By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
October 11, 2011
Many of us do not understand that freedom is not something one asks for. It is something that one demands; a state of being that is renewed perpetually through our actions. Imagine the spectacle of the biggest unions in the country and the opposition party begging for permission to march rather than demanding that their constitutionally-guaranteed right to assembly and petition their government be honored which, incidentally, is the basis of democratic government.
This is why I was so astonished to read that “The labour union has written to the Commissioner of Police [COP], Dwayne Gibbs, requesting permission to stage a march against crime on October 30 (Trinidad Guardian, October 8 ) or Keith Rowley’s affirmation that PNM is “affected by the State of Emergency which prevents the assembly of persons. He instructed the party’s general secretary, Ashton Forde, to write to the Commission of Police to hold a public meeting at Piggot’s Corner, in Belmont on Friday after the presentation of the 2012-13 Budget, which is something the PNM has traditionally done” (Express, October 8).
I understand the sense in which these requests were made and the desire of these two responsible leaders to act within the law. But it is important to remember that if one forgets the spirit of the law and clings to the letter of the law one is liable always to set a trap for one’s enslavement.
It is important to re-acquaint these leaders with something they know. Slavery was legal but it was unjust. It violated every essential tenet of democracy and freedom and the right of people to be. During slavery the rights of black people were taken away by a group of people who knew the letter of the law but nothing about the practice of democracy. All the slaves had going for them was an understanding of natural law that asserts people are born with inalienable rights which no one, neither Governor nor Prime Minister, can take away from them. So they did what enslaved people always do: they fought continuously for their freedom.
Today in Trinidad and Tobago we are faced with an unprecedented situation, well not so unprecedented because some years ago we in NAEAP were told we could not assembly and peacefully petition our government. We did the moral thing: we marched, ready to accept the consequences of our actions. This is what freedom entails.
A People’s Partnership (PP) government, unaware of what democracy means, declares a state of emergency (SOE), presumably to avert a drug war. Having discovered a load of cocaine at Piarco and seeking desperately to avoid a drug war in the black areas of the country they nullified citizens’ civil liberties. Presumably, only black people ingest cocaine and smoke marijuana.
Under the cover of law, they picked up over 3,000 young black men, most of whom they were forced to free within days after their arrest. No one apology was offered for having abridged their freedoms. Instead, the Attorney General who swore an oath of allegiance on the Bhavagad Gita to uphold the rights of all citizens told them that if they, wrongfully-arrested persons, feel de go get any easy money from the government for the abridgement of their freedom dey lie.
Therefore one begins with an AG who is supposed to protect citizens from any arbitrary infringement of their constitutional rights chastising the aggrieved for even contemplating vindicating their rights in a court of law. To add insult to injury, the representatives of the working people—the unions and the Opposition party—who are supposed to validate those rights decide they will beg for permission to exercise their fundamental right to petition their government peacefully.
I always thought that our Constitution is the supreme expression of our freedoms and that among those freedoms is the right of citizens to assembly and peacefully petition our government. This means that one does not write the COP begging for permission to petition one’s government, one writes the COP asking that he or she provide the necessary protection so that citizens can enjoy their constitutional rights.
The COP always has to right to argue that he cannot provide those guarantees. Under those circumstances sovereign citizens then organize themselves in such a manner to express those inalienable rights. In other words, we did not select a COP to tell us what our rights are. We selected a COP to ensure that we exercise our rights peacefully.
Freedom is never given or won once and for all times. One always has to fight again and again to ensure that one’s freedom is maintained. It lives and breathes through action. Martin Luther King called such a process creative tension. It is folly to believe that any government, be it the PP or the PNM, can guarantee citizens’ freedom. It is only citizens, by their action, who can guarantee their freedom and the utility of their democracy.
And it is not only about marching. The cavalier manner in which the Prime Minister declares that she will continue the SOE indefinitely tells us that the PP does not understand the essence of democracy. No Prime Minster or Governor can declare the arbitrary dissolution of people’s civil rights so blithely without understanding that in doing so they undermine the democracy.
The question is not whether one should be asking for permission to march or the viability of continuing the SOE. Only children ask their parents for permission to be out late at night or to go to a dance. Adults are self-responsible characters who accept the consequences of their actions. They recognize that freedom is an understanding of what one must do to maintain one’s liberty, ready at all times to accept the consequences of one’s action.
Eternal vigilance is the price one pays for the maintenance of one’s democracy. Fold up and play dead and the enemies of democracy would dance on our corpse forever. Please do not let that be our destiny. We, in Trinidad and Tobago, deserve better.