Seetahal catches Beetham bug

An eruption of fury from Beetham Gardens has again captivated and repulsed Trinidad and Tobago over the past week as the debate raged over lawlessness, police force, newspaper ethics and the nation’s attitude to its angry, poorer class.

Thankfully, on this occasion no one threatened to shoot Beetham residents and plant cabbage on their heads. Yet the Port of Spain slum clearly still has the ability to scramble the thoughts of the country’s more fortunate and educated citizens.

This time, it was accomplished lawyer and articulate Trinidad Express columnist Dana Seetahal SC who caught the “Beetham bug” and put aside her usual insightful reflections on legal issues to rail at the community.

Photo: Fiery protest at Beetham Gardens. (Courtesy Anonymous Motorist)
Photo: A fiery protest at Beetham Gardens.
(Courtesy Anonymous Motorist)

There was at least one issue surfacing in last week’s Beetham coverage that cried out for a professional opinion.

On the front page of its Wednesday edition, the Trinidad Newsday carried a photograph featuring an elderly woman yanking up her dress to reveal her underwear merged into another snapshot of protesting residents. The caption started with “photos by” but does that really constitute a warning to readers that they are looking at a doctored image?

Are there any legal grounds for censoring the newspaper? Should there not be? Should newspapers have the right to move the subjects captured by their photographers around like chessmen simply because it suits their editors?

So why not an image of Chaguanas West MP Jack Warner doctored to show him coming out of Balisier House? Or one of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar dancing in a pub or, worse, less than erect in front of a religious monument?

Seetahal had this to say:

“… some residents burnt the Newsday newspaper for printing in a composite photo a picture of one aged resident raising her dress (presumably as a mark of protest) and showing her underwear. They claim this was an attempt to cause ‘further stigmatisation and embarrassment to the people of the area.’

“At the time of writing the police were said to be investigating a report of a threat to burn down the newspaper’s office. It seems to me it is the residents by their own actions who have embarrassed themselves and reinforced the stigma of criminality, often associated with Beetham Gardens…

“While the publishing of the particular photo was not desirable, the fact is it was not concocted.”

Does “not desirable” constitute a legal opinion? And how could Seetahal opine that a doctored photo was “not concocted?” Was this a legal shuffle due to the fact that the concoction lay in merging them?

But having barely touched on Newsday’s responsibility to Beetham, its photographic subjects and to its readers, Seetahal left her comfort zone for issues of criminology and sociology.

She expressed the view that DCP Mervyn Richardson had failed to bring the situation under control, which is fair comment, particularly as motorists suffered damage to property and, worse, a child was reportedly injured as well.

Photo: The police get ready for some restrained service.
Photo: The police get ready for some restrained service.

But the lawyer made a bizarre claim as she sought to admonish the police.

“If such a protest had occurred elsewhere than in Port of Spain,” she writes, “I wonder if the policing authorities would have been so restrained.”

“Restrained?” Seetahal lists a number of criminal offences which were committed and reminds her readers that: “Not one person was arrested far less charged for any of these offences.”

If bullets over your head and tear gas in your face represents police cuddling, I might point out that, more than once this year, east Port of Spain residents were rounded up like animals and locked up for days before being released without charge.

A 29-year-old Chaguanas businessman waved a licensed firearm at a 25-year-old man accompanied by his wife and two toddlers and demanded that they vacate a parking spot at Price Plaza. He was questioned and released without the inconvenience of a night in custody.

Are such stories regarding police interaction with the upper middle and wealthy classes really that uncommon? Is that an example of the unrestrained police treatment delivered outside of east Port of Spain?

“What were young girls and children doing in the protest on Monday and Tuesday?” asks Seetahal. “Should they not have been at school?”

It is certainly a sad sight when children are involved public protest action, particularly of that nature. But might Seetahal not have pointed out that such an occurrence is not limited to Beetham? Should she not also have considered the possibility that the children were some of the hundreds, possibly thousands, who are home at present because their schools are not ready? Or are Beetham youth never affected by the failings of the Education Ministry?

