The date, 7 October 1993. For most Saint Lucians, older banana producers in particular, an unforgettable Thursday. Around three in the afternoon, with protesting banana-farmhands and curious onlookers, including women and children, filling the road near Morne Panache, the hated Special Services Unit of the Royal St. Lucia Police Force slowly approached the scene, some aboard their truck, others walking alongside. At first sight of the armed, notoriously trigger-happy contingent, all attired like US Army soldiers on the battlefield, the crowd quickly dispersed, then regrouped several hundred yards from the main road. Some threw stones at the SSU vehicle. Suddenly, the rat-tat-tat of automatic gunfire mixed with the desperate screams of the panicked crowd. Some sixty people took bullets in their thighs, their buttocks, and their arms.
Julius was shot in the neck, Randy in the back. Both died where they fell. Patrons at a nearby mini-mart were also hit. The building’s concrete front walls were riddled with bullets, three or four inches deep. An inner wall provided further evidence of the SSU’s indiscriminate shooting. Shattered glass and merchandise littered the floor.
The proprietor later testified under oath that she and her three young children barely escaped getting killed and only because they had retreated to an upstairs floor and taken refuge under a large bed. There were many similar stories from the woman’s neighbors and patrons. Less than three hours after the shooting, and without a reliable account of what had transpired, the nation’s prime minister addressed the citizenry via radio and TV.
Referring to the deceased farm workers, he said: “The hooligans got what they deserved.” He declared the SSU “totally justified in defending themselves.” He also reminded his audience that just two days earlier supporters of the Banana Salvation Committee had attacked him with sticks and stones as he drove from his Mahaut home on his way to work in Castries.
His ambushers had once referred to him as “Daddy Compton,” he said, and with good reason. He had done much to improve their existence.
“Now say I’m a murderer and a thief.” Knee-jerk defenders of the SSU, like the writers of
a recent Labour Party press release, claim the police acted on orders from the prime minister, relayed to them via the Minister for Sports. One defender of the Labour faith said he had inside information that the official, on the orders of the PM, had directed the police commissioner to “clear the road by any means necessary.”
An official inquiry into the Grand Riviere incident several months later uncovered a somewhat different picture. According to the officer in charge of the SSU contingent that blew away the young farmhands, one of his men suffered a hit to the head with a rock before they opened fire on the roadside demonstrators—and only after permission had been sought from and granted via walkie-talkie by a superior officer in Castries.
The evidence given under oath by the SSU leader hinted at the unit’s haphazard modus operandi, if not its murderous disregard for human life. Instead of opening fire on a large crowd comprising innocent children and other harmless onlookers, the SSU might have retreated to the safety of a nearby police station and called for back-up. They might have used teargas to disperse the noisy crowd. Apart from the roadblock that had brought traffic to a standstill, the BSC-supporting demonstrators had behaved within the law. There had been no assaults save that claimed by the police. No threat to property. The presence of the notorious SSU had triggered the commotion that turned deadly. At the inquiry witness after witness testified to that effect. It also emerged that there had been no orders from the prime minister with regard to police activity on the recalled Thursday.
As with most local inquiries into fatal police shootings, the Julius and Randy inquest concluded that no one was blameworthy. The official verdict was hardly unexpected: “Death by misadventure.”
The funeral services for Julius and Randy Joseph drew weeping hundreds from all over the island. Also in conspicuous attendance were the suitably grief-stricken leaders of the Saint Lucia Labour Party, by now closely linked with the Banana Salvation Committee, and not only from the government’s perspective. Shortly after the burial services, for which the SLP leader Julian Hunte reportedly paid, the BSC erected a marble monument to the memory of the dead and wounded at Grand Riviere, also financed by the Labour Party. Engraved on the front is a message that blamed the death of Julius and Randy Joseph (unrelated) on Prime Minister John Compton!
Editor’s Note: The preceding is from Lapses & Infelicities