A first-hand account from Newsday reporter Rhianna Mc Kenzie
In the two years since the pandemic arrived in Trinidad and Tobago, various marches, candlelight vigils, and protests have been held in the streets of the capital and other communities across the country despite covid19 protocols and the dangers of spreading the highly transmissible virus.
Heated debates over how to deal with a virus no one saw coming, the state of the economy, education, the health-care system, national security, and above all, freedom of choice are now at the fore, creating divisions in the national community unlike anything I have witnessed or thought I ever would in my lifetime.
Activist Umar Abdullah, leader of the First Wave Movement, along with the 104.7 FM radio show The Ground Report, and radio personalities Robert Amar and Andy Williams, worked together to advertise a peaceful march against the government’s handling of the covid19 pandemic to be held on Sunday at the Queen's Park Savannah in Port of Spain
Abdullah, in an interview later that day with Newsday, had said the demonstration was an extension of the First Wave Movement's first demonstration on November 30, named Push Back, at the same location, where 30 people were detained in a clash with police.
He said the event was named Push Back Two: The Awakening.
Given the covid19 health protocols, it had been a while since I had been in a crowded space and I was immediately unnerved by the number of people at the Savannah, opposite Victoria Avenue, at 10 am.
Even in the early hours, before the event organisers arrived, there were already well over 300 people present. Speakers pleaded with the crowd over a public address (PA) system to remain socially distanced, and the passive crowd obliged. Some chose to remain in or near their vehicles, while others were in small clusters about the grass.
Religious groups prayed for their country while one man handed out free copies of a book by Seventh-day Adventist writer Ellen G White – one of the founders of the church – which illustrates the war between Christ and Satan, culminating in the end of days.
Signs read, “Jesus is my vaccine,” and “Ivermectin: Safe and Effective,” while others voiced resistance to government mandates, particularly its recent decision to press all government workers to be vaccinated by mid-February.
“Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God,” read another sign.
The crowed projected its distrust of the government, which has been advocating for the covid19 vaccines, under the guidance of the WHO and PAHO, since they became available to the public in early 2021.
“Masks limit our oxygen intake (and) stop the release of carbon dioxide,” said Phillip Franco, a protester holding a sign that read, among other things, “Government worse than virus.” He said the government’s handling of the situation has been nothing short of a disaster.
“There’s no pandemic. There’s a pandemic of fear. The symptoms of fear are chest pains, difficulty breathing, palpitations, headache, and lethargy.”
Another protester, Nicole Bartholomew, said while she supported everyone’s choice to be vaccinated, she did not agree that it should be mandatory, especially for children.
“There are too many examples of adverse effects that the government chooses not to acknowledge,” she said. “You can’t compare it to vaccines from before. We’re not living in my mother’s age, where information is not available as it is now."
“You have to know the real news from the fake news. You can’t tell me that this is not happening. Women’s periods are changing. My cycle changed (and) I have done nothing different (other) than take the vaccine. I have children and I don’t want them to take it.”
Bartholomew also said she believed vaccine producers were using placebos on the public.
“'Experimental' means we are still a part of the big experiment. It is affecting people, and it should be your choice.”
Dr Charles De Matas, a lecturer at the UWI department of Mathematics and Statistics, was also there to support the controversial drug ivermectin.
He said, “There are numerous studies that show it is effective against covid19.”
He said there are over 60 peer-reviewed studies, which he had forwarded to the media and the Ministry of Health, in support of the drug and believed the government was not acting in the best interest of the people by prohibiting its use and suppressing the information.
It did not take long for the scanty crowd to grow. By 11 am, what had initially appeared to be a crowd of 300 had become a force of what may have been well over 1,000 people.
After radio show host Robert Amar said a prayer over the PA system, Abdullah addressed the crowd.
“In keeping with protocols, we would have had communications with the police, and we sought to get the support of the police,” Abdullah said. “They are telling us we did not get permission to gather like this.”
Being told they could not gather to voice their opinions, with or without permission, agitated the marchers. They erupted in defiance of the police who had come to tell Abdullah he and his followers had to vacate the Savannah.
Supt Sampooran Kissoonlal of the Port of Spain police division took the mic and said, “If you do engage in any protest or march around the Savannah, we will have to deal with you accordingly.”
Abdullah then led the crowd in a march around the Savannah anyway, holding the national flag high above his head.
“Follow the flag,” they chanted,. As they walked, they spoke among themselves about what they described as the delinquency of the government and its disregard for the lives and livelihood of the public.
“All of them is a waste of time,” said one marcher. “All of them have to go. (Prime Minister Dr Keith) Rowley, (Attorney General Faris) Al-Rawi, (Health Minister Terrence) Deyalsingh, (President) Paula-Mae Weekes. All of them.”
