Occupy Georgetown is now entering its third week. Whilst the first week was free of police harassment this changed last week. First the police came to the camp dismantling a day tent and demanding the occupiers leave. They brought prisoners to help them dismantle the tents but the people remained steadfast despite having to spend the night on cardboard sheets under the Guyanese stars. Then the police attempted to erect a fence around the camp presumably to prevent people from entering and or leaving. Nonetheless the occupy spirit is gaining ground. The People’s Parliament has been set up stating”
The People’s Parliament aims to engage Guyanese of all backgrounds in a collective public interrogation of the Guyanese condition and dialogue in order to identify real, substantive, long term solutions to the numerous problems plaguing our land. The Linden crisis highlights multiple failures in Guyanese society- from police brutality, repression of freedom of speech, poverty and unemployment, to lack of State accountability, racism, corruption, and repression of dissent- Guyanese people have no holiday from problems……………
The People’s Parliament is a 24hrs occupation of time, space, and consciousness. It is a re-imagining of what Guyanese society could be like. It is a gathering of people from various backgrounds, ethnicities, talents, and opinions. For over a week, the participants have been staking a space in public where all individuals and voices are equally welcomed- university professors, writers, lawyers, the unemployed, mothers, and youth.
We are inspired by the action of the people of Linden and committed to spreading the Linden example of transformative, collaborative social action across Guyana. We have started a public discourse and stimulated dialogue on a number of issues. We are an example of peaceful, positive action even in the face of fear and intimidation. As we move forward, we are committed to continuing to occupy a space in which we can further engage our Guyanese brothers and sisters in this envisioning and creation of our new Guyanese future. We invite you to join us- High Street, between Brickdam and Hadfield Streets.
Now there is a solid core of supporters beyond the initial few women. The camp operates through collective decision making with the main focus being
to change hearts, minds and consciousness, to empower people so that they can transform their lives, society and country.
This week the occupiers will be “exploring a variety of creative strategies- public speakers, movie night, drama, know your rights training, ‘translating’ constitution”
A week ago I interviewed three of the women who began the OccupyGT movement [Sherlina Nageer, Charlene Wilkinson and Joyce Marcus of Red Thread] They discuss how they came together, the challenges they face as a movement and their short and long term priorities.
SE: What is the present situation with the Occupy GT and in Linden?
SN: We just celebrated one week occupation [last wed] and we have been reflecting and planning for the coming week. It is an interesting space that we are in. Last week the people of Linden signed an agreement with the government asking for land reform, a committee to control physical resources, a formal investigation into unemployment and poverty situation and an investigation into the killings. The larger issues of police brutality and poverty still remain and this will be the occupation’s focus.
Immediately the agreement was signed everything in Linden returned to ‘normal’ but the feeling is, there isn’t a consensus on the signing of the agreement. What will happen now depends on how much the government lives up to its promises and people will be watching.
SE: I understand the Occupy GT is predominately a women’s occupation?
SN: The core group who initiated the action were all women though there was input from men activists and both are participating in the occupation. The response from the public has been mixed. Those that have interacted with the group appreciative and support the Occupy objectives.
Getting folks to join us has been a little bit more of a challenge. We have to remember that nothing like this has been done before in Guyana. People are used to picketing for a couple of hours but this kind of sustained public action is very new and takes getting used too. Another challenge is that many people think the issue is strictly about Linden so they think we are from Linden and that we are the families of the men who were killed and injured. So if they are not from Linden they do not feel invested in the action.
SE: What is strategy for the coming weeks?
SN: Its been a week. We have been trying to reeducate a lot of misinformation and engage in active outreach and more active media engagement going forward. So the focus is on what we want and so we will see how that plays out.
SE: How much did the existence of a strong women’s organizational base [Red Thread] influence the decision to create the occupyGT and the Peoples Parliament?
SN: Without Red Thread’s involvement we would not have been able to do this. We are dealing with grassroots women who have to work, take care of children and family members. Life is hard as it is but they have been there. Our capacity has been stretched to the limit but they understand the issues so that is a great help. So without Red Thread there would be no Occupy movement. Red Thread has been around for years and they are known for being progressive and having a radical politics.
SE: Can you give us some background on how the Occupy GT movement began?
CW: The idea started in my living room but I knew I could not do it alone, I did not have the courage for that. There was no other organization for Sherlina and I to approach except Red Thread. So we approached them and without hesitation they agreed. They had experience of one of their members going on hunger strike during an escalation of violence and they have a history with the Walter Rodney movement.
SE: How long did it take to get started?
CW: It took some time for us to get out there – well 4/5 weeks . It is unfortunate that we have come to this crisis but it is due to a lack of dialogue by the government . All of us have to learn but if you are in power and control all the resources and institutions in the country and you don’t have what it takes to dialogue with the people that is one of the most dangerous situations.
