By Sokari Ekine |with
thanks to Blacklooks
Sunday, September 16, 2012.
is now entering its third week. Whilst the first week was free of police
harassment this changed last week. First the police came to the camp
dismantling a day tent and demanding the occupiers leave. They brought
prisoners to help them dismantle the tents but the people remained steadfast
despite having to spend the night on cardboard sheets under the Guyanese stars.
Then the police attempted to erect a fence around the camp presumably to
prevent people from entering and or leaving. Nonetheless the Occupy spirit is
gaining ground. The People’s Parliament has been set up stating”
The People’s Parliament aims to engage Guyanese of
all backgrounds in a collective public interrogation of the Guyanese condition
and dialogue in order to identify real, substantive, long term solutions to the
numerous problems plaguing our land. The Linden crisis highlights multiple
failures in Guyanese society- from police brutality, repression of freedom of
speech, poverty and unemployment, to lack of State accountability, racism,
corruption, and repression of dissent- Guyanese people have no holiday from
The People’s Parliament is a 24hrs occupation of
time, space, and consciousness. It is a re-imagining of what Guyanese society
could be like. It is a gathering of people from various backgrounds,
ethnicities, talents, and opinions. For over a week, the participants have been
staking a space in public where all individuals and voices are equally
welcomed- university professors, writers, lawyers, the unemployed, mothers, and
We are inspired by the action of the people of
Linden and committed to spreading the Linden example of transformative,
collaborative social action across Guyana. We have started a public discourse
and stimulated dialogue on a number of issues. We are an example of peaceful,
positive action even in the face of fear and intimidation. As we move forward,
we are committed to continuing to occupy a space in which we can further engage
our Guyanese brothers and sisters in this envisioning and creation of our new
Guyanese future. We invite you to join us- High Street, between Brickdam and
Now there is a solid core of
supporters beyond the initial few women. The camp operates through collective
decision making with the main focus being: “to change hearts, minds and
consciousness, to empower people so that they can transform their lives,
society and country.”
This week the occupiers will be “exploring
a variety of creative strategies- public speakers, movie night, drama, know
your rights training, ‘translating’ constitution”
A week ago I interviewed three of
the women who began the Occupy GT movement [Sherlina Nageer, Charlene Wilkinson
and Joyce Marcus of Red Thread] They discuss how they came together, the
challenges they face as a movement and their short and long term priorities.
SE (Sokari Ekine):
What is the present situation with the Occupy GT and in Linden?
SN: We just celebrated one week
occupation [last wed] and we have been reflecting and planning for the coming
week. It is an interesting space that we are in. Last week the people of Linden
signed an agreement with the government asking for land reform, a committee to
control physical resources, a formal investigation into unemployment and
poverty situation and an investigation into the killings. The larger issues of police
brutality and poverty still remain and this will be the occupation’s focus.
Immediately the agreement was
signed everything in Linden returned to ‘normal’ but the feeling is, there
isn’t a consensus on the signing of the agreement. What will happen now depends
on how much the government lives up to its promises and people will be
SE: I understand the
Occupy GT is predominately a women’s occupation?
SN: The core group who initiated
the action were all women though there was input from men activists and both
are participating in the occupation. The response from the public has been
mixed. Those that have interacted with the group appreciative and support the
Getting folks to join us has been
a little bit more of a challenge. We have to remember that nothing like this
has been done before in Guyana. People are used to picketing for a couple of
hours but this kind of sustained public action is very new and takes getting
used too. Another challenge is that many people think the issue is strictly
about Linden so they think we are from Linden and that we are the families of
the men who were killed and injured. So if they are not from Linden they do not
feel invested in the action.
SE: What is strategy
for the coming weeks?
SN: It’s been a week. We have
been trying to re-educate a lot of misinformation and engage in active outreach
and more active media engagement going forward. So the focus is on what we want
and so we will see how that plays out.
SE: How much did the
existence of a strong women’s organizational base [Red Thread] influence the
decision to create the Occupy GT and the Peoples Parliament?
SN: Without Red Thread’s
involvement we would not have been able to do this. We are dealing with
grassroots women who have to work, take care of children and family members.
Life is hard as it is but they have been there. Our capacity has been stretched
to the limit but they understand the issues so that is a great help. So without
Red Thread there would be no Occupy movement. Red Thread has been around for
years and they are known for being progressive and having a radical politics.
(CW) Charlene Wilkinson
SE: Can you give us
some background on how the Occupy GT movement began?
CW: The idea started in my living
room but I knew I could not do it alone, I did not have the courage for that.
There was no other organization for Sherlina and I to approach except Red
Thread. So we approached them and without hesitation they agreed. They had
experience of one of their members going on hunger strike during an escalation
of violence and they have a history with the Walter Rodney movement.
SE: How long did it
take to get started?