Photo: So it is okay to study the Butler riots but bad to observe the Beetham riots?
Photo: So it is okay to study the Butler riots but bad to observe the Beetham riots?

“What is the rate of school drop-outs in that area and why are most of them not seizing the free education opportunities in this country?” she asks. “It is a known fact that one sure way out of poverty is through education and yet with all the stated desire to better themselves, residents of such areas seem not to bother with this option.”

Well, do tell, Ms Seetahal, what is the rate of school drop-outs in Beetham? And how does it compare to other parts of Trinidad and Tobago, particularly the dispossessed areas? Or is the learned lawyer simply trading in speculation?

Seetahal ought to know that corruption, rather than a shortage of ‘O’ levels, is closer linked to poverty and certainly costs Trinidad and Tobago much more than a few dozen smashed windscreens and the odd snatched chain.

“The fact is that for the last two decades the scientific evidence points to young African males as being predominantly involved in violent crime,” she writes. “They predominate in gangs and in the prison population. The majority of gang activity in T&T is concentrated in Port of Spain and its inner areas and nearly half the murders occur in these areas.”

Does Seetahal believe that East Indian males turned their backs on violent crime after the demise of the likes of Dole Chadee and Joey Ramiah? Or have they been forgotten altogether?

And what about the fraud charges hanging over persons involved in the Piarco Airport construction, the DPP’s failed efforts to probe Chaguanas West MP Jack Warner and the multiple reports to the FIU that lead nowhere?

Do young African males really hold a near monopoly on criminal behaviour? Or do they generally lack the expensive lawyers and political connections of the white collared criminals?

But Seetahal is not done with her sermonizing of young African males.

“Instead of calling for sustainable jobs for which they are not qualified,” she ends, “they should require focus on prevention and intervention programmes to keep their youth out of gangs and criminal activity. Then they could talk about undeserved stigmatisation.

“Instead they are proving to be their own worst enemies.”

It is unclear what “sustainable jobs” Seetahal is referring to or why Beetham residents are presumed to be unqualified for them. But neither Reshmi Ramnarine nor Hafizool Mohammed nor any of the other former State appointments with suspicious papers reside, as far as I know, in Beetham Gardens.

Photo: Reshmi Ramnarine (far right) shares a drink with Education Minister Dr Tim Gopeesingh. Ramnarine is not a Beetham resident.
Photo: Reshmi Ramnarine (far right) shares a drink with Education Minister Dr Tim Gopeesingh.
Ramnarine is not a Beetham resident either.

Is Beetham its own worst enemy? Quite possibly.

And as a community, as Seetahal notes, it is making a rod for its own back with its thuggery and unlawful behaviour.

But what responsibility do we—the professionals in the media, columnists, politicians, police et al—all have for our less fortunate neighbours? Is Beetham only a problem for the Beetham? Does everyone else simply want them to suffer in silence so as not to disturb our commutes past their community? Seetahal does not say.

There is no disputing that Beetham let itself down this week.

But, arguably, so did the Express’ legal columnist.

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  1. I just wanted to reply to Martin’s comment:

    “I also do not believe that if the majority of residents from these areas are law abiding, that they are completely unaware of who the criminal elements are in their midst.”

    I live in Block 8, John John. Yes, there. And I must say, I do not have the foggiest idea who are criminals and gun-toters in the community. I also stand by my opinion that the majority of persons in the community do not know who the criminals are either. It’s not that hard to imagine you know. When I hear gunshots in the area, my first reaction is to duck for cover in case a stray bullet comes flying through my window and kills me innocently. Unless you are a crazy person with a death wish, that would be anyone’s initial reaction. There is no way in hell I am getting up and peeping to see who is firing so I can report them to the police. Call me a coward if you want but I intend to live for a very long time if I can help it.

    The thing about criminals is they don’t go around announcing “I’m a criminal, here I am.” How the hell are we supposed to know who they are? Because they live next door? Recently in the U.S., a man was discovered to have held two young women captive in his home for over a decade. No one knew. The neighbors were clueless.

