They can’t breathe

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History records the protests that swept through the Middle East and North Africa as the Arab Spring. It began in December 2010 when a twenty-six-year-old, fruit and vegetable street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire. Bouazizi took the extreme action to protest political corruption and the unfair treatment that he’d been receiving from those in high places, as he tried to earn a living. This act of self-immolation captured the imagination of long-suffering people all over the world, but particularly in the Middle East, it sparked widespread protests against the entrenched dictatorships that had been oppressing the people for decades. In all, five countries experienced a change of government on account of the riots, social violence, civil disobedience and insurgencies that arose out of Bouazizi taking his own life.

In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi was deposed, as was Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Ali Abdullah Saleh was removed from office in Yemen, and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced to step down in Tunisia. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad managed to hold on to office after a long and bloody civil war. His grip on power remains tenuous, at best.

Here in Antigua and Barbuda, we can see some parallels to the situation that gave rise to the Arab Spring of 2010. As in the affected countries, there is widespread corruption and major distrust (and dislike) of those in high places. The struggling people hang on by the skin of their teeth, at the whim and fancy of the ruling elite. They watch as those in high places live high on the hog with sweetheart deals with investors. They watch as those in high places make money off the investors, and they are left to wonder if there is a quid pro quo behind the scenes. They watch as the store is given away to the investors, with no benefit to Antigua and Barbuda. Indeed, nobody benefits from the presence of the investors except those in high places. They watch as the connected and the privileged laugh all the way to the bank, while young entrepreneurs and street vendors are suffocated by the unfairness and the vindictiveness of it all. It has become quite odious! It stinketh up to high heaven!

No wonder that the three heroic young men from Parham – Malcolm Reid, Davonte Joseph and Kimani Gardner – who were brutally set upon by this administration, felt compelled to let their voices of discontent and protest be heard on our very own VOICE OF THE PEOPLE (VOP) broadcast, this past Monday. Much like Mohamed Bouazizi, they are in their mid-twenties, and they were providing for themselves and their families by operating a fruit and vegetable stall in their hometown. According to the very well-spoken young men, they were in constant communication with the relevant authorities over the legal operation of a food stall, and they were, to their minds, in good standing with the State. They provided all the relevant approvals and other documentation to the VOP hosts. The documentation indicated that they had permission to operate on the site (Crown lands) from March of last year to March of this year.

Nonetheless, this past Friday, some of those in high places, decided to employ a bulldozer to totally destroy their food establishment. The force of the State came down in all its fury, putting these youngsters under heavy manners, and much like George Floyd, the Parham trio was left gasping for breath and shouting: WE CAN’T BREATHE! TAKE YOUR BOOT OFF OUR NECKS! OUR LIVES AND LIVELIHOODS MATTER, TOO!

Not surprisingly, in their VOP appearance, there was nary a hint of belligerence or aggression in them. Nay, au contraire, their unfailing politeness, their good tact, and their manifest decency, spoke to the acme of good breeding. This writer was fortunate to have met the parents of Malcolm Reid, and was quite impressed by their uprightness and their warm and likable disposition. These are good citizens. The boys are blessed to have parents such as these. They are also blessed with a sense of duty and a keen sense of their civic responsibility. For example, when spoken to about the loudness of their music, on one or two occasions, they quickly turned their sound system down. These were good neighbours. Even in the retelling of their story on VOP, they were even-handed and fair, gracious young men, in whom there appeared to be no bitterness and bile.

We are not sure what’s next for these bold youngsters. They have expressed a determination to continue with their fruit and vegetable business. More power to them! We believe that we will see them rise ‘like the Phoenix from the ashes.’  To that end, we proudly note that a number of good citizens have reached out with generous offers of assistance. We also know that the many folk to whom we spoke concerning the plight of the boys, were filled with disgust and displeasure at the hasty and brutish manner in which those in high places moved to dispossess them of their business establishment. They were also filled with dismay at the crude and vulgar remarks from a high place about “squatting,” blah, blah, blah etc. (We will not repeat the vile remarks). No wonder so many small businesses and young entrepreneurs cannot survive and thrive in this fair land! Seems, you have to be connected, or you have to grease a palm or two.  It is the coin of the realm.

An apology from on high is in order, and the youngsters ought to be properly compensated. These young men must be made whole, after the nightmare that they experienced at this Gestapo-like State apparatus.

Just before their moving appearance on VOP, the young men sent a request for us to play the song, BURIED ALIVE by Buju Banton. They said that it summarised their feelings of horror and dread, as well as their determination to emerge from the Stygian darkness, bigger, better, stronger. Here are excerpts from that song: I was buried alive but I’m still breathing / I don’t know what tomorrow may bring,  but I got a feeling / I am alive, there must be a reason / I was given one more chance, my heart still beating / Now all this time, I’ve been blind / Only running against the wind / Friends of mine, pass with time /After living a life of sin / Some nearly give up, many give in /It’s my determination to win / I survived the worst of times I survived / They made a ditch for one . . . In their attempt to out my life /The wicked things they do. . . “

Long live the Parham trio! May we be inspired by their ordeal!

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