It was some 80 years ago on July 26, 1937 that social unrest erupted in Bridgetown. This unrest soon spread and engulfed Barbados. It later became known as the 1937 Labour Rebellion or by its misnomer, the 1937 Riots. This unrest and the resulting demands for social and economic justice ushered in a period of socio-political change that culminated in Barbados gaining Independence in 1966.
It is noteworthy that the 1937 uprising occurred some 120 years after the Bussa Rebellion in 1816 and just over 60 years after the so-called ‘Confederation Riots’. History records that the 1937 uprising in Barbados was part of a series which occurred across the Caribbean from 1934 to 1939. Most of these events were related to the dire economic circumstances that the majority of Caribbean nationals were facing under the colonial rule of the British.
The economic depression of the 1930’s was especially harsh on the working classes. Social conditions declined drastically and unemployment and under-employment rose. The crisis in these economies was exacerbated by the global Depression. Opportunities for emigration which served as a social pressure valve, were closed and these conditions created the ingredients for the perfect storm of discontent, anger and frustration.
Out of these uprisings, it is argued that many positives resulted. Among them were the emergence of stronger labour movements, greater political involvement of the masses and a stronger push towards independence. Eighty years on, we can still learn from those events. While the situations now are different, the economic and social climate has changed and conditions have improved, the lessons that can be gleaned remain.
Protest is always a tool and mechanism that is employed when an individual or society feels as though they have been unfairly disadvantaged or treated unjustly. We live in a time when protests have become common for many reasons and for many causes. Usually associated with politically-motivated reasons, protests have become the tool of the masses to get their point across to the ruling classes, political elites and Government.
Governments have been toppled, replaced and removed by protests. In many cases, it is the simple ‘straw’ that broke the metaphorical camel’s back that caused the protest to ignite and eventually erupt into full blown civil unrest.
In the last decade, the Middle East witnessed what has become known as the ‘Arab Spring’ – a series of mass movements that spread across the region changing several autocratic regimes in some countries and causing unending civil strife in others. In Tunisia, it was the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on 17 December 2010 that led to the protests intensifying and the eventual ouster of the long serving President.
Labour unions were integral in the movement for change in that country. The demonstrations were caused by high unemployment, inflation, corruption, a lack of political freedoms like freedom of speech and poor living conditions. Such was the case in most, if not all, of the countries that experienced the Arab Spring.
Other issues were dictatorship, human rights violations, political corruption, economic decline, unemployment, extreme poverty, and a number of demographic factors, such as a large percentage of educated but dissatisfied youth within the entire population. Of note in the protest movement that spread across that region was the use of social media in galvanizing the masses into recognizing the need to stand up for freedom and justice.
And such has been the experience in mass movements for political, social and economic change in many countries across the world. Social media have become pivotal in the spreading of ideology and counter-ideas and in creating movements for change. They have also been used as a tool to spread false and misleading information. So, like in most other things, the good comes with the bad and the positive with the negative.
Eighty years ago, the masses relied on leaders and activists to speak up and speak out in public gatherings or make their opinions heard through newspapers and other forms of printed literature. Authorities could close down the printeries and imprison the activists, shutting them off from the population. Today social media mean instant access to information or mis-information, whichever way you choose to look at it. Not so easy for the authorities to shut down unless one gets a really strict autocratic regime as found in a few countries in the world today.
Barbadians have again been awakened to the need for civilized protests to have their voices heard. Social media have indeed played an integral part in this awakening. It is extremely important that Government recognizes these developments and seek to understand the cries coming from an increasing number of Barbadians as to their predicament and situation.
To simply borrow a term from the Shakespeare play, Hamlet, “the lady doth protest too much, me thinks”. To ignore the reality facing many Barbadians is to commit political suicide. A caring Government will seek to engage all the people and seek in the best way possible to come up with workable solutions.
We are a small nation, with limited resources and limited means. In the past, we were complimented for “punching above our weight”. Today we are criticized for living above our means. Painful decisions, we know, have to be made. But like a great doctor who has to tell his/her patient that they have a serious disease, it must be done in the most humane way possible with the view to finding the best treatment.
Government, agreed, has the responsibility to lead. That leadership is not on behalf of themselves but on all those who live in the country. They are ultimately servants of the people who placed them there. To justify that taxes imposed on the people is by law the right of the Cabinet, is to ignore the reality that the taxes will be paid not only by the Cabinet but by all Barbadians. If those taxes are onerous on a great number of persons, then the result would be pressure, social unease and dissatisfaction.
How does a society respond to these pressures? By learning the lessons from the past to inform our actions now. We cannot afford to ignore those lessons. Nor can we afford to repeat the same mistakes.