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A milestone in our long journey

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Ugly scenes: the infamous Belco riots on February 2, 1965

I recall that on February 2, 1965, as a 15-year-old student at The Berkeley Institute, smelling a whiff of a pungent odour at the school early that morning. Students and staff soon realised that it was teargas that had been blown from the nearby Belco plant — a result of a violent conflict at the picket line, which had been active for more than a week.

The “grapevine” was working overtime regarding the unprecedented Belco crisis that exploded on that Tuesday. It proved to be a challenging milestone in the long journey towards social progress in Bermuda. While details of that period — including February 2, 1965 — can be found in a number of sources, notably The History of the Bermuda Industrial Union by Ira Philip, let me offer a few points of reflection.

Seventeen police officers required treatment at the hospital, while some protesters received treatment elsewhere. After the incident at Serpentine Road, protesters gathered in their hundreds at Devonshire Recreation Club.

The dispute centred on an effort by the BIU to represent about 90 Belco workers — outside of plant — who happened to be Black. The company insisted that any ballot for recognition should include the administrative, supervisory and inside plant personnel, who, owing to the long policy of segregation, were White. This monopoly represented the power in the island, both in terms of electricity and, more importantly, political might.

The context of these circumstances would include:

• Belco’s board members included Sir John Cox, Sir Bayard Dill and Sir Henry “Jack” Tucker, who had been among the most powerful men in Bermuda for at least two decades — a most regressive period when only 7 per cent of the population could vote

• This group had effectively stymied an E.F. Gordon-led labour movement’s attempts in the 1940s to end segregation and establish basic democracy via “one person, one vote”, thus ignoring recommendations from the Foreign Office in London

• The genius of the peaceful Theatre Boycott in 1959, which began the end of segregation

• The success of the Campaign for the Right to Vote, led by Roosevelt Brown (Pauulu Kamarakafego) and others, resulted in Jack Tucker reaching out but bargaining in bad faith. Sir Henry agreed to offer the right to vote, but when it was implemented for the 1963 General Election, only those 25 and over could vote and landowners had a “plus” vote

One can only imagine that during the attempt to represent the employees at Belco, the track record of the directors was a source of much frustration. So that when Sir John announced that he was leaving on a trip to England, and that there would be no negotiations until his return, that proved to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

Late afternoon on February 2, 1965, a group of us youngsters from North Village walked over to Devonshire Rec, which was serving as a sanctuary of sorts. Upon arrival, the tension was palpable: hundreds were gathered and they carried pipes, sticks and other makeshift weapons.

When the formal discussion began, speakers outlined the circumstances and urged a return to calm. That theme was pursued into the evening and it became evident that the tension was subsiding. Most effective in this regard were Brother Ottiwell Simmons and the Reverend Vernon Byrd, then the pastor of St Paul AME Church. I do recall that by the time the group of us returned home, we were satisfied that, notwithstanding the circumstances, things would be worked out.

While the BIU was unsuccessful in representing workers at Belco, one outcome was that it successfully unionised a number of other companies soon after. These included the Bermuda Telephone Company, hotels and some construction companies

Workers at Belco formed their own union — the Electricity Supply Trade Union — which was led by Chuck Renaud. There were some residual bad feelings between the two groups that lasted for 15 years. However, in May 1981, when the BIU invited support for a general strike, Renaud led members of the ESTU to Union Square, joining hundreds of teary-eyed members of the BIU and the Bermuda Union of Teachers. (Additionally, senior police officer Campbell Simons, whose service dates back to the early 1960s, played a key role in the peaceful resolution in 1981.)

That all demonstrated an arc of reconciliation that had taken a decade and a half, but offers important lessons for us today as we negotiate 21st-century challenges.

Glenn Fubler represents Imagine Bermuda

• Glenn Fubler represents Imagine Bermuda

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Published February 03, 2023 at 8:02 am (Updated February 03, 2023 at 8:02 am)

A milestone in our long journey

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