    Of course there are those that may know, but believe you me, they are the minority. This is why when some “bad boy” gets killed by the police, the community erupts in protest. They aren’t trying to protect any criminals. They honestly may not have known the person was involved in criminal activity and always knew him to be a good person and are crying out for what they perceive to be injustice. This was the image he portrayed to them, while he may have been a murderous madman behind closed doors. Don’t say the majority know. We do not. Or maybe you should come live here for a couple of years and observe for yourself. Then you may be able to formulate an opinion based on first hand observation and not on biasness.

    • Thanks for your comment, Camille, and I want to encourage people who live in this community to share their thoughts with us on not only life there but also the stigma given to residents and to suggest what makes things better and what makes things worse.

  2. That picture on the front page was distasteful, but the behavior of the residents was just as distasteful. It is about time that some of the residents in those areas in Port of Spain, take it upon themselves and try to rally around each other, and look at the actions of what transpired that day. Allow that day to be a turning point of that STAIN which is placed on those areas. Some person or persons must get up and make a difference for the communities.

  3. I’m really tired of people apologising for Beetham and related areas. The facts point to most of our murder and gang members living and coming from these areas.

    These same people destroyed property, and injured children on the road with their stones and whatever else they threw. They have a history of robbing and in some cases brutalising motorists who dare to pass on that stretch of the highway, and they do so sometimes on a whim.

    Yet we as a society are supposed to give them every leeway simply because of where they live and their social situation. They should all have been charged, and in some cases jailed for their behaviour and actions.

    I do not for one moment believe that the individual who was shot was not involved in crime, and that the allegations of involvement in serious crime are false. I also do not believe that if the majority of residents from these areas are law abiding, that they are completely unaware of who the criminal elements are in their midst.

    I don’t believe that the mothers, girlfriends , fathers , friends and others who come on television are unaware of the lives their associates have brutally cut short, often with multiple bullets.

    I am very sorry, but empathy and sympathy go only so far, and Seetahal called a spade a spade. The mentality of the residents of these areas is proudly displayed for us all to see in their words and in their actions. Who is to blame? Perhaps the successive governments who have enslaved these populations with psychological dependency. Perhaps it’s the world. Perhaps god is to blame. Maybe it’s the easter bunny. One thing I am sure about, is that who’s to blame is irrelevant for our short term.

    Finding someone else to blame, does not change the results of their actions and how they impact our society. These young men choose to take a gun, and choose to rob someone, then turn back and shoot them after getting what they came for. They choose that. Their women choose to hold guns for them, they choose to remain silent about their crimes.

    Trinidad and Tobago has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the world, coupled with one of the lowest detection and conviction rates in the world. And it is a fact as stated in that article that persons living in those areas are responsible for committing those crimes, and pulling those triggers.

    Or is it that the facts are being questioned, or the proportion of murders and murderers is being questioned? It’s either true that the majority of our murders are committed in and around, and by persons in those areas or not. And if it is true, why all the deflecting questions? Is the writer trying to have readers believe that the reason for these proportions is simply that the young african male can’t afford good attorneys? Is that where we have reached, that far from seek to convict and prosecute we are busy making excuses because of defunct tribal allegiances? Those same young “african” males will shoot and murder their “african” brothers without a second thought, and they have been doing so! I am under no illusions that the colour of my skin will save me from a bullet, and I hope the writer doesn’t think so either!

    I simply cannot agree with positions that seek to provide succour, and apology to those that continue to perpetuate lawlessness, violence and murder on our society. All talk of those who are really responsible is sheer sophistry which we can ill afford in our situation.

    When a murderer faces the judge, the judge does not say that because of circumstance he was right in murdering a family, and raping the women for $15000 and a car. That isn’t the balance that is weighed when the heinous crimes that are committed in our country are tried. Why then are so many of us willing and eager to apologise for those who themselves are not sorry? And those who in fact think they have a right to take from the population, and to murder as they see fit?

    My sympathy and empathy are for the hundreds of thousands of citizens who are victimised and put through mental torture daily by the actions of these “few” who are primarily from those areas.

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