SE: What would you say are the key issue of concern to the Occupy movement.
CW: Building our numbers – can we build this into a mass movement given the current fear by the Guyanese people after years of state sponsored violence, after decades of state violence.
I am thinking that since the police and joint services are still occupying Linden like a police state, we will hold our occupation until that occupation ends. There are some harder issues. We have to consider seriously, the removal or dismissal of the Home Affairs minister responsible for the killings. Also charging the officers who carried out the murders. These are the issues we think are dire. The country can never become a normal state with the Home Affairs minister in place and the police who have murdered. There is a long history of state sponsored violence in Guyana but the violence which took place in Linden is on a different level. This has not happened in a way before, so blatant
SE: So the Difference with Linden is that they didn’t even bother to cover it up but just acted with open disregard for the people of the town.?
CW: Absolutely but we suspect it was planned.
SE: People are afraid but at the same time it is inspiring that there are people like yourselves who are willing to stand up and speak out despite the ramifications to you personally. Surely this will encourage more people to speak out?
CW: Yes this is so but this is part of our crisis. The people who matter in terms of having influence have not been coming out in numbers. So the few have been punished.
Joyce Marcus [Red Thread]
SE: Charlene has spoken of the importance of Red Thread’s support of the OccupyGT movement. What were the reasons behind your immediate and unequivocal support?
JM: Red Thread [RT] is a grassroots women’s organisation and we have been working with women ever since we began in 1986. Our aim is to transform the lives of poor people especially women. The issues behind the occupation are the same issues which RT have been working against for many years. We have three priorities around which we work, which are critical to the rights of poor people. One, campaign for affordable access to living and affordable access to services. Two, work against all forms of violence and three, work with grassroots people to gain a political voice.
And so the issue of what happened in Linden we could see the priorities are similar to those we at Red Thread have been working on. Besides what happened in Linden on July 18th, we know there are other problems. That is not the core problem for example leading up to the protest and killings, poor people do not have access to a living income, access to services and so when the government decided that it would increase the price of electricity and Linden responded by protesting, we understood this completely. You cannot ask a town like Linden which has a 70% unemployment to pay this sum of money. Also some of us from RD belong to Linden with family still living there. Since we have been campaigning around the poor economic situation of people in Guyana and also against all forms of violence, the Occupation fit right into that.
Right after people were shot in Linden we organised daily pickets and night vigils. The actual decision to support the Occupy movement was then easy because we had thought about organsing an occupy movement before. So when Sherlina and Charlene came to us we say yes.
SE: Can I just take you back as I want to try to understand and I think readers might wish to know, why is there such a high unemployment rate in a region as resource rich as Linden – the economic backbone of Guyana?
JM: Part of the problem is management but what the government has been doing is privatizing everything we own. When they privatize they end up getting a lesser percentage of the income. Then the private companies will always call the shots – how much the minerals are worth and they decide how many they will employ. That is they have the advantage and are always gaining more. Our government just seems to go along with it without being concerned as to how this affects the communities. They don’t stand up to the companies and say, this belongs to us and so bargain in a way that is beneficial to the country and not just a few people.
SE: So where do you go from here?
JM: The whole Linden issue is just part of a bigger problem – you know the protests and killings. Often times people feel they have no rights and don’t know the power they have, they just tend to take what comes to them and only a few stand up. We hope with this we will be able to create a people’s parliament to open the way for people to come and be able to talk about the issues affecting them. To share their ideas of what they think. If we can get more people to become aware even if its not their direct concern, but still be aware that what happens affects us all. We want to see whether we can create a situation where everyone would want to say, listen this cannot continue and we have to stop it and know that we are the ones that have the power and not the politicians. That they are there to serve us and cannot do what they feel like without first consulting us.
We dont expect to be here forever but we need to build that momentum to create that kind of situation.
SE: Then really a great deal of your work over the next few weeks will be around education and outreach?
SE: Sherlina mentioned the lack of capacity is a huge challenge, how do you think you can overcome this?
JM: I would say that we are really trying because when we started there were just four of us. What we have built in a week is that those who are committed to staying at the Occupy camp at night are not people we have met before but have understood what we are doing and have made a commitment to that. So I would say that we have grown not very large , but a step forward. We hope in two weeks we will grow some more but we need to do more work at community level.
SE: What about students from the university – have they been supportive?
JM: You see what we were hoping at the beginning was that people would see the need to come with us freely but we would approach the university and other individuals. But to be truthful we do not have enough organizations that would come out in support. We have a whole lot of NGOs but it is not their thing. But we are confident in moving forward.