Others chanted, “What we want? Freedom,” as they passed in front of the President’s House near the St Ann's roundabout.
After the first lap, police were seen still trying to reason with those who remained, and escorting them out of the Savannah. Kissoonlal addressed the media, saying the marchers were not abiding by covid19 protocols.
“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.”
At around 12.30 pm, the police were leading as many cars out of the Savannah as they could and, believing the event to be over, the media also left, as the numbers at the venue seemed to be dwindling.
I only had moments to grab a quick bite for lunch after returning to the newsroom, however, when Newsday photographer Roger Jacob received word that the Guard and Emergency Branch (GEB), otherwise known as the Riot Squad, had arrived at the venue.
When we returned around 2 pm, the previously-peaceful crowd had become irate, their agitation growing as more Tactical Unit police arrived, fully equipped with shields, gas masks and rifles.
The energy had shifted and the crowd that remained seemed to have an entirely different agenda. They had no intention of going quietly and insisted on their right to be there, despite health protocols.
“This is what you’re doing? We not doing anything wrong. We are allowed to protest. We have a right to protest,” they shouted.
“I want my money from the government. I want my money. Is 2014 to now I ain’t get no backpay,” shouted another as he tried to charge the police barricade. He was being held back by another supporter. Neither of them wore a mask.
Noticing the change, police escorted a family with a small child in a stroller to the other side of the road, out of harm's way, presumably knowing what was about to follow.
As the police advanced towards the crowd, the protesters fell back from Victoria Avenue eastward toward NAPA and became more vocal.
“Rowley must go,” they chanted repeatedly. “Shame on you. You not paying my sick leave. You cannot force people to put something in their body. I ain’t get sick yet.”
As the police moved forward, protesters shouted again,
“When they (police) move, we move. I come here from Point Fortin. I come here to stop it. That is what I come here for. We have to stand up. We not going home today. We’re staying right here. Call an election now.”
Realising they did not have control, the police began firing canisters into the crowd, which at first, did not seem threatened by the initial shots, thinking they were smoke bombs.
“It’s tear gas,” they screamed, after realising the smoke was choking them. Tears streamed from their eyes as they scattered to safety.
The Savannah breeze quickly blew the smoke in my direction and I was surprised by how quickly I began coughing. I too thought it was a non-threatening smoke bomb. It was at that moment that I realised the situation had taken a turn for the worse.
I ran away from the mele, only looking back to find Jacob who I had lost for a few moments in the crowd.
Thankfully, it didn't take long for me to spot him, a short distance away from the smoke, in the street photographing the scene. Members of the media decided it would be best to stick together.
While we had initially been in the thick of things, nearer to the Savannah and between the officers and the marchers, as the police moved forward, they insisted the media get out of harm's way.
Under the circumstances, we were happy to oblige and crossed the street to record the events from a safer distance, staying close to the officers.
The police marched forward, arresting those who were still defiant, and escorting them to a nearby mobile detention unit.
One man was seen sitting in the tray of his pickup truck, still parked in the Savannah, drinking a beer, a cooler at his feet. After several attempts to get him to leave, he too was hauled off to the nearby detention bus.
After about an hour and a half, the marchers retreated to their vehicles or walked out of harm's way to downtown Port of Spain.
Later, in a phone conversation with Newsday, Abdullah revealed the police had taken him away before the crowd became unruly. He was released around 6 pm.
Despite the strong anti-vax sentiment exhibited by the marchers, Abdullah insisted the march was not an anti-vax demonstration.
“The intention was to get the people out again who represented the many issues affecting the people of TT,” he said. “It was never an anti-vax gathering. Just people coming together to ventilate issues against government policies.”
Many in the public have been quick to highlight Abdullah’s continued trend of defiance against the government. In 2018, footage of Abdullah in an interview with National Geographic aired during a travel series called Chain of Command, which highlighted civil unrest and fundamentalism around the world.
In it, Abdullah distributed propaganda material and encouraged young Muslims to leave TT and fight for the Islamic extremist group ISIS.
Interviewed in January 2018 by Newsday, however, he denounced his involvement with the group, and said he has “come a long way from that kind of understanding.”
He also expressed interest in working alongside the government to prevent nationals from joining ISIS.
But in March that year, Abdullah was blocked from attending a meeting between the Prime Minister and Muslim leaders. Then Minister of National Security Stuart Young said at the time that Abdullah was not invited because of his connections to the Islamic State.
On Sunday, Abdullah advocated for the use of drugs such as ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine as early treatment methods for covid19. Both have been rejected by the WHO and the Ministry of Health.
He said he planned on collating the footage from Sunday's event to present to the UN as a violation of human rights.
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