Enraged over the police-involved killing of three men over the weekend, dozens of people from Sea Lots, Beetham Gardens and Port-of-Spain yesterday staged one of the largest coordinated protests against police since June 2020.
The protests led to a major traffic gridlock going into the capital and surrounding areas, with some terrified motorists even attempting to turn around along the one-way roadway to avoid the traffic nightmare.
Four health centres under the management of the North West Regional Health Authority were forced to suspend service for the day. PTSC’s transport operations were also impacted and huge, thick, black plumes of smoke took over Port-of-Spain’s skyline, creating an ominous scene for citizens who were uncertain about what was unfolding.
The protests began around 11 am on the eastbound lane of the Churchill Roosevelt Highway opposite the Beetham landfill.
With several tyres, two old mattresses and heaps of debris, Beetham Gardens residents tried to block the roadway.
They had succeeded in heaping the debris on the roadway but as they were pouring gas to set it afire, a passing police patrol vehicle pulled up, causing them to abandon their task and return to the side of the road.
They then looked on as officers carried the debris off the road to allow traffic to flow freely.
One officer tried to placate the small crowd, but his efforts went in vain as residents quickly became enraged.
“Allyuh didn’t have to kill them! Them is children!” one woman shouted at the officer.
They were referring to Leonardo Williams, 22, Fabien Richards, 22 and 17-year-old Isiah Williams, who were killed when police intercepted the car they were travelling in early Saturday morning. There were three other men in the car; one was shot and said to be in critical condition in hospital while the other two escaped unharmed. Police have claimed the men were evading capture and shooting at them when they crashed on Independence Square.
But the residents believe the men were unarmed and were simply making their way home after a birthday party.
Beetham Gardens resident Terron Smith said he was told Isaiah was given a “tush” to drive the car and went the wrong way on a one-way street, attracting the attention of a police patrol vehicle.
“They could have stopped the car and charge him, charge him if allyuh want but you shoot them and kill them? This is not the first time, they always doing that to the little black boys from this area,” Smith said.
Another resident, Darrien Boyke, had some questions for the police service.
“I want to know where the video? They say they find a gun in the car, videos does be released in less than 24 hours in this country, so where the video?” Boyke asked.
He said he was hurting over the men’s death and could not take the pain anymore.
While Boyke and his neighbours spoke to the media, police officers were busy trying to remove the debris from the roadway.
But while the officers succeeded and were standing watch, another group of residents emerged several hundred feet away and placed more tyres and an old mattress on the road, once again stopping traffic.
Within seconds of that blockage being cleared, thick, black smoke could be seen coming from close to the Sea Lots walkover and traffic on the westbound quickly came to a standstill.
As our Guardian Media news team made our way to the Sea Lots walkover, a group of men could be seen piling tyres on an already-lit blockage on the roadway leading into Sea Lots.
They were more hesitant to speak, saying they were doing what was necessary to get justice for the men’s deaths.
As heavily armed police officers stood nearby, the men threw gas and more tyres on the debris.
When several officers seemed ready to approach them, another shouted, “They just blocking up they self, leave them right dey.”
That sentiment seemed to resonate with the other officers, who held back and looked on.
Other officers were standing guard a short distance away where debris had been burnt across the highway heading into Port-of-Spain.
As the traffic ground to a halt, almost a dozen police officers began to direct traffic, trying to get motorists away from the blockages.
For several hours, the officers stood in the intersection as hundreds of cars were directed back onto the eastbound lane and the Priority Bus Route.
But while the officers’ attention was diverted, several Sea Lots residents breached the fence of the Solid Waste Management Company Limited (SWMCOL) transfer station, where hundreds of used tyres were stockpiled to be recycled.
While some of the men carried tyres to add to the blockage, others lit the pile ablaze. Within minutes, pillars of thick, dark smoke could be seen rising into the air.
It took the T&T Fire Service over an hour to respond to the fire, allowing it to blaze even higher.
As the police looked on, some of the residents tried to breach the gate to the facility to get more tyres but a verbal confrontation with some officers saw them backing off.
By 12.50 pm, both lanes of the highway were clear and officers on the scene said motorists were being turned back at the Barataria overpass and being advised to avoid trying to enter the capital city.
All the while, the Sea Lots residents kept the fires in the street burning and constantly added gas and more tyres to the blaze.
Around 1.06 pm, a truckload of officers from the T&T Regiment arrived. Dressed in full riot gear, the soldiers stood looking on. At one point, two officers approached several of the residents and a confrontation seemed inevitable. But the residents returned to one side of the blaze and soldiers to the other.
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, who is out of the country attending the 43rd Regular meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of Caricom in Suriname, told another media house last night he was aware of anti-police protests taking place at home.
However, the Prime Minister said there was an acting prime minister appointed in his absence.
“There is an acting Prime Minister and a fully functioning Cabinet that can answer all these questions whilst I’m away dealing with other matters of public interest,” the Prime Minister said.