Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Pre-luminary ‘Karl’ figured in dark days

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Mark Fraser

 In the dim upper reaches of the 1970s, the word “luminary” was either yet to have been invented, or it was still to be attached to its now familiar partner, “legal”. Hooked up today, “legal luminary” prompted itself for characterisation of Karl Hudson-Phillips, who died last week.

 In summation of the career of the late Queen’s Counsel Attorney General Anand Ramlogan supplied the title “Grandmaster”. His soundbite thereby urged that Mr Hudson-Phillips is to law what the Lord Kitchener is to calypso.

Senior Counsel Ramlogan may be understood to know far more about law than he does about calypso. But his appropriation for the high-ranking lawyer of the “grandmaster” appellation marks a leap of faith when proposed to a dissident consciousness left over from historical experiences of the early 1970s.

 Among those who grew up, or came to political adulthood, in those times, the handle “Karl”, on that double-barrelled patrician surname, summoned at least mixed feelings. “Karl” was the headline-handy trigger for troubled emotions shaping implacable attitudes of a turbulent time.

 As I recall it, 1969 marked the end of some era, or the start of something we knew not exactly what. In Lent 1969 T&T radio stations accepted it was all right to continue playing calypsoes.

 Later in that year, as a Sunday Express reporter, I profiled Karl Hudson-Phillips. “Before he was called to the bar in 1955, the Attorney General designate made a living by slithering under a limbo bar in Scandinavia,” I wrote of the man then politically ascendant in the Eric Williams administration.

 T&T’s AG-to-be also told this reporter that, as a student, hitchhiking across Europe, he had worked as a railway porter, a photographer’s model, a dancer, and a waiter. It all sounded like a groovy background to the role, crying out for 1969 reinvention, of the leading lawyer in reigning PNM government and politics.

 My profile piece was illustrated with a black-and-white photograph of a barebacked young black man, with clenched fists, posed to capture, for a magazine cover, the contemporary mood of Africa. In two months, he would assume command of the state’s prosecutorial and other legal apparatus, then being put to test by activists as young, black, and fearless as he looked in that photo taken in Europe. 

It was as Attorney General of an embattled regime that “Karl” would leave an indelible mark on those who were young, black, and “conscious” at the time. The predawn arrests and prosecutions for “desecration”, carried out on his order, in February 1970, provoked the mass demonstration headlined by the Express as “BLACK POWER STUNS THE CITY”.

 T&T continued to be “stunned” all the way to the April 21, 1970 state of emergency, the Regiment mutiny, and the unendingly tumultuous thereafters. It was “Karl” who personalised the iron-fisted response of the Williams administration, then commonly represented as counter-revolutionary and violently repressive.

 Wearing the dark glasses imagined of Haiti’s Tontons Macoutes, he projected as the well-spoken party henchman, overseeing the teargassing and beating of demonstrators, arrests, curfews, detentions, and fatal police shootings. For long, this overrode and preceded any “legal luminary” reputation such as is celebrated today. 

The “Karl” image was further sharpened, as seen through the political and ideological lenses of the Tapia House and sibling movements. It was in Tapia that I learned of his membership in a QRC/Oxbridge 1950s cohort that then prominently included Lloyd Best and Denis Solomon.

“Karl” had figured in a political parting of the ways. His PNM persuasions had been affirmed from his London days, when he worked with an overseas support branch of the party. 

By the early 1970s, when Tapia had acquired its newspaper, Karl Hudson-Phillips was projected as a figure that readers should love to hate.  Presumably drawing upon old inside information, Tapia pieces referred to him sometimes as “Hudson” and sometimes as “Phillips”.

Meanwhile, in an age characterised by sometimes extreme freed-up expression and liberated behaviour, the PNM Attorney General identified himself with the hard-line severities of upholding “public order”. The Public Order Bill, which went out in his name, galvanised opposition to what was seen as an overkill suppression of freedoms of expression, movement, and assembly.

As even the presumably conservative Law Society denounced the then signature legislation of a repressive “Karl”, the government withdrew the Bill. But elements of the “package” were later enacted in Summary Offences legislation amendments requiring police permission even for holding a news conference in a public place. 

To that extent, the “Karl” legacy from the early 1970s survives. He also confirmed, if he did not establish, the tradition persisting today, whereby Attorneys General acquire “silk”, as if it were a perk of office.

It was as a high-performing advocate, after his government days, that Karl Hudson-Phillips lived down the reputation once decried by Tapia as a “bungling, blundering, butcher of the law”. 

In response to Chalkdust’s calypso, claiming to “fraid Karl”, Tapia in February 1972 bannered, “Well, we ent fraid Karl.” To last week, however, he remained an item of front-page news.

 Tapia? It belongs to the ages, if only for lines as trenchant as this in 1972: “We fraid too bad for Karl. “