Seasons of discontent: The protests that preceded December 2
The December 2, 2016 protest was not the first mass demonstration to take place during the One Bermuda Alliance’s term in office.
A number of rallies were staged in the months before that day.
On July 15, 2014, there was a massive march on Government House in protest at the Governor’s decision not to approve a bid for a Commission of Inquiry into land grabs. About 2,000 people were estimated to have attended.
On March 25, 2015, hundreds of protesters interrupted a sitting of the Senate to demand a “bipartisan, collaborative dialogue” on immigration reform. Police ordered the public to leave the Cabinet Building after Senate president Carol Ann Bassett brought proceedings to a close for two hours.
Government senators left the room as a chanting, singing crowd packed into the chamber of the Upper House, shortly before debate was to begin on the Bermuda Immigration and Protection Amendment Act.
In a Facebook post on February 5, 2016, the late Walton Brown, Opposition MP, branded new immigration proposals from the OBA Government as “b******t”, saying: “There is no longer space to discuss and negotiate. This is the time for direct action. Civil disobedience. I will consult with other like-minded people and we will act … as early as next week. Are you in?”
On February 17, 2016, chanting protesters shut down a public meeting to discuss the changes to immigration policy.
Home affairs minister Michael Fahy was shouted down as he spoke about the proposed Pathways to Status Bill at the Anglican Cathedral Hall in Hamilton and he closed the meeting early on the advice of police. The legislation would have allowed those who had lived in Bermuda for 15 years to apply for permanent residency and those who had held permanent residency for 20 years to seek Bermudian status.
A crowd of hundreds demonstrating against the immigration initiatives packed Parliament Street outside the Government Administration Building on February 25, 2016.
On March 1, 2016, about 30 protesters temporarily blocked half of East Broadway from 5am as an act of “civil disobedience”. The group was rallying against Pathways to Status. Mr Fahy condemned their actions as “unacceptable”.
Michael DeSilva, the Commissioner of Police, said the demonstration placed officers in a difficult position, and they were reluctant to use heavy-handed tactics. He said some of the behaviour demonstrated might have constituted the offences of unlawful assembly or obstruction.
There was more to come that month. Demonstrations over five days saw hundreds gather outside Parliament, with a nine-hour blockade on March 14 preventing the House of Assembly from sitting and debating the Pathways legislation.
The police did not attempt to gain entry to Parliament through the crowd and Governor George Fergusson said afterwards that they got it right.
“The law should not be broken,” he said. “However, it is not always sensible for the police to apply zero tolerance at the time, especially when emotions are running high. There was a risk of violence … despite the good efforts of the protest leaders to prevent this, and violence would have had serious consequences for the whole community.”
PLP MP Chris Famous later told Parliament that those who gathered saw the OBA’s immigration policy as an attempt to give “people of European descent mass advantage over Black Bermudians.”
He said: “I was one of those first people over the wall that Monday morning, along with others who locked arms, willing to die for this country to stop that policy … There were no riots. There was no pepper spray.”
The Government backed down on the Pathways Bill.
On December 1, 2016, David Burt, the newly appointed Leader of the Opposition, urged supporters to demonstrate the next day outside Parliament against controversial airport legislation.
The call was made by him in an e-mailed flyer and reiterated at a packed meeting held that evening by the People’s Campaign at St Paul’s Centennial Hall.
He said: “ … 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.”
Some residents also received a “robocall”. OBA MP Scott Pearman later recalled in Parliament: “My wife and I came home to our house to find on our phone answering machine the melodic voice of the former Leader of the Opposition, now the Premier, David Burt, on my machine, telling me what I should do the next day on December 2.”
The police knew about the meeting, the flyer and the robocall from intelligence received late on the evening of December 1, according to an operational order released to TheRoyalGazette in response to a public access to information request.
The BPS redacted the references to Mr Burt from the op order when it first released it in 2017 on the grounds that its inclusion could endanger safety.
But they were included in a 2020 disclosure on the orders of Information Commissioner Gitanjali Gutierrez.
By 8am on December 2, protesters had gathered outside the precincts of the House of Assembly after police officers secured the entrances to the Parliament grounds.
The crowd had swollen to several hundred by 9am and was preventing Government MPs and members of the legal profession from entering Sessions House.
The House proceedings which should have begun at 10am could not take place. Meanwhile, the number of protesters continued to rise.
Jason Hayward, then the Bermuda Public Services Union president, brought a group of members to join the protest at about 12.45pm.
At about 1.15pm, police in riot helmets arrived at the House of Assembly and tried to force their way in through the main entrance on Parliament Street.
After failing to do so, officers tried at 1.20pm to break through the line of protesters at the Church Street entrance, where they pepper-sprayed protesters.
Those hit by the spray could be seen nursing their injuries on the roadside at 1.30pm.
Mr Burt and Bermuda Industrial Union president Chris Furbert addressed the crowd at 2.20pm and protesters were told the House would not sit until the next week.
Mr Burt, who became Premier seven months later, told the Gazette: “To see riot police come out, to see senior citizens pepper-sprayed from behind, it’s a sad day, and someone will have to answer for today.”
Randy Horton was the Minister of Public Safety in December 2005 when it was announced that incapacitant spray – named Captor – would be introduced by the Bermuda Police Service.
He said then: “The men and women of the Bermuda Police Service deserve every protection during the execution of their duties.”
Eleven years later, Mr Horton, the Speaker of the House of Assembly, stood in his office and watched police officers march in riot helmets to the grounds of Parliament, where a demonstration organised by his fellow Progressive Labour Party colleagues was preventing Parliament from sitting.
Moments later, as they tried to gain access to Sessions House, the officers began using pepper spray on the crowd.
It was the first time the spray had been used on protesters.
“I was stunned when I saw the police coming,” Mr Horton later said.
Captor was brought in to give officers better protection when dealing with a serious and immediate risk to themselves or the public.
Its main ingredient is capsaicin, found in chilli peppers, and it has a range of 15 feet, leaving no permanent damage to those affected.
Jonathan Smith was the Commissioner of Police when it was introduced and hailed it as a significant addition to the BPS’s safety equipment.
Mr Smith commented on social media after December 2, 2016, noting that: “Advance approval can be given to use the incapacitant spray – but when it is used, it is solely up to the individual officer to use it in compliance with the training and policy guidance.
“In other words, another officer cannot 'order' an officer to use the spray – the individual officer has to justify each and every use.”
Seven months later, Mr Smith served as election day campaign manager for airport protester and PLP candidate Chris Famous.
Mr Famous unseated Bob Richards, the Cabinet Minister responsible for the airport deal.
Jeff Baron, the Minister of National Security on December 2, 2016, was a former public order tactical adviser in the Bermuda Police Service.
It was suggested at the time that he had trained officers in the use of pepper spray while in that position but Mr Baron declined to comment.
He said: “ … operational control of the Bermuda Police Service is a matter for the commissioner and currently it would be inappropriate to comment extensively on operational matters.”