FIFTY-ONE years after Independence, and not 51 hours after national awards were given out, Trinidad and Tobago got a reminder of the tremendous tensions within the society as Beetham residents rose up against the police and the army.
The incident was remarkable because it reminded us how vulnerable the eastern side of Port of Spain (EPOS) is.
Like the Wrightson Road sinkhole and the Sea Lots post-accident backlash, this protest strangled traffic and part of Port of Spain with it, the police and army stymied by the regular replacement of obstacles whenever they moved the roadway debris.
It was also memorable because soldiers and police opened fire in a civilian setting using large calibre automatic weapons.
One officer lobbed a tear gas canister, others appeared to fire in fear to push back the advancing crowd. Many demonstrators were women and youths, and though they were protesting a police shooting, they seemed unafraid of the heavily-armed men standing before them.
As I have pointed out previously, this is not an isolated happenstance. There are specific conditions which have prevailed long enough that what was once a criminal fringe has become a competing society altogether.
The violence we are witnessing is largely coming from this new element in our national make-up, but the overt challenge to law enforcement is demonstrating clearly the qualities of a civilisational clash. If so, expect more protests and for police and soldiers to start killing people. This is what many believe will restore law and order.
I hardly think so, because the causes of crime are complex and so long untreated that violence alone is not going to stop the banditry.
The young men of East Port of Spain, representatives of an underclass present in almost every part of the country, have little other option than to fight. So they will shoot back. The losers are those seeking an honest living, reinforcing the downward cycle of slum life because the only way to survive is to be a criminal.
That this was allowed to happen on the fringes of our capital city is unconscionable.
It is true that urban drift creates shanty towns around many cities, but Port of Spain has stood out, being ignored by successive governments, the leaders of which misunderstood the nature of the problems they would cause if they left things alone or worse, did deals with criminals.
And so Laventille, Morvant, Sea Lots etc were allowed to fail, sociologists’ broken window hypothesis finding much support in their experience.
Our politicians didn’t listen— they used poor people to create garrison constituencies which were then routinely ignored by everyone except for the gang leaders who ran them, and who even today appear to receive lucrative contracts from the State.
The response of the parasitic oligarchy to this unravelling of the peace and order of our young democracy is typical. Ignore it. Express concern but then do nothing.
It is truly wondrous that we can debate higher order issues of interest rates, economic expansion, the availability of statistics, real estate prices and the energy sector with such objectivity while Rome has started to burn.
Politicians, unwilling to hear the truth, point fingers and throw words, saying this is scaremongering.
Go stand in one of those protests and see if you don’t fear for the stability and well-being of our country.
The failure of the political class to address the problem is an indictment on the educated, for we have always been led by the schooled, and they have generally let us down.
We elect humble servants, and are governed by corrupt, arrogant leaders. Indeed, the least offensive PM we have ever had appeared to be the one with the least education.
The malaise imposed on the society by the highly educated is frightening when witnessed in its fullest proportions.
Accountants and auditors in particular have helped lift onto our children’s shoulders the likes of Clico and the HCU.
Lawyers publicly war about their association’s funds. Doctors are viewed in many quarters as mercenary and litigation is increasing (perhaps because there are so many lawyers about).
Academics are not leading the country anywhere, many with a voice selling out for some food and a political blessing. The certificated class has lost itself within itself, gorging on its own flesh, unable to see the danger approaching.
And so the nation drifts, our leaders willing us to look everywhere but at the onrushing train.
We are vulnerable; the many wonderful things about this place threatened by a growing lawless fringe, the willful, corrupt heedlessness of the elite and the learned helplessness of the rest.
Surrounded by tension as parts of the country begin to boil, the unresponsible (a Lloyd Best term for those unaware of their responsibilities to the society) and irresponsible alike face off against a looming threat, a Hector dreading his Achilles.
Still, the political parties play, the elephantine contest excited by the arrival of a new Green Saviour.
While politicians plot, the young man who is going to capsize this place loads his gun.
Unless we stop this madness, his time will come as will our reckoning. Our greatest test is ahead, not behind. And so unless a leader can stand up, the slide accelerates as we race to some hidden edge beyond which lies a questionable plunge. Into darkness we go.
• Rolph Balgobin is an