Interview with Bukka Rennie
This period, February to April, marks 40 years since the Black Power Movement erupted on the streets of Trinidad in a prolonged season of protest that brought together large sections of the national community under the banner of “Africans and Indians Unite” and threatened the government of Eric Williams which responded by jailing protest leaders and imposition information censorship. In the process, several young people who declared themselves freedom fighters, were gunned down by the police after the declaration of a state of emergency.
To mark the moment, the Trinidad and Tobago Review last month began a series with a look at the event that triggered a UWI student solidarity march that precipitated the February Revolution in Trinidad. That event was a confrontation between West Indian students at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Canada.
The following is the second-part of an interview conducted with Trinidadian Bukka Rennie who had a front row seat at both the student lock-in at Sir George and as a participant in the 1970 black power protest in Trinidadian. The interview was conducted on November 26, 2009 on the campus of the University of the West Indies at St. Augustine. He was interviewed by Dick Goddard, David Johnson and Michael West.
BUKKA RENNIE PART II
WEST: Let me ask you about Leroy Butcher?
RENNIE: Yes. That is my closest friend.
WEST: What role did Butcher play?
RENNIE: Yes. Now that is another kind of person. Butcher is a St.
Lucian, but if you hear him talk and behave, you wouldn’t believe he is St. Lucian. You’d believe he’s Trinidadian because of his whole approach. He was the real bulldog.
WEST: He didn’t like Rosie either? [Laughter]
RENNIE: Yeah. Leroy used to be probably the best orator we had on the team. This is something he used to practise long before he left St. Lucia, because he always had dreams of being in politics in St. Lucia.
WEST: So you’d put him down as the leading orator?
RENNIE: I would say at the time he was the leading orator. We had another guy who was also good, but the only problem with him is that whenever he came off the platform, he used to ask you what he say. [Laughter]
WEST: He used to ask you what he say?
RENNIE: Yeah. He say, “wha’ I say, boy?” So we were never sure whether he used to be conscious when he up on the platform. But, you know, some people have different methods. But in terms of analysis and what not, being able to communicate an analytical understanding of what took place, I think Butcher was definitely the most effective spokesman on that team.
WEST: There was a brother named Kennedy Frederick?
RENNIE: Yeah, Kennedy. Other people would differ with me and tell you that Kennedy Frederick was the leader. But that is because they were not on the inside. Kennedy was very charismatic—a nice guy who had charisma…..
He would, on a lot of occasions, when they’re before the press, the seven of them, he would be the one who would talk on behalf of the small group of people who were directly involved. There is a guy from Jamaica called Douglas Mossop who is now a doctor out there. Who else? I don’t remember. Not all of them involved themselves fully. They were there like just in the scene; when you mention their name they will come forward and bow. But Kennedy was the man who spoke on their behalf at all times. So he became the recognized front man. What happened with him is that when we were arrested…Now, let me explain this to you, eh.
WEST: Before you get to the arrest, can you talk about the blow up on that Tuesday morning?
RENNIE: On that particular morning? The 11th of February?
WEST: How did that come about?
RENNIE: Well, we weren’t getting anywhere, and then we decided to escalate.
WEST: Meaning what?
RENNIE: Escalate meant to take some more floors. So we were up on the ninth floor, in the Computer Centre, and we decided to go down and take the eighth, the seventh and the sixth floors.
WEST: By yourselves? What about the white students who were supporting you?
RENNIE: The white students—everybody was involved. We make decisions—Shaka and the small committee that ran things inside the Computer Centre during the occupation. Shaka put me in charge of security. I was the one who was monitoring all calls coming in and out, and was able to kick out a few people who were passing on information and what not. So I occupied an office right to the front of the Computer Centre, and I had a little staff that worked with me, and we would be checking and double-checking everybody coming in and out. Because it is a situation, remember- it’s madness, eh, plenty people, you know, constantly moving in and out. That is why I’m saying it was over 300 people. I don’t know if they had attempted to arrest all 300, how many more Trinidadians would have been involved. I mean plenty. We decided to escalate because the thing wasn’t going anywhere.
So we escalated and we barricaded the escalators. I and my team took all the fire axes off those floors, and put them inside the Computer Centre.
That was one of my instructions. It probably is one of the things that saved our lives eventually. At one point, when they realised that we had taken all the axes, the police came, not confrontational, but they came.
Whoever was in charge- the Superintendent or Lieutenant or whoever he was—made a case for the axes to be returned. They could bring a charge against us for removing the axes, they argued. So I gave them back all the axes, except one that was hidden under the skirt of a particular lady. So the police pretended at that point to be amicable. That is when most of the people who were in the Computer Centre left and went home.
WEST: This is the night before the blowup?
RENNIE: Yes, this is the night before.
Goddard: So you were the core, those of you who remained behind?
RENNIE: We were the core. We said we would stay inside the Computer Centre and make sure the agreement is signed. We saw what was presented to us by the university administration, we went over it, we agreed to it, and it was to be signed by both parties [the administration and the students].
That is all. We were then going to leave the Computer Centre and go home. While we were awaiting the return of this signed document, the full riot squad arrived to take us out of the building.
GODDARD: They knew at that point you were severely weakened. Most of the people were gone.
