Airport protest gives us a day to forget
How events unfolded
8am: protesters gather outside the precincts of the House of Assembly after police officers secure the entrances to the Parliament grounds.
9am: the crowd, which has swelled to several hundred, prevent Government MPs and members of the legal profession from entering the Sessions House.
10am: proceedings in the House of Assembly are unable to begin, meanwhile protester numbers continue to rise.
12.45pm: BPSU workers join the protesters led by president Jason Hayward.
1.15pm: riot police arrive at the House of Assembly and try to force their way in through the main entrance on Parliament Street.
1.20pm: after failing to gain access to the House, officers try to break through the line of protesters at the Church Street entrance where they use pepper-spray to subdue protesters.
1.30pm: protesters hit by pepper-spray can been seen treating themselves on the roadside.
2.30pm: Opposition leader David Burt and BIU president Chris Furbert address the crowd; protesters are told that the House will not sit until next week.
A heated protest over the controversial airport redevelopment project turned violent yesterday, with police dousing protesters with pepper-spray and officers allegedly being assaulted.
While protesters have alleged that the officers needlessly disrupted a peaceful protest, sending at least one senior away in an ambulance, police commissioner Michael DeSilva said protesters were unlawfully obstructing police and the public.
Hundreds gathered outside the House of Assembly early yesterday morning in protest of controversial airport redevelopment plans following a call by Opposition Leader David Burt for a demonstration. While the protesters successfully prevented MPs entering the House of Assembly, tensions came to a head in the early afternoon when police made efforts to move them.
Protesters chanted and linked arms to remain in place and, during a heated altercation, police attempted to disperse them with spray. The move prompting a furious reaction from protesters, union leaders and Progressive Labour Party MPs.
People who were sprayed were seen treating themselves in the street with water and cream, while two female crowd members were helped into an ambulance. Witnesses said one woman was injured after a confrontation with police, and several officers reportedly attacked.
By 2.45pm, Speaker of the House Randy Horton announced Parliament would be postponed until next Friday and the crowds began to dissipate, although a presence remained for the rest of the afternoon.
At the height of the tension, veteran PLP MP Derrick Burgess warned police some potential demonstrators may bring ammunition.
“I would like you guys to retreat — this is going to get dirty,” he said.
“You don’t want to mess with us. There are people with ammunition; they may come here — that’s what they told me. I tried to calm them down; they will shoot. They will come.”
Mr Burgess, who emphasised to The Royal Gazette that he had tried to calm people down, later said of the standoff: “This is white supremacy at work. This is the biggest thing to happen since the 1977 riots.
“Yes, people said they would bring ammunition and I can understand the emotions when your grandmother or auntie is being pepper-sprayed.”
P.J. Hayward, a member of the Bermuda Industrial Union general council, said he was among those hit by pepper-spray when he called on protesters to lower their heads.
“Saying we were violent is ludicrous,” he said.
“I saw a lady pulled in through the gate and sprayed who fell down and hit her head. She’s ended up in the hospital.”
The Reverend Terry Hassell of Heard Chapel AME Church, said he had challenged officers as they advanced, and was told that it was “an unpeaceful assembly”.
“It needs to be stated that even after people were sprayed, it remained peaceful,” Mr Hassell said. Asked what had fuelled the frustration of demonstrators, he replied: “Bermuda is divided and racist. We need to deal with that reality — and we don’t.”
Jason Hayward, president of the Bermuda Public Services Union, said: “All we were doing was standing here peacefully and they tried to come and manhandle us but, guess what, they didn’t get in and they didn’t get the gate.
“But it’s unfortunate that they came using that type of force to women and especially elderly women. I saw them spray an elderly woman directly in her face, not indirectly, directly in her face.
“That’s wrong. Then they pulled down that woman that just went in the ambulance.”
Mr Burt later addressed the crowd to say he was “extraordinarily concerned” about what took place and that the Police Commissioner had been contacted.
He told The Royal Gazette: “What happened today was that we had members of the public peacefully assembled to express their displeasure at a government intent on pushing through a contract no one knows the details of.
“To see riot police come out, to see senior citizens pepper-sprayed from behind, it’s a sad day, and someone will have to answer for today.”
Chris Furbert, president of the Bermuda Industrial Union, called the clash a tragedy, adding: “This was a peaceful protest. The police came down here and tried to push through this gate; manhandling people in a peaceful protest. They could not get through so they went around to the other gate where people were pepper-sprayed including seniors. The Premier and the commissioner must be held accountable for what has happened today.”
The significance of yesterday’s date, marking 39 years since the island’s racially charged riots of 1977, was also noted by many protesters.
In the wake of the altercation, the Police Commissioner said the incident was “regrettable”, but maintained that protesters were acting unlawfully by obstructing others and assaulting police.
He said that one person was arrested for an assault on an officer, and that an investigation into the actions of one officer would be carried out after a complaint from the public.
Premier Michael Dunkley said the altercation had caused him and his colleagues “great distress”, saying: “Images of our seniors and members of our public being pepper-sprayed is not something that should be happening in Bermuda. We recognise that it is our democratic right to protest, so it pains me greatly that the end result of today’s protest impeded democracy.”
He stressed the need for the island to find more productive means of communicating, saying such disruption of the democratic process cannot become the norm.
Meanwhile Acting Governor Ginny Ferson said she was concerned about what happened, urging protesters to act within the boundaries of the law: “Preventing MPs from getting into Parliament to carry out their legislative business is a serious infringement of the rule of law and the democratic values we all hold dear.
“The right to peaceful protest is also a right we hold dear. But there are people who seek to go beyond peaceful protest and incite criminal activity.”