I crave your indulgence and understanding as I mark with reverence what is a very special landmark for me, the 50th anniversary of my entry into organized political struggle in St Vincent and the Grenadines. It was in February 1972, that I “made my debut”, joining with a literal handful of eager, committed but idealistic young men to form what we ambitiously christened as the Black Liberation Action Committee (BLAC).
This same week has other, equally important memories for me and implications for our country, but as I revere the occasion, and related ones which followed, perhaps it is only fair for me to answer the question on many lips, “What have you gained by it?” Or your co-revolutionaries for that matter?
Very reasonable questions one might say, but it all depends on one’s perspective. The nature of our politics is such that political organizations, nearly all called “parties”, though most have very little mass participation, are formed with one primary objective, the pursuit of political office. Success is therefore judged on that basis and whether those involved attained positions of power in the state machinery -Ministers of Government, Senators, prominent Board members, and certainly financial rewards.
Sadly, on my report card, and those of the other BLAC pioneers, there are only Fs in this regard. Three of our founders, former President of the national Football Association, Creswell ‘Bobel’ Burke, outstanding calypso veteran Michael ‘Black Messenger’ John and one of our cultural icons, craftsman, drummer and panist Stratford ‘Pico’ Harry, passed away without any of these rewards. Junior ‘Spirit’ Cottle just barely escaped the hangman’s noose and ended serving a lengthy prison sentence. Another of the originals is still incarcerated albeit on an unrelated and personal matter. Yours truly is still around, not financially or politically rewarded, but much the richer because of the experience. It all depends on the yardsticks applied.
When I made the commitment in 1972, our country was in a strange ‘halfway house’ between outright colonial rule and Independence.
It was called Statehood under which we were supposed to be responsible for our internal affairs while Britain kept control of our external arrangements. Our economy was fundamentally based on export agriculture and the plantation economy held sway with the bulk of our fertile lands in the hands of a few families, all except one of European origin. The entire north-east belt, even lands that were supposed to be “Carib territory”, remained under semi-feudal control with the Indigenous people treated like the very “dirt” of the country.
All of the Parliamentarians of the day have passed away, the late Sir James Mitchell being the latest, but very few managed to make any lasting impact on the political stage. Poverty, unemployment and oppression were rampant, our youth could see little future beyond migration with popular local entrepreneur “Ricky” Hillocks’ annual summer excursion to New York providing an escape route, though very limited.
Little wonder then that so many were “young and restless”. In addition, the educational work of the “Forum Boys” and the impact of rising Black Power consciousness in the USA (the Black Panthers, Angela Davis, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King), the 1970 revolt in Trinidad and Tobago, the Walter Rodney affair in Jamaica (1968), and the Sir George William confrontation in Canada (1969), had created a swathe of young people hungry for knowledge and unwilling to accept further oppression. Never in our history had there been such a thirst for knowledge, outside the normal academic channels, and never were our cultural talents so manifest as in that period.
No wonder then that when Margaret, the sister of the current British monarch, Elizabeth ll, came on an official visit to our country, expecting the usual “royal welcome”; what she got was a very “warm welcome” of a different type. This time along with the forced mobilization of the uniformed forces and schoolchildren, a contingent of conscious youth was there, placards proudly lifted, condemning the royal visit, demanding an end to colonial rule and for national independence for our country.
The response was swift, brutal and repressive. Not only were several of the protesters, among them the late Caspar London (YSG), Jim Maloney and Robert ‘Patches King/Knights (OBCA) brutalized and arrested but even Caspar’s sister, then in secondary school, was manhandled and taken into custody. It was another landmark in sparking anti-colonial sentiment. We were on our way and not even the hesitancy of the government nor the backwardness of the parliamentary opposition could hold back the tide of nationalism which culminated in Independence in October 1979.
There are many things more valuable that position and personal monetary reward.
(Next week: COLLECTIVE REWARDS)
Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.