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The open and closed doors of politics

After 50 years of sociopolitical activity preceded by a nebulous or nascent introduction through church and family, I think my tales of that experience may be of interest for those who are going forward with any political ambition. It is useful to know the materials with which you are building when considering their durability into the future.

My first recollections of the political world that hold any resonance in my recall would happen certainly somewhere around 1963, and possibly before if I include my strong memories of the Theatre Boycott of 1959. One, because I went to movies almost every weekend either at the Playhouse or Island Theatre and more poignantly because the Hill Top Block plant, which was virtually in my backyard, was blown up on the second day of the boycott.

My Davis family was fairly close-knit and very routine in holiday traditions circulating between each of the sisters’ (my aunts’) houses. Usually, the men were going to engage in political discussion. Stanley Ratteray is my first cousin and all too often they would be engaging him in political discourse. In addition, his father (Uncle Stanley) was a significant contributor to the establishment of Sandys Secondary School — hence it comes as no surprise that Stanley Jr (Sonny) eventually became the Minister of Education.

“Sonny” and my other older cousin, Erskine Robert Adams, were involved in the secret operations of the boycott. It would ultimately happen through familial relations that I came in contact with most all of the political figures that shaped Bermuda. From Mose Allen, my father’s brother-in-law, to Eddy deJean as extended family, to Arnold Francis (business partner), Walter Robinson (cousin) and Russell Dismont.

In my early teens, I had become a member of the Vernon Temple AME Church, which was central to the civil rights movement and early development of the Progressive Labour Party. I recall the relationship and seeming endorsement of Cecil Clark, who would become the MP for the area. To suggest I was issue-oriented would be wrong; at that stage, I was sentimentally involved with the general feeling of wanting to be treated as an equal, and thoughts of politics were associated with those sensibilities of freedom.

In my teens, my political heroes would have been religious leaders such as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Even the Reverend Vernon Byrd, of St Paul’s, who would have been among the real drivers that ignited my spark for activism.

In my late teens, thoughts and philosophy of life began to reshape my thinking and, still in the womb of religion, I was inspired by the likes of Louis Farrakhan while in university in New York, after which I returned to Bermuda and became a member of the Nation of Islam.

The Nation was apolitical and most certainly against political parties. Like many other faiths, they did not vote. It would be 1975 when all of that nonpolitical involvement changed; by then I had also converted to traditional Islam.

Like a fish returning to the water, I bolted to the first public political meeting in the circuit. It must have been somewhere near election time because there was a meeting at City Hall held by the United Bermuda Party. C.V. “Jim” Woolridge was the designated speaker and, naturally, he was a personable speaker whose lectures were filled with narratives and commentary about his interactions with parishioners.

I took exception with one of his tales of a Black lady who was too afraid to vote for him as a Black man, and had to be comforted by the former White politician that Jim was to be trusted. OK, I can understand speaking politically how a political endorsement can be just that; however, he (Jim) went on to say to the audience, “Don’t worry, there are plenty of Ms So and Sos out there.” He in essence he was telling his audience, which was largely White, not to worry about the election because there were plenty of persons too afraid to vote for their own colour.

Next, I heard of a meeting on Khyber Pass, in Warwick, to be held by the PLP, so I attended. Dame Lois Browne-Evans was the speaker at that meeting. Dame Lois was also known as an eloquent speaker who was popular for her tales of old parliamentary instances with the oligarchs, and she was in her usual stride. Her speech was fine; however, when questioning time arose, a young seemingly very intelligent university student put her hand up to ask a question. The gentleman sitting directly in front of me jerked his head around, eyes glaring, as if to say, “The leader, Ms Browne-Evans just spoke and you have a question?” Rather than being inviting, he looked hostile because she asked a question. The room seemed in similar mood.

The questions asked were, “Why should I join a party, and is it absolutely necessary to join a party to bring a better future to Bermuda?

Right message, wrong approach: Progressive Labour Party headquarters at Alaska Hall on Court Street in Hamilton

Dame Lois, instead of embracing her question, tore into the young lady. I recall her saying you have to choose one side or the other; you can’t be nowhere or sitting on the fence. The audience cheered her response and I left that meeting basically disappointed over another experience where a natural question could not be asked and responded to with rebuke.

One experience was with the UBP where, as a Black person, I needed to embrace a party that relies on Blacks accepting self-suspicion and another party that has a relevant message but cannot tolerate a question or being questioned. The automatic reaction I had was neither were adequate or proper, but to be of any effect in Bermuda one needed to choose the lesser of two evils — or that which was personally beneficial.

I chose to join the PLP with the mindset of assisting it to be more open, and very soon became the Southampton branch chairman. Then in 1975, the PLP was very socialist and near anti-business, as evidenced by almost every solution I would bring to the table being subject to virulent criticism and called capitalist by one of the now-deceased female branch members.

The final straw for me was when Dame Lois rejected my plea for support for my 1977 Dockyard to Watford Bridge initiative — which eventually became the Petersburg Plan that is now West End Development Corporation.

She argued: “I told you boys we have to get the Government first; that property belongs to the Government and they ain’t going to let you do anything, so concentrate your energy on winning the government.”

I remember losing it. I was never one for cursing, but did so on this occasion. I countered: “We can close the island down and support a general strike, and after weeks settle for a 15 cent raise in wage, but can’t use that same energy to demand a place directly into the market!”

I believe the “boys” she was referring to aside from myself were Wayne Brown and Dale Butler. I left the office to disappointed to return.

I became an independent from 1977 until 1991. During that stage, I paired up at times with Ronald Lightbourne, Arnott Jackson and Stuart Hayward. Although not popularised, it was a productive period during which we held forums with titles always prefixed with the word “Towards”. Intellectually, it was also fulfilling. We had a talk group that met for two hours every Friday evening at the Fidelity International boardroom. Those participants were Arnold Francis, Arnott Jackson, David Saul, Eugene Carmichael, Norma Astwood, PhD, Stuart Hayward and myself. We met religiously for more than two years and discussed every aspect of Bermuda’s social and political life.

Somewhere around 1991 after several years under the premiership of Sir John Swan, and after seeing what I considered a seismic shift in the economic environment, where the absence of Black business was becoming more apparent, I decided to join the UBP believing I could generate a Black entrepreneurial agenda from within.

A lot of the terms such as economic development zone have survived from my failed attempts from within. However, the thing that I cannot fail to say is that the order and manner of the UBP caucus was very open; it entertained a cross-section of opinion, and in fact embraced it.

One may never have gained traction, but one could not say it was because they refused to hear me. In my view, they had a built-in agenda and knew how to maintain the status quo while fending off anything which did not fit their course.

“We heard you, but we did not like what what you said meant for us.”

I never joined the OBA, so have no say on its conduct or processes. Of the two party experiences, the UBP had the better and more open process, and was far more organised — just the wrong motive, while the PLP had the right motive but a far more closed process of deliberation.

Of the three group experiences the weekly meetings at the Fidelity International were the best of deliberations and deliberative process, but was without and lacked the power of enforcement.

UPDATE: this column has been amended to correct that it was Norma Astwood who was a regular in meetings of independent minds in the Fidelity International boardroom, and not Norma Wade. The author apologises for the error

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Published March 24, 2022 at 7:59 am (Updated March 24, 2022 at 11:46 am)

The open and closed doors of politics

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