“My greatest disappointment is the youth, meaning that when you see the level of crime that has overpowered the young people, and that so many of them have become criminals.”
Raffique Shah knows of which he speaks when he expresses his disappointment with our young people. At 24, he was a lieutenant in the Trinidad & Tobago Regiment, with two years of military training at the RMA Sandhurst: “the national centre of excellence for leadership.”
In 1970, the world was awash in revolution. Young people were marching against Vietnam, and Caribbean students occupied the ninth floor of the St. George Williams University in Canada to protest a racist professor. That incident inspired students at UWI to march from St. Augustine to Port-of-Spain in solidarity. An action that sparked what become to be known as the Black Power Movement.
Shah says that action and others that were happening here were more than just Black Power, it was People Power.
“It was difficult for us to escape that here once one was intelligent, one was thinking, and one had a sense of justice for the people in this country,” he says.
He and his colleagues felt they had no choice. If the people were caught up in the winds of necessary social change, then they in the defense force, had to be prepared to protect the people from the establishment, which was threatened by their action.
They felt so strongly about this that they were willing “to put their lives on the line to ensure that the government did not use them against the masses.”
That was the foundation upon which they built their mutiny. Shah and his compatriots revolted to prevent themselves from being used as tools by the government to suppress the people. The three leaders: Shah, Michael Bazie and Rex La Salle, were also humanists, and despite being trained in warfare, they did not want to shed the blood of their fellow countrymen. So when the Coast Guard was used to block their attempt to leave the barracks in Tetron for Port-of-Spain they retreated. They remained there for 10 days before they surrendered.
They were court-martialed and Shah given a sentence of 30 years. He only spent 27 months in jail because he won his appeal. They all did.
Despite the anti-climatic end, he is proud of his action, though perhaps a bit brash, it was part of a series of events within the Black Power Movement, or Revolution, that had a lasting impact. “It forced the government of Eric Williams, Dr Eric Williams to take certain measures that yielded victory of sorts by bringing the colour question to the table,” Shah says. In the years since opportunities that had been previously blocked to citizens because of their colour were opened. From beauty pageants to banking, opening the door for Janelle Penny Commissiong to become the first black women to win the Miss Universe Pageant in 1977.
For Shah, the lessons of Black Power still resonate today. He remains proud of the 24-year-old who had the courage to stand up for what he believed in. That he and his compatriots were able to have values they stood firm to, despite the consequences: arrest, court-martial, and come out on the other side to effect positive change in this country.
Which is why he is so disappointed in our youth. He says in 1970 national unemployment was around 15 per cent, but youth unemployment was as high as 25 per cent. He says now is the time for young people to show their patriotism, their intelligence, and get involved in action to change the status quo. Shah says he and his men felt a responsibility to give back to the people because it was their tax dollars that sent them to Sandhurst. Which is why they were involved in plans to create a series of youth camps that were supposed to lead to vocational, and possibly Army Reserve training for nationals. It never materialised.
He remains a critic of the way the Defense Force is used, or not used. Trotted out only for mostly ceremonial functions. He says these are some of the most highly trained people in the country, they should be used more often to offer assistance regularly not just in times of crisis, as we are in currently fighting to ward off the spread of the novel coronavirus, but they can be used in technical, social and community-based action.
As he said in 1990 at the UWI’s Black Power Conference, and again during this interview, the Army should be integrated into this society. It should be removed from “non-essential guard duties” and be allowed to work more closely with citizens, not apart from them.