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Five years later, and no closer to the truth

David Burt, then the Opposition Leader and now the Premier, at the December 2, 2016 protest (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

In July 2019, David Burt gave a passionate speech in Parliament about the infamous December 2 protest – an event he had helped organise two-and-a-half years earlier when he was Opposition Leader and which had already spawned three separate inquiries.

Recalling how demonstrators were pepper-sprayed by police, the Premier told MPs and the listening public: “This was actions of violence which was perpetrated against Bermuda and there is an attempt to cover up the persons who are responsible.

“That is my view, and until this Parliament and/or the Government – the people’s representatives – are given information to the contrary, that will remain my view.”

He went on: “It is my thought and opinion that this is a very elaborate cover-up and somebody doesn’t want to know the truth of what happened this day, and it is our responsibility to continue to search for that truth, on behalf of all those persons who will forever remember the trauma which they experienced on December 2.”

As far as The Royal Gazette can tell, the Premier has said nothing publicly on the "cover-up“ since.

Yesterday, he told the Gazette: “ … I maintain that the truth of that day’s events is yet to be told.”

Of course, since March 2020, Mr Burt and his Cabinet have been busy dealing with a pandemic and an economy in free fall, so it is understandable that his promised quest for the truth may have had to go on the back burner.

But if anyone has had the chance to delve further into the events of that day and unravel this “very elaborate cover-up”, they have yet to say anything about their efforts.

It was not very clear from the Premier’s remarks to Parliament who would be doing the digging or what exactly they would be looking for.

Ever since the protest, he and his Progressive Labour Party colleagues have alleged that a shadowy “someone” was responsible for the ugly scenes that took place – an individual (or individuals) in a position of authority who instructed police officers to suppress the people with heavy-handed tactics, including pepper spray, to ensure the airport deal went ahead.

Mr Burt said two days after the protest that Michael Dunkley, then the Premier, “must urgently address how and why riot police and pepper spray were deployed against Bermudians exercising their democratic right to peacefully protest”.

“The blame for this dangerous escalation rests squarely on the shoulders of his government and I urge him, in the interest of peace, to immediately provide these answers to the voters of this country.”

Mr Burt said on December 7, 2016: “The only persons to blame for what took place are the officials who ordered armed riot police to engage peaceful protesters who were assembled.”

Deputy Premier Walter Roban, when he was deputy Opposition leader and shadow national security minister, said the public was being “kept in the dark by the country’s leadership as to the identity of those who were informed prior to the execution of police orders which harmed peaceful protesters”.

Mr Roban called for clarity on “who had knowledge of the planned actions and who gave such orders that resulted in the escalation of the situation”.

Derrick Burgess, the PLP MP who warned police during the most heated moments of the protest that "people with ammunition“ might be on their way, last year accused Government House of giving ”approval“ to the pepper-spraying of seniors.

These are disturbing and serious claims – but their veracity has not been established by the three investigations.

The first, an independent peer review by the National Police Coordination Centre in the UK, determined that Bermuda Police Service commanders did not prepare properly, did not have the necessary training to deal with large-scale protests and made some bad decisions on the day. The BPS says it has now addressed these failings.

The second, a report only 11 pages long from the independent Police Complaints Authority, blamed mismanagement by senior officers for the brief, violent chaos that ensued outside Parliament but exonerated the individual officers who used Captor spray, concluding that they did it of their own volition.

The PCA was subsequently sued by 23 protesters.

But rather than let the parties have their day in court, Mr Burt’s Government opted to settle the matter with a raft of non-disclosure agreements and a quarter of a million dollars of public money.

The final report, the release of which prompted Mr Burt’s comments, was from a joint parliamentary select committee and was 50 pages long, plus annexes totalling almost 90 pages.

One of its key findings after an 18-month inquiry behind closed doors was that the PCA got it wrong and that the officers who used pepper spray were told to do so.

That finding was based on video footage in which an officer at the scene could be heard saying: “Captor now, all of them, all of them.”

The bipartisan committee also referred to potential “pressure or influence” behind the scenes from a puppet master – the so-called Platinum Commander – but gave no answer on who this was or what they did to engineer events.

If a further inquiry is needed – as the Premier has insisted – it need only hone in on the morning of December 2 and the conversations that took place before 1.15pm, when police in riot helmets marched to Sessions House.

The reports, plus documents released under public access to information, provide a breakdown of that time frame.

But they do not reveal the smoking gun the Premier and his colleagues believe is out there.

As leader of the country, today might be a good day for Mr Burt to outline how the truth can be got at and how he will ensure it happens.

Unless, of course, he does not really want the curtain to be pulled back. From a political perspective, it may be more convenient to let a mythology persist; it would not be the first time that has happened in Bermuda.

The Premier’s time might be better spent focusing on some of the important issues that December 2 threw into sharp relief, such as the societal chasm that leaves some seeing the protesters as freedom fighters and others viewing them as unruly anti-democratic lawbreakers.

The events leading up to December 2 and the day itself have left an indelible mark on Bermuda and the public and the people injured on that day deserve more than unproven allegations. They deserve the truth.

Mr Burt could also find ways to make joint select committees work better than the December 2 one did and to look at whether the underfunded, volunteer-run PCA – which does not even keep minutes of it meetings, as the Information Commissioner recently confirmed – is equipped to properly investigate complaints about the police.

It is one thing to stand up in Parliament with righteous indignation and talk about uncovering the truth but quite another to figure out what tangible change is necessary and how you will effect that change.

Five years on from December 2, 2016, the latter would surely make for a breath of fresh air.

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Published December 02, 2021 at 7:47 am (Updated December 02, 2021 at 7:45 am)

Five years later, and no closer to the truth

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