The Public Service Union’s decision to move forward with a procession in Kingstown this week is not about defying the Commissioner of Police but an indication that members feel strongly that his interpretation of the Public Order Act is wrong.
So says Elroy Boucher, the PSU’s president, just days after the trade union’s membership voted in favour of engaging in a procession in Kingstown on Thursday – an act that was prohibited by Commissioner of Police Colin John last week.
“When they make a decision, it is binding on everyone including the executive…I don’t know if defying is the correct term. What I know is that this particular law, the Public Order Act that is being invoked here has more or less been resurrected,” Boucher told SEARCHLIGHT today, Monday, September 6.
“We have never really heard of it in terms of protest and so the majority of Vincentians, not just public servants strongly feel that the interpretation of this law and its application is wrong in so much as it applies to a trade union because the Trade Union Act more or less give trade unions the right to demonstrate anywhere.”
The Union recently wrote to the COP informing him of its intention to engage in demonstrations in the vicinity of the Kingstown Vegetable Market, White Chapel Road and Paul’s Avenue on September 8 and 9. John was also informed of the Union’s intention to engage in a procession around Kingstown on September 9.
John, in response to the PSU’s letters, cited sections of the Public Order Act, and said the procession, which was intended to begin at the Kingstown Vegetable Market contravenes Section 10, as the location is within a 200-yard radius from a point within curtilage of the High Court and Parliament.
He therefore prohibited the procession around Kingstown but offered an alternative route from Highway Trading, Arnos Vale and the Sion Hill intersection between 10 am and 4 pm.
A Zoom meeting was held on Saturday, where 142 members of the PSU were in attendance to vote on whether they should comply with the march route given by the Commissioner or protest in Kingstown despite the prohibition.
Of the 142 members present, 34 voted in favour of John’s proposed route, 64 voted to march in Kingstown and 44 abstained from voting.
“Based on the vote, there will be a demonstration in Kingstown. The good thing about it, as I see it, is that there is no Parliament. Parliament has been postponed so in my view; it should really not be a problem for persons to demonstrate in Kingstown peacefully. Like I say, while I respect the Police Commissioner’s position with respect to the law, my opinion does not outweigh the opinion of the membership,” Boucher said.
Under the Union’s current constitution, 25 members constitute a quorum to make a decision for almost 2000 members of the trade union.
Boucher therefore noted that the decision taken at Saturday’s meeting is binding on the membership, whether or not many members would have preferred to use the route outlined by the Commissioner.
Police have sought to heavily enforce the Public Order Act following a protest in Kingstown on August 5, which escalated and resulted in Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves sustaining a head injury, after a protester in the large crowd threw an object at him.
Boucher referenced this same law, noting that he has “never heard of a law that attempts to prevent demonstration in Kingstown or anywhere”.
“This law itself, when you look at the preamble of it, the majority of public servants, workers, the general public strongly feel that it should not be used in this case because we as a people have been demonstrating since time immemorial,” he said.
The next sitting of Parliament was initially scheduled for Thursday, September 9 – the same day the PSU intended to engage in a demonstration and march in Kingstown.
The sitting has since been postponed to September 30.
The PSU’s president noted that he suspects the use of the Public Order Act to prohibit the Union’s protest and march in Kingstown is as a result of the violence that obtained at the August 5 protest where the Prime Minister was injured.
“…but if that were the case and the Commissioner of Police wanted to make a distinction, then we had informed him of intentions to demonstrate on the Wednesday, there was no Parliament on the Wednesday,” Boucher said. “But that also was prohibited so why? It doesn’t even make sense to me. It seems as though it’s the government trying to stomp out free democratic protest in the country when the constitution gives freedom of assembly.”
Boucher further questioned: “So, is it really a defiance or that a majority of persons strongly feel that this law is applied incorrectly and interpreted incorrectly in so much as it relates to a trade union?”
“I believe the latter is how people strongly feel and not that they want to defy the commissioner, they just think that he is wrong and deliberately wrong,” he said.