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Fanning the race flames

By Raffique Shah

 The persons who orchestrated the racist placards that triggered a furore that lingers long after the protest-dust has settled do not belong to any “lunatic fringe”, as some politicians suggest.

They are perfectly sane, albeit devilishly motivated in their evil designs. Anyone with a modicum of sense could discern that the pro-Rowley placards were intended to have the extreme opposite effect—cast the PNM leader as a bigot, as being anti-Indian to the extent that he would display his venom openly, outside Parliament to boot.

In fact, it was more than passing strange that even as the trade unions-led demonstration criss-crossed the streets of Port of Spain, the first pictures of the offensive placards borne by a handful of men clad in red T-shirts were posted on the pro-Government blogs, which was when I saw them.

Imagine, thousands of spirited protestors, PNM members included, merrily and vociferously parading through the city with an array of anti-Government placards, but the only ones circulated, cleverly calculated to draw the ire of all right-thinking citizens, were these vulgar displays.

Immediately, the backlash began: Keith Rowley is a damn racist...we always knew that! What else could you expect from the PNM? And so on they “poked”, as they say in cyber-lingo.

No one paused to consider what, if anything, Rowley stood to gain by such obscene display. Indeed, the simple deduction that he would lose tonnes of goodwill and thousands of potential votes did not register on those who pounced on the PNM leader.

I was not surprised when a man who claimed he was homeless, and he and others had been paid by someone to carry the offensive placards, surfaced on television news. The police are currently investigating the matter, but I doubt they would uncover the full story, most of all who was (or were) behind the plot to fan the race flames.

There is a term used to classify such devious persons, not frequently used, but not unknown to our politics: agent provocateur. It is defined as a person employed to induce others to break the law so that they can be convicted. 

But its definition is broader than that. Agent provocateurs are commonly used to create political mischief, even to have triggered wars. One hundred years ago (on June 28), in the city of Sarajevo, an assassin shot dead Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and his wife. That incident  triggered the First World War that lasted almost five years and resulted in the death of tens of millions of people and the destruction of huge swaths of Europe.

I draw on the Archduke’s assassination merely to illustrate how devastating the actions of agent provocateurs can be. In the instant case, someone or some group of persons seems to have determined that the surest way to neutralise Rowley and the PNM electorally is to paint them as racist.

Who stands to gain in such scenario? The UNC, of course. This is not to say that elements in the UNC might have been behind the placards plot. For all we know, there might be disaffected members of the PNM who do not want to see Rowley emerge as Prime Minister. Or even more sinister, there might be some subversive group intent on fanning the race-flames to keep the population divided-we don’t know.

And we may never know, given the poor record of the police in investigating crimes. In this instance, the information available thus far is that a man clad in a red T-shirt orchestrated the dirty deed. There were thousands such persons in Woodford Square that day, a classic case of looking for a needle in a haystack.

It is not the first time agent provocateurs have been used to stir up mischief here. During the Black Power revolution in 1970, peaceful demonstrations would suddenly turn violent as mysterious persons masquerading as protestors smashed shop windows. Also, against all that the movement stood for, unknown men wearing dashikis would insult or attack Indians.

On the eve of the elections in 1976, when the ULF had attracted significant Afro support in the East-West corridor, a massive motorcade turned nasty when seemingly drunken Indians hurled invectives at Afro supporters who stood along the route. The ULF leaders would learn of this after the fact, and we never found out who the offenders were-but it cost us critical votes.

The police can hardly help in such situations. When huge crowds gather or are on the move, provocateurs find fertile ground for their nefarious activities. Only the masses, if they remain alert to such threats, can avert them. At times, it might be necessary to administer on-the-spot justice to the culprits: a few “caplets” would suffice!

We are in a one-year sprint to a general election that is a battle not just for power, but for survival. Whichever party loses, PNM or UNC, is likely to become irrelevant to the future politics of the country.

As desperate as they may be, the politicians must not be allowed to destroy the fabric of our society in their quest for power. We citizens must detect and reject most forcefully their divisive devices. 

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