Supporters of the incumbent Unity Labor Party (ULP) administration in St. Vincent and the Grenadines had hoped that it would be another very successful and peaceful town hall meeting, as was always the case when Prime Minister Dr. Ralph E. Gonsalves visited New York on previous occasions.
But while many would argue that last Saturday night’s town hall meeting at the Friends of Crown Heights Educational Center in Brooklyn, was again extremely successful, others, or most, would also say that it was very far from peaceful, and even downright disrespectful.
Additionally, many would venture to say that it was the most hostile and acrimonious town hall meeting that the prime minister or any member of his administration has ever encountered in the Big Apple.
Before Prime Minister Gonsalves’ entry into the expansive hall, at about 7:30 pm, a handful of picketers, protesting the administration’s rule, had gathered on the nearby streets. They were largely peaceful.
But the antagonism – some would say, “out of the blue” – erupted inside almost two hours after the Vincentian leader delivered his address in which he gave a general overview of his government’s stewardship.
After Albert “Ziggy” Tannis, a former national cricketer, asked, during the question and answer segment, a question about the need for the government to issue “Certificate of Citizenship” to nationals, a young lady, giving her name as Miranda Wood, of the town of Layou, took to the microphone at the center of the hall.
Wood, who was, clearly, one of the protesters outside, at first donned very large, white-framed spectacles, as though to hide her identify. But she later removed them, when questioned by some members of the audience.
She said she was neither a supporter of the ULP or the main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), but was a “no P” – no party – as Gonsalves alluded to earlier in his address.
While Wood’s first question about whether Deputy Prime Minister Sir Louis Straker – who and his wife, Lady Linda, had attended the town hall meeting late – had renounced his United States citizenship was greeted with much objection from the ostensibly partisan audience, her second – more unexpected – claim was greeted with consternation, bewilderment, embarrassment, outrage and antagonism primarily by ULP party supporters in the standing-room-only meeting.
“I’m here as ‘no P’,” Wood said. “I represent St. Vincent and the Grenadines…,” claiming she was sexually assaulted “all over and over again,” without stating when, where and by whom.
As the cacophony sought to drown Wood out, one woman — who was later discovered to be Wood’s friend and town native – was heard shouting: “Let the girl talk; freedom of speech.”
Then, the discomfort reached a crescendo when Wood made the most serious allegation about Prime Minister Gonsalves.
Addressing the Vincentian leader directly – who was at the podium on the elevated stage; his wife, Eloise, sitting to his right at the head table – Wood blurted out: “I am a young lady. I was 15 years old when I walked up to your office, and you attacked me.”
While Wood did not state how she was attacked, most in the audience could not believe their ears. Some hung their heads down, while others put their hands on their jaw, but most shouted back at Wood, disputing her allegation.
It took a few minutes for the moderator of the town hall meeting, Vaughan Toney, president and chief executive officer of the Friends of Crown Heights Educational Center, at the urging of some members of the audience, to restore order.
Amid the dissonance and serious allegation, the prime minister stood at the podium, remaining very calm and composed.
Then, he simply answered Wood: “You made an allegation, and it’s not true.”
He then proceeded to answer Wood’s other query about Sir Louis: “I happen to know Louis Straker is not a citizen of America.”
Sir Louis did not speak at the town hall meeting, but he and Lady Straker walked out shortly after a calypsonian, shockingly, blurted out an “F bomb” when asking a question.
It was not clear what was said to Vincent Kennedy, who carries the calypso sobriquet “Groovy D,” while he was asking his question, but Kennedy, who suffered a stroke a few years ago, lost his cool in issuing the profanity, taking his seat immediately afterwards.
His outburst left the audience in shock, and it took some doing by the moderator to restore calm.
Despite the firestorm of allegations and outbursts, Prime Minister Gonsalves, as is customary, proceeded to give detailed answers to a slew of questions that ranged from allegations of medical negligence at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital in Kingstown, the Vincentian capital, to land acquisition, to law and order.
The town hall meeting that started at about 7:30 pm ended at 11:17 pm.
Many, however, stood around past midnight, as the prime minister — whose primary mission to New York was to address the United Nations General Assembly Debate on Friday — greeted them and listened to their personal concerns.
“One of the things I learned from Dr. Gonsalves tonight is how to handle pressure,” said Sehon Marshall, former deputy New York consul general, now a minister counsellor at the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Mission to the United Nations, in giving the vote-of-thanks.
“Despite pressure, he maintained his composure,” added Marshall about Gonsalves.
In the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s town hall meeting, many ULP and NDP supporters took to the social medium, Facebook, to voice their opinions.
As expected, NDP supporters hailed Wood’s allegations, while ULP supporters denounced them vehemently.
Some ULP supporters also posted photos of Wood warmly embracing Prime Minister Gonsalves, at a town hall meeting, at the Friends of Crown Heights Educational Center in 2014.