THE Sedition Act used in recent times to charge Watson Duke is a dangerous law that has no place in our law books. This Sedition Act—along with marijuana laws, anti-loitering laws, vagrancy laws and obeah laws—is part of a long list of colonial laws that are still on the books. These laws were colonial weapons enacted to control and police black and brown bodies, and create a society to mostly suit European and elite interests. So it is not that these laws are archaic, as argued by some; but rather, that they were ill-conceived in the first place and certainly have no place in our modern society.
The early 20th century was a significant period in the development of modern Trinidad and Tobago. On one hand, the heterogeneous interests of coloniality that consolidated itself after emancipation continued to control the society. On the other hand, working-class resistance continued as soldiers who fought in World War I returned home with sharpened racial consciousness, given that they fought for Britain yet experienced deep and blatant racism there.
In 1919, just one year after the end of World War II, utility workers, dock workers and railway workers went on strike against the backdrop of low wages and racism. Later on in the year, dock workers again went on strike, forcing businesses to close and chasing away the scab labour replacements. In response to the turbulent events of 1919, local whites were armed, marchers were fired on, arrested, and some leaders were deported, British troops were increased and repressive legislation was passed to control dissent.
Despite rhetoric of “massa day done” Trinidad and Tobago’s transition from a colony to an independent republic did not shatter the global context of imperialism, nor did it transform the internal inequalities and colonial hierarchies.
Certainly, the corridors of political power were opened up to non-white persons but the systems of colonial education, the colonial laws, the inequalities of land and resource distribution and the ideologies of race, colour, gender and class superiority/inferiority continued. This led Caribbean thinkers to describe the country as a plantation society and economy.
CLR James, writing prophetically in 1932, said clearly that no one expects these islands, “on assuming responsibility for themselves, [would] immediately shed racial prejudice and economic depression”. He goes on to say the post-Independence leaders will disappoint, deceive and betray the people.
Similarly, Frantz Fanon, in his chapter on “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness” in the book, The Wretched of the Earth, wrote the “national bourgeoisie identifies itself with the Western bourgeoisie, from whom it has learnt its lessons”.
After Independence, Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams set about to make changes. However, his rootedness in British academia and a middle class background did not allow him to think outside of the boundaries of western capitalist development. Thus, post-Independence we see a continuation of the repression of the colonial era. The 1963 Mbanefo Commission to root out leftists, subversives and radicals, the house arrest of CLR James and the brutal repression of the Black Power movement were all Jamesian and Fanonian prophecies painfully coming true.
In addition, similar to the colonial period, we also see the use of legislation to brutalise dissenting voices into compliance. The 1965 Industrial Stabilisation Act aimed to block strikes and minimise subversive elements in the oil and sugar industry.
The Public Order Bill pioneered by Karl Hudson Phillips in 1970 was a draconian bill (See “Ah Fraid Karl”) that was met by widespread opposition before it was pulled. Yet political scientist Hamid Ghany expresses that the elements of the Public Order Bill were reworked into other pieces of legislation, including the Firearms Act 1970, the Sedition (Amendment) Act 1971 and the Summary Offences Act 1972.
It is by no accident that the Sedition Bill (and others) that has recently come under scrutiny was amended following the Black Power uprising.
Looking back at the history of legislative violence, mainly against ordinary black and brown people, two lessons are clear. Firstly, despite some legislative improvements, many laws on our books from a colonial genesis were never meant to protect the interests and rights of the masses of persons. Quite the opposite, both colonial and post-Independence elites used legislation as a weapon to maintain the status quo and stamp out dissenting voices.
This is made worse by the “savings clause”, that maintained colonial laws that would have been invalidated by the new constitution. In other words, although Independence brought a new constitution, the ability of ordinary Trinbagonians to experience the full range of rights in it was limited by the “savings clause” that elevated backward colonial laws over the new constitution.
Secondly, the 57 years of Independence has shown the elite have little interest in overturning backward colonial legislation in a manner that is needed to bring new development to the society. The elite reap the economic, social and political benefits of the present plantation society and economy.
In addition, they do not feel the brunt of the poor decisions they make, as they send their children to the “best” prestige and private schools, family members often have lucrative State contracts, when they get sick, they don’t line up in public hospitals; and armed guards, gated communities and elite neighbourhoods generally keep the violence and crime at a distance.
The lack of urgency on the part of our leaders to address some of the basic ABC issues in our society flows from this. It is in this context that the formation of a better Trinbago could only come from more informed and active citizens, vibrant social and economic co-operatives and more inclusive and robust public dialogue.
—Dr Tye Salandy is a sociologist and independent journalist.