A former Guyana Defence Force (GDF) electronics expert, who had given Guyanese political activist Dr. Walter Rodney a bomb-in-walkie-talkie, might have been also a member of then feared House of Israel, a cult that had beaten opponents and broken up opposition political meetings in the 1970s and 80s.
Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) member, Eddie Rodney, who is one of Walter’s brothers, recalled seeing Gregory Smith wearing the House of Israel’s black, green and red uniform. At that time, Smith had been walking on Russell Street in the company of a woman and an infant, he said.
He was at the time giving testimony at the Commission of Inquiry into the death of Walter, a historian widely acclaimed in Southern Africa, Europe and Jamaica for his writings and political activism.
Eddie said at that time he had not known that the person was Smith but recognized him in a photograph in the Catholic Standard newspaper following Rodney’s death on June 13, 1980. Eddie recalled seeing Smith at a public meeting of his Working Peoples Vanguard Party and later at two discos where he had been playing music.
The House of Israel was headed by American fugitive David Hill alias Rabbi Edward Washington. He and his flock had regarded themselves as Black Jews. Shortly after the incident, Smith went to French Guiana where he lived and worked under the name Cyril Johnson until he passed away about 10 years ago.
Then prominent Working Peoples Alliance (WPA) activist, Karen De Souza suggested that circumstantially Rodney was killed by state agents. She remembered then Prime Minister Forbes Burnham telling public meetings that his ruling Peoples National Congress (PNC) steel was sharper than that of the ‘Worst Possible Alternative’ (WPA) and that they must “prepare their wills”. Other WPA activists killed during the same period of political tensions were Ohene Koama and Edward Dublin.
“Essentially that he (Walter) had finally been killed by the government. The very seriously adversarial posture of the WPA and the PNC, the fact that two party members had been killed before Walter was killed…at more than one of the PNC rallies, the Prime Minister had been uttering statements…that people in the worst possible alternative should make their wills and that the steel of the PNC was sharper than any steel that the WPA…” she said.
She was convinced that Koama and Dublin had been killed by the police on political instructions from the government “A lot of the public attitude of the government…this is what happens when you oppose us.”
De Souza, now Coordinator of the women’s rights organisation- Red Thread, said she and fellow WPA activist, Andaiye were at home on 45 Croal Street, Georgetown when Walter’s brother, Donald, banged the door and told them that “there was a terrible accident” and they needed to go and see what had happened. On arrival at the scene, she said there were numerous members of the police death squad there whom she had managed to bypass and see Walter’s disfigured body.
De Souza said she and Andaiye returned home assisted Donald with his bleeding injuries. She said she never knew of Gregory Smith until his name surfaced.
Asked by Commission Chairman, Sir Richard Cheltenham whether the WPA had adopted violence as a policy because it was felt that the PNC could not have been removed by constitutional means, De Souza said “At one of the public meetings before he was killed, in one his speeches Walter Rodney essentially declared that the PNC had to go and go by any means necessary and that was a cry that was taken up as a popular cry.
Tracing the political atmosphere at the time Burnham’s PNC, the witness alleged that the House of Israel had targeted opposition meetings and labour strikes such as the one at Guyana Stores.
“Usually if a meeting is going to be disrupted, a group of House of Israel operatives will be transported in vehicles and they will cut the wires to the loud speakers and will throw missiles and they will lash out with sticks and start beating you and others at the meeting. That was the extent of their intimidation and they could only have done it that if they had orders” he said. Eddie said he had remembered many of them wearing House of Israel uniforms.
He said House of Israel cells and the soldiers of the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) were often engaged in acts of intimidation especially at times of industrial unrest. He remembered then House of Israel member Joseph Hamilton allegedly telling him that he would be organising workers at Mon Repos at his own peril. “They were sort of local bullies. They made it very clear that they were privileged compared to anyone else,” Eddie told the Commissioners.
Hamilton, a former PNC executive member, has since moved on to become Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Health in the Peoples Progressive Party Civic (PPPC)-led administration of President Donald Ramotar.
Eddie recalled being arrested for alleged murder hours before his brother, Walter, had been killed in the explosion on John Street a short distance from the Georgetown Prison.
Describing the House of Israel as a “quasi” religious organisation whose members were made up of “violent people”, he remembered their involvement in the knifing to death of Roman Catholic priest Father Bernard Darke on Brickdam opposite St. Stanislaus College.
In addition the general belief that police had often acted on political instructions said it was almost impossible for them to take any action at large public meetings of about 7 to 8,000 persons.
Eddie said he had observed beatings at six or seven public meetings from 1977 to 1979.
De Souza made similar recollections about the actions of police and House of Israel members at that juncture of Guyana’s political history when the PNC had espoused party paramountcy over the State including the police.