Disruption vs. Organisation

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On January 6th 2017 several Trinidad and Tobago NGOs gathered at the Hyatt Waterfront Plaza at Parliament headquarters for the “Side by Side We Stand” rally against crime. The event was organised and initiated by a group of concerned citizens who came together in response to a call from Sunity Maharaj – a well known journalist and political commentator- to plan an action in response to the murder of Shannon Banfield and the spiraling crime problem in the country.  Over the course of approximately 3 weeks the group met with other NGOs to stage the event carded for the January 6th, 2017 – the day of the first sitting of parliament for the year.  

I did not attend the event but managed to pass by and take a quick look. I also followed the videos and comments on Facebook and various media coverage. Several questions emerged for me as someone interested in building knowledge around civil society and governance issues.

1. Message and Branding

The impetus for the action stemmed directly from the recent murder of yet another woman – Shannon Banfield. Yet the January 6th protest/rally/solidarity event seemed to lack a specific focus. Instead many civil society groups came together to protest? crime. But there were talks of procurement bills, posters calling for banning fireworks and getting help for the mentally ill. It seems that the various civil society groups came together to show support for addressing crime but there did not seem to be a clear message or policy action as the basis for the action.

Unlike the protests in Feburary 2016 re the Asami Nagakiya murder, there was no specific action or ‘ask’ as the basis. The protesters at the Feb 2016 event wanted something specific – for the Mayor to be fired.  And the reason was clearly articulated – because his comments promoted rape culture and blaming the woman for crimes committed against her. It was not just a vengeance action but one that identified the importance of the state’s responsibility in communicating messages that unequivocally denounce violence against women as a key policy premise.

At the Jan 06 event there wasn’t a specific rallying cry behind which all civil society groups could get behind. Yes, there are million problems wrong with the policing and criminal justice system in Trinidad and Tobago, but a protest should have a specific purpose, if not for  sake of creating a really good chant. A good chant is important for so many reasons – It conveys a clear message about what you want, it unifies people, and it brands the event. Which brings me to my second question

2. Disruption vs. Organization

What exactly was the civil society event? Was it a protest? Or was it as reported in the media “a kick off” of a larger series of activities to be initiated by civil society to fight crime. If it was the latter, I think an opportunity was lost.

What brought people together in the first place was Shannon’s murder. And it is less useful  to try and figure out why this murder and not the many others was a catalyzing force than to seize the opportunity to galvanize people to action. The newspaper reports (sadly) that the plan is for civil society to come up with a DOCUMENT (insert womp womp music here).

Listen, organization is good and necessary to be able to implement well thought out plans. But there are hundreds of very good documents all over Trinidad with some of the very same recommendations that this group will also come up with. What we need is a shift in the policy space. And that doesn’t often come from nice orderly negotiation. It comes from disruption. Governments are unmoved by emotional pleas but if something gets in the way of them conducting business as usual, they will be forced to listen.

I note that the Minister of National Security was invited to attend and made a nice little speech where he told those gathered that it was the community who were best placed to fight crime, totally absolving himself and the state of responsibility. He came, had his say and proceeded to make his way out when he was confronted by a few persons who asked him directly what was he doing to stop crime. This for me was actually the most important thing that happened because it put the focus back on the state and its accountability. However, in the interest of moving things along smoothly, those shouting at the Minister were told to quiet themselves so the next speaker could come up and give a prepared speech. Don’t get me wrong, what civil society leaders have to say is very important but I question whether that was the time to do it. My understanding was that this event took place in front of parliament to ‘disrupt’ their proceedings and make them answer to the people. But that didn’t happen. Every Minister came and went cool as cucumber. Nobody asked them for anything and the Minister of National Security came, blamed the people, grinned, shook hands with folks and coast out. Meh.

3. Data and Monitoring

I think there should have been a specific policy ‘ask’. You eat a whole cow piece by piece but there needed to be at least one immediate action that civil society should have asked government to put in place. Perhaps something to do with police accountability.

I think one really good way that civil society can impact the policy space is by monitoring and data collection. Evidence based policy is most effective in addressing the root causes of societal problems. I note the introduction of the CSAFE App – a collaboration between the NGO Powerful Ladies of Trinidad and Tobago (PLOTT) and the Ministry of National Security. This app seeks to map crime and involve citizens in identifying where crime occurs. I wonder though, if for civil society it may not be more important to map police response to crime. One of the biggest issues citizens have with crime is that the police do not respond, do not take effective action in a timely manner to stop crime or resolve investigations. Wouldn’t it be great if we had an app where citizens could document when they reported a crime, type of crime, police station, response from police and whether or not they got justice? Wouldn’t this tell us so much more about the challenges experienced in policing? Wouldn’t it make police stations/ districts more accountable?

4. Civil Society and Partnerships

As civil society moves through the process of collaborating with state agencies and the private sector, I would like to caution that it can be so easy to get co-opted and lose sight of your purpose and the interests you serve. We can’t get very far without collaborating with the state but very often offers to sit on various boards and advisory committees find civil society representatives assuming the values and objectives of the state while losing sight of the interests of their constituents.

Similarly, branding your civil society action with that of a private sector partner could be misconstrued as partisan and elite. While the private sector should contribute to civil society actions, they should ‘add’ their own voice to the policy space rather than speaking in the voice of civil society.

Finally, hindsight is 20/20 and every action we take is an opportunity to learn and advance our cause. I applaud the action by civil society and especially find the amount of collaboration and networking to have been a formidable achievement. I think it’s a great start to a new phase in our collective consciousness as a society where the continuous work of civil society over the years will bear fruition.

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