By Kieron Murdoch
Oniqua “Nikki” Phillip had just been crushed to death under a mas’ truck, bringing a morbid and sudden end to the jubilation of Last Lap Tuesday on August 2 2016, during Carnival in Antigua. She was 25 years old.
What followed was an attempt by police and defence force auxiliaries at the Antigua Recreation Ground (ARG) and in parts of St John to disperse crowds. So, some of the revellers were gassed.
“All I saw was that the place got real cloudy. Whatever it was it started to burn my eyes. My nose started to run [and] I started to cough so much I could not breathe. I could not see. There was a woman and her child next to me and the child started to cry,” one woman told this reporter the day after, which was a Wednesday. She added, “Whatever it was…it was let off right in front of me.”
The woman, who did not wish to be named at the time, said she and friends were in the area of Stapleton Lane and the Red Cross premises. She said a male police officer dressed in all black fatigues was the last thing she saw before what “sounded like a can” suddenly “dropped on the floor” and gas filled the surrounding air.
On Wednesday, callers to Observer Radio talked about similar occurrences in around ARG and in St John’s. Amazingly, less than 24 hours after the incident, and before any formal inquiry had been started, the Public Safety Minister Steadroy Benjamin told this reporter on August 3 2016, “There is no possibility at all that any police officer at all used tear gas on that occasion. No possibility whatsoever.”
Yet the minister, having seemingly already concluded that tear gas was not specifically used, promised an “investigation” into the incidents reported by people who were affected by some form of crowd control gas or spray or smoke.
His swift conclusion that tear gas was not specifically used was apparently informed by the then Commissioner of Police, Wendel Robinson. It was later revealed that the two had a strained relationship. That revelation came during the saga of Robinson’s removal from that office which began two years later in 2018.
“He [the commissioner] indicated to me quite clearly that there was no necessity to use tear gas on that occasion, and in fact, if it were to be used, it would have to be sanctioned by the police high command. No such order was given,” Benjamin told this reporter on August 3 2016.
The same day, Robinson himself stopped short of concluding tear gas was not used, when he told Observer media, “I have no knowledge that tear gas was used at all and no such instructions were issued.”
The debate around the issue was characterised by numerous individual reports of law enforcement officers releasing gasses or sprays which in some cases left people sneezing, and in others, sent them to the hospital coughing and blinded.
Another woman who spoke to Observer on Wednesday August 4 2016, and would only identify herself as “Peaches”, said she was called to the then Mount St John’s Medical Centre on the Tuesday because her daughter who was at ARG “had an asthma attack” after being affected by some sort of gas. She added that even on the Wednesday night, her daughter “was still crying for eyes and her chest.”
However, the findings of the “investigation” promised by the Public Safety Minister were never made public. Whether such an investigation was ever actually carried out is unclear.
On the Thursday, then Senior Sergeant Frankie Thomas assured Observer it was already being done, suggesting it may have been an internal police fact-finding probe. However, the full nature and scope of the investigation and who did it, were never revealed.
Over the years Benjamin has sometimes promised investigations, the results of which are not made public in writing, nor discussed in public by the those who do the investigations. For example, following the scandalous February 2018 escape of then alleged serial killer, Delano Forbes from police custody, an “astonished” Benjamin told Observer that an “investigation” would be done into the circumstances surrounding the escape and that its findings would be made public.
Conversely, the then Deputy Police Commissioner Atlee Rodney told Observer in February 2018 that the investigation was an “internal” matter. No findings related to what failings transpired were ever made public.
As regards the 2016 Last Lap Tuesday incidents of gassing, no official ever publicly reported on what actually took place. It was never confirmed whether tear gas had been used, or not been used, whether pepper spray had been used, or what form of crowd control substance was deployed by officers in different areas.
As such, the presumption that “tear gas” was used on some people that night has remained with many, fueled by personal accounts of smoke, coughing and eye irritation, and absent any official explanation of what actually transpired.
The then Chief Health Inspector, Lionel Michael, was a guest on Observer Radio on August 5 2016, and said any number of crowd control measures could cause a variety of similar symptoms. He noted that officers deploying tear gas usually need to protect themselves with masks. He could not offer a conclusion on whether tear gas specifically, was used.
The police were criticised by members of the public for using whatever it was officers used in some cases on Last Lap Tuesday 2016 to disperse crowds. Exactly five years later, they are again being criticised for using tear gas, in a move many feel was a disproportionate use of force.
On the afternoon of Sunday August 8 2021, riot officers used tear gas against a large crowd of anti-vaccination and pro-choice protesters, as well as onlookers, at the VC Bird bust on Market Street. The protesters had gathered unlawfully but had not yet become violent or disorderly according to most witness reports.
Reportedly, the organisers – Freedom Fighters for Antigua and Barbuda – had been denied permission in writing by the Commissioner of Police Atlee Rodney, to have a march beginning at the bust, but nonetheless resolved to transform the planned march into a stationary picket, which organisers seemed to believe would not be unlawful.
Police officers, many in regular grey shirt and white stripe uniforms, were unsuccessful in getting the protesters to disperse, though protesters remained nonviolent and largely orderly.
Then trucks carrying additional officers dressed in all black riot gear arrived displaying a visual warning that if the crowd did not disperse, tear gas would be used on them. The crowd did not disperse, but it remained non-violent. The riot officers then began launching gas cannisters into the crowd sending people into a panic, running in all directions.
It is clear from spectators’ videos which have been circulating widely, that riot officers gassed their own police colleagues in various uniforms – some in grey shirts and white stripes, some in all black, some in khaki – who themselves started running from the tear gas, and some of whom had to be given water by protesters as the tear gas affected their breathing and their vision.
People who were not participating in the protest were affected by the gas, some in the nearby West Bus Station on Market Street. Some were affected in their homes, though it is uncertain just how many. There were minors amongst the protesters, and they too were inevitably affected.
Later, some people became violent and rioted. They erected barricades in the street and set some of them on fire. Fire engines had to be called in to oust the flames. Stones and missiles were thrown at the police even into the night. Speaking at a police press conference on Monday, Commissioner Rodney was asked by an ABS reporter if he would have done anything differently, to which he firmly replied, “no”.
While the chaos was still unfolding on Sunday afternoon, the Public Safety Minister told Observer that he would be “looking into the matter” which he called “unfortunate.”
But emphasised, “The police believe they had no other option than to take the action which they did.”
However, he did not clearly suggest that any investigation into whether the use of force on Sunday was necessary, proportionate, or justified in the situation, would take place, though many feel such an investigation is warranted.