SEVERAL protesters were arrested and dozens more tear-gassed by riot squad police, as a protest march at the Queen's Park Savannah against Government's handling of the pandemic degenerated into chaos and violence on Sunday.
Apart from the protesters being tear-gassed, police were seen physically manhandling people as they tried to make arrests.
The march, dubbed Push Back, was organised by the First Wave Movement led by activist Umar Abdullah and was supported by radio talk show hosts Robert Amar and Andy Williams.
It began in the morning with hundreds gathering to march around the Savannah to show disapproval of the Government’s handling of the pandemic, including the Prime Minister’s vaccination policy for government workers.
At 11 am, Supt Sampooran Kissoonlal of the Port of Spain Division asked Abdullah and the protesters to leave the Savannah, saying the marchers had no permit to protest.
“In keeping with protocols, we would have had communications with the police, and we sought to get the support of the police,” Abdullah told the crowd. “They are telling us we did not get permission to gather like this.
“Together with Robert Amar we are going to lead you out of the Savannah. You are all going to follow us around the Savannah, socially distanced apart.”
Kissoonlal also addressed the crowd and reiterated that no permission had been granted.
“If you do engage in any protest or march around the Savannah, we will have to deal with you accordingly,” Kissoonlal warned. Abdullah ignored him and led the crowd in a march around the Savannah.
“It’s everybody’s choice to take the vaccine,” shouted protester Nicole Bartholomew, “but there are too many examples of adverse effects the government chooses not to acknowledge."
Another demonstrator, Joseph Brando, accused Government and the media of lying to the public.
“The hospitals are in a mess. I have family and friends who have died. (The Government) said millions were spent on the pandemic and still we have no beds.”
'WE DON'T BLUFF'
After the march, the crowd gathered at the meeting point, opposite Victoria Avenue. Kissoonlal addressed the media and said many of the protesters decided to leave after the police's warning.
“We don’t bluff in the police service. If we say we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it. We try our best to have a conversation and let good sense prevail and that’s what we did this morning and the crowd dispersed.”
Kissoonlal said he would have been more satisfied with the event if the organisers had got permission.
“Mr Williams was given permission to have this elsewhere and he chose to come here…We want to be respectful to everyone here, but at the end of the day if we need to take certain steps, we will.”
While many of the protesters left soon after the march, some stayed in defiance of police warnings to abide by covid19 public health regulations.
At around 2 pm, after several attempts to disperse the large crowd failed, officers from the Riot Squad arrived and began detaining protesters. Several tear-gas canisters were fired at the crowd after some of them became openly hostile to the police.
The agitated crowd chanted, “Rowley must go,” as officers circled and forced them out of the Savannah.
In a phone conversation later with Newday, Kissoonlal said measures were taken when the protesters decided not to follow protocols. “Even though they advertised (the event) as a prayer, that did not happen. When asked to disperse, they refused and became vociferous. That is when we had to call in the GEB (Guard and Emergency Branch).” The GEB is commonly referred to as the Riot Squad.
He said 12 people, including Abdullah, were detained. Abdullah was later charged with leading an illegal march and the others were charged with failing to disperse when commanded. Kissoonlal said Williams disappeared before the crowd became unruly.
Contacted for comment, acting Commissioner of Police McDonald Jacob said while people are allowed to protest in groups of ten, the event became a march with too many people, all of whom broke covid19 public health regulations.
“We the police are constantly pleading with the public to try and desist from gatherings,” he said. “Right now, the country is suffering from loss of life and that should take precedent over anything else.
“There are other means you can use, (such as) a virtual platform or the media, to demonstrate, other than gathering and putting other people’s lives at risk. (Protesters) are indirectly putting my officers’ lives at risk,” Jacob said.
He said 32 officers have died from covid19 and although he could not directly link these deaths or other officers' contracting the virus to dealing with such protests and other large illegal public gatherings, Jacob said his officers, as frontline workers, have to interact with the public daily and dealing with such mass-gathering activities puts their lives at risk.
In response to Abdullah’s claim that he tried to write to the commissioner for permission to host the event, Jacob pointed out: “Writing a letter does not give you the right to go and protest.”
He said there is an application that needs to be made. “Other than the normal laws, we’re also dealing with covid19 regulations and when violating those regulations, the police will take the necessary action.”
This story was originally published with the title "Police vs protesters – Crowd tear-gassed at Queen's Park Savannah" and has been adjusted to include additional details. See original post below.
SEVERAL protesters were detained by police and dozens more were tear-gassed at the Queen’s Park Savannah on Sunday.
The Push Back protest, led by social activist Umar Abdullah of the First Wave Movement, began on Sunday morning with hundreds gathered to march around the Savannah in solidarity against Government’s handling of the covid19 pandemic, including the Prime Minister’s vaccination policy for government workers.
Police asked Abdullah and his supporters to leave, as they did not have a permit from the acting Commissioner of Police to protest. However, the crowd persisted and the march went on.
At around 2 pm, after several attempts to disperse the large crowd, the riot police were called in and officers began detaining protesters, while other officers fired tear gas canisters at the crowd.
One man, who was parked in the savannah and seen drinking a beer from the tray of his pick-up truck, was detained after officers asked him several times to leave. The agitated crowd chanted “Rowley must go” as police enclosed them, forcing them out of the Savannah.