I HAVE been following the parking meter debate with great interest. We have heard two major justifications for the project. First, there is the argument in favour of revenue-collection for the use of public resources; that for too long citizens have been getting away with not paying for services which people across the world routinely pay for.
The second argument which has popped up this past week has to do with the modernisation of Guyana—bringing the country into the technological cutting-edge. On the face of it, those are very forceful arguments. Who would not want to be on the side of modernisation or would advocate that citizens get a perpetual free ride, especially in a country that is cash-strapped?
But I think those who are opposed to the parking meters are raising larger questions which are equally important. First, they are raising the question of accountability—why not talk this project through with the citizens to get their take on its feasibility? After all, it is their lives that are going to be most affected by this decision. It was our own Arthur Lewis, St Lucia’s Nobel Prize economist, who defined democracy as the substantive process whereby those who are most affected by a decision should be guaranteed opportunities to influence its determination.
From everything we have learned, the decision to go down the road with this project was taken by a small subset of the City Councillors. So, there was not even proper consultation within the council itself and, more critically, with the wider community. The matter was brought into the open by Councillor Sherrod Duncan, whose opposition to the project is primarily grounded in the undemocratic manner in which the decision was arrived at.
What Duncan exposed was something that has become a cancer in our political culture. Politicians from our independence to now have shown great disrespect for this aspect of democratic governance and for the citizens at large—it took root under the Burnham-Hoyte government and escalated under the PPP government which followed. The current government came to office with the expressed intention to correct that problem, but from everything we have witnessed thus far, it has settled into that seemingly seductive mode of governance.
I do not for one moment believe that the city government is acting outside of the larger agenda of the coalition that is in power. The President and the subject minister have hinted that the process must be transparent, that central government would not encourage lawlessness. Yet, there has not been a pause to allow for more inputs from the citizenry. To the contrary, the Council seems to have become much more decisive about its power to implement the project against the will of at least a vocal segment of the community.
It is in this context that Friday’s protest and counter-protest on Regent Street must be seen. Citizens across the political spectrum took to the streets to make known their opposition to the way the project was handled and to its feasibility in the first place. When authority closes doors to consultation and compromise on important socio-political matters, those affected are left with the only weapon in their hands—protest and resistance.
I refuse to believe that the authorities didn’t see the protest coming—they had to know that there was going to be some form of demonstrated push-back. But, in true Guyanese governance-culture, they chose to ignore it. That has been the way of power in Guyana—total disregard for protest, including when it comes from the government’s constituents. After all, those in power always have resort to the force of the State or to loyal enforcers who often act with the protection of the State.
I have been in Guyanese politics long enough to know how menacing it is to show up for a protest and be confronted by the police and government hecklers who are now self-styled counter-protestors. As I watched pictures and videos of the counter-protestors yelling their support of the Council’s actions and hurling insults at the protesters, my mind raced back to the days of old and not so old.
We saw the mayor out there making the case for the project, but not for one moment did she address the central question posed by the demonstrators—have you properly consulted with the people? Instead, she resorted to name calling and otherization, referring to the demonstrators as a few “high-class” people. Others on her side also got into the act of “othering” the protestors as PPP which is the code for betrayal.
There is larger danger in this development—the arrogance of power. The mayor and her councillors who descend into name-calling are doing so with the full protection and force of the State—they are institutionalising the branding of citizens in negative terms. When government starts to label those who oppose its action as outside of the norm, it is paving the way for the State to act against them.
It is not true that it is only “high-class” citizens who oppose the parking meters and turned out for the protest on Friday—there were many “low-class” people there too. Even if “low-class” people are not directly affected by the parking meters, they are bound to see it as part of the larger package of government impositions. And what is worse for the governing side, many of the protestors are supporters of the government—some of them openly vowed not to vote for the coalition again.
Are the leaders watching and listening? Sometimes I wonder if they care. Why are you fighting against those who voted you into power? I know citizens are invariably wary of changes, but that instinct arises from the manner in which change has invariably been shoved down their throats. I have said before if you only sit down and reason with people, a lot of the suspicion would subside. Activists do it every day—we “rap” with people at their level and hear their raw emotions. Why is the City Government and by extension the central Government so hard-ears? Put the project on pause and reason with your people.
I have not dealt with the issue of Corporate Capitalism which is all over this project—the company appears set to make a killing if the thing succeeds. But that is another column by itself. For now, I plead with the authorities to get off that arrogant trip you are on and “rap” to your people with love and respect—you will need their votes in 2020 and their wisdom and energy to sustain Guyana.
More of Dr. Hinds’ writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org