Power to the people

By Alvette ‘Ellorton’ Jeffers

Power to the people! We are quite emphatic when we shout it and appear to believe in its possibility. If we did not believe, we would say power to our party executives, or to the trade union leaders, to the Cabinet, the State and church leaders. We say, instead, power to the people. There is no ambiguity in our demand to the Cabinet, the State, church leaders, and employers.

It is said that the original meaning of democracy, practiced in the Greek city-state of Athens in 5BC, translated into the power of the people. The Greek word demos mean the people and kratos is power. What is power? “Power”, as Professor Lewis R Gordon defines it, “is the ability to make things happen”.

The Athenians formed a governing body that was truly a government of, for, and by the people. Their capacity to make things happen was facilitated by the collective power they retained and exercised over the content and direction of the proceedings in their public Assembly.

In a small booklet entitled The Athenian Citizen, (1960), it describes the functions of the Assembly in this way. “…Policies initiated by magistrates and committees…were submitted to the Athenian citizens” for debate and approval. In the Assembly the citizens of Athens met to “enact legislation, to hear embassies, and to deal with such matters as food supply and the defense of the country.”

In a paper entitled, The original meaning of ‘democracy’: Capacity to do things, not majority rule, Josiah Ober of Stanford University defined Athenian democracy as the “collective capacity of a public to make good things happen in the public realm.”(p.6) The essence of the democracy lay in the way it functioned. This was the earliest form of direct democracy. There was no such thing as a parliamentary representative purporting to act on the people’s behalf. The citizens represented themselves.

When we say power to the people, it should really be a call to govern ourselves. However, our political activities undermine the possibility for this to occur. Instead of insisting on the demand we justify, by our activities, the different political regimes that make power to the people difficult to achieve.

In the first place, our governmental structure was never structured for our people to have power. The political regimes require us to surrender our power to the government and State institutions that render us, each year, more powerless. In the meantime, both State and government accumulate more power by passing legislation, which extend their capacity to act without the need to seek our approval on policies that in their implementation reconstitute how we live our lives. This is what the ALP government planned for Barbudans when they changed the 2017 Land Act. They can do this, because we endorse our own powerlessness by our regular participation in the electoral process without insisting on the changes that will make power of the people a reality. We are over obsessed with the idea that all that is required for good things to happen is continually substitute one party for the other.

A few Antiguans are beginning to understand the process through which Antiguans and Barbudans are made powerless and they are indicating this understanding. In the Faithful Nationals demonstration held just recently, three placards stood out. One read: “Executive, Legislative, Judiciary, all peas in a pod.” The other read: “We Demand A People’s Constitution.” Another read: Our ALP Constitution created a legal Dictator.” When all three placards are put side by side, they show separate individuals are identifying the totality of the problem. They are making it clear that the people are supposed to be supreme in a democracy, but the institutions of the State are a hindrance to be overcome. Politics, for these people seem to be the search for a new start.

Dr Walter Rodney writes in People’s Power, No Dictator, and The Struggle Goes On, that “Occasionally, a dictator can arrive on the scene as part of an electoral process before taking steps of brazenly undermining the self-same electoral system.” (p.6) It is not just the electoral system which is corrupted but the entire political culture. The culture acts to produce zombie-like citizens. Those who refuse to be initiated, face the ire of the State and government.

A prisoner in 1735 experiences what a dictatorial society in its extreme form is. The tools available to the State to force the prisoner into compliance with prison norms are enormous. Residents of Booby Alley will likely be exposed to a similar treatment. The State will rely on the police, and if necessary, the Defence Force to evict them.

Wane Kelly, a resident of Booby Alley knows this State power very well and has admitted to his own powerlessness when he stated in the OBSERVER of August 26th, 2019 the following: “We not ready to move but we will move because we wouldn’t really try to fight the government because fighting the government is a losing battle. So as long as they deal with us right and as long as we’re comfortable, we won’t have any problem.” A united Booby Alley would have understood the situation differently and act with authority.

Chancellor Williams states in The Destruction Of Black Black Civilization, Great Issues of A Race 4500 BC to 2000 AD, that before the emergence of empires and monarchies in Africa, Africans practiced self-government. In drawing from African Traditional Constitution and Customary Laws, he writes that their Constitution declared “The People are the first and final source of all power”. “Government and People are one and the same”. (p.99). If that were the case today in Antigua and Barbuda, Booby Alley residents would not be in the situation imposed upon them by the government. They would be a part of a local Council with full representation in the public Assembly. Nothing, therefore, would happen in Booby Alley without their participation and consent. They would be involved in the execution of the housing development. They would receive all the technical advice to make the right decisions, and they would know from the very beginning who would own the homes. The early Greeks and Africans understood the true meaning of democracy. It meant power of the people, plain and simple. Antiguans and Barbudans can learn from the Greeks and their ancestors, in how to go about constructing a system of government that is organised, run and managed by the people. That is what power of the people means and when you have the power, you do not have to demand government accountability and openness because you are running things, guided by the principle that you can only choose to do good.