Riots remembered four decades on
Today marks 40 years since the island’s last hangings unleashed the worst social unrest in modern times.
Glenn Fubler of the group Imagine Bermuda has organised a gathering at City Hall to mark the anniversary with the theme that “every life is precious”.
Mr Fubler said equal rights to the vote and the theatre boycotts of 1959, which marked the beginning of the end of segregation in Bermuda, were examples of peaceful change.
But Mr Fubler said in 1977 “a frustration was set off in part by global events, such as what was happening in America, and the element of injustice”.
He added: “Looking at it from an activist standpoint, the people most negatively affected are the people closest to the bottom of society. There was also a failure of leadership at a certain level. It’s complex.
“We have one force bringing us together and another pushing us apart. Our choice as a community and civil society is to look for ways to effect the needed change without crossing into self-destruction.”
Today’s event will also mark the loss of life that accompanied the unrest inthe Seventies.
Social activist Gladwin Simmons said the 1977 outbreak of violence was a sign of the times.
Mr Simmons told The Royal Gazette: “Much has come of the past. We’ve moved forward in many respects, but not to the point where we could be, should be and need to be.”
He said the mood of the 1970s was “charged, politically and racially”.
Mr Simmons added: “It was very different from now. It would be a mistake to say that the social and political atmosphere in Bermuda now is not charged, but it’s different.”
Erskine “Buck” Burrows and Larry Tacklyn were hanged on December 2 at the former Casemates prison in Dockyard.
Burrows was sentenced to death for killing police commissioner George Duckett in 1972 and the murders of Sir Richard Sharples, the Governor, and his aide-de-camp Captain Hugh Sayers in the grounds of Government House in 1973.
Larry Tacklyn was acquitted of the Government House shootings but both men were found guilty of the 1973 Shopping Centre murders of Victor Rego and Mark Doe.
Mr Fubler said the pair might not have hanged if circumstances had been different.
He explained: “Had the timeline been longer, I don’t think the hangings would have taken place.”
Mr Fubler organised a petition against the death penalty to the Foreign Office in London, but Mr Simmons said appeals for clemency were doomed.
He said: “I never had any doubt. I couldn’t see the Crown not bringing some closure to their satisfaction — some deterrence.”
He added that part of what stoked the upheaval was the hope of a stay of execution.
Mr Simmons said: “There was an all-out effort by Lois Browne-Evans, Leader of the Opposition, to prove their innocence and to advocate for rescinding the death penalty.
“In many ways that set the stage for a building anticipation that, at the very least, should Larry and Buck be found guilty, they would be spared.”
He added: “We had the civil rights movement and entities like the Black Panthers and the formation of the Black Beret Cadre advocating for social change, equality, equal rights and justice.
“Identity was being sought in many ways, and you had different sprouts of spiritual growth, with entities like the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Islam, Rastafari.
“It was a very progressive time, a very movement-oriented time. People were agitating for substantive, positive, meaningful change.”
Mr Simmons added: “The murders were a clear indication of that tipping point. Larry and Buck, like myself, were not part of the Berets or the PLP or any other entity, but were nonetheless sensitised and engaged in the same social concerns present here and throughout the diaspora.”
Mr Simmons said he was imprisoned on a robbery charge, of which he was later found not guilty, and got to know Tacklyn in jail.
Mr Simmons added: “I knew Buck, who was a little older but not in any social way. I knew Larry intimately, he would be approximately the same age as myself.
“Larry was animated and serious about life. Like myself and many others, he carried a fire for life and change, and he was looking for a way to progress. Larry was a youth. In 1972, when the first of these murders took place, Larry had to be 22 at the most. He was barely out of his teens. He had lived no life.”
Mr Simmons said he felt “liberated” after his court acquittal in November and socialised on Court Street, which became the epicentre of the riots.
He added: “Up to the very last moment people were hopeful there would be an amnesty, reprieve or some last salvation. Appreciate also that Lois Browne Evans was running her case that these men were innocent. Up to this moment, there are people who feel they were innocent.”
Mr Simmons added: “It was no surprise for me that people would erupt.”
He said: “One of the signs was when a white guy, very familiar with the area, for whatever reason felt it safe to venture on to Court Street. He didn’t get far before he went back.
“People were looking for objects to vent on — anything foreign to that area. A Chinese restaurant became a casualty.
“People were looking for a release of vengeance against what they felt was the taking of innocent lives to appease the power structure. That energy just proliferated from there.”
Mr Simmons said: “An unfortunate thing about social phenomena is that the initiators are not the people that you see.
“You see the people at the forefront of an organisation, but the impetus that brings further mobilisation is not them.
“They harness it, and in many cases distort it.”
Mr Fubler added: “Remembering that ‘every life is precious’ preserves lives, but also optimises the potential for each life lived.”
Today’s gathering for “reflective dialogue” will be held at the Bermuda National Gallery, from 2pm to 3.40pm.
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