By 1963 African Americans had long been free from the literal shackles of slavery but were still fettered by the limitations of inequality and oppression. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington was intended to help engender freedom and liberty. It was there, at the base of the Lincoln Memorial, before a crowd of more than 200,000 that he gave his now iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. By 1964 the Civil Rights Act was passed, to be followed the next year by the Voting Rights Act.
The effectiveness of a protest depends, to a large extent, on certain factors, among them: effective planning, a clearly identified cause, its validity, the determination of the protesters. In Saint Lucia, though we are not especially famous for our protest demonstrations, we have had our fair share of organised civil (and not so organised nor civil) uprisings. On May 17 this year we witnessed the collaborative street demonstration of the Concerned Citizens of Saint Lucia and the opposition Saint Lucia Labour Party against two proposed developments: DSH, and a dolphinarium at Pigeon Point. Earlier, in January 2015, the then opposition United Workers Party held its orange march (orange being the resultant colour of red and yellow united).
Opinions on the success of these and other local protest actions vary, depending largely on the assessor’s own prejudices. However, there is a simple universal touchstone that is the only determinant of a protest’s success: were the stated objectives met?
In the case of the CCSL/SLP protest held earlier this year there were several stated objectives: accountability and transparency, particularly pertaining to the DSH project; to guarantee the country benefits from the proposed undertaking; that Pigeon Point and Maria Island not be developed; that the CIP regulations not be detrimentally amended; that good governance and fair employment practices be established. There is no evidence that the CCSL/SLP protest delivered more than an opportunity for like thinkers to mingle and shout!
The orange march was a protest against the cost of living: taxes, particularly VAT; high electricity and water costs; reduced government subsidies for food and transportation; the price of fuel; and a possible increase in bus fares. Unlike the first mentioned protest, the reasons for the so-called orange march were unambiguously stated. It resulted in a decrease in fuel prices; bus fares remained unchanged.
We are once again on the eve of yet another display of civil malcontent. On this occasion, the organisers indicate that the protest is against the current government’s handling of the St. Jude Hospital project. It is supposedly meant to force the government to enunciate a clear policy position on the fate of the hospital. The controversy stems from a public statement by the Minister of Health, Mary Isaac that Cabinet may have little choice but to consider expert advice that the multi-million-dollar project, still only 50 per cent complete after nearly eight years, be demolished. The prime minister soon afterward confirmed more than once that his government was seeking further professional advice on what to do with the structure in question and that demolition was not an option—a fact readily acknowledged by opposition MP Moses JnBaptiste but which he also dismissed on the basis that the prime minister’s word could not be trusted. The line brought to mind pots calling kettles black!
I’m aware that the issue at hand is extremely emotive. Countless individuals, governments, and organisations donated to the reconstruction of St. Jude Hospital and much-needed relief for the people of the island’s south who have been forced to make do with a converted decrepit sports stadium, woefully ill-equipped and ill-suited for its current purposes. Nevertheless, let’s consider the impending protest action. Difficult as it may be, let us at least attempt to set aside emotion and biases and answer honestly the following questions:
Is there a clearly identified cause? By my measure, there is some incongruity of message. The organisers of the upcoming demonstration are demanding the structure not be demolished, that it be completed as quickly as possible and delivered to the people in whose interest the project was undertaken several years ago. In the same breath they are also demanding that the government indicates its plans for the incomplete structure. On the one hand, something specific is demanded; on the other it is implied that alternatives to the protesters’ demands may be acceptable.
Is the opposition’s cause valid? As premature as may have been the health minister’s statement to the media, the question of demolition has repeatedly been addressed by the prime minister: it’s not going to happen.
It is worth reminding readers that the government has repeatedly stated its decision against recommended demolition. Also, that it is actively seeking expert advice on how best to proceed with the controversial structure that has already unaccountably swallowed up some $118 million. To date, no one on the opposition side has challenged in parliament the government’s position on the issue.
`It is to be hoped that on Sunday the real reason for the planned march will be revealed. Hopefully, the lead demonstrators will explain why the opposition failed, when in government, to
make good on its repeated pledge to deliver to the south a ‘state-of-the-art’ St. Jude by 2014. Also, why the House opposition has not challenged the government to explain why the people of Vieux Fort continue to depend on a beaten up George Odlum Stadium for medical services!