Let the people protest peacefully
Residents of Salisbury clashed with police last week Monday when dozens of men, women and children blocked the Edward Oliver LeBlanc highway to draw attention to the condition of feeder roads in the area. The police eventually used tear gas to disperse what officers called "an unlawful gathering"; but the opposition has opined that the people were exercising their right to protest. A few days later, workers of the Public Works Department blocked the gate to their offices to force management to pay long outstanding salaries and wages. Last Friday morning the board of Public Works met with the protesting workers to discuss the problem.
Over the past few years Dominicans have used that method of protest, blocking roads, to draw attention to their plight. And it is apparently working.
Recall that a few years ago residents of the Kalinago Territory and Calibishie displayed their Tiananmen Square version of people power when they blocked major roads with old vehicles, fallen trees, debris and whatever else they could find. In the case of the Territory, the Kalinago people were dissatisfied with the delay in the implementation of a project to upgrade a playing field in the area.
In Calibishie, the people were demanding that government pays urgent attention to the dilapidated conditions of a major road.
The population has noted that in both cases the people received immediate attention from the Roosevelt Skerrit administration. Because of these protests, work on the playing field in the Kalinago Territory began immediately afterwards; on the same day of the Calibishie protest several ministers of Cabinet, but not their parliamentary representative, met with the protestors.
Five years ago the people of Layou blocked the Portsmouth highway and forced the government and road contractor Jacques Gaddarkhan to re-evaluate their decision to construct an asphalt plant in the area as well as the continuation of quarrying in the Layou River. Nonetheless, a few months later Gaddarkhan received permission from the Planning Department to erect the plant in spite of the people's concern.
But these are not the only communities where residents have mounted protests because of dissatisfaction with the implementation of major infrastructural programmes. In 2009 residents of three other communities-Anse de Mai, Stockfarm and Coulibistrie- displayed their anger by blocking roads, causing major disruption of traffic. In the case of villagers of Anse de Mai, who were dissatisfied with the quality of their water supply, their protest action brought immediate and positive response from the government. About one week after the Anse de Mai protests, the residents of Stockfarm near Goodwill also blocked roads in their community. This time the people were unhappy with the deep pot holes in the roads of the area. Government also promised to alleviate their problems although the police, fearing that protests were mushrooming out of control, threatened other copy-cat communities with arrests and prosecution.
But it appeared that the people of Coulibistrie were not frightened by threats of jail time. A few days after the police made the threats, the people of that community also blocked the main highway from Portsmouth. They were apparently dissatisfied with plans by an American investor to begin quarrying operations in the village. This time the Special Security Unit of the police service was out in full force; the protest action was curtailed and a few protesters were arrested.
These protests, and threats of protests, appear to be a symptom of a very serious malady in Dominican society. After many years of behaving as if they cared very little about the economic and social environment in which they live, it seems that the valves which contained the public's dissatisfaction has suddenly collapsed.
When large numbers of people are unemployed and are therefore unable to meet their basic needs, they must feel a sense of estrangement, alienation and frustration. A sense of hopelessness now pervades Dominican society as the problems of a stagnant economy, caused by the world's economy but also by years of ineffective planning and implementation, on the local level, begins to bite.
Protests, therefore, seem to be an effective way of showing dissatisfaction and to draw attention to their plight, especially since government seems to be significantly over-reactive to public demonstrations.
But we warn that the use of force and the unfair manipulation of the process of obtaining permission to demonstrate are undemocratic. The right to protest is a human right arising out of a number of recognized human rights. The right to freedom of assembly includes the right to protest although no human rights instrument or national constitution grants the absolute right to protest. However, protest is a manifestation of the right to freedom of assembly, the right to freedom of association, and the right to freedom of speech.
Now, we expect some persons to argue that the unauthorized blocking of roads are not peaceful demonstrations and that force is necessary to quell these potentially dangerous situations. But it takes one incident for a peaceful protest to become Tiananmen Square type disaster in Dominica.
The point we wish to stress is that at the moment Dominica is precariously positioned, both economically and socially. The volatile situation is compounded by the hangover from the extremely divisive, general election campaign of December 2014. We, therefore, urge the law enforcement authorities to avoid, as much as possible, any impression that they are colluding with the Government in reducing the public's demonstration of dissatisfaction.
They must let the people protest peacefully.