Political activist Makandal Daaga, who led Trinidad and Tobago's 1970 Black Power Revolution, has died. Inspired by Pan-Africanism as well as the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Daaga (formerly known as Geddes Granger) began agitating for social change in his own country.
Formed in February 1969 on the St. Augustine campus of The University of the West Indies (UWI), Daaga's political party, the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC), sought to challenge the status quo. That year, UWI students would also protest in solidarity with students of Canada’s Sir George Williams University, who staged a sit-in to protest unfair treatment, allegedly because of racism. With the arrival of the police, what began as a peaceful protest in Montreal escalated into one of the largest and most contentious student occupations in Canadian history; several West Indian students were arrested.
Trinidad and Tobago's government of the day, led by the country's first prime minister, Dr. Eric Williams, did not welcome these demonstrations of support, but the local movement was already underway and growing. Marches and protests were happening regularly. The government attempted to assuage the growing discontent over social inequity by introducing measures to relieve unemployment, including the establishment of the first locally-owned commercial bank. But it was too little, too late: the Black Power movement already had the support of the trade unions, as well as disenfranchised youth from poor and rural communities.
Tensions escalated after police killed a protestor. Sugar cane workers (critical to the country's then economy) went on strike. The prime minister declared a state of emergency and arrested leaders of the movement, including Daaga. This action was met with a mutiny led by certain officers of the country's defence force, who eventually surrendered.
Because of the efforts of Daaga and his compatriots, however, the status quo did change: black Trinidadians were finally being hired for positions based on merit rather than being barred from opportunity because of the colour of their skin. Daaga would later be instrumental in the campaign to have August 1 declared a public holiday, both regionally and globally, to mark Emancipation Day.
There is no doubt that his efforts and leadership contributed to significant social change in T&T. We owe him a lot.
— Patricia Worrell (@bytesdog) August 8, 2016
Other Twitter users also paid their respects:
— Trace (@pacewithtrace) August 8, 2016
RIP #makandaldaaga you have contributed a lot to the african diaspora. Thank you.
— Briele Johnson (@Itsjustbriele) August 9, 2016
Makandal Daaga was a patriot, warrior, intellectual, a man out for change who never left his Laventille. RIP brother pic.twitter.com/DTj1reGICu
— Josanne Leonard (@josanneleonard) August 9, 2016
The prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Keith Rowley, also issued a statement, saying:
He was not afraid to challenge the status quo, speak up against injustice and advocate for equality.
Over the years, Daaga continued to align himself with Laventille, the mainly Afro-Trinidadian community where he was born, and where he lived until his death. While having produced some of the country's brightest minds and creative geniuses, the area has also been labelled a criminal “hotspot”.
In fact, under the country's previous People's Partnership (PP) administration, of which Daaga's NJAC was a part, the residents of the area were targeted during a state of emergency that was ostensibly called to deal with the surge in violent crime. Facebook user Rhoda Bharath reminded people of Daaga's deafening silence during that time:
8000 persons, 80% of whom were young black males from single parent homes, were detained and arrested. No charges laid against them.
Daaga remained silent and held on to his position as Ambassador Plenipotentiary and Extraordinary.
That too has to be part of the narrative when we are examining his contribution.
The contrast between the Daaga of the Black Power era and the Daaga who was part of the 2010-2015 PP coalition government was a complete anomaly for Bharath, who longed “to hear someone dissect Makandal Daaga from 2010 to 2015…and make sense of that 5-year period and his activism in the 1970s”. Though Daaga was not vocal during the state of emergency, towards the end of the coalition government's tenure he did give a speech denouncing alleged corruption by elected officials. Upon his death, opposition leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar, leader of the PP coalition, called Daaga a “national treasure”.
In a public post, Facebook user Tillah Willah observed:
Lights all the way up Laventille Road for Daaga. They parted ways a long time ago but death has a way of bringing estranged families back together, if just to remember a time when the vision was more clear or at least the passion more strong. It's going to be a long night of many stories.
One of Daaga's proudest achievements was leading a 1970 march through predominantly Indian central Trinidad to unite Afro and Indo-Trinidadians. Then a young trade union lawyer, former prime minister Basdeo Panday took part in that march.
In a telephone interview, Ivan Laughlin, who also took part in the unity march, said that the news of Daaga's death brought back to him the importance of that “time of rebellion”.
“I took part in the Caroni march out of a yearning to discover how I could relate to and anchor myself in this place,” said Laughlin. “Even though sometimes we may have had different views, Daaga and I had to interface as two men seeking their futures; human beings searching for the realisation of what we mean to ourselves as Caribbean people.
As a student at UWI, Laughlin had been “deeply involved in student life—academically, but also politically, in the purest sense—along with other young men and women who were trying to locate themselves as we all sought out a future post-independence.” He was heavily influenced by Daaga, who was president of the student guild, and remembers him as “a powerful orator [who] had a clear grasp of the social situation at the time, and what he stood for.”
Laughlin eventually became a member of The New World Group, a gathering of Caribbean-centric educators, writers, artists and intellectuals, and became deeply involved in searching for his own roots in Caribbean society, “where race is always a major factor”. For Laughlin, this was not easy, for he was first and foremost perceived as a white Trinidadian, but for him Daaga was a person who “took risks and had a deep impact on this country and a strong belief in the way in which it should proceed—with justice and proper political involvement in society.”
In 2013, Makandal Daaga received the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (ORTT), the nation's highest honour. In considering his legacy, one Twitter user hoped that the historians would treat it “thoughtfully and respectfully”. To journalist Achsah Gulston, there was no doubt:
— Achsah Gulston (@AGulstonTV6) August 8, 2016