Of dis and dat The referendum fight

The UCWI Friends of Federation was an amorphous, heterogeneous, university group that had a deep, burning desire to keep the West Indies together as one nation. If there was any individual on the campus who was opposed to the concept of West Indian nationhood, he or she was very discreet and silent.

“All ah we was one.” There were various advertisements in the Daily Gleaner where prominent citizens’ names were appended as supporters of the West Indies Nation. Rex Nettleford’s name was among the supporters and lecturers who came out in support of the students who had taken to the political platform to support our country, but he never spoke on our platform. The only lecturer who spoke on our platform was Dr Roy Augier of St Lucia. Our team was led by Michael Manley and PJ Patterson (a UWI man) who were not always present at all of our meetings.

The People’s National Party (PNP) supplied us with cars and taxis from a well-known national cab company. A hard core of us – including OK Brown of Jamaica and myself – who were willing to man a loudspeaker in Kingston every day, pushed the fight to its limit. In retrospect, I believe that we were always shadowed by a political group from the PNP. We felt safe. We were on holidays but Mr Sutherland, the news editor of the Daily Gleaner gave me a choice. Leave the Gleaner for the duration of the political campaign or remain on the staff in a non-political capacity. I chose to fight as a West Indian nationalist to save my country, rather than to work.

Only the people on campus knew that I was not Jamaican for I was a member of the Jamaica Athletic Team and captain of the University Athletic Team. I thought that my anonymity was secure when early one evening I was jogging from the university back to my home on Palmetto Avenue, Mona Heights, to prepare for a political meeting, when a man named Amadore Packer stepped from his porch on Aralia Drive and nearly blew my head off with a handgun. I thought that I was dead but knew that I was alive when I found the flesh on my head still crawling and my body still running. The resulting police bacchanal had a lot of repercussions but Dr Bowen, the dean of students, who seemed to have known Packer, took care of everything. That was my first encounter with political violence.

Among the people from whom we drew speakers were Walter Rodney of Guyana, Wahid Ali of Trinidad & Tobago, Lawrence Wells of St Lucia, Gloria Lannaman, Norman Girvan and David Fletcher of Jamaica, et al; all young dedicated people who wanted to preserve the West Indies Federation. By then, I had had the opportunity to study and observe the approach and style of Manley, Patterson and Ken Hill whom I am convinced was the finest speaker on the political platform that I have ever had the opportunity to speak to, study and observe.

I don’t know who made the decision to carry the referendum fight to Mannings Hill, for Mannings Hill, represented by Madam Rose Leon who had come to Antigua with Bustamante, was the equivalent of Parham and Newfield rolled into one when it comes to Labour Party support. When Robert Lightbourne, a front line Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) man, heard that the brash university students would be taken out at Mannings Hill, he rang Douglas Fletcher, the PNP leader of Government Business in the Senate and asked him whether his two sons had already left for the public meeting at Mannings Hill. When Senator Fletcher told him that they had left, he explained that they were in danger of being killed. So these two politicians, on opposite sides of the House, sprang into action. Fletcher rang Seivright, minister of Home Affairs and the minister rang Howard, chief of police and the Police Force swung into action.

Meanwhile, the PNP immediately swung into action and Group Sixty-nine, the action group located in Wills Isaac’s constituency of East Central Kingston took off for Mannings Hill. The JLP violence men were on their way and the PNP enforcers were also on the move to reach Mannings Hill and intercept them. A violent clash was inevitable. When Group Sixty-nine reached, they immediately fanned out in the crowd looking for their known opposites. I was sitting with other students on a flatbed truck that was parked immediately in front of the doors of an open shop. From this vantage point, we addressed the huge crowd. I noticed an unusual flurry of activity in the crowd, but did not attribute it to anything. Augier was scheduled to be the last speaker and I, second to last. I had dived into my topic and felt that I was doing well when I suddenly felt that I was alone.

Having reached a plateau in my presentation, I began driving to climb down to the end of my speech. I heard when the doors of the shop closed and on looking round found myself alone on the flatbed truck. Everybody had run for cover in the closed shop and under the flatbed truck. There was I saying, “So ladies and gentlemen, when we shall have saved our nation and …” Gloria Lannaman was shouting from inside the shop, “No Selvyn, no! Don’t stop talking, climb back up to the plateau and keep on driving. Keep talking, say any damned thing. …” From under the truck, my personal friend, Lawrence Wells was shouting, “You can’t stop. Augier is not here to replace you. If the meeting ends prematurely we all dead. The Riot Squad not here. Keep driving home your points. Don’t stop!” I made three attempts to end and every time I was about to do so, I was told “No.” I became disoriented and did not know whether I had said those words that night or the night before.

Never had the wailing of police sirens been such welcome music to frightened ears. Two black Marias loaded with police in full riot gear drove into the meeting and fanned out, ready for action. Lightbourne had saved our lives!