President William V.S. Tubman, once passing by a group of well armed soldiers in the Executive Mansion in the 1960s, told a young reporter covering him, “You have to be careful with those ones. They are mean men.”
The President’s kind and frank advice was keenly noted.
True to that warning, something terrible once happened to a young reporter, employed in the late 1960s as one of the four new recruits in the Press Bureau at the Department of Information and Cultural Affairs (now Ministry). This reporter on one fateful day was assigned to cover a political rally at Tubman Farm in Totota. While trying to make his way through the crowd to get his story, he was brutalized by soldiers and had to be immediately hospitalized. After three weeks in the hospital, this reporter NEVER returned to the Press Bureau, nor to Journalism. The three remaining new recruits also eloped the Press Bureau—and the profession.
But Tubman’s brutal soldiers, “mean men” most, did not know that there are always limits to power. Many of those same soldiers probably never knew, though few may have heard, what really happened to the great President Tubman in London on that grim late morning of July 23, 1971. None of these soldiers was around to protect their leader, the most powerful person that ever entered the Executive Mansion.
One date which Police Director Chris Massaquoi—indeed ALL police directors, all policemen and all Attorney Generals—should never forget is April 14, 1979. That was the day Baccus Matthews and his Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) staged their march, which they faithfully promised would be “peaceful.”
Then Attorney General Oliver Bright, President William R. Tolbert, Jr.’s chief Legal Advisor, misadvised his boss. Mr. Bright was a lawyer and should have known that it was the young people’s constitutional right to march. But Bright, like so many Attorney Generals before and after him, assumed a jingoistic (intolerant) posture. He went on air on Friday, April 13 and threatened to shoot, if the march went ahead. That emboldened the young people. Bright and his Police Director, Varney Dempster, started the violent reaction long before the march began. They sent police to the PAL office on Gurley Street, just behind the building now occupied by the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) and broke up the furniture, confiscated all of PAL’s documents and took them away. Despite all that, the march got underway peacefully, from Broad Street. But by the time the marchers reached the Information Ministry, approaching the Mansion, the police, true to the Attorney General’s threat, opened fire, killing three youth on the spot. It was at that point that all hell broke loose. People, many of whom had nothing to do with the march, started burning vehicles, breaking into offices and stores and looting everything in sight! Chris Massaquoi was a very young man then; but just in case he has forgotten, it is important to remind him of the aftermath.
In the end, over a hundred people had been killed and over US$100 million had been lost in the looting and destruction of property!
Remember Director Massaquoi’s warning last Tuesday, that the police would be “harsh” in enforcing the State of Emergency?
We all should beware being “harsh!”
Mr. Massaquoi most certainly remembers from history what happened to Attorney General Oliver Bright. By the time the April 12, 1980 coup d’etat occurred, overthrowing President Tolbert and murdering, by firing squad, his topmost officials, Oliver Bright had left the country for England, where he died in exile. Among those on the firing pole was Oliver Bright’s successor, Cllr. Joseph J. Chesson.
And what happened to Police Director Varney Dempster, whose men harshly opened fire on the PAL marchers? He was arrested and slammed into the Post Stockade where, at 2 o’clock a.m. one fateful 1980 morning, he and A.B. Tolbert, President Tolbert’s son, were taken away, given shovels to dig their own graves on a beach, and buried alive!
The purpose of this editorial is not simply to recount this horrific moment in Liberia’s history, but to offer Police Director Massaquoi a gentle reminder of the history of police force in Liberia and of a phenomenon only few powerful people ever remember: the limits of power.