The Bleeding Pen Bleeds on Senator Abraham Darius Dillon, In favor of the Progressive Class of Liberia; Presents Open letter of Enlightenment and Caution Senator Dillon
Mr. Abraham Darius Dillon
54th National Legislature, R/L
As my compliment to you is withheld herein, it saddens me wholeheartedly, by your wrongful assertion and misunderstanding of April 14, 1979 government provoked demonstration after the Progressive Class of Liberia (PAL/MOJA) initially planned peaceful protest against the proposed increase in the price of a 100-pound bag of rice from $23-$30 by the Government of former President William R. Tolbert.
Mr. Dillon, protégés of the Progressive Class of Liberia haven’t had the pluck to critique neither enquiry any of you for your level of understanding about the works of the Progressive; not that you people are contextually better nor have a better struggle history to the Progressive—it because we who have read dialectics and understood that there are two groups in our Country: 1) Oppressor 2) Oppressed. The oppressor are people who pretend as if to say they are standing with the ordinary people at times and use that given situation to get elevated, you are one of the persons found in this category along with George Weah, Madam Sirleaf etc; and for the Oppressed, are people your class exploit and they can be aided by a tiny line of people who have the ability to join the oppressor and even lead them but they chose at all times to be on the side of the oppressed for the purpose of emancipating them; these people are considered in Liberia as the Progressive Class [learn this].
Mr. Dillon, the historical struggle pedagogy of the progressive is an invocation of the necessity (both empirical and normative) for human freedom. Their mission entails the contrastive of oppression and liberation, as the two polarities of the human existential condition. On the one hand, the masses are oppressed by virtue of their poverty and are unable to be themselves as free; yet they may accept this situation as fated or unalterable. The Progressive class has stood with the masses to educate them on the contrary that they may not fear freedom although at times carried risk and the potential for conflict. In addition, in situations of objective oppression and mass poverty, the rich are not free either. One of the reasons, you Dillon and cohorts disgorged lied against the Progressives is the fear they can provide knowledge to enable the poor understand the structural reasons for their poverty so that they can begin to liberate themselves and become free, autonomous human beings.
Mr. Dillon, let me borrow the quote from one of the Progressives (Andrew Jaye Jr), “Senator Dillon were you to muster the courage and discipline yourself by reading thoroughly the Liberia scholarship on April 14, 1979, you would not have ignorantly exposed your bankruptcy of the trigger of April 14, 1979.”
Senator Dillon, what you need to know before April 14, 1979 Protest
Mr. Dillon, let me make you to understand that Liberia from her foundational stage has had two fundamental problems: 1) political 2) economical. Henceforth, it the Progressive Class that has given Liberia political freedom of which you are enjoying with intellectual arrogance; what the society still struggling on is economic freedom—how, now dare you to leave your lane to cross intellectual firing range with them?
Let’s back to history, between 1949 and 1961, there were at least 12 to 15 strikes, all of them initiated and led by the workers themselves. However, the working class was still small in numbers. But from 1961 onwards, concomitant with the enormous growth in the accumulation of capital and a large increase in the number of wage-earners, the resistance of the working class manifested itself with increasing militancy. 1961 witnessed more strikes, and more workers involved in strikes, than in all previous strikes taken together. In one of these strikes, one of the few ever initiated by the trade union leadership, some 100 workers at the newly-constructed Ducor Hotel in Monrovia demanded higher wages and an end to the discrimination practiced against them by the white managers. The Ducor strikers were soon joined by dock workers and others who took to the streets in several days of demonstrations.
To this remarkable display of workers’ solidarity, a remarkable example of the workers’ ability to mobilize mass action, class responded with a swift, violent outburst. This class, many of whose leading members are themselves large anxious to put an immediate halt to this challenge to its long-established of subjecting the workers to the domination of the capitalists. The violent response of the ruling class to the striking workers was to become standard policy. While promising the striking workers a ‘consideration’ of their grievances, the ruling class was quick to call in the troops and to arrest the leaders of the union. The President was saddled with stringent emergency powers against the broad masses, and the military machine was armed with more troops and more and better guns. The back of the strike was thereby broken. The workers were therefore forced to retreat; to retreat, but not, of course, to surrender. Two years later, from 2-14 July 1963, they returned to stage one of the largest strikes Liberia has ever known. Involving some 20,000 workers of the Firestone rubber plantations, the strike closed down operations at all 45 divisions of the plantations and obliged the company to suspend purchases from Liberian farms, the largest of which are owned by government officials. Again, the army and the police were called in and the strike was brutally crushed.
Fast forward, over the period 1971 to 1974, real wages fell by 50 per cent for agricultural workers; 36 per cent in the case of mine workers; 10 per cent in the case of workers in construction and government; and 24 per cent in the case of workers in the services industry.
