The scenes of chaos and disorder that circulated on social media last week are a frightening reminder of the dangerous potential for the breakdown of law and order, not only in Beetham Gardens, but in wider Trinidad and Tobago. We condemn in the strongest possible terms any violence directed to members of the law enforcement authorities, and any abuse of power by those authorities.
Now that tempers have cooled, all concerned would do well to review the events that took place.
The footage of last week’s standoff is disturbing. Disturbing because residents seemed prepared to attack armed members of the police and defence force; disturbing because of the disproportionate use of force which members of the protective services appeared ready to deploy; disturbing because of how it showed no one was really in control.
The officers were responding to reports of residents blocking the Beetham Highway with debris. Such actions are certainly grave matters which have the potential to endanger all who are entering and leaving the capital. As such, we endorse the call made by Assistant Commissioner of Police in charge of crime, Irwin Hackshaw.
“Threats against police officers would not be tolerated,” Hackshaw said. “Persons who break the law by throwing debris onto the highway were going to be found and prosecuted for their actions.”
Yet, while words are important, so are deeds. The footage gave the impression of a joint police/army patrol on tenterhooks. The standoff was only dispersed when officers began firing – in rapid succession – warning shots into the air, in the process endangering themselves, their colleagues, the residents of Beetham Gardens and any other people in the vicinity. In the footage, one officer can be seen dissuading another officer from deploying a canister, presumably some form of diffusion or even tear gas.
These jumpy actions were not the actions of officers who had the situation under control or who were all on the same page when it comes to this particular engagement.
We cannot defend lawless behaviour, nor will we condemn obstruction of police officers or violence of any kind directed at them. But when will we as a society do better?
These exercises must be handled in a far more efficient way. There must be clearer, more tightly controlled rules, and officers deployed to situations such as this one need to have better training and experience. Just because this conflagration erupted at the Beetham does not mean all standards of professional police conduct must be thrown out of the window.
The stigmatisation of Beetham Gardens’ residents is a matter of national disgrace. These citizens are not the only ones who engage in unlawful activity; are not the only ones who live in communities plagued by crime; are not the only ones who can be accused of having a caustic relationship with the police; who are stereotyped and whose redeeming qualities are excised from the national narrative. A cursory scan of the deplorable comments left on social media in relation to this incident tells us all we need to know about the deeper issue behind this matter: bigotry.
How much longer will Beetham Gardens be neglected? How much longer will this community be ostracised, without adequate efforts at community-building and engagement? The true cause of last week’s drama was not protest action, it was the failure on the part of us as a nation to see human beings and to treat them accordingly.
This is in no way a defence of any individual who committed any wrongdoing against the police or the State. But it is a reminder that even when responding to those who conduct themselves poorly, we must maintain our own standards. Or else all falls down.