The recent change in posture by the police to strictly enforce the Public Order Act has been as a result of increasingly violent protests on the streets of Kingstown.
This is according to Commissioner of Police, Colin John who was among three guests on the latest episode of Searchlight’s “The Press Room” which discussed the rights and responsibilities of protesters in its most recent edition on February 16.
“The purported or advertised peaceful protests appeared to be less and less peaceful at this time. As a result of that, the police, we decided that we have to ensure that the law is adhered to,” John said.
It is a common practice in St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) for protests to be held in the vicinity outside the House of Assembly (HOA).
And many Vincentians have journeyed to the capital more frequently in the past year to be a part of protests organised by trade unions, political parties and other social organisations, to address a range of issues in the society.
However, under the Public Order Act, public meetings and processions are prohibited from being held at specific times and distances from public buildings.
This includes the HOA, and according to the act, protests cannot be held within 200 yards of this building when Parliament or the Court is in session.
While law enforcement authorities have allowed it in the past, this has not been the case in recent times.
The commissioner said, “we have decided that we cannot exercise that level of tolerance anymore and we have to ensure that persons adhere to the laws of St Vincent and the Grenadines, including the Public Order Act”.
Prime Minister, Dr Ralph Gonsalves sustained an injury to his head last August when a projectile was thrown at him during a protest outside the House of Assembly against amendments to the Public Health Act.
Since then, several protests in recent times have resulted in a number of persons being charged for various offences.
John explained that: “There are several laws on the books and the resources for the police officers is limited so sometimes we have to make a judgement call as to where to direct our energy”.
“Unfortunately, we were not paying enough attention to the actions of protesters, processions, public meetings, whatever label you want to put on it but because of certain developments, because as you said before, the procession, public meetings, protests, they are becoming more and more violent,” he added.
John advised that persons who feel aggrieved or disagree with the current law, should either challenge it in Court or speak to Members of Parliament to have it amended or repealed.
But until then, he noted that the police will continue to enforce it in its current state.
“The spirit of the law and the letter of the law, that would be an interpretation in the court if it is challenged. Based on the interpretation of the law, and it is quite clear, I think it is a simple piece of legislation; it states what must be done, what discretion the Commissioner of Police has and whenever the need arises, then we deal with those issues,” he said.
“…I hope protesters or persons in public meetings and public procession, that they do it in the manner prescribed by the law so that it would prevent any direct intervention from the police in this case.”