CW: It took some time for us to
get out there – well 4/5 weeks . It is unfortunate that we have come to this
crisis but it is due to a lack of dialogue by the government . All of us have
to learn but if you are in power and control all the resources and institutions
in the country and you don’t have what it takes to dialogue with the people
that is one of the most dangerous situations.
SE: What would you say
are the key issue of concern to the Occupy movement.
CW: Building our numbers – can we
build this into a mass movement given the current fear by the Guyanese people
after years of state sponsored violence, after decades of state violence.
I am thinking that since the
police and joint services are still occupying Linden like a police state, we
will hold our occupation until that occupation ends. There are some harder
issues. We have to consider seriously, the removal or dismissal of the Home
Affairs minister responsible for the killings. Also charging the officers who
carried out the murders. These are the issues we think are dire. The country
can never become a normal state with the Home Affairs minister in place and the
police who have murdered. There is a long history of state sponsored violence
in Guyana but the violence which took place in Linden is on a different level.
This has not happened in a way before, so blatant
SE: So the Difference
with Linden is that they didn’t even bother to cover it up but just acted with
open disregard for the people of the town.?
CW: Absolutely but we suspect it
SE: People are afraid
but at the same time it is inspiring that there are people like yourselves who
are willing to stand up and speak out despite the ramifications to you
personally. Surely this will encourage more people to speak out?
CW: Yes this is so but this is
part of our crisis. The people who matter in terms of having influence have not
been coming out in numbers. So the few have been punished.
Marcus [Red Thread]
SE: Charlene has
spoken of the importance of Red Thread’s support of the OccupyGT movement. What
were the reasons behind your immediate and unequivocal support?
JM: Red Thread [RT] is a
grassroots women’s organisation and we have been working with women ever since
we began in 1986. Our aim is to transform the lives of poor people especially
women. The issues behind the occupation are the same issues which RT have been
working against for many years. We have three priorities around which we work,
which are critical to the rights of poor people. One, campaign for affordable
access to living and affordable access to services. Two, work against all forms
of violence and three, work with grassroots people to gain a political voice.
And so the issue of what happened
in Linden we could see the priorities are similar to those we at Red Thread
have been working on. Besides what happened in Linden on July 18th, we know
there are other problems. That is not the core problem for example leading up to
the protest and killings, poor people do not have access to a living income,
access to services and so when the government decided that it would increase
the price of electricity and Linden responded by protesting, we understood this
completely. You cannot ask a town like Linden which has a 70% unemployment to
pay this sum of money. Also some of us from RD belong to Linden with family
still living there. Since we have been campaigning around the poor economic
situation of people in Guyana and also against all forms of violence, the
Occupation fit right into that.
Right after people were shot in
Linden we organised daily pickets and night vigils. The actual decision to
support the Occupy movement was then easy because we had thought about
organsing an Occupy movement before. So when Sherlina and Charlene came to us
we say yes.
SE: Can I just take
you back as I want to try to understand and I think readers might wish to know,
why is there such a high unemployment rate in a region as resource rich as
Linden – the economic backbone of Guyana?
JM: Part of the problem is
management but what the government has been doing is privatizing everything we
own. When they privatize they end up getting a lesser percentage of the income.
Then the private companies will always call the shots – how much the minerals
are worth and they decide how many they will employ. That is they have the
advantage and are always gaining more. Our government just seems to go along
with it without being concerned as to how this affects the communities. They
don’t stand up to the companies and say, this belongs to us and so bargain in a
way that is beneficial to the country and not just a few people.
SE: So where do you
go from here?
JM: The whole Linden issue is
just part of a bigger problem – you know the protests and killings. Often times
people feel they have no rights and don’t know the power they have, they just
tend to take what comes to them and only a few stand up. We hope with this we
will be able to create a people’s parliament to open the way for people to come
and be able to talk about the issues affecting them. To share their ideas of
what they think. If we can get more people to become aware even if its not
their direct concern, but still be aware that what happens affects us all. We
want to see whether we can create a situation where everyone would want to say,
listen this cannot continue and we have to stop it and know that we are the
ones that have the power and not the politicians. That they are there to serve
us and cannot do what they feel like without first consulting us.
We don’t expect to be here
forever but we need to build that momentum to create that kind of situation.
SE: Then really a
great deal of your work over the next few weeks will be around education and
mentioned the lack of capacity is a huge challenge, how do you think you can
JM: I would say that we are
really trying because when we started there were just four of us. What we have
built in a week is that those who are committed to staying at the Occupy camp
at night are not people we have met before but have understood what we are
doing and have made a commitment to that. So I would say that we have grown not
very large , but a step forward. We hope in two weeks we will grow some more
but we need to do more work at community level.
SE: What about
students from the university – have they been supportive?
JM: You see what we were hoping
at the beginning was that people would see the need to come with us freely but
we would approach the university and other individuals. But to be truthful we
do not have enough organizations that would come out in support. We have a
whole lot of NGOs but it is not their thing. But we are confident in moving