Last Sunday night, two men were beaten in Canal #1 Polder, West Bank Demerara (WBD) by residents of the community, who claimed the men had stolen two rear-view mirrors. Immediately following this incident, there was a public outcry precipitated by media reports that insisted the action was “racist vigilantism”, since the men beaten were African Guyanese and the residents who had administered the beating were Indian Guyanese. At the time, the Police announced they were investigating the incident.
Only a month ago, three individuals, one an AFC Councillor, had beaten and killed another person accused of snatching a handbag. All the persons involved in this incident were Indian Guyanese, and there was no accusation of “racism”. Last August, there was the shooting death of one African Guyanese youth and the beating of another at Pearl Public Road, EBD by vigilantes who claimed the victims were “bandits”. There was no accusation of racism. Two days before, two African Guyanese persons has been severely beaten by residents of South Ruimveldt, who also claimed the victims were bandits. No claim of racism was made.
Leaders from both sides of the political spectrum were outspoken in their condemnation of those acts of vigilantism, and announced ‘zero tolerance’ for ‘vigilante justice’.
In a statement issued on Tuesday evening, the Ministry of Social Cohesion acknowledged the seriousness of those reports of “vigilantism”, but urged that they be thoroughly investigated. The Ministry was also quick to reiterate the position stated by President David Granger – that while citizens have a right to protect themselves and properties, this protection must be done through Community Policing Groups. Vigilantism, especially when it results in injury or death, will not be tolerated, it has been emphasised.
However, several other public officials were unfortunately quick to make irresponsible and incendiary comments. One especially reprehensible comment was from, of all persons, the Director of Public Information, who asked, while referring to the Canal, incident: “What is the origin of this volatile hatred?” And answered his own question: “When national leaders – political, religious and others – stoke ethnic fear, hatred and insecurity, there are consequences.”
In light of the coded language, which most Guyanese are only too aware of, no one could miss the insinuation that the PPP was responsible for creating a “racist” mindset, since Canal is predominantly an “Indian” area.
Another Government official, on his Facebook page, came to a similar conclusion – that the incident was “racially” directed – without waiting for the police to pronounce, and without considering the Canal incident as the unfortunate reaction from communities that have been subjected to depredations from bandits with no respite in sight.
Only the week before, there was a well-publicised armed robbery in the Canal area. The Police statement, issued the very next day, rejected a racist or vigilante motive, and said, “It is not the first time that persons who are suspected of having committed an offence invoked the wrath of members of the public; and while we frown and warn against these behaviours as being unacceptable, the reality is that one cannot necessarily immediately determine what a spontaneous action will be.”
The Police statement also pointed out that the Indian Guyanese man who claimed his rear view mirrors were stolen had initially complained to the African Guyanese GDF soldier who reside in Canal with his Indian wife, and whose home the beaten men had visited by accompanying his brother-in-law. The soldier’s statement destroyed the “alibi” of the beaten men, in their words.
There has been talk, ad nauseum by the Government, about deepening Social Cohesion and plans to foster a peaceful environment; but Government officials are yet allowed to stoke racial divisions with no sanctions applied. There needs to be “leadership by example” if Social Cohesion is to ever materialise.
Members of the public have understandably become concerned and frightened for their lives and safety. We cannot hide from the fact that there are numerous reports of violent crimes and robberies. While we have to condemn “vigilante justice”, let us not inflame our already delicate ethnic cleavages.