Jan. 7, 2002 – Monday's Inauguration Day clash that resulted in the arrest of a demonstrator and the police beating of her husband was an attempt to intimidate protesters, according to members of the United Virgin Islands Action Coalition, a group planning to stage another protest Wednesday, on St. Croix.
The coalition members claimed on Tuesday that police have employed other means of intimidation as well, going so far as to follow protesters and taking down their license plate numbers in recent days.
The Action Coalition is planning a rally in opposition to the controversial raises senators approved on Dec. 23 for themselves, the governor and the lieutenant governor. Several of the group's leaders held a press conference on Tuesday morning to detail their plans and to criticize the raises and the police actions on Monday.
Meanwhile, Delegate Donna M. Christensen warned that "the people are very angry" about the pay raises, which she said could negatively influence a fiscally sensitive federal government that will be parceling out its aid where officials feel it is most needed.
Two labor leaders, Terrence Nelson of Our Virgin Islands Labor Union and Tyrone Molyneaux of the American Federation of Teachers St. Croix local, have been the most outspoken members of the coalition. But both insisted on Tuesday that the issue is one that should be of concern to all residents, not just union members.
Gov. Charles W. Turnbull "is often described as the 'gentle giant,'" Molyneaux said. "I wish he would show some compassion in this situation." The teachers union leader said the territory's schools are without copy machines and other supplies and remain understaffed. "They are talking about education as a No. 1 priority but are certainly not putting money where words are," he said.
The group plans to meet at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday in Buddhoe Park, where a the post-inaugural ceremony is scheduled to begin at noon.
Nelson urged members of the community to come out dressed in black or wearing black armbands. "We're asking for the community to support us," he said. "Do not fear the intimidation being perpetuated by our government."
Hope Gibson, an unsuccessful St. Croix candidate for the Senate in the November elections, called the pay raises "the most blatant, unadulterated display of greed and total disregard for the people of the Virgin Islands." Wednesday's rally "will be peaceful," she said. "We do not intend to do anything to antagonize or disrupt. Yesterday's demonstration of brute force by the police was nothing more than intimidation. But we will not be intimidated."
Turnbull and members of the incoming 25th Legislature have remained tight-lipped about the raises and the snowballing public discontent, except for freshman senator Shawn-Michael Malone, who has said he will introduce legislation to roll them back.
Police Commissioner Franz Christian did not return telephone calls Tuesday for comment on the coalition's charges of police intimidation.
However, Christensen, the one elected public office holder not affected by the pay-raise legislation, spoke up on Tuesday about the raises and Monday's events. She — a member of the Democratic Party like Turnbull, Lt. Gov. Vargrave Richards and the majority members of the new Legislature — said she is "greatly concerned" that force was used during a demonstration.
"The people are very angry," Christensen said by telephone from her Washington, D.C., office. She said the governor and senators "should acknowledge the concerns of their constituency. The people who they came to and asked for their votes are asking for an explanation."
She said the pay raises come at the worst possible time. "I'll refrain from saying whether they deserve it or don't deserve it," she said of the affected officials, "but the Virgin Islands has a lot of needs that are not being met. She cited the state of education, health care and sewage treatment in the territory, adding, "I haven't heard how those needs are going to be addressed.
"After that is done, perhaps" the raises would be appropriate, she said. "But they should be put on hold until such a time."
Christensen warned that future federal funding to the territory could be in jeopardy if the raises stand, because Congress will be looking to reward states and territories that have demonstrated fiscal responsibility. "Whatever relief will be going to the states and territories is meant to alleviate financial difficulties caused by the poor economy," she said.
She said the nation's war against terrorism and the threat of a war against Iraq, coupled with President Bush's plans to cut taxes, will lessen the pot of federal cash available. "It will go to the states and territories that are the most needy," she said. Again referring to the raises, she added: "It's hard to make a case that we're needy under those circumstances."
Christensen, who was unable to attend any of the inaugural events in the territory because her own swearing-in to a fourth term in Congress was on Tuesday in the nation's capital, said her message to Crucians is: "I urge a lot of calm and restraint."
"I hope the police are circumspect in their policing of the situation," she said, referring to Wednesday's planned events. "People do have a right to voice their concern."
Then she added: "But St. Croix ain't an easy place. I'm a Crucian, born there. People are of less tolerance because St. Croix generally puts up with a lot and gets very little, and I know St. Croix's patience is wearing out."
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