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Unity Day Ceremony Spurs Remembrances, Sparks Constitutional Debates

Oct. 1, 2006 — St. Thomas resident Jahweh David summed up the reason several dozen people gathered Sunday in Cruz Bay Park, St. John, to observe the second-annual V.I. Unity Day.
Reading from a poem she wrote called "Unity," she pointed out that the word "unity" starts with the letters U, N, and I, and plays on the words "you" and "I."
"Let us create a unified front of love, of respect and of prosperity within our community," she read.
Another poet, Akin Chinnery, read his poem about the reason St. John observed the first Unity Day on Oct. 1, 2005.
"The rape, beating and near death of our sister, Esther Frett, still matters," Chinnery read.
At the 2005 event, hundreds of people marched through Cruz Bay and attended a rally to demand answers in the Frett case.
On Sept. 15, the FBI — which Chinnery called the "Fascist Bureau" — and the U.S. Justice Department released their report on the investigation of Frett's case. The agencies concluded that no hate crimes had occurred, but did not say whether Frett was raped.
This Unity Day event also included speeches on Contract Day, the day plantation workers renewed their contracts for the coming year. On Oct. 1, 1878, 30 years after slavery was legally abolished, St. Croix workers rose up in protest in an event that came to be known as the Fireburn.
"White man's paradise was the black man's bottomless pit," said St. Thomas resident K. Leba Olaniyi. He said it took unity among those workers to foment the rebellion.
St. John resident Gilbert Sprauve proposed that the commemoration of Contract Day replace Labor Day as a holiday.
The event also featured a discussion of the upcoming Constitutional Convention, with Tregenza Roach of the University of the Virgin Islands outlining the process.
This convention marks the fifth time the Virgin Islands has attempted to forge a constitution. The last time was 1980, but voters failed to ratify it. Roach said that effort lacked a public-education campaign, which this one will include.
Voters will go to the polls in July 2007 to select 30 delegates to the convention, according to Roach. Thirteen will come from the St. Thomas/St. John district, with two of those St. John residents. Another 13 will hail from St. Croix. There will also be two at-large delegates from each district.
Those delegates will have until July 2008 to come up with a constitution, with the law requiring that two-thirds of them come to an agreement, Roach said.
Delegate Donna M. Christensen said that a constitution will not cure some of the territory's major issues. She said that many of those issues, including hate crimes, are already covered under local law. Communities across the country grapple locally with issues such as development and affordable housing, Christensen said, insisting they cannot be solved in the Virgin Islands by drafting a constitution.
Preliminary findings by the U.S. Congress' research services indicate the territory can implement municipal government, Christensen said, but more research remains to be done. She said this issue would not be covered under the V.I. constitution.
While the territory has issues with the National Park Service, Christensen said, the only major changes that can come about require a change in status. She called status a different issue, running the gamut from statehood to independence, with shades of association with the United States lying in between.
Former Sen. Stephanie Scott Williams disagreed. She said the territory can work simultaneously on status and the constitution because they are parallel issues. The territory's residents should elect officials who share their views on the constitution, Williams said.
The territory needs to take the need for a constitution just as seriously as it takes Carnival, Williams insisted.
"We need to treat it like Carnival, and we need to fund it like Carnival," she said.
Visit the Constitution2008 website to learn more about the Constitutional Convention.
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