No women died. This is not a womenâ€™s issue
There is an uprising of massive proportions taking place in Linden Guyana. In early July protestors from the Linden communities began daily protests over the lack of jobs [there is 70%
80%unemployment] and their abominable living conditions in a country rich in mineral resources such as bauxite and gold. On the 18th July three men were murdered and many more injured when the Guyanese police attacked the protestors with teargas, pellets and live ammunition.
Twenty three days after the killing of three unarmed protesters in Linden many Guyanese are still in shock. The only other time in our country’s history when peaceful protesters were shot occurred 64 years ago under British colonial rule.
The police massacre on July 18th, 2012 was unprecedented in its barbarity. They fired live ammunition into a crowd peacefully protesting against a 300% hike in their electricity rate. Sure this is the same police force that for many years was led by a rapist; lit an innocent 14 year old boy’s genitals on fire and regularly robs and terrorize the populace. But on July 18th, 2012 they crossed a line that triggered something altogether different in the people of Linden. Now, everything had changed but not everyone felt that way though as I was soon finding out.
Less than 48 hours after the massacre I attended a forum recognizing women’s unwaged work put on by the Women and Gender Equality Commission on. The welcoming remarks, the first, second, and then third speakers all delivered their messages on cue, with nary a word about Linden. I sat there transfixed unable to believe my ears. I had expected as a show of decency, at the very least, a moment of silence for the people killed and injured in Linden. I was immediately scolded when I raised the point.
This is not a women’s issue!
Mothers had lost their sons, but I was being told that this was not a women’s issue. Women had been shot for exercising their right to protest, to express themselves, to assemble in their community, but this was not a women’s issue.
In Linden unemployment is estimated to be about 70%. Most mothers do not know where their child’s next meal is going to come from. However, the Minister of Labor was there talking about husbands helping their wives make the bed and respecting them more.
For an hour and a half the program continued as if all were normal. Finally bursting with the insanity of it all, I approached one of the committee members.
Aren’t we at least going to have a moment of silence for the Linden martyrs?
She looked at me with mild surprise and asked me to wait until she spoke to the chairperson.
“Well it’s not really a women’s issue,” she said when she same back. “But we’ll see. She said she’ll think about it.”
Finally after the minister was finished and just before tea break there was a brief, grudging moment of silence. “There you got your moment” was immediately followed with a condescending pat on the back.
This is not a women’s issue?
I wanted to scream.
Days later standing outside the governing People’s Progressive Party headquarters scream was exactly what I did.
I must admit screaming in public isn’t something I usually do, unlike one of my friends who does this on a fairly regular basis. My rage is a nurturing belly heat held close. I rant and rave, sure, and have been told by a young friend that I can be ‘scary’ when riled up. I am also no stranger to rowing living as I do in a country with numerous opportunities for provocation.
When I was little and in one of my fiery moods, my mother would look at me in bewilderment and ask “Girl, is where you get that passion from, huh?”
She would also try to convince me that ‘you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar’ but I wasn’t interested in catching flies.
Still, even though I have all this passion, I usually don’t scream in public. I don’t count chanting on picket lines.
But that morning, nothing felt better than standing on the street corner and screaming “Murderers!” up at the faces peering out of the windows at us.
The shock and numbness that descended on me after news of the killing w
as lifting, and rage was fast replacing it.
The first set of people on the picket line the day after the shooting were the women from Red Thread.
When I stood alone outside of Police Headquarters with my placard a Staff Sergeant shouted at me to “MOVE OR BE MOVED!”
I was supremely relieved when a vehicle pulled up and Andaiye appeared.
Nevermind that she is a 69 year old woman, just barely recovered from cancer and a heart attack. The fact that she had come to join the picket filled me with fearless righteousness. More courage came from N, another Red Thread woman.
“Mommy, you going and picket?” N’s young son had asked her.
“Yes,” she’d replied.
“But what if they shoot you like they shot those men?” the child had asked anxiously.
N came anyway.
With Indian and Amerindian heritage, her and me, ‘straight hairs’ as Andaiye likes to say, were in the minority on the picket line.
Unfortunately like most things in Guyana the shooting had already been racialized. A protest grounded in economics had degenerated into the usual race politricks. Linden was a Black people town after all and an Indian-led government had imposed the rate hike and ordered police to the scene. Similar protests by Indian people in their villages were not met with a violent response. So it was absolutely correct to read a racial element into the events.
Race is never far from the scene anyway here in lovely Guyana. The picketers with signs that read “We are all Lindeners” were mostly Afro-Guyanese. Columnist Freddie Kissoon, a few opposition party members and a couple other straight hair women from Red Thread were the sum total of Indo-Guyanese on the picket line and at the candlelight vigils.
Picketing is something we are familiar with. We’ve been doing it for years. Mostly we protest issues related to woman and children rights. From pushing for passage of the Sexual Offences Act, to calling for justice for the tortured teen, an increase in the old-age pension, punishment for the unlicensed doctor killing and maiming women in bottom house abortions, and most recently justice for the rape victim of former Police Commissioner Henry Greene.
Some other protests like the middle finger one aimed at our former president, I instigated outside State House, had to do with freedom of speech.
Our pickets are always peaceful and while we may have been looked at as ‘fringe loonies’ by many, for us, taking a public stance in the streets is vital.
Dissent is discouraged here in Guyana, with fear and the threat of retribution causing many to bite their tongues and look the other way in the face of all kinds of outrages. So we are committed to taking back the streets, to making public statements and speaking out. Even if/when we are afraid.
The people of Linden were peacefully protesting as well when twenty three of them were shot, three in the heart. One a teenager, one mentally challenged and the other father of two and chief supporter of his 79 year old mother.
Ron Somerset the 17 year old lost his mother years ago, but his aunts stepped into the void and took care of him as their own.
Shemroy Boyea was mentally challenged and known to be kindhearted and helpful. His mother was on her way home from her job as a security guard when she heard the news of his death.
Daphne Lewis a pensioner isn’t just mourning her son, she is also worrying about how she is going to get by now without his help. There is no safety net for people like her in Guyana.
It is always women who bear the biggest brunt of poverty. As caregivers, women are responsible for finding food to put into hungry children’s mouths, money for school uniforms, medicine, shoes, small treats etc.
It is women who have to cook, clean, wash, as well as nurture, and too often, father as well as mother the children.
So even though the official unemployment in Linden is about 70%, the women of Linden are fully employed. They may not be earning any money, but they are laboring.
Even though no woman was killed in Linden on July 18th, this is absolutely a women’s issue!
Women were shot. Women are taking care of relatives and friends who were shot. Women are camping out in the streets. Women are lying down in front of bulldozers sent to clear the roads. Women are helping to move logs to re-block the road. Women are cooking and feeding their community members and fellow protesters. Women are reporting on the goings on. Women are part of the community’s leadership, negotiating and strategizing the next steps forward.
Women have been and continue to be at the forefront of the Linden uprising as well as beyond in the larger Guyana freedom movement.
Sherlina Nageer is a Guyanese human rights activist, feminist, teacher, and environmentalist.