A bad day for Bermuda

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  • Flashpoint: demonstrators and police clash outside the House of Assembly during the airport protest on December 2 (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

    Flashpoint: demonstrators and police clash outside the House of Assembly during the airport protest on December 2 (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Shortly after 1pm on December 2 last year, a heated demonstration against the One Bermuda Alliance’s airport development proposal turned violent as police were assaulted and protesters were pepper-sprayed. The Royal Gazette looks at seven factors behind one of the most contentious days in the island’s recent history.

1. Long-running anger over OBA policies

The morning of December 2, 2016 was far from the first demonstration brought against the One Bermuda Alliance.

Dissent came early to the new administration: less than three months after the OBA won power, when then premier Craig Cannonier confronted his first angry crowd on the steps of Parliament.

It was March 1, 2013 when Mr Cannonier, accompanied by former home affairs minister Senator Michael Fahy, got booed and heckled by protesters incensed over the dropping of term limits for work permits.

Mr Cannonier later told The Royal Gazette that he understood the public’s concern, calling it a “healthy fear” in a time of recession and unemployment.

The OBA had narrowly won the General Election on December 17, 2012 — with Progressive Labour Party supporters sceptical or outright hostile to government policies.

Ewart Brown, the former premier, gave voice to that anger at the Bermuda Industrial Union’s Labour Day banquet of 2014, when he called for “an organised effort to take back the Government”.

He added that the country could not afford to wait “three more years for an election”.

The People’s Campaign had emerged six months before as a driving force for protest, closely allied with trades unions.

Immigration policy fuelled much of the public anger, with Mr Fahy as the target. His Pathways to Status package of immigration reforms, seen as giving preferential treatment to foreigners, triggered an instant backlash.

Protesters occupied the grounds of the House of Assembly in March 2016 and, for the first time, successfully blocked legislators until Randy Horton, the Speaker of the House, agreed to adjourn.

The Pathways to Status proposals were withdrawn in favour of bipartisan reforms.

Bob Richards, then minister of finance, later took Mr Fahy’s place as a focal point for mounting anti-OBA sentiment.

His proposed airport redevelopment, which involved a public asset and overseas partners, proved vulnerable to suspicions on two counts — privatisation and prioritising foreign interests over Bermudians.

The Government was also accused of exploiting its slim parliamentary majority to force the airport legislation on the country, despite Mr Richards maintaining that he had divulged as many details on the agreement as the law allowed.

With an election imminent, the island’s social tensions rose to a pitch that extended beyond the demonstrators gathered on the House of Assembly grounds.

2. Lack of police planning

The protest at the House of Assembly against the proposed airport legislation was not exactly a surprise.

Yet according to a report into the police operation, no documents could be found showing planning began in a timely fashion, while the process contained significant omissions and was recorded in a haphazard manner.

One senior officer recalled how he had only been told at the last minute on December 2 to go to Sessions House and let the protesters know they were breaking the law.

“Lack of planning and poor communication were major features of the Bermuda Police Service response to the protesters at the House of Assembly on December 2,” the Police Complaints Authority stated in its report.

“One of the more senior officers who was at the House had not even been informed what the tactical plan was.

“He was not even sure who the silver commander was. This was not the officer’s fault — he was only told last minute on the day to go to the House and inform the protesters that by blocking access it was an unlawful act.”

Similar criticisms of the planning process were presented in the review by Chris Shead of the National Police Co-ordination Centre five months ago.

Mr Shead noted police were aware a protest at the House was being planned by the group Move Bermuda on Monday, November 21, before the airport debate was repeatedly pushed back until finally being scheduled for December 2.

The first documentation referring to anticipated protests appears to be an operation order completed for November 25.

“It is reasonable to expect that the planning for the event commenced prior to November 23, however the review has failed to identify any documentation to substantiate this other than the November 25 order,” Mr Shead stated.

“The success of any public order operation is often largely contingent on the thoroughness and timeliness of the operation’s planning.

“This is particularly the case when resources are likely to be limited as will always be the case for the Bermuda Police Service with a strength of circa 400 officers.

