The Occupy Guyana movement was launched on August 15, 2012, in response to the shootings in Linden on July 18, which saw 3 people killed and 20 injured after police fired upon a crowd of protesters (against an increase in the electricity tariff) who reportedly blocked the Wismar Bridge.
The occupied space, known as ‘The People's Parliament‘ is in Guyana's capital Georgetown, on High Street between Brickdam and Hadfield Streets. Global Voices spoke with activist Sherlina Nageer to learn more about the formation of Occupy Guyana, the reaction it has been getting from the authorities and its future.
Global Voices (GV): Occupy Guyana was clearly assembled out of a sense of solidarity with the Linden movement, but what was the distinct moment when it was decided to take it to the streets?
Sherlina Nageer (SN): Concerned Guyanese took to the streets of Georgetown immediately after the shooting of the peaceful protesters in Linden. On July 19th, the day after the incident, a picket was organized in front of the Police Headquarters and dozens of people showed up to register their outrage and solidarity. Picketing and vigiling continued for weeks afterwards. The decision to occupy a public space was proposed after President Ramotar called for a return to ‘normalcy’ and ‘business as usual’, even as he disdained to visit Linden or meet with the families of those killed and injured, and as Parliament went on their usual two month recess. We chose to occupy this public space as a deliberate act of defiance and rejection of this understanding of ‘normalcy’ which values money and business interests over people’s lives and human rights. To us, that is profoundly abnormal and we refuse to carry on with life ‘as normal’ while this understanding prevails.
GV: To what extent were you inspired by other Occupy movements? Did you seek to emulate them?
SN: We were inspired most by the people of Linden. One of their key strategies was to occupy the streets of their communities. They had actually been protesting the proposed electricity hike since April, but only decided to take to the streets in July (when a group of women decided to block the Wismar/McKensie bridge), drawing the deadly response from the State. Our decision to occupy a public space in Georgetown was thus seeking to emulate the Lindeners’ peaceful protest while doing something different from the usual protest actions of picketing and vigiling. The example of Occupy Wall Street definitely gave us inspiration, but indirectly.
GV: What connection, if any, do you have with other Occupy movements worldwide?
SN: We have no formal connection with any other Occupy movements worldwide. We are aware of their existence and accomplishments, but are not in any direct contact.
GV: How well attended have these gatherings been? Is there broad participation from various groups in Guyana?
SN: The attendance at the Occupy Guyana gatherings has varied over the past 2 weeks that the occupation has been in existence. There were close to seventy persons at our launch, and dozens still join us weekly – some simply stopping by for a short time and others for more extended periods. The most significant thing however, in my opinion, is not so much the total numbers, but the quality of the interactions. Occupy Guyana has brought together people from a wide range of backgrounds – from lawyers and academics, counselors to the homeless, and unemployed youth, pensioners, businesspeople, market vendors, domestic workers, students, sex workers, queers, the religious, atheists, activists – to sit and talk together, as well as eat, sleep, and plan…something that rarely occurs in our stratified society. (We have not been ‘endorsed’ by any ‘groups’ since coming into existence though.) The sustained nature of our interaction has meant that relationships between these diverse groups have been able to get deeper and more meaningful, and that, in my opinion, is the beginning of the true revolution.
GV: What level of harassment have you faced from the authorities?
SN: Less than twenty-four hours after we set up our tents in the park, the authorities showed up and started harassing us. We were told that because we did not have permission to erect the tents, they would have to be taken down. However, no one could tell us clearly what entity we needed to get permission from. When we challenged the police over their authority to do this, we were threatened with arrest (though they could not tell us for what crime). They dismantled and took away our tents. However, they were returned to us after the intervention of a lawyer friend of ours, and we’ve started using them again (during limited time periods mostly at night only). However, once we left them up during the day for several days (to get shade from the sun), the police came back and took away the canvas tent top. They also tried to get us to take down a beach umbrella that we had erected. We know that they are trying to make our lives difficult so that we will get tired and pack up and go home. But tent or no tent, we remain committed. And we recently got a donation of three new patio/beach umbrellas which are helping very much with keeping us protected from the elements.
GV: What is exactly is Red Thread and what is its level of involvement, both in Occupy Guyana and in wider political life in the country?
SN: Red Thread (and its networks) is a collective of mainly grassroots women of different races, all of whose actions are really about the need to challenge unequal power relations in Guyana. Part of the Global Women’s Strike, whose perspective is explained in its theme ‘Invest in caring, not killing', its starting point is always the unwaged work of grassroots women in the home and community. It offers direct services on a self-help basis (training the women who come to receive them to act is their own defense) and campaigns on a variety of issues as they relate to women and children – from domestic and sexual violence, sexual and reproductive health/rights to the need for a living income – Red Thread provides a much needed gender analysis of issues in the Guyanese political sphere. Members of Red Thread were among the initiators of Occupy Guyana, but this action is not a Red Thread owned one, as some in the local scene/media seem to think.
GV: What are the possibilities for growth of Occupy Guyana? How long can it be sustained?
SN: This remains to be seen. The possibilities are great.
GV: What is the organizational structure for Occupy Guyana? To what extent is there a defined leadership?
SN: There is recognition and respect given to the core initiators of Occupy Guyana, but we are moving towards collective decision making and leadership.
GV: Do you see Occupy Guyana eventually morphing into a political force? What of the possibilities of it being co-opted by another existing party?
SN: Because everything we do is political, Occupy Guyana is already a political force. It is clearly non-partisan though, and more interested in working outside of than within party politics. However, because it is a grouping of diverse individuals, some of whom have party affiliations, how we engage with the political parties remains an ongoing topic of discussion. We hope to interrogate more deeply than is happening now the notion of power, the meaning of leadership, and the processes of governance.