When protest for Carnival led to social change

A reenactment of the Canboulay riots, the origins of Carnival as we know it. - JEFF K MAYERS
A reenactment of the Canboulay riots, the origins of Carnival as we know it. - JEFF K MAYERS

What is the difference between populism and mob rule? Or democracy, if that is defined as the accumulation of one vote per person?

Do you remember the saying we were taught as children, that the voice of the people is the voice of God? Were you ever also taught that it was derived from a philosopher called Alcuin who lived between 804 and 735AD who actually said, “Do not listen to people who say that the voice of the people is the voice of God since the riotousness of the crowd is almost always madness?" I was never taught that second part either, and only discovered it after often being led astray by what I thought was democracy: majority rule which is how Mr Trump got into power, as, if the US was guided by actual numbers that voted in their last election, Hilary Clinton would be president.

Populism is the political system that purports to represent the views of ordinary people according to the the Oxford English Dictionary. It tends to sway with the voices that are loudest, that make the most noise, that get into the news broadcasts on TV, radio, papers, ringing bells, chanting slogans. The gilets jaunes, the yellow shirts in the Ukraine. They are never the actual majority because the actual majority are silent, but as they make the most noise, they often are successful in getting what they want. If they are accompanied by violence they become a mob and may get their own way, at least for a time.

Democracy, in the sense of one man one vote, does not exist and never did outside of city states like ancient Athens, and even there women, those born elsewhere and slaves were excluded. Certainly one man one vote is not the political system followed in the US, where it actually matters in choosing a president. People are given only two candidates to vote for, people chosen by political parties in caucus on their behalf. So they got Mr Trump, the only head of state this side of the Middle East who has sworn to send in the army to war on his own countrymen if they do not obey him.

Populism has nothing to do with intelligence or comparative statistics. It has to do with feeling. It may lead to success, it may lead to failure, but strong enough it inevitably leads to change. What is happening to the George Floyd protest marches is a good example. Based on the majority disgust at his murder it has grown worldwide to encompass people’s disgust over state over-control, police misuse of power and their almost casual assumption in many cultures that they are free to use and abuse civilians. And they are right. They can. And they do.

The assumption that the lives of people of colour are theirs to enjoy and/or destroy appears to be part of the white privilege culture that lingers among a whole class of people in the US terrified that they might lose it and determined to do anything they can to retain it. Even if it includes lying, abuse and murder.

Trinidad dealt with this some time ago when, in 1881, a newly installed governor who was, yes, white, English and foreign born, on the advice of the colonial secretary in London who in turn was advised by the same people of property in Trinidad, agreed to outlaw Canboulay, the traditional beginning of Carnival. You smile? A foreigner try to stop Trinis’ Carnival? There was no internet in those days, no cell phones, no social media, Facebook or YouTube. But this was Trinidad. Who needs them? Although no official announcement was issued until J'Ouvert self, in the yards behind the businessplaces on Frederick, Charlotte, Queen, Prince and Henry Streets for days stones, loose bricks and boards had been piling up “just in case.” As the bells rang out from the church steeples to mark midnight the bands, real ole mas bands comfortably ragged and barefoot, emerged as if by magic from between buildings, from behind buildings, from nooks and crannies, as if rising out of the earth itself, holding their sticks and stones, their boards and bricks, “just in case.”

And there was Captain Baker, head of the police force, on horseback with his four mounted senior officers and a full contingent of largely Bajan ranks stationed in the dark at street corners and crossroads, silently waiting.

As the bands, shouting and singing in the light of the flaming torches came toward them, the police, silently lined up in the dark, at a word from Captain Baker moved in, and the battle started.

The police were vastly outnumbered. When challenged by the police armed with truncheons, the barefoot bands retaliated with stones and bricks. Shop windows were smashed and the police were ordered to retreat to barracks. Captain Baker went to the governor in the morning and asked him to rescind his order, which he did. The governor walked alone through the crowd to the market place where a platform had been erected and apologised for the proclamation saying that he had had no idea how much Carnival meant to the people, that he had been only worried about the fire hazard and please to go ahead. He got a standing ovation. No praise was given to poor Captain Baker for just obeying orders. He kept his men in barracks for what was subsequently described in the Gazette as “one of the most peaceful Carnivals in years."

Through the century since those in positions of legislative, appointed or assumed power have from time to time tried to rein in Carnival. They have always failed.

The president of the United States has threatened war against his own people because of a few well organised destructive intentional troublemakers, shutting down the peaceful protests.

We are witnessing a pandemic of violence, in Hong Kong, in the Sudan, in Palestine, in Southern Yemen, in Libya as well against state and police control that may change the world as the flu pandemic has.

There is an apolitical formula for change. It starts with either an explosive incident or industrial unrest. It moves on to social unrest then to political unrest and to battle. Then the strongest side wins and either the old order is restored or a new order takes over. Sometimes, as in the Arab spring, the new order turns out to be more controlling than the old, and even those rights people used to have are taken away.

And in Trinidad, in 1882 the people were granted their Carnival by legislation.


"When protest for Carnival led to social change"

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