“For this event, planning should have commenced well before November 23 as that was the original scheduled date for the debate.”

Pointing to omissions in the plan, Mr Shead continued: “The strategy did not include strategic intentions in relation to the lawful gathering of intelligence, having a ‘no surprises’ communication strategy, ensuring business continuity or enhancing or maintaining public confidence.

“All of these, if considered during the planning stages, would have enabled BPS to be less reactive in the policing of the protest and it is recommended they are considered for inclusion in future strategies.”

As for the recording of police planning, Mr Shead wrote: “The ability to provide a rationale for police action for this event is hampered by a haphazard approach to the recording of decisions or the keeping of policy logs. Indeed the strategy itself does not provide a rationale for the inclusion of each of the strategic intentions.

“Both the gold and silver commanders asserted that there had been numerous planning meetings on the approach to the event. However, neither have made any official record of the meetings or the decisions made.”

3. Rallying speeches the night before

By David Burt’s admission, the people were tired of marching as a highly charged 2016 ticked towards its end.

But after the then Opposition leader had delivered a rallying cry late on December 1, backed up by People’s Campaign leaders Chris Furbert and the Reverend Nicholas Tweed, they were evidently ready for one more push.

The source of contention was the One Bermuda Alliance’s airport development legislation, set for debate at the House of Assembly on Friday, December 2, after being postponed three times amid complaints and accusations from the PLP.

At a packed St Paul’s Centennial Hall on the Thursday evening, Mr Burt insisted the deal should be put on hold until the Auditor-General had made an assessment about the proposal’s cost to taxpayers.

“I hear your frustration, I hear where you are, you are tired of marching,” he told the audience.

“But tomorrow is a day where the One Bermuda Alliance is planning on using their very slim majority to sell our airport, to privatise our airport to a foreign company and we cannot let that happen. So I hope that you will heed the call.”

Mr Furbert, the president of the Bermuda Industrial Union, urged the crowd: “Show up tomorrow in full force and I can tell you, the OBA will have no other choice but to turn that Bill somewhere else.”

Mr Tweed pointed out December 2 marked the 39th anniversary of the 1977 riots over the hanging of Buck Burrows and Larry Tacklyn.

“We must decide whether we are going to continue to address symptoms and get tired of walking, tired of marching, because we are addressing symptoms and we have to decide whether we are ready and committed to fix the problem,” he said. “You think on these things. Your destiny is in your hands.”

After the meeting, Mr Burt issued a statement recalling how mass demonstrations had successfully blocked legislators from the House of Assembly eight months earlier.

Mr Burt urged people to show up and demonstrate at Parliament from 9am.

He added: “Now it is time for the people to demonstrate our strength yet again because you know, as we do, that the power of the people is far greater than the people in power.”

4. Police fail to make early arrests

It all would have panned out differently, the Police Complaints Authority believes, if officers had simply arrested the small handful of early-risers blocking entrance to the House of Assembly at about 8.30am on December 2.

With no commander on site and seemingly no prompt action taken, by 9am the crowd swelled to several hundred who easily prevented One Bermuda Alliance MPs and members of the legal profession from entering Sessions House.

By late morning, numbers were in the thousands, House proceedings were unable to begin and the situation was seemingly out of the police’s control.

The failure to make early arrests — and the absence of a commander on site at the beginning — were two examples of poor decision-making from those at the top of the police force, according to the PCA.

“At approximately 8.30am on December 2 there were only a few people at the House of Assembly blocking the gates,” the Authority said in its report.

“If arrests had been made then, there would have been no need to send in the Police Support Unit to create a ‘bubble’ to provide a corridor for the Parliamentarians to gain access to the House.

“If there was no PSU, and no bubble tactic, there would have been no need for Captor. There was poor decision-making by some of the senior commanders appointed to deal with the situation.

“Senior officers had a view that if a commander had been on site from the beginning it may have made a difference.”

