowing themselves to be used as political footballs for PR opportunities by ALL politicians without putting a proverbial squeeze on them to do better by their communities. They have allowed trade unions to slide, by allowing them to call the name of the poor and working class without challenging them on their lack of representation of the issues that the poor and working class face. These Unions instead engage in posturing and trivial behaviour whether it be a distasteful exchange of words such as what is going on between Roget and the Prime Minister or the showboating antics of Duke. The labour movement has been deliquent in their responsibility to these residents, the majority of whom are members of the working class.
While speaking at i95’s Laventille Nights on April 28, 2018, at the St. Barbs Basketball Court, Dr Rowley said: “it mattered not where you come from, but where you want to go, and how you intend to get there.” The residents of that and other such communities lived experiences bear witness to the hollowness of those words. They know where you come from can hinder where you want to go, no matter how you intend to get there. I was born and grew up in one of these communities, my mother always gave our address as Diamond Vale, Diego Martin, where my aunt lived. My mother, like other residents of these areas, understood where you come from can get your application sidelined; she understood that people saw the address before they saw qualifications or skills. She knew with our actual address we would be judged by narratives of inferiority and criminality. With that address, those living outside feel a moral superiority because their prejudices are so systemic that it is invisible. What is upsetting about his statement is that he knows exactly what my mother and other residents of these communities know about those addresses. What is infuriating is the nothingness that is done to correct the rhetoric which further perceptions that these communities are as they are because of a lack of will by the inhabitants to do better.
Ada Palmer said “It doesn’t take a declaration, or an invasion, to start a war, all it takes is an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’ And a spark.” While we assess the state of our country that the actions of our fellow citizens have laid bare, let us be very clear in our analysis that these actions did not occur in a vacuum and there are no absolutes in this incident. The residents’ actions were wrong but their frustrations with the agents of their oppression are right. The agents were right in being there but their prolonged neglect of the area is major part of the bigger problem.