How it Really Happened: The assault on Radio Belize re: the March 1981 Heads of Agreement
— by Hipolito Bautista
It was on the morning of a GENERAL STRIKE called for Tuesday, March 31st by the Public Service Union (PSU), to press their demand for a People’s Referendum on the 1981 Heads of Agreement signed by GOB in London, England, March 11th.
The PSU strike was backed by the Belize Action Movement (BAM), and the Youth Popular Front (YPF), the youth arm of the UDP. The Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) was also sympathetic to the cause of the popular uprising.
Noisy demonstrators began invading high schools by 7:30 the morning, including the Belize Technical College, St. Michael’s, St. Hilda’s, Wesley, St. Catherine, Excelsior, Pallotti, Nazarene, Junior High 1, and St. John’s College urging, and at times coercing, students to abandon classes and join the strike.
BAM, led by political activist, Odinga Lumumba, targeted Radio Belize, the official radio station of the PUP-controlled government of the day of Premier George Price. Mr. Price had support for the “Heads” too from the leadership of the Opposition United Democratic Party (UDP).
But the general population was clamoring for a PEOPLE’S REFERENDUM. And their calls were being ignored.
Sandwiched by Brodies and the Bank of Nova Scotia, the Albert Cattouse building was home to the Cable and Wireless telephone company and the studio and management offices of Belize’s single radio station.
The BAM group, led by Lumumba, slipped past ground-floor security under crowd cover and entered the building, intimidating and driving staff out with verbal and physical threats.
As General Manager at the time, I immediately dismissed most of our 30 staff, except for four, namely British FM project-engineer, Tim Heffernan; announcer Michael Nicholson; newsman Manolo Romero; and music librarian, Gladys Vasquez as a skeleton operation staff.
At the same time, I also called out for beefed-up armed security, and Lumumba and his invading party quickly exited without further incident.
We proceeded to lock and secure our third-floor premises and reported our situation to Permanent Secretary Michael Hulse by telex machine for more secure communication with our Ministry.
Mr. Hulse allayed our fears, saying the Police and BDF had the situation in hand and under control and that peace and calm was prevailing in and around Albert Cattouse.
Almost on cue, demonstrators attacked our third floor with what appeared to be a battering ram and proceeded to pummel the door, hurling insults and personal threats for greater effect.
Repeated requests for Police and BDF to clear protestors from in and around the building fell on deaf ears. Alternatively, I turned to the BDF posted on the roof, but they were unable to leave their assigned posts.
Then suddenly, the vicious attack on the door was suspended, and an armed BDF officer, ITZA by name, arrived at the entrance and asked to be let in. After due diligence, we let him in. Surprisingly, he was escorting a PEOPLE’S DELEGATION who wanted to negotiate a shutdown of our radio transmission. The delegation included Sandra Coye, Nuri Muhammad, and Beresford Bulwer. They argued that it was necessary to avert greater chaos, injury and perhaps loss of life. They even suggested there might be a bomb already hidden in the building.
I advised them to address those concerns to P.S. Hulse, since I was unable to entertain it. Unsuccessful, they left, but not before praying for our safety, and escorted out of the building by Officer Itza.
The thrashing of the door continued after they left and so were my pleas for greater security, which never came. And the noise and chaos outside grew with every passing minute.
The hinges of the door began to slacken and I realized the great danger that meant for our volunteer staff and newly-installed and expensive FM equipment on our floor.
I proceeded to inform Engineer Heffernan it may be necessary to shut off transmission until help arrived. I would give him the signal.
Estimating the door would hold for maximum another fifteen minutes, I informed P.S. Hulse by telex. Of course, he objected and threw a tantrum.
The original time expired without response. After which, I gave the P.S. an additional 10 minutes grace. Then I gave the final order to Mr. Heffernan: PAUSE TRANSMISSION UNTIL HELP ARRIVED.
It worked like a ruse. Immediately the transmission was discontinued, the assault on our main door stopped and our attackers fled the building to join a celebration at Central Park. Their applauses and jubilation came in waves.
Their rejoicing was interrupted, however, by the arrival of British Military Police in riot gear. Barking instructions the likes of a military parade replaced crowd-applause as all escape routes for protestors down Regent and Albert Streets were blocked by baton-carrying soldiers. Demonstrators and spectators alike were boxed in on four sides. And from the safety of our third-floor windows in Albert Cattouse building, an ominous silence fell.
Booming explosions broke the quiet and ricocheted off the walls of surrounding buildings as the British riot squad fired multiple volleys of tear gas canisters in quick succession, choking all demonstrators and spectators, including us. One canister found itself inside our building and sent us scrambling for face basins.
The entire operation lasted a meagre three minutes and the streets in four directions remained eerily empty, except for abandoned human debris like discarded clothing, tennis, hats, and umbrellas.
We resumed our transmission and regular programming at 3 o’clock that afternoon.
Governor James Patrick Hennessey declared a State of Emergency at 3:2O.