Exactly 50 years ago today, on February 26, 1970, the first salvo in what has become known as the Black Power Revolution occurred right across the road from this newspaper.
The day had started off relatively tame by news standards. A group of students and others from the St Augustine campus of The University of the West Indies, who had organised themselves as the National Joint Action Committee a year earlier, arrived in Port of Spain to stage protests outside two Canadian entities, the Canadian High Commission and the Royal Bank of Canada. The protest was an act of solidarity with Caribbean students who had been arrested and charged after staging a sit-in protest against racism at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Canada.
With the crowd growing behind them, the protesters headed to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Independence Square where they declared the Catholic Church the biggest symbol of the “white power structure” and raised the cry of “Power to the people!”
In a symbolic statement, they threw black cloth over white statues and stuck a placard saying “Freedom Now” into the arms of one.
Any chance of the protest ending there disappeared with the arrest of eight of the protesters on charges of disturbing a place of worship and incitement. Within days, the lit spark turned into political dynamite as the frustrated hopes of newly independent Trinidad and Tobago boiled over into the streets and coalesced under the banner of the National Joint Action Committee. With the rallying cry of “Indians and Africans Unite”, NJAC launched an onslaught against the government of the People’s National Movement led by Dr Eric Williams, accusing it of protecting the colonial power structure that privileged a small white elite at the expense of the large majority of Afro and Indo-Trinidadians. Within weeks, the burgeoning Black Power Movement was transformed into the Black Power Revolution of 1970 as thousands took to the streets daily in the biggest social upheaval since the Labour Riots of 1937. For two months, the country was convulsed by massive protests to which the Williams administration seemed to have no response. Violence erupted with a series of attacks on businesses, including arson, to which the Riot Squad responded with tear gas.
On April 21, 1970, the government declared a state of emergency and curfew, prompting a mutiny in the Regiment led by young officers. What followed was a season of mass arrests, censorship and State repression which has impacted T&T’s political evolution to this day. With this also came the undeniable breakthroughs wrought by the Black Power Movement, including the thrust towards State ownership of the commanding heights of the economy, reconfiguration of the financial sector to accommodate ordinary people, and the breaking of barriers of race and colour in areas once considered the preserve of “white” Trinbagonians.
While many organisations have planned commemorative activities, the 50th anniversary of the 1970 Black Power Revolution should be embraced nationally as an opportunity to review the state of our Independence and democracy as a basis for understanding current conditions.
We can start by being less afraid and more honest about our own history.