By Carlena Knight
“No, we would not have done anything differently”. This was the response given by Police Commissioner Atlee Rodney when asked by press yesterday if he believed, in hindsight, that law enforcement officials’ actions at Sunday’s protest were appropriate.
On Sunday, protestors led by the group ‘Freedom Fighters of Antigua and Barbuda’ gathered near the VC Bird bust on lower Market Street to demonstrate against Covid-related rules such as mandatory virus tests for some unvaccinated frontline government workers.
But that event quickly turned into mayhem as tear gas was used multiple times by members of the police’s special unit to disperse the crowd, leaving law enforcement officials, innocent bystanders and protestors in its wake.
The move prompted a stormy response from some of the protestors who began to throw missiles at the police and even started fires in the streets.
The top cop denied claims that officers used live ammunition during the protest.
Rodney explained that this would have been the final level of force and during the protest it was not deemed necessary to use live rounds but instead rubber bullets were fired.
Despite outrage from opposition political parties and many residents over what they deem to have been an excessive use of force, the top cop is adamant that the actions of the police were necessary.
“As with any other operation there is what we call a debrief; some persons might refer to it as an investigation and … in our estimation, it was appropriate at that time to use the tear gas because all other means of persuasion had failed and that was another level of force,” Rodney said.
“That was just another level after verbal persuasion and then graphic persuasion, then you move to rubber bullets and tear gas and we had to move to further levels. The commander on the ground gave the order,” Rodney said.
Rodney’s comments appeared somewhat at odds with those of Attorney General Steadroy Benjamin who told Observer on Sunday that the police’s methods were “unfortunate”, “ought not to have happened” and that he would personally probe the matter.
According to Rodney, the event was never approved as the organisers, who wrote a letter in late June requesting permission to stage a march, were denied under the provisions of the Public Order Act.
He explained that a meeting was held last Friday with some of the organisers where both verbal and written confirmation were given that the march was denied.
However, he said, organisers went ahead with the “illegal event” despite multiple additional attempts from law enforcement to tell the organisers not to assemble at the VC Bird bust.
It was this disregard, along with the non-compliance of the protestors, that Rodney says prompted such actions.
Deputy Commissioner Albert Wade, who was present at the protest, said that some participants were not wearing facemasks or practicing social distancing.
He said that it was “evident that some … were bent on causing destruction and proceeded to do so by throwing missiles and lighting fires, so we continued to use the necessary means”.
When asked about the reports of children and innocent bystanders being affected by the tear gas, Rodney said, “it was not the decision of police to harm the children but if you bring your children to an illegal march there are certain consequences that come with it”.
He continued, “So, I think that’s what happened because everyone knew, especially the organisers, that it was illegal.
“It is unfortunate that it came to that level but a lot of persons like to focus only just on the police but what about the protestors? I do not hear you asking any questions about those protestors who went and maliciously damaged government and private people buildings.
“Blocking the road, putting fire on the road. This is despicable and this is not the type of society that we want to live in,” he said.
Rodney added that these are not the sort of actions officers want to take and appealed to prospective organisers and the public as a whole “to be responsible, be mature and be law-abiding”.
However, protestors who spoke to Observer yesterday said that although organisers had been denied permission to march, they had gathered at the VC Bird bust to voice their views believing it was their constitutional right to do so.
One, who gave her name only as Jess, said, “Nothing was said about protesting or picketing which is what we were doing.
“We were peacefully protesting … not doing anything criminal, and the next thing we know is they opened tear gas at innocent people.”
She claimed even children had been affected by the gas including a friend’s 12-year-old daughter. Police have denied there were any injuries on either side.
Other demonstrators told Observer of their disbelief as tear gas was deployed and shots heard. One said the police’s actions were “completely uncalled for”, adding that whoever gave the orders to use such measures should resign with immediate effect.