By Kadeem Joseph
Prime Minister Gaston Browne is now the subject of criticism from the country’s opposition parties after his national address on Monday night concerning Sunday’s protest that ended in the crowd being tear gassed and rubber bullets being fired.
Browne, among other claims, asserted that the protest was organised by political actors who “wanted no peaceful protest”, adding that it was “a pre-meditated response to undermine the laws and health protocols, to create conflict, chaos and confusion”.
The Prime Minister also questioned the rationale for Sunday’s “illegal” gathering, noting that there is “no compulsion” for anyone to get vaccinated.
“It would be a highly irresponsible – if not, a reckless and careless government – that does not seek to protect the population of the country from infection by a deadly virus,” he said. “All that we require is that frontline workers and public servants, who do not wish to be vaccinated, take a free test every two weeks.”
PM Browne also addressed the actions of the police, remarking that officers “exercised great patience and restraint” in response to the protestors.
He said that law enforcement officers were “forced” to use tear gas to disperse the crowd after “politically aligned ringleaders of the crowd began to agitate” in disregard of the warnings of officers.
Additionally, Browne took several direct swipes at the country’s main opposition party – the United Progressive Party (UPP).
He claimed that the application for Sunday’s protest was made by “known UPP supporters”.
“Lawlessness is what the UPP knows; disruption and disturbance are their traditional methods of operation,” the PM said pointing to apparent examples in which the party “used these illegal violent tactics”.
However, the UPP was swift to hit back at Browne, calling him a “liar and a coward, hiding behind unsubstantiated rhetoric”.
In a press statement issued on Monday night, the party said that the prime minister, Attorney General Steadroy Benjamin, Commissioner of Police Atlee Rodney and the police force’s Riot Squad have all been the subject of condemnation, criticism, and rejection by nationals and residents both on island and abroad, “since defenceless children, women and men were tear-gassed and rubber-bulleted”.
“To cover their shame, Prime Minister Browne has resorted to naked lies, trying to link the brutalisation of Antiguans and Barbudans to some spurious conspiracy between the United Progressive Party, the Freedom Fighters of Antigua and Barbuda, and unnamed criminals,” the statement further stated.
The opposition also challenged the assertion that the police were forced to disperse the crowd.
The UPP said there was no evidence of provocation, threat, or defiance by the protestors or by those standing on the sides in support.
“And, not being able to find justification for the police violence – including in the Rural West and South communities – the Prime Minister has resorted to conspiracy theories,” the party added.
They are challenging Browne and Benjamin to not only produce evidence that the police reacted to provocation, but to also show any collaboration between the Freedom Fighters and the UPP.
Meanwhile, the Chairperson of the Democratic National Alliance, Malaka Parker, has also registered disapproval of the PM’s comments.
“I think the prime minister, once again, would have squandered an opportunity to lead with compassion,” she said. “I did not know of whom the prime minister was speaking last night. He spoke, I think, with a level of contempt, disgust and bordering on animus towards the people of this country,” she said.
Parker said the attempt to brand the Freedom Fighters’ protest as an opposition-led act “leaves a lot to be desired” since the movement had been gaining traction for some time.
The DNA chair said that the Prime Minister’s comments ultimately undermine the trust that the people should have in the nation’s leaders.
She further explained why the DNA did not participate in Sunday’s protest.
“We, as a party ourselves, would have made the conscious decision to stay out of that movement because we saw it as a level of civil activism that ought to be applauded,” she said, noting that whether or not the party agreed with the reasons for the protest, the right to demonstrate should be respected in a mature democracy.