“Stability”. “Strength”. “Growth”. Three abstract nouns, that titled the Colm Imbert 2020 Budget statement, bid for serious-minded resonance, but not for the inspiration described by Derek Walcott as a “boiling in the belly”. An election season hovered, but readers and listeners waited 154 pages for any call to arms.
In his final paragraph Mr Imbert drew upon Bob Marley, “that immortal musical genius”. In a rallying cry to “we in the PNM”, he edited Marley lyrics for an evocative summons to “Get Up and Stand Up for What is Right”.
Days later, came announcement of the date of long-looming elections. At once, the whole Budget exercise became capable of being understood as a sign of the times. Political wartime has declared itself.
In the build-up to his reggae battle cry, Budget details grew more and more into a morale-boosting apologia for Rowley-Imbert economic management. “Our exemplary record over the last 48 months could now stand the test of public scrutiny…We have achieved our manifesto promises…”.
Parliamentary debate still underway, the PNM campaign will have hit the road with the budget superseding, if only preceding, any new manifesto. Fighting words have already been composed: “Our programmes and policies and our records show that we have been highly successful by any standards of assessment.”
A date announced for the local government elections, marching orders assumed new urgency for the PNM ground forces. The budget alarums were still fresh in the air when ministers hustled to forestall or counter any actual or threatened political mishap. This was the mission of a strike team of three ministers—Young, Deyalsingh and Crichlow-Coburn—to contain damage occasioned by the fallout from the police raid on the Transformed Life Ministry NGO. It had been established by an Arouca church for the safekeeping of “rock bottom people”. So called by the pastor in charge, whose other words self-profile him as one trying his best.
Untimely for the PNM campaign agenda, a police Special Operations pre-dawn entry and search of the Transformed Life facility liberated some 69 internees. Inside there in accordance with procedures mysterious to the public, they stayed in conditions till then mostly unknown. Echoes of Imbertian oratory (“we are providing support to the most vulnerable groups in the society”) had hardly died down; now, this real-world contradiction.
For the unfolding budget/election drama some anti-heroic figure must have been scripted. Early that fateful morning, enter Police Commissioner Gary Griffith, in the capacity of camera-ready leader of the special operations team.
On the Eastern Main Road, Arouca, the Transformed Life Ministry had been proclaiming and operating its NGO mission in plain sight for maybe decades. Before a 2016 parliamentary joint select committee, its founder and leader Pastor Awong testified: “I have over 25 years (been) working with the socially displaced…picking them up from the streets, bringing them by me, bathing them, cleaning them. Some of them…real wounded with maggots and worms and different things like that…We are talking about rock bottom people.”
For most in T&T, this is regarded as somebody else’s business, to which unconcerned eyes and ears remain suitably closed. Lack of curiosity reaching indifference prevailed about what really goes on behind the walls scaled by the special operation climbers that morning. Until somebody blew a whistle and tipped off police headquarters.
It was enough to get CoP Griffith going, in anticipation of the media impact, to see for himself. His report came as a tabloid characterisation of what his law-enforcer’s eyes beheld. “Human trafficking”, and “virtual modern-day slavery”, the CoP’s findings, claimed the headlines. His own Rottweiler dogs, he declared, were better accommodated than the wretched of the T&T earth he had viewed inside the NGO’s holding centre.
Male and female subjects inside padlocked steel cages conveyed way back-in-times, but still compelling, images of nightmare conditions once helplessly endured. Discovery of batons and tasers suggestively compounded the total experience of those inside the NGO walls.
The lid had been lifted on what? A national scandal, or an all-too-common T&T reality likely victimising those, behind other walls, variously lacking the self-helping wherewithal to live lawful, independent and productive lives?
Earliest reports of the Transformed Life Ministry police crackdown told of former internees gratefully chanting “Gary! Gary!” as they were led outside the walls and into police buses. The Police Commissioner had figured in the role of liberator, but also, in sceptical eyes, of heedless attention grabber, selectively targeting one tireless do-gooder.
There, in Arouca, stood a private-sector mad house, that may have mirrored circumstances recognisable in St Ann’s. One psychologist, notably involved in reforming programmes for the drug-abused and mentally troubled, referred to Transformed Life as “this place, imperfect as it is”.
The pastor’s operation had been overlooked or partially supported by successive administrations. Suddenly, there arrives the anti-hero CoP, to decry in maybe overstated terms the witness of his own eyes, invoking criminal law liability.
Collateral damage is sustained by a PNM campaign driven by a Budget providing amply for police needs. While actual acquisition is awaited, CoP Griffith withholds applause, thereby earning rank as a top 2020 Budget dissenter.