By Gerard Johnson
It was a day of rage and mayhem unlike anything the capital had seen since the Black Power revolt of 1970. From Beetham to Belmont, Sea Lots to Cocorite, from Laventille to Morvant, hundreds of angry marauding youths from these depressed areas rampaged through the streets of Port of Spain, blocking traffic with debris, burning tires that sent black smoke permeating through the business district, and exchanging sporadic gunfire with members of the Guard and Emergency Branch (GEB). One bullet pierced the third floor window of the Attorney General’s office building.
Since the arrival of Commissioner of Police (CoP) Gary Griffith in August of 2018, they had been on the receiving end of some of the most aggressive policing since 1970, many would say justified. But when three young men were killed in a police exercise in Morvant on Saturday June 27 last, around 2:15 pm and video evidence surfaced which contradicted the original account from the police, they had seen enough. Many had warned that members of the police special units were engaging in extrajudicial killings but few protested publicly, presumably because of the high incidence of gang violence and an unacceptable murder rate.
But an ordinary Saturday afternoon in Morvant changed the calculus. A party of police officers said they were told that suspects they were looking for, were armed and travelling east in, Morvant. Police said they intercepted the vehicle and approached the suspects, the driver and two passengers, one in the front seat and one to the rear. The rear passenger, police claimed, got out of the vehicle, took a look at them, went back into the vehicle, reached for a firearm, and shot at them. Police said they returned fire hitting all three men who later died at the Port of Spain General Hospital.
But video evidence surfaced soon after on social media contradicted the police narrative. Both passengers were in fact in the backseat of the vehicle. When police approached, the driver put up his right hand outside of the car while the passenger in the back seat to the left got out of the vehicle with his hands in the air, had a discussion with an officer, who appeared to order him back to the vehicle. The other backseat passenger began rolling down his window when police opened fire.
Immediately, social media posters accused the police of taking part in extra-judicial killings as revenge for one of their own who was executed with a bullet to the back of his head mere hours earlier. Allan Moseley had just finished training at the GEB before he was killed. Moseley was due to take up duty with the GEB the next day. Commissioner of Police (CoP), Gary Griffith, insisted the two incidents were not connected.
Early on Monday June 29, Morvant residents took to the streets and blocked Morvant Junction, a major artery along the Eastern Main Rd and the Lady Young Road. Up until 4 p.m. traffic snarled in the area while some residents lost electricity as burning debris damaged some power lines. Tuesday brought more of the same. This time however Morvant residents were joined by residents of other depressed communities in Sea Lots, Beetham, Laventille, Belmont, andCocorite.
By this time officers from the GEB were called out to quell the disturbances. There were frequent clashes between the police and protesters many of whom were young men tired ostensibly of the aggressive manner in which the TTPS had dealt with them and the video evidence which seemed to suggest a summary execution by police of the three suspects.
By mid-afternoon however, police confronted a smaller group of protesters near the Beetham Highway when gunshots rang out in the distance. As police turned in the direction of the gunshots, the protesters became more agitated. That was when one officer drew his revolver, cocked the trigger and in what appeared to be a warning shot, killed a mother of five who was three months pregnant. Video evidence revealed either the gun discharged before the officer could get his arm upright or he pulled the trigger too soon. Whichever, she died on the scene.
On cue the government and the CoP blamed criminals for orchestrating the protest in an attempt to destabilize the country but offered no evidence to support that theory. While the prime minister remained mum on the disturbances and the source of them, the independent Police Complaints Authority (PCA), tasked with investigating police involved shootings and misconduct, launched its own investigation into the matter.
Three days after protesters disrupted the capital city, Prime Minister Keith Rowley announced at a post Cabinet briefing the formation of a Community Recovery Committee to find solutions to deal with the situation in then depressed communities – a surprising move, seeing how those communities have voted faithfully, some would argue out of blind loyalty, for the PNM since 1956 and have seen little improvement in infrastructure and hence the quality of their lives since. One day later he announced the dissolution of Parliament and called for the general election on August 10.
The decision to call elections 24 hours after the announcement of the Community Recovery Committee begs the question, whether this was just an election gimmick to quell the disturbances and appease its supporters.
The Committee must now decide whether to proceed with its mandate which obviously lacks parliamentary approval knowing if the PNM government loses at the polls, the party that assumes power may decide it has little or no use for its work.
Meanwhile the CoP under pressure from the community reassigned three members of the TTPS who were involved in the killings of the three young men to administrative duties. The PCA followed by recommending on Monday July 5 last, the CoP suspend everyone who was involved in the matter. But on Tuesday the CoP in a press briefing rejected the recommendation of the PCA saying it lacked the authority to make such a call. But removed the three officers from active duty. Commissioner Griffith said the recommendation compromised the PCA’s own investigation whose remit is simply to send any information it gathers to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). If the DPP decides to pursue criminal charges against the officers involved, then the CoP said he will suspend them.
(Trinidad-based Gerard Johnson is a former newspaper editor.)