WITH echoes and images of the early July 2020 uprisings in east Port of Spain and elsewhere still fresh in many minds, the country was caused to reflect soberly on the explosive outturns still recalled as the 1990 attempted coup. T&T, having survived that one, was destined to stay, 30 years later, personified in ever lively recollections of witnesses and surviving victims.
Closure, unimaginable in 1990, has been slow, if at all, in coming. Witnesses to and survivors of the epic event, who were up and about the city back then, now count as “ageable” according to the T&T dialect dictionary.
A car bomb lodged tight in the northern driveway of the Police Headquarters building triggered off the fire that consumed the structure built in 1876. In terror, officers fled the engulfing flames and smoke. The topmost ranking of the then garrison suffered grievous injury as he jumped from a window to the Edward Street sidewalk.
Journalists in close neighbourhood at the Guardian told of officers in hasty retreat stripping themselves of identifiable uniform items as they scampered to safety. That this could happen in hometown Port of Spain made for the awakening to a reality little contemplated in a T&T programmed to shrug off rhetoric and threats that come across as over the top.
Other journalists drawn from the Express seven city blocks away to Police Headquarters and Red House ground zero settings, mingled with townsfolk keen to eyeball the actions, having taken hopefully suitable cover. Standing just across Knox Street from the Red House where top government ministers were being held captive, the Guardian building drew shelter for not only rival journalists but also a detachment of soldiers taking advantage of helpful lines of fire toward the insurgent Muslimeen inside the Red House.
In the event, downtown Port of Spain was devastated by fire and looting. Apart from the Guardian building, the Red House, Hall of Justice, and the ruined Police Headquarters together made for a stage setting of unimaginable outrage.
Until then, Friday evening Port of Spain as a war zone had been hardly imaginable. It was in early July 2020, that in resemblance to, if not inspired by, the “Black Lives Matter” protests in the US and elsewhere, upraised palms, loud voices and identifiably downmarket dress and attitudes commanded protest space. Three killings in Morvant, reported as “police-involved”, had brought forth demonstration effects in the city streets and kindred responses in other places.
Unlike the dire opportunities presented in 1990 by events at the Red House, Police Headquarters, and also at Maraval Road Television House, the 2020 demonstrators suffered repudiation. It occurred at the hands of the T&T police equipped in the world-class ways comparable to now-televised images from abroad.
In unhappy current times, little appears or occurs to take minds off the encircling perils of rampaging Covid-19. Just under two weeks away from general elections, the contending parties unsurprisingly agree on nothing. Every utterance and, in the ruling Government’s case, every action attracts the most baleful responses.
Evidence now coming to hand as yet reveals no suggestion of a coup being attempted or contemplated. Such fearsome zandolees as have been minded to derive inspiration from 1990 Muslimeen exploits have evidently since taken advice to find their holes, and stay there.
Back then, casualties multiplied, as the drawn-out drama of the TTT and Red House take-downs and the merciless detention of TV people, ministers and parliamentarians played to the world. In the media, TV had been early overcome by terrorist takeover. It was left to the Express and the Guardian to report and record the events for day-to-day news coverage updating and for history.
Rising to the occasion, the Express, edited by Owen Baptiste, produced a memorable magazine. All inspiringly in black and white, it bore the long title, Trinidad Under Siege—The Muslimeen Uprising—Six Days of Terror. Newly arrived at the paper, I was honoured to write the “Foreword” to that publication.
Immediately immersed in the effort to record the 1990 events for historical recall, I had eye-witnessed the surrender episode of the Red House Muslimeen insurgents and the liberation of the hostages. The late David Chase, clicking his camera, had joined a team comprising Ucill Cambridge and Lennox Grant, who gained permission from the army captain there in command to cover the release of hostages and arrest of their captors. We took it all in from a wretchedly narrow ground floor window of the Colonial Life building.
My concluding remarks in that “Foreword” warned against taking July 27, 1990 lightly: “The Muslimeen incursion brought with it not only the wanton devastation suffered by battlefields anywhere, but also the systematic trashing of the values represented by the Parliament… The ferocious message of the Muslimeen’s armed propaganda remains…to be recognised and, to the fullest extent, to be vigorously countered.”
With its content reflecting the relatively junior years of the Express and its journalists 30 years ago, Trinidad Under Siege, with its vivid black-and-white, historic photography, is worthy of timely recall, if not also of reprinting.