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‘The nakedness of our political, social, economic divide was laid bare’ – Famous

Police and protesters clash outside the House of Assembly: Chris Famous, left, at the time a Progressive Labour Party organiser, protects his cousin, then BPSU president Jason Hayward, during a confrontation at the gates with police (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

The violence of December 2, 2016 is the sole reason the day’s protests endure in memory, according to a Progressive Labour Party MP.

Christopher Famous was a PLP organiser when he joined demonstrators outside the House of Assembly on the morning that MPs were blocked from debating key legislation for the One Bermuda Alliance’s airport redevelopment.

He recalled: “No one had in their remote mind that they would be in the middle of the most violent confrontation that Bermuda had seen in the last 40 years.

“There were women wearing high heels that morning.

“We’ve had protests for aeons. The last violent ones were 1977, to the day. Two generations have never seen violent protests in Bermuda.

He said: “Had the police not shown up in force, no one would even remember December 2.”

Seven months later, the OBA were voted out of government, and Mr Famous would claim the Devonshire East seat of Bob Richards, the finance minister behind the airport deal.

On December 2, Mr Famous, who was taking photographs, saw Mr Richards and other OBA MPs being turned away from the House of Assembly.

“It wasn’t forceful. It was a peaceful atmosphere. There weren’t even that many people.

“In comparison to the Pathways to Status protests, it was minuscule. It wasn’t until about 12.30pm that we got a lot of people. Until then it was almost a non-event.”

Mr Famous, who denies politics was at play behind the call to block Parliament, noted a May 2015 poll conducted by Profiles of Bermuda, which found that almost 75 per cent of voters were opposed to “having the airport developed and run by a foreign company”.

“It wasn’t a dislike of the airport deal,” he said.

“What primarily drove people against it as more details came was that Aecon would have control over the airport for 30 years.”

He pointed out that “taxpayers were still on the hook” for the minimum revenue that the airport would have to bring in, and said the OBA was “elusive” in releasing full details of its deal with Canadian Commercial Corporation and Aecon, the contractor.

Mr Famous did not attend the People’s Campaign town hall meeting the night before December 2 but said the PLP had put out “a call for persons to come out and demonstrate peacefully – we emphasised peacefully”.

“The argument would be that it threatened democracy, but as we saw with Pathways, the OBA was not willing to give us the full story.

“What heightened the situation was the finance minister promised on public radio to give the full financial details of the contract and then reneged. That speaks volumes.”

MPs ultimately saw the full agreement in January, 2017 without a non-disclosure agreement – a move Mr Richards called “highly unusual” for a confidential business contract.

Outside Parliament, Mr Famous said the arrival of police near 1pm and the quick build-up of tensions came as a surprise.

“I don’t think police had it in mind, or the protesters. It’s just a situation that, given the wrong instructions, it went the way it went. At the end of the day, police never got inside.”

Near 1pm, police told demonstrators they were acting unlawfully and they should move.

Mr Famous recalled: “The crowd locked arms, saying ʽwe shall not be moved’.

“It was a stand-off, but clearly non-violent.

“Where it became violent was the second force that came with riot gear. They came and delved right into the crowd.”

Mr Famous said police headed to the southern gates after failing to budge the crowd.

“That’s when they started pepper-spraying, trying to pull people from the gates.

“Two officers targeted Jason Hayward [then the president of the Bermuda Public Services Union]. I was standing right next to him and I told them, that’s not going to happen.

“It sounds cliché, but from there it all happened fast.”

He said he did not believe police wanted a physical confrontation.

“They were ordered to penetrate the gates of Parliament. The only way was to go through people.”

Michael Dunkley, the former premier, stated he spoke six times with the Police Commissioner, Michael DeSilva.

Mr Famous said he believed the Premier knew in advance that the riot squad was coming.

He added: “I doubt they were talking about golf.”

Mr Dunkley has staunchly denied involvement in the decision – telling the House of Assembly in February 2017: “Police operations are in the remit of the commissioner and that’s where it stands.”

Mr Famous said he was not pepper-sprayed, but the stinging Captor used by police was a mist in the air.

“I didn’t get the worst of it, but I saw grown men holding their heads and crying. It’s a combination. It’s also shock that you actually had police attacking people.

“I can’t say I knew people would stand their ground. After the fact, when police marched off and we assessed the situation, you saw people stood their ground.

“No one ran from the gates. But with police pressing against them, you couldn’t run.”

Mr Famous said the OBA was “attempting to have something to show before we went back to the polls” with the airport deal.

Instead, the showdown outside Parliament “crystallised our racial divide”.

“You had a crowd of basically Black people being attacked by the state, not because of violence against Parliament, but because the state wanted to cut a business deal with a rich corporate entity.

“The police commissioner tried to put out that police were attacked. Nobody, not even the police, buys that. Video evidence shows police were the aggressors and people defended themselves.”

He added: “The nakedness of our political, social, economic divide was laid bare. It showed the stark divide.”

He said it was “terrible – seeing grandmothers crying was one of the worst days of my life”.

He added: “You’re shocked because you feel violated. Did this really just happen in my country?

“Seniors just got attacked for standing up. There are no words to describe that feeling.”