IT was the height of irresponsibility for OWTU leader, Ancel Roget, to be among a group of masked, black-clad protesters participating in an illegal demonstration at the Halls of Justice on Wednesday, that had panicked Deputy Commissioner of Police, Mervyn Richardson, into fearing the makings of another attempted coup.
As a seasoned leader of one of the country’s most prominent trade unions, Roget must have known that the protest was a violation of several aspects of the law, both statutory law and common law.
The fact that permission must first be sought from the police before anyone can hold a public meeting and/or a public march is clearly stated in no fewer than 17 sections of the Summary Offences Act chapter 11:02. This Act has been on the law books of TT since 1979, many of this Act’s provisions having even existed since 1921. As Mr Roget surely knows, section 109 of the Act says anyone wishing to hold a public meeting protest leader must lodge an application with the Commissioner of Police between 24 hours to 14 days ahead of the event, with the penalty for failing to do so being a fine of up to $10,000 and imprisonment of up to two years. Section 110 lays down further penalties if an illicit public meeting then evolves into an illicit public march ($4,000 fine and 18 months jail).
While apparently escaping the notice of the public, last Wednesday’s protest also risked violating section 118 of the Act which allows the relevant Minister, the Minister of National Security, to ban any public meeting or public march if it could result in serious public disorder, or create a risk to public safety. In our view, it was highly irresponsible and a potentially grave violation of the law to hold an illicit protest by a group of black-clad, masked men just a few blocks away from Duncan Street, East Port-of-Spain, the scene of recent gangland murders and an area teetering of the brink of social breakdown.
The protesters rubbed salt in the wound of their illegal action by wearing tee-shirts that bore the slogan, “We shall not forget August 21st 2011”, a reference to the date when Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar declared a state of emergency (SOE) to try to grapple with a crime upsurge two years ago. While all citizens have a constitutional right to freedom of expression and of political activism, nonetheless we view such a slogan being publicly bandied about – in an illegal protest – to be a very provocative statement made to the citizenry, at a time when the police and the Government and Opposition were trying to put an immediate lid on the area’s rampant murderousness, and put their heads together for a long-term plan to stabilise the area.
It was grossly reckless for the protesters to bring an inflammatory message at a time when quite close by the authorities were trying to save a community from tearing itself apart. We lament that those who led and supported that illegal protest toyed with the lives of the residents of Duncan Street and environs, and with the social stability of the nation as a whole. While we support the right of trade unions to clamour for the interest of their members such as better salaries, this cannot be done in such a manner as to pose a severe risk to public safety and social stability. Our other concern with last Wednesday’s protest was the wearing of black bandanas — often accompanied by dark glasses — so as to constitute a mask designed to obscure the protester’s face from public view. This is a direct violation of section 5(5) of the Public Holidays and Festivals Act chapter 19:05, (which bans the masking of a person’s face in public in the absence of a permitted public festival) incurring a potential penalty of a fine of up to $1,000 and imprisonment of up to six months.
All this occurred in no ordinary venue, but the heart of the capital, housing the headquarters of the State’s judicial, administrative, parliamentary and police arms. The protesters were indeed lucky to escape legal censure, we say, but now still face the court of public opinion.