On Sunday morning, a traffic accident in one of Port of Spain's most disadvantaged areas led to rioting because of rumours that the car involved in the crash was allegedly driven by an off-duty police officer…and allegations by residents of the area (which have yet to be corroborated) that the driver may have been drinking.
Netizens from Trinidad and Tobago posted updates on Twitter and Facebook very soon after the incident, which took place near the Central Market in the nation's capital. A mother and her two young children were killed.
On Facebook, C News Live‘s page reported that the vehicular accident allegedly involved a police vehicle, although the car involved in the crash appeared to be unmarked:
The incident caused rioting and police officers, who were called in to quell the disturbance, had to fire several shots in the air.
Ccn Tvnews’ Facebook page also carried the report, stating:
There has been tension between Sealots residents and the police in the two hours since the vehicular accident occurred around 9am. Police have cordoned off the scene of the accident.
East-bound traffic being diverted off Wrightson Road in the vicinity of the lighthouse as police cordon off Sealots accident scene.
One of the TV network's journalists, @MarlanHopkinson, who appeared to be covering developments, tweeted regular updates in which the number of fatalities was reported as three, not four, as some claimed. He posted this photograph of the mangled car involved in the accident and later tweeted:
@MarlanHopkinson: Laventille MPs Marlene McDonald and Nileung Hypolite heading to Sea Lots to meet with relatives of accident victims
The neighbourhood in which the accident occurred, Sea Lots, is one of the city's most impoverished. Sharon Millar, who blogs at My Chutney Garden and gave permission for her Facebook status updates to be quoted, happened to pass by the area after the incident:
Helicopters everywhere roads blocked off.
Residents came out to aTtack the driver, the place is cordoned off and there are police everywhere. Talk is also that the woman killed is the sister of the man who opens and closes the market gates. The situation down there was very tense and we had to come through Barataria to leave. Very very tragic. Pray for the souls of the ones killed. RIP
In the commentary, fellow blogger Rhoda Bharath, who writes at The Eternal Pantomime, and also gave her permission to be quoted, described the scene as:
Helicopter and riot squad police like ants on sweetbread.
What apparently exacerbated tensions were reports that the driver may have been under the influence of alcohol. Though this still has not been confirmed, this tweet claimed there was substance to the accusation. One Twitter user, @aabida_allaham, posted this comment:
Rhoda Bharath, in a Facebook conversation, noted:
I getting pics on twitter and a pardner down in the mix….if police ain't move with sense it could flare up bad….but I hoping by now the crowd starts to thin.
What struck Sharon Millar the most, though, was that:
Everyone [in the market area] was devastated by the loss of life.
Online, however, tensions of another kind were heating up after a journalist posted a private Facebook status update about the incident – and subsequent rioting – that was racially derogatory. Somehow, the status was shared and soon went viral. The Eternal Pantomime wasted no time in writing a post:
The thing is, Heeralal vented an opinion that many people, of all races and ethnicities believe : that poor people, especially poor black people are sub-human and don’t deserve to be treated with dignity. It is this attitude that makes us blind to their plight. It is also an attitude that is linked to both race and class. And if you went through all of Heeralal’s comments yesterday, you’d see he was really focussed on class discrimination than race discrimination.
She delved further into the discrimination issue…
Class discrimination is rampant in Trinidad and Tobago. When it comes to poor people, especially poor black people, we are incredibly put out. How dare they be all up in our faces while we trying to be upwardly mobile? How dare they remind us that state wealth isnt distributed adequately and that some people have access to all of the resources; but most people have access to none.
We never see how daily they are oppressed and how it then results into a spill over of rage that leads to blocked roads, burnt tyres and police intervention.
…and put it into the context of what happened at Sea Lots on Sunday:
A man lost his entire family in seconds. Seconds. We can’t return them to him. In the midst of wrenching grief, this man knows that the person responsible for killing his family may never be brought to justice. The community of Sea Lots responded angrily, impulsively and violently. The police and armed services responded back.
The blogger explained how the Facebook status update spread, then said:
None of these people [who liked and commented on the update in question] think there is anything wrong with Heeralal belittling the magnitude of the tragedy, or with him decrying vigilante style justice and then endorsing it with his own brand of vigilante justice.
On Monday morning, residents continued to block the roadway (a main access route into Port of Spain) in protest. Facebook was filled with status updates about the gridlock and many were advised not to venture into the capital – at least not at rush hour. Riot police were again on the scene as residents burned car tyres and lit candles in protest and remembrance.