5. Speaker Horton ‘wishes the House to sit’

Randy Horton, the Speaker of the House, changed his mind twice about letting Parliament proceed when demonstrators successfully shut out legislators on December 2, 2016.

That morning, Mr Horton and One Bermuda Alliance MP Sylvan Richards were the only two to make it into Sessions House before protesters occupied the gates — with the Speaker telling police before 10am that the Parliament was off.

However, Mr Horton later told this newspaper that as the morning wore on, “maybe those people at the gates would work it out between them, and people would be able to come in”.

According to the Police Complaints Authority, Mr Horton is believed to have contacted police commanders at around 12.30pm, informing them that “he wished the House to sit that afternoon” — at which point officers were sent out to take control of the entrances to Parliament.

Mr Horton reversed his decision before 1pm, but the notice for the House to remain adjourned did not reach commanders in time to call off the police action.

The report stated: “The Commanders of the BPS designated to deal with crowd control (in spite of the fact that they had inadequate training), should have strongly urged the Speaker of the House to postpone that afternoon’s sitting based on the number of protesters and the determination that they were exhibiting.”

6. ‘Bubble’ tactic was doomed to fail

Police attempted to clear a path into the House of Assembly by using a “bubble” tactic — but the move proved futile, according to the Police Complaints Authority report.

The system, in which commanders would create an opening in the crowd to allow the officers to control the gates, did not have the faith of some senior officers from the beginning.

And the circumstances that led to it being used are “torturous”, the report stated.

After Speaker Randy Horton had ruled that the House would not be sitting, the message did not filter down to the commanders in time to order the bubble be cancelled.

“The lines of communication were confused and then communication between the officers and the commanders proved impossible once the members of the bubble were engaged with the protesters,” the report stated.

“No radio communication was possible as they either could not reach their radios being caught up in the crowd or they could not hear them and it ended up with senior officers trying to get close to the officers to shout instructions and one bronze commander on the ground making the decision himself that the officers should withdraw.” When the bubble was deployed, the report said the officers involved were outnumbered and the move was “futile”.

“The crowd was surprised by their appearance in their bubble formation; the crowd became galvanised and hostile by reason of that,” it stated.

7. Crowd becomes hostile

It was considered a peaceful protest by many who took part, but the Police Complaints Authority pointed out laws were broken and officers were assaulted and injured.

Some well-known community leaders were also hostile to police in the confrontations that preceded the pepper-spraying of December 2, the PCA states.

“Every person in Bermuda is entitled to lawfully protest and express their views,” the report stated.

One officer is quoted saying: “People were standing their ground passionately, but they did not intend to hurt the police. If they had, a lot of people would have been injured.”

However, the report also said: “Tensions were running high and police officers were assaulted, injured and insulted in their attempt to break through the human blockade.”

Protester Edmund Smith was jailed for a year after being convicted of striking Inspector Scott Devine repeatedly in the legs with a wooden walking stick.

Ten other people, including the Reverend Nicholas Tweed and union leader Chris Furbert, were bound over to keep the peace for six months, with one other person given a conditional discharge after admitting assaulting officers. A case was eventually dropped against union leader Jason Hayward, who had denied obstructing police officers and interfering with ministers’ access to the House of Assembly.

Several prominent union leaders and Progressive Labour Party politicians maintained a strong visible presence during the protest, including PLP MP Derrick Burgess, who warned police things were going to “get dirty”.

“You don’t want to mess with us,” Mr Burgess told them. “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.”

The PCA stated: “The crowd, comprising some well-known local leaders, became hostile to the officers even to the extent of some who often socially interacted with officers refusing to engage in discussion with the officers.

“Some members of the crowd even made death threats to officers and physically assaulted some of the officers.”

It concluded: “The PCA is satisfied that the officers used Captor spray only when they properly believed that it was necessary. However, the PCA also has determined that the use of Captor could have and should been avoided but that the officers had been put in the precarious position that they found themselves by their commanders.”

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Published Aug 12, 2017 at 8:00 am (Updated Aug 12, 2017 at 12:46 am)

A bad day for Bermuda

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