Student activism is one of the phenomena which repressive governments fear most, one of the reasons being that in many cases the students are the children and the grandchildren of people who support these repressive governments, or may actually be functionaries in that government.
We are not saying that the United Democratic Party (UDP) government is a repressive government. We do know that theirs is a corrupt government. It does appear to be the case, however, that there are things happening frequently on the domestic law enforcement and security landscape which are in brutal violation of basic human rights.
There is a definite divide in Belize between those young people who go on to tertiary education and those who have to enter the streets as young teenagers. We are talking about children who are contemporaries, children who may even be neighbors, or actual relatives. Belize is a small place, but the socio-economic differences between contemporary children usually become manifest during the high school years, when half of our children are not enrolled in secondary schools. In fact, there are children in certain neighborhoods whom mainstream society begins to lose, so to speak, from ages when the large majority of their generations are in primary school.
Since all our children are Belizeans, and therefore must be considered Belizean assets, in the sense that we know that all these children have some special gifts and talents because they are made in the image and likeness of God, as it is said, this newspaper has always, over the entire course of our 48 years of existence, stridently campaigned for sports programs which are inclusive of all the children of any specific generation.
It was one of the few beautiful things about colonial British Honduras that our native people competed against each other across class and color lines in cricket, football, boxing, track and field, basketball and so on. Those children who would be streamed into clerical directions which landed them in the civil service competed against children who would work in manual activities, such as at the sawmill and the waterfront. The different classes and colors of our children learned to mingle with each other and to respect each other.
In Belize today, that is not the case, and it has not been the case since independence. Student youth and street youth in urban areas live two different lives. It is the street youth who know of the repressive nature of our law enforcement and security forces because they have experienced that repression. When Police Minister Sedi Elrington called a hasty press conference on Wednesday afternoon to address the spontaneous, angry demonstration earlier in the afternoon by a group of 70 to 90 St. John’s College Junior College (SJCJC) students, he said that he had no reason to believe that the Gang Suppression Unit (GSU) had acted improperly in the matter of 17-year-old student Kelvin Usher’s disappearance since Sunday, September 24, 2017. We would venture to say that, where Belize City street youth, for their part, are concerned, they have few experiences with the GSU where the GSU has acted otherwise than improperly.
It was, nevertheless, not the street youth of the Southside who took to the streets to protest on Wednesday afternoon. It was their protected, even pampered student youth contemporaries from a prestigious Northside tertiary institution, and this was a sensational development. The demonstration presented unique challenges for the law enforcement and security forces because this protest was taking place in broad daylight, many and varied cameras were around, and, most important, these were not street youth. These were not youth who could be targeted, manhandled, abused, intimidated, tortured, beaten, locked down for days, and so on and so forth with impunity.
The SJCJC students reacted because it was one of their own, a 17-year-old economics student at the institution, who had disappeared for days while a feeling was growing that the GSU had something to do with it. The disappeared Kelvin Usher was, then, a Northside student but he had Southside roots. On Tuesday morning, youth of the Southside took to the bush to search for him in the area of Lucky Strike on the Old Northern Highway, and on Wednesday afternoon Kelvin’s Northside youth colleagues caught the fever: they began to march in the old capital streets.
Police Minister Elrington, who is also Belize’s embattled Foreign Minister, has been making a point for years of attacking “the media” as some hostile entity which is causing problems in Belize. The reality is that amongst the Belizean media workers on the ground, a unique amount of cooperation has evolved. This has nothing to do with the owners of the various media houses, who have business reasons for wanting competition instead of cooperation.
How cooperation amongst Belize’s working journalists evolved, this newspaper cannot say. We have noticed over the years, however, that Prime Minister, the Right Hon. Dean Barrow, deliberately created a repressive atmosphere at the Biltmore Hotel press conferences he used to be in the habit of holding. He would pack the audiences in the Biltmore conference room with his Cabinet Ministers, his senior public officers, his political/business cronies, his security detail, and even some of his street UDP muscle. Members of the working media who dared to ask questions at those events were made to feel isolated, alien, and inadequate, while the Maximum Leader lorded over things in all his embroidered rhetorical and pregnantly gesticulating glory. We don’t know that it was the Prime Minister who drove the Belizean media into teamwork. All we’re saying is that when people experience a common repression, sometimes that results in functional teamwork among the repressed.
It is conclusively proven, we would argue, that Belize’s parliamentary democracy has a systemic problem. Under our first-past-the post system, as it is sometimes described, political parties which become consolidated in office inevitably become arrogant and corrupt, threateningly and dangerously so. After the people of Belize first achieved a change of government in the modern political era, from the People’s United Party (PUP) to the UDP in 1984, the people of Belize then proceeded to change governments in three consecutive general elections thereafter.
In 2004, the people of Belize discovered that we had made a mistake in re-electing the 1998 PUP government to office in March of 2003. And, in March of 2012, the people of Belize almost threw the Barrow UDP out of office after a single term. The UDP, however, went on to win an unprecedented (in the post-independence era) third consecutive term in November of 2015. The news on Belize’s political front has not been good since then.
The proportional representation system avoids such problems as we have experienced since we began giving political parties a second and third consecutive term. Proportional representation would enable us to change arrogant and corrupt political parties at any time during their term of office.
For now, the proportional representation discussion may be merely an academic debate. But if the students of Belize, those of our young people who have been trained to read and think, ever become really organized and activist, the bogus politicians who now rule the day would begin to quake in their boots. That is because the politicians’ repressive law enforcement and security forces are trained only to beat down the bodies of the street youth. The law enforcement and security personnel are not trained to deal with the sharp minds of the students.
Wednesday’s student leaders were threatening on camera to return to the streets. You can now assume that the Government of Belize will bring maximum pressure on the St. John’s College administration to prevent any repeat of Wednesday afternoon. On Wednesday afternoon, there were people in authority who may have been caught off guard.
The newspaper is proud of Wednesday afternoon’s students. We are very proud. You stood for justice in the streets, young brothers and sisters. You made a statement. You made a mark.
Power to the people.