Gloom prevailed over whatever street lights were operating at the corner of Duncan and Prince Streets, Port of Spain, where five figures, battle-fatigued and combat-equipped, stood on uneasy watch. They occupied the sidewalk short metres north of the three-storey Duncan Street Police Post, officially flagged, signposted, illuminated, and thereby repurposed from the identical “plannings” residential structures all around.
The police post advertises the presence of forces billeted in a hotspot. Here, “police” connotes an expansionary collective. In the newspeak of National Security Minister Gary Griffith, this hotspot infantry comprises the “combined forces harnessed seamlessly through the National Operations Centre”.
On Thursday night, this observer thought he picked up an air of tension at that corner which overlooks the Dry River, and commands the aspect of Mango Rose apartment buildings and the base of Laventille Road. Four nights before, two blocks south and east on St Paul Street, an out-of-uniform Regiment lance corporal had been shot dead.
A relative next day was certain the ambushers had planned their hit on a soldier. Danger to the “combined forces” had at once become real and present. The former Captain Griffith was ready with gun talk: “If it is a war they want, they will get one.”
He thus reaffirmed the currency of the word “war” as the headline experience of these times. Over nearly two decades in T&T, a “war on crime” had been officially declared. The conflict so called has dragged on inconclusively. Then, last month, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar invested afresh in its rhetorical utility by vowing to let slip against criminals “the dogs of war”.
Expect, then, some image of “war” to be generally received, at a time when, around the world, various combatants are not formally uniformed and marshalled as soldiers. Today, however, they may be comparably equipped, and possibly even more highly motivated, but called “fighters” and “militants”.
War, then, may be waged not only between sovereign armed forces but also between them and “irregulars” likely as not commanding resources, that include armed and unarmed propaganda, and means of communication. Such resources in such hands may easily be reckoned above and beyond those conceivably at the disposal of the relatively hand-to-mouth guerrillas from the days, say, of Che Guevara.
In a place like T&T, “war” has come home. And rumours of war merit official consideration before they can be dismissed.
Last week, Mr Griffith’s National Operations Centre officially responded to rumours of war: “There are no threats to any state or other infrastructure, Government or otherwise, and the NOC rejects as nonsense and mischief-mongering any and all rumours to that effect.”
As it turned out last week too, trending rhetoric came evocatively from Fuad Abu Bakr, heir to the T&T 1990 uprising by fighters under the flag of Islam, and led by his father Yasin. (Some people will have noticed that the reputed leader of Boko Haram, the extremist Islamic force now terrorising Nigeria, calls himself Abu Bakar Shegau.)
The 1990 war-making had been funded from abroad. The weapons came in smuggled among imports through the Point Lisas port. In plain sight, members of the group tagged with the present-day call letters “JAM” were rehearsing their battle plans on Mucurapo Road, Port of Spain.
At least according to Colm Imbert, speaking in Parliament last month, however, a 250-member armed “militia” is being raised at Carapo, “posing a threat to the national security”, as he lightly characterised it. That militia, he claimed, is actually being funded by the State under the LifeSport programme, while it also occupies state land.
One week later, the police reported they had found, one mile inside a Diego Martin forest, a firing range and training ground for forces unknown. “Criminals are training themselves” to use high-powered guns, said the police report.
It is, as always, rhetorical open season for representing whatever is going on. Talk is cheaply available for media crowd-sourcing. Indeed, some of the most memorable lines are culled from interviews with (unnamed) interviewees in hotspots, especially when reacting to fatal police shootings of people they knew, or thought they knew.
The police version of such episodes is typically at odds with what people in the area tell the media that they saw, or they knew. Such informants are never speaking for the record; they derive satisfaction from seeing their words in print.
In response to Inspector Mystar’s upholding the shoot-out version of his colleagues, a precious quote was reported literally from crowd-sourcing: “Does he think that an entire community of people will just lie about something like that?”
At this time of “war”, conflicting propagandas bid for public believability. Inspector Mystar will find himself up against rival pressagentry.
Confirming the defining rubric of today’s reality, OWTU president general Ancel Roget, fighting T&TEC’s disciplinary action against his members, declared: “It is simple and it is clear: comrades, we are in war.”
As bulletins of war and rumours of war, police reporting and contradictory crowd-sourcing dominate the headlines.
Repsol’s (unchallenged) report of finding 40 million barrels of oil off Guayaguayare doesn’t rate as a candidate for front-page exposure. Three dailies report that story on pages nine, 15 and 23 respectively.