On Marches and Morals

In the brief and hushed lull that can be found in the aftermath of the two marches that have been held on the streets of Road Town, observers (like myself) may fall into the trap of comparing these two protest acts by virtue of their size, their gusto, their organization. I think though, that such comparisons may miss the mark and weigh the scales of success too heavily to one side.

The first march was a production of much skill. It carried that element, production, and was clearly a machine. The organizers were clearly shrewd, prepared, and driven. These several factors resulted in a massive throng of bodies not quite in lock step in all things, but solidly behind the main message of demonstrating the general displeasure of the populace with the UK government’s recent constitutional overreach in our affairs. I haven’t seen crowds like that on the streets of Road Town outside of the Rise and Shine Tramp.

I had to observe this first march from abroad, and from abroad, the images and videos of thousands of my countrymen marching were impressive. But that impression did not dissolve my few concerns about the march’s effectiveness. As a disclaimer, let me place on the record my support for the sentiment that drove the demonstration. The UK cynically overreached on the issue of public registers in the Overseas Territories. Its motivation may be inconsequential to us, but clearly with an international climate that approaches Cold War temperatures with regards to Russia on the one hand and impending trade wars with the United States on the other, financial systems that Russian oligarchs enjoy doing business with were bound to be an overt or covert target at some point. The concern I have is rooted in the perceptions of the British public (both in the UK and right here) concerning both our financial services industry and our own financial governance.

I can get past the initial questions quite easily. Why march on the Governor’s Office when our governor has said all the right things and has expressed both disappointment in Parliament and support for our financial services industry? Why march on the Governor’s Office when the governor is away? The answers I can arrive at on my own is that it is not feasible to carry the march to Westminster, therefore the only accessible symbol of British rule and therefore British overreach is the Governor’s Office.

The vast majority of people in the United Kingdom have been conditioned to see us as a tax haven, as where the wealthiest Britons hide their wealth from British taxes. At a period when austerity measures are gutting public services like healthcare and transportation and more and more Brits are falling into poverty, forcing the Overseas Territories to make registers of beneficial ownership public may seem to many like a fair thing to do. This trading of privacy for transparency for transparency’s sake by subjugating your colonies may seem hypocritical to us, but most of the Brits who will support this action will never once have to look a Virgin Islander in the eye. The fact is, the Overseas Territories have never been able to win this fight in the court of public opinion in the UK. Large newspapers like The Guardian were involved directly in the leak of the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers, and have therefore coloured the opinions of laypeople in the UK public against this industry. While UK media also covered the devastation wrought here by Irma, they seem much less interested in any of the the issues we might have now. In fact, to their uneducated reader, the Decision March may have looked like a defense of tax evasion and money laundering.

While this first march may not have moved the needle much at all as far as the UK government is concerned, it seems to have had other effects. It was a notable display of togetherness, something for many segments of the society to rally around and feel part of something bigger than themselves. In addition, the march created an outlet for the outrage that people felt to have had the public register amendment happen so quickly on the heels of Irma, seemingly jeopardizing any hope of the BVI recovering fully. There have been too few opportunities for such moments in our territory. It also appears to have acted as a platform to propel some political hopefuls – however cynical a view that is. However, I do think that the comparisons to the Positive Action Movement that both marches made rang hollow. In this instance, while Lloyd fought to protect the economic rights of Virgin Islanders, he did not fight to protect an industry that is largely populated and dominated by non-Belongers. In fact, Lloyd most likely would have had a lot to say about the small numbers of BVIslanders in the very top positions of management.

The second march was a very different animal. Whereas the first was led by individuals with impressive resumés and track records with marketing campaigns and political involvement, this second march seemed much more of a grassroots living room endeavor. The language was not as sharp, the placards not as well produced, the presentation a little haphazard. What they lacked in organization, they made up in passion. It’s possible that their platform, being more directly in opposition to the sitting government, was not as palatable to the masses. It’s possible that that platform immediately reduced the number of people to whom the march would appeal. But still, there seems to be more anti-Government sentiment than the 50 or so who turned up. Perhaps a list of 70 concerns is just too many to galvanize people behind. Perhaps Members of the House of Assembly with a historic majority won’t rush to throw support behind a march that actively campaigns against them while they would do much more for a march with an external focus.

Despite the many obvious differences (the size of the crowd, the production of the protest), both marches ended with somewhat blurry messages, and both marches were underpinned by the same central theme – morality. Both marches suggested that the government they protested had trampled upon the rights of British Virgin Islanders, that they had robbed us in some sense of our dignity by taking decisions that they knew were not in our best interests. Both marches contained suggestions of extricating the people of the British Virgin Islands from a relationship with what they saw as tyrannical governments.

I feel cursed with ambivalence. I can find much of value in both movements, I can find much to critique as well. The marches, taken in context, are I think an important step in the civic and social development of the BVI. Especially in the aftermath of the August Flood, Irma, and the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act, the marches along with the tenor of conversations taking place in newspapers and on social media demonstrate a populace that is no longer complacent. They demonstrate that the BVI public is beginning to demand certain things of their government and themselves. Both sets of organizers seem to have political aspirations and attachments but I can’t help but wonder what use the local political ecosystem will be if the society keeps changing as rapidly as it has. At some point, the conversation has to shift to a constitutional review. A new deal with the UK and a new deal for the BVI people. I think it is the only thing that has the power to grant both marches what they really want – freedom from imposed legislation and the threat of direct rule on one hand, and standards of political transparency and accountability on the other.