RENNIE: A few of those guys were waiting for me in a club, and I was wrapping up things to go and meet them. Next thing they heard, well, the whole situation blew up. The point about it is that the police attacked from in front. They locked the back door from behind, which we didn’t know. The only door- that other way out- they locked from behind, and we didn’t know.
WEST: From outside?
RENNIE: From outside. We don’t know how the fire was started, but the point about it, the fire started up front. When we ran to the back, the door was locked from outside, so we had no escape. People started choking.
Then we used the axe and chopped the door down. If we didn’t chop the door down, we probably would have died in there. Probably, their intention was to burn us to death inside the Computer Centre. Who is to say? People were on the streets shouting, “burn, niggers, burn!”
WEST: “Let the niggers burn,” one placard read.
RENNIE: “Let the niggers burn.” Yuh understand! And that one, single, solitary axe saved us.
JOHNSON: How many of you all were in there?
RENNIE: About 92 of us. Now everybody got arrested.
WEST: Ninety seven.
RENNIE: Ninety seven. Forty-something West Indian and the rest white.
WEST: So you were like minister of security or something?
RENNIE: Yeah, I was. I was given that responsibility.
GODDARD: You realize that if you hadn’t held back that axe?
RENNIE: I wouldn’t be around talking to all you now. Probably none of us.
WEST: When the police locked you up, you were marched out the building, I take it.
RENNIE: Yeah. They broke the glass. Of course, it was sub-zero that morning, eh, and they broke the glass, and we were there freezing- some of us with very little on. We were inside, we were wearing light clothing.
WEST: So how did the police behave?
RENNIE: Well at that point… I remember one person. There was a girl from Bermuda called Coralee.
WEST: Coralee Hutchinson.
RENNIE: Coralee Hutchinson. She was slammed. Her head was slammed against a wall by one of the policemen. Subsequently she died as a result of a tumour in her head. Some people say it’s related to the slamming. I can’t say. I am not a medical person. But we did send some police to the hospital.
WEST: You fought?
RENNIE: Yeah, yeah, we fought back. There were endless empty beer bottles around.
WEST: You haven’t said anything about the women. There were a lot of women in there.
WEST: What role did they play?
RENNIE: Ann Cools.
WEST: Remember when they asked Stokely Carmichael what role women were going to play in the movement, he said they would be prone.
RENNIE: They would be-?
WEST: They would be prone, that is, they’d be on their back.
RENNIE: No! No! No! Ann Cools, Brenda Dash, all of them, Brenda McGee, a whole lot of them…. they were involved and they were part of the entire process. Ann was the kind of person, if she had to do anything, she did it. You didn’t have to ask twice. I have always said that she’s probably one of the more effective organizers I have ever met. She’s a person I can’t recall ever having to be pulled up for not doing something she had volunteered to do, or was designated to do. She was always on the button with whatever she had to do.
WEST: Have you seen the book, The Computer Centre Party by Dorothy Eber?
RENNIE: Yes, Valerie Belgrave and her husband, I recall, were two of the West Indians who spoke to that woman.”
WEST: Oh, is that so?
RENNIE: We, i.e. Robinson, Ford, Butcher, Barrow, McGee, Dash etc. took a decision that we would not let this woman(Dorothy Eber) exploit our situation, write a book and make money off us and none of us was to talk to her. I cannot say whether the Belgraves and others like Mossop and Terence Ballantyne were ever aware of that decision taken by the leadership core.”
RENNIE: I was going to tell you about Walter Rodney and when we went to Ottawa. It was a very interesting point. Remember, after the Black Writers Congress Rodney [who was teaching at UWI-Mona] went back to Jamaica and was put on a plane and sent back to us in Montreal.
WEST: No, no, he wasn’t put on a plane; he was kept on the plane on which he arrived and sent back.
RENNIE: He didn’t even come off.
WEST: The Jamaican authorities wouldn’t let him off.
RENNIE: Right. Then we started organizing lecture tours for him in Canada. A whole lot of us left Montreal and went to the Jamaican Embassy in Ottawa, and we stormed the embassy. That is when Kennedy Frederick, as we say in Trinidad, played himself. When we got to the embassy, they allowed us in, and we went in, all of us. The Jamaican ambassador got up and read out a whole long treatise about Rodney’s activities in Jamaica, and why they saw it fit to ban him. We told Rodney to reply. Rodney jumped on a chair and delivered a speech, boy. Good lord! I don’t know.
You see, boy, when you not aware that you’re creating history? That speech, man! That speech should have been recorded. I remember he started by saying: “Could you imagine me, a son of Africa, a child of the Caribbean being banned from the land of Garvey?” He started his response with that.
When he start that response the ambassador sat down, and Kennedy hit him a slap: “Get the f*** up.”
WEST: Kennedy slapped the ambassador? [Laughter]
RENNIE: Yeah. He hit him a slap and say, “get up!” [Uproarious laughter]
GODDARD: The emotion.
RENNIE: Apart from the emotion, there was also a certain level of consciousness and commitment during that era.
GODDARD: What has gone wrong that you don’t seem to get that same sense of fervour among the young coming up in the Caribbean today?
WEST: Let’s discuss that over lunch.