‘Homegrown’ Independent Citizens Movement Celebrates 50 Years

About 75 people gathered in Emancipation Garden Sunday to celebrate the 50-year history of the Independent Citizens Movement.
About 75 people gathered in Emancipation Garden Sunday to celebrate the 50-year history of the Independent Citizens Movement.

Arthur Joseph was still a boy – only 17 – when he witnessed Eulalie Rivera, a stalwart of the Independent Citizens Movement, pounding on a table to punctuate a fiery speech explaining what ICM means for the Virgin Islands.

The bell was tolled in remembrance of the people who helped build the ICM and have since passed away.
The bell was tolled in remembrance of the people who helped build the ICM and have since passed away.

“That vocal energy, that fire that she had, that light, it represented to me everything that we needed,” said Joseph, who, in 2002, became chairman of ICM’s territorial committee.

On Sunday, Joseph was one of roughly 75 ICM members and supporters who gathered at Emancipation Garden on St. Thomas, partly to commemorate their 50th Anniversary with a ceremony, and partly to remind the community what their party stood for. Sunday’s ceremony, steered by long-time ICM member and former senator Liston Davis, featured speeches, musical numbers, a conch-blowing ritual and the ringing of the Liberty Bell replica in remembrance of party members who helped build the party but have since passed on.

“They were able to capture the grassroots individuals in this community with just, in fact, their caring and leadership ability,” said Lt. Gov. Osbert Potter, who attended the event to congratulate ICM on the occasion.

The Independent Citizens Movement brands itself as the only homegrown, “by the people, for the people” party that was born out of frustration with the “political machine,” according to Joseph. It took root in the mid-1960’s when the Unity Party — known for its mortar and pestle logo – merged with an existing group called Donkey Democrats in a union later revealed to be ill-conceived.

“It fell apart because the Unity Party saw it as an opportunity for political and social wealth, and the Donkey Democrats said ‘No, this is not what we’re here about,’ so that internal strife occurred,” Joseph said.

 ICM Territorial Vice-Chairperson Jacquel Dawson shares the history of the party.
ICM Territorial Vice-Chairperson Jacquel Dawson shares the history of the party.

Jacquel Dawson, ICM’s territorial vice-chairperson, said that internal struggle over party priorities immediately followed the merger. For Dawson, who at a young age tagged along after her father Freeman Dawson in the early party meetings, the Donkey Democrats championed public interest, fiercely opposing the partisan and special interest politics they associated with nationally-affiliated parties.

According to Dawson, even though ICM member Bertha C. Boschulte led the Donkey Democrats in the fight against the Unity Party that ended in a 1964 lawsuit, the latter still took the Legislature in 1966, an event that ICM members called “Victory 66,” which proved to be the turning point when the Unity Party gained control. The Unity Party then shared its platform with then-Gov. Ralph Paiewonsky, who led the Virgin Islands to the National Democratic Convention in Washington and returned with the national committee’s endorsement for the Unity Party.

“They placed the mortar and pestle on the ass of the donkey, as if it were a flag raised over the country,” said Dawson.

The Donkey Democrats began the formation of what would become known as ICM. Under the leadership of Virdin Brown and Steve O’Reilly, they continued meeting in the houses of members such as Ariel Melchior, Julianna Pickering Louella Daniel and Lucille Robert.

They eventually ran their first candidates in 1968, and again in 1970, but their glory days dawned in the early 1970s, when they held as many as seven seats in the Senate.

Then Cyril E. King, whose federally-appointed position as the territory’s secretary prevented him from joining ICM in its early days, ran under the party’s banner in 1974 and won the governorship. When King died, Juan F. Luis, his former lieutenant governor, succeeded him and held the office until 1987, the longest-serving governor in the territory’s history.

Former Sen. Liston Davis, a long-time ICM member, was master of ceremonies for Sunday's event.
Former Sen. Liston Davis, a long-time ICM member, was master of ceremonies for Sunday’s event.

Today, however, ICM holds only one seat in the 32nd Legislature. Members attribute the decline to various factors. ICM Member Alma Francis Heyliger, who ran as an independent before being attracted to ICM’s agenda, suggested that the party’s tendency to simply pick the people who best represent the party’s values and skip the primaries altogether are contributing factors. According to Francis Heyliger, voters who simply want to participate in the primaries may register as Democrats to do so, strengthening their inclination to vote for Democrats in the general elections.

Joseph agreed, but while this practice places ICM at a disadvantage, the party remains opposed to publicly-funded primaries, the money for which could be diverted to other community-centered projects, he said.

Joseph also attributed the decline to the belief that voters gravitated toward the party in power, pointing to a surge in registered ICM members when the party held the gubernatorial seat.

ICM member Smokey Frett had a slightly different take, saying people rallied around personalities, not party. After King and Luis, Frett said membership support dispersed and drifted toward other political figures.

Frett is the only ICM candidate on this November’s general election ballot.

What ICM Stands For

In the current political landscape in which Democrats dominate and a small group of Republicans strive to make their voice heard, Joseph said ICM stands as a third choice, a middle-ground that can lean left or right depending on what it deems best for Virgin Islanders.

“We look at the issues, and we kind of fall in the middle,” said Joseph. “When the issue requires us to be liberal, we can be liberal because it affects the masses. When it’s time to be conservative in our values, we can be. We don’t get extreme in the ICM party.”

When asked about their agenda, ICM officials talk about self-determination. For Joseph, this means the creation of a Virgin Islands constitution and, while ICM does not advocate full separation from the United States, members say the Virgin Islands’ status as an unincorporated territory needs to be modified. The territory should have greater leeway when it comes to maintaining relationships and conducting business with neighboring Caribbean nations, according to Joseph.

“We have to come together as a people to dialogue with Congress, with the president of the United States about that ability to do that on our own, with their guidance and assistance, but certainly with our approval,” said Joseph.

The ICM platform places education at the top of the list, pushing for a school board with more control of educational policy-making and governance, and a reorganized Education Department less influenced by politicians. It also advocates home ownership in all government housing and helping prospective buyers with down payments to address the housing crisis. Among other platform items are better management of natural resources, bringing back Virgin Islands talent who left the territory, and providing tax exemptions only to businesses with 75-percent local labor.

What Lies Ahead

ICM members said they see the trend of an increasingly disgruntled electorate that is unhappy with the establishment, not only with the dominant Democratic Party, but with the independent-led administration. It is an opportunity that ICM must seize, said Joseph.

“This dissatisfaction with the establishment, with the party bosses, where a machine that does not care, a machine that does not work in the best interest of the people of the territory,” Joseph said. “ICMers must get back up with that torch, that light towel towards a future that could be bright for all people in the territory.”

Leba Ola Niyi of the PanAfrican Support Group’s lauded ICM for putting “people over party, people over profit.” He urged the party, however, to build a bigger movement as it tracks its future.

“Once you build this movement and mobilize, organize, inform and empower people, you will see some fundamental change in the Virgin islands,” said Ola Niyi. “Movement is what will bring about some fundamental change.”