April 14, 1979 Protest
The question of the April 14, 1979 Rice Demonstration started with a proposed increase in the price of a 100-pound bag of rice from $23-$30 by the Government of President William R. Tolbert. The proposed hike was reportedly recommended by Florence Chenoweth, then Minister of Agriculture . The justification was threefold : 1) To encourage and jump-start the abundant production of local rice for domestic consumption and export; 2)To minimize or stop the importation of imported rice; and 3) To discourage the preference for imported rice over that which is locally produced.
The progressive groups, which encompassed the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA), the University of Liberia Student Unification Party (SUP) and the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) agreed that the reasons given by the Government made sense. They however maintained that the reasons were fundamentally flawed and unattainable under the prevailing circumstances of lack of investment capital, education and training for farmers to undertake mechanized rice farming. As such, the proposed hike would benefit the President only, since he was already enjoying the unfair advantage of monopoly as the sole producer of rice on a large scale. Most importantly, the activists, PAL in particular, informed government that rice price increment would adversely affect the already poor and disadvantaged masses. The bulk of them was unemployed and couldn’t provide a square meal for their families, let alone to buy a $30-dollar bag of rice. Also, the net pay of those employed was not enough to purchase the rice. So, the arbitrary hike in the price of the nation’s staple needed reconsideration in the supreme interest of the people. PAL brought these glaring facts and observations to President Tolbert’s attention with an earnest appeal not to implement the proposal because it would worsen the already precarious situation of the masses. But the government refused the appeal and insisted on implementing the hike, no matter who was affected.
Baccus Matthews, the head of PAL, met with the membership of the organization to decide on the next course of action. They concluded that a demonstration was necessary to create national and international public awareness. The international community needed to be informed about the negative effect the price hike in the nation’s staple would have on the already economically challenged masses who elected the government to improve their living standard, but which was bent on denying them from buying a bag of rice at affordable price.
The Rice Demonstration, which was organized by PAL and also supported by MOJA and SUP, was finally scheduled for April 14, 1979. Early that Saturday morning the crowd of protestors gathered in their thousands at PAL headquarters in downtown Monrovia. After receiving final briefings from our leader Matthews and other organizing members, the crowd began the peaceful and orderly march toward the Executive Mansion up Capitol Hill to present their petition on the hike in the price of rice to President Tolbert. While on its way to the Mansion, the crowd was joined by additional demonstrators. So the group became a sea of people before it reached the outskirts of the Mansion.
When those ahead of the crowd reached the foot of Capitol Hill, in front of the former Labor Ministry to be exact, they were stopped by heavily armed police and other paramilitary forces deployed there and also at the Information Ministry. They informed the demonstrators that the President said he didn’t want to meet with them; therefore, they should turn back. But the protestors insisted on meeting President Tolbert to present their petition, which was the objective of the demonstration. The security allegedly relayed the message to Tolbert who reportedly ordered the security forces to prevent the protestors from reaching the Mansion by any and all available means.
The next thing that happened was horrifying, shocking and unbelievable because the security forces (the police in particular), suddenly opened fire on the unarmed demonstrators. The first fatal shots were reportedly fired by Police Director, Varney Dempster. After he opened the gory sluicegate of bloodbath, his principal deputies and other senior officers, including Trokon Pritchard, Dalmeida, Peter Y. Wilson, Gerald Richards, Filmore Johnson, Samuel Killen, Major Wallace, Rocheforte Padmore, among others, joined in the ensuing mayhem. The paramilitary forces also followed suit. That’s how hell broke loose at the foot of Capitol Hill just a few blocks away from the President. And that’s how the confused crowd went helter shelter to save their lives. Many of them mustered the courage to rescue their injured comrades.
The episode was indeed shocking and unbelievable to the demonstrators because the shoot- to- kill order came from the President who was under constitutional obligation to listen to the grievances of his hurting people. It was shocking and unbelievable because Rev. Tolbert, who was also President of the Baptist World Alliance, knowingly and remorselessly violated the 5th of God Holy Laws, which forbids the willful killing of our fellow human beings. What was equally shocking and unbelievable up Capitol Hill on April 14 was the realization that the lower ranking members of the security forces whose net pay couldn’t allow them to buy a $23 bag of rice, let alone a bag at $30 and who also belong to the disadvantaged masses in whose behalf the Rice demonstration was being staged were the ones killing their brothers and sisters who were protesting in their interest.
Senator Dillon, historical accounts revealed that the AFL didn’t shoot the protestors because they knew that they were demonstrating for a just cause. So before and after the crowd went amok, the soldiers did their best to protect them. Had the soldiers joined the police and other security forces to shoot the protestors, the death toll would have been very high.
Finally, Honorable Dillon history pointed out the fact that the April 14, 1979 Rice Demonstration was peaceful from downtown Monrovia until the protestors reached the foot of Capitol Hill.
Peal Nyenkan (Ambassador)
FOUNDER, Bleeding Pen