Thirty-eight years ago today, Parliament passed the Prohibited and Unlawful Societies and Associations Act, which many argued started one of the worst chapters in Dominica’s history.
The brunt of the Act was felt by the Rastafarian community on the island, who wore their hair long and matted, commonly known as dreads. Hence the Act was infamously known as The Dread Act.
Under the Dread Act, individuals wearing dread locks and who appeared in public were guilty of an offense and subject to an arrest without warrant. The Act protected from civil or criminal liability, any civilian who killed or injured a member of the Dreads who was found illegally inside a dwelling house. Additionally, the security forces received immunity from the law for killing members of the rastafarian movement.
The act was passed in 1974 by the Patrick John-led Labour Party administration following violent attacks by certain members of the group against tourists and farmers, particularly in the southern part of the island. The legislation was enacted in response to a mode of panic that had hit the island.
There are many reports of atrocities committed against the rastafarian community with the House of Nyabingh in Dominica estimating that at least 21 members of that community were killed during the period of the Dread Act.
Although the Act was repealed in 1985, outspoken attorney and rastafarian, Henry Shillingford, believes more should be done to educate the public on the period surrounding its implementation and enforcement.
At minimum, he is calling for an apology from officialdom for the Act which according to him, was passed in the highest office in the land. “Up to now there is not one paper, assessment, no atonement for the passing of the Dread Act,” he told Dominica News Online.
He said apologies should come from the Dominica Labour Party and the Dominica Freedom Party since the Act was passed by the Labour Party with no opposition from the Freedom Party.
But most importantly, Shillingford is calling for what he described as “an intellectual discussion and assessment” of the Act and the period surrounding it. “The University of the West Indies, the media houses and so on should come together to discuss, debate, and assess the period of the Dread Act,” he argued.
Shillingford is not the only one calling for something to be done concerning the Dread Act. The Rastafarian community in Dominica has called on education officials to incorporate lessons on the Act in schools saying that not only would this history serve as a way to let the youths learn about their country but the knowledge could be used as a tool to develop a better understanding of young people today.
“If we are able to revisit the 70’s where we were rebels with a cause, if the society is able to understand what our cause is and was and if we are able to talk through reason through that period, it might give us a better understanding for us to listen to the youths today rather than condemn them to jail and to further violence,” Peter Alleyne, a member of the rastafarian community said.
He said Dominica has never revisited and analyzed the period of the Dread Act to hear “both sides of the story.” “It was a troubling time in our history and we have never revisited it to get a true understanding of what really happened,” he said.