“From riots over butter to protests against tuition increases, student activists have spoken out for centuries. Campus activism has played a major role in shaping higher education itself.”
In the 1960s, when the Jamaican government of Hugh Shearer banned Guyanese scholar and political activist Walter Rodney from returning to his teaching position at the UWI, the Guild of Students closed down the Mona campus. The action continued with a march to the Prime Minister's residence, which eventually led to severe disturbances.
In 1969, the president of the Guild of Students at the UWI – Makandal Daaga – led a protest in solidarity with West Indian students at Concordia University, Canada, against allegations of racism against a university professor.
When the Governor-General of Canada, Roland Michener, came on an official visit to the UWI, St Augustine campus, students blocked the entrance of the campus to prevent the governor's entry to the university.
These examples of university student activism within the region reiterate the prominent role universities play in challenging oppression and channelling social change within the world. More than that, student activism forms an essential part of the university ethos (spirit and culture) and mission.
In a world scarred by structural inequalities of race, class and gender, there is need for the continued protection of this flame and flame-bearers within university spaces.
As stated by UWI’s Vice-Chancellor Prof Sir Hilary Beckles, “Our students, our academics, our administrators, they do have the right to express their disappointment and their objection to philosophies, to practices, to cultures. This is embedded in every fine institution.”
However, it appears as though that flame has dimmed, particularly after the student activism that took place at the UWI St Augustine campus on October 18, 2018.
In the wake of an alleged sexual assault on the campus, students organised protest action speaking to safety concerns at the university. Hundreds of students and some members of academic staff gathered at the UWI south gate and formed a human blockade preventing the flow of traffic into and out of the campus.
The police soon arrived and in attempting to disperse the crowd, deployed armed officers to wrestle with students blocking the thoroughfare. Police violence duly erupted and two young, black, male students, with kinky hair texture and a plaited hairstyle – amongst students of many different hues – were targeted and thrown to the ground, pinned by knees on their neck and had automatic weapons pushed into their faces.
Two years have already passed since the student protest action in UWI and the arrest of two students (Brian Richards and Nathanael John). Till this date, the students are still waiting for their matter to proceed in the courts.
Indeed, this is untenable, because this has caused not only a silencing of the issues affecting the students, but also a dimming of the spirits of the flame bearers and the powerful flame of vociferous university student activism at the university.
This arrest of students by the police disenchanted many upcoming activists supporting the cause, because it gave the impression to the public that the university student activism which took place was wrong and illegal.
This impression is cemented by Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith, who stated categorically that while it is the right of citizens to protest, it must be done within the confines of the law. This includes seeking police permission before engaging in protest action.
This procedure for engaging in protest action has concerned many social activists in TT, such as president general of the Oilfields Workers' Trade Union Ancel Roget, who see it as a means of suppressing the voices of people.
More than that, these young students currently have to endure the burdensome experiences of a potentially lengthy court trial.
On that basis and within the current context of global decolonial activism fuelled by the Black Lives Matter movement, it is imperative that the flames of activism at UWI are reignited through introspection and reflection on the ways student activists at the institution are protected and supported by the administration.
In particular, we need the university to voice support for flame-bearers and ensure that their rights and freedoms are protected and respected.
The UWI must provide a space conducive to demonstrations and expressions of activism, free from arrest and reproach.
This is a central role of a university and it must be protected here at the UWI too.
This flame of introspection and reflection must also spread throughout wider TT as we rethink the current approaches utilised by police officers interacting with members of the public in times of social activism.
Nathan Chapman is a PhD student in sociology at UWI, St Augustine. Dr Dylan Kerrigan is a lecturer in the School of Criminology, University of Leicester, UK, and a visiting lecturer at the Sociology Unit, UWI, St Augustine.