The power of legitimate protest: The Parking Meter project must go.


THIS past Thursday, I joined the silent protest against the parking meters. It is no secret that I have long argued that under the two previous governments, resistance and protests were criminalised. It is one of the most unfortunate developments in our post-colonial experience. Coming out of centuries of colonial bondage when the right to resist was not recognised, one would have thought that the independence leaders would have frowned upon using the state to silence and outlaw what is an inherent right of free peoples. It is one of the unfulfilled promises of our independence—we are never going realise our full potential as a civilised society until our politicians get used to the accommodation of resistance as a central component of democracy.
I am quite aware that unchecked protests could get out of control and lead to social distress that could harm the collective. Hence, the need for the balancing act—the balancing of the right to resist and protest with the responsibility to ensure the security and well-being of the state and society. As we move into the next period in Guyana, both the opposition PPP and the governing Coalition has the responsibility to sustain that balancing act. To its credit, the current government has steered clear of encroaching on the right to resistance and protest—at least overtly. This is a marked improvement in our governance praxis that must be encouraged. Hence, the PPP should, in its quest to regain power, not unnecessarily push the society to the edge. Equally importantly, the Coalition must ensure that its policies do not border on the inhumane and its leaders avoid the kind of disrespect and unnecessary “hard-ears,” zero-sum attitude we have seen from City Hall regarding the parking meter contract.
It certainly is heartening to see citizens gather every Thursday and sustain a protest action that shows signs of mushrooming into a movement. I am not unaware that there are sinister forces operating behind the scenes to use the parking meters protest as part of its agenda to undermine and topple the government. But one should not throw out the baby with the bath-water. The presence of agents of disorder does not necessarily amount to the absence of a legitimate critical mass of people dedicated to peaceful change. I truly believe that in the main, the parking meters protestors are genuinely interested in staying the hand of the city government and not in undermining the government.
My own discomfort with the parking meter project is the undemocratic way the Council went about it. I am not opposed to parking meters both as a form of modernisation and as a source of revenue for the city. But governors must always be mindful of the socio-economic and political costs of their policies and actions. In any credible democracy, the first order of business as far as governance is concerned, must always be the consultation in word and deed of those whose lives would be directly and indirectly affected by the proposed action. Such consultation broadens the pool of opinion, enriches the democratic culture and legitimises the policy or action if it is decided to pursue it. It is commonplace to meet with elites and call it consultation, but real democratic consultation is incomplete if it does not include the wider society, especially those who are not normally consulted on matters of high importance.
The citizens of Georgetown were not properly consulted and when citizens raised their voices in protest, they were met with the arrogance of power. From that point, the project was doomed—it lacked the support of the citizens which translates into a lack of legitimacy. There is no way the situation can be normalised short of a complete scrapping of the project—there is too much bad water under the bridge.
In the context of the slew of taxation in the current budget, another relatively exorbitant financial imposition by government was bound to be rejected. These are not the days when only the rich drove cars—today many low-income people privately own cars. So, the imposition of parking meters at relatively high rates is a further assault on their already low wages. So the city leaders were off-mark when they declared that the protest is driven by the “big shots” in our midst. The “big shots” may be the organisers, but that does not mean the protest is confined to them.
It is now no secret that central Government is uncomfortable with the project. From urging reduction of the fees, to prohibiting the Council from installing meters on streets over which it has direct control to the three-month suspension, the signals are clear. There seems to be resistance from its allies at City Hall. But in the end, the writing is on the wall. The sustained protest, along with central Government’s intervention, has rendered the project in its present iteration unimplementable.