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.
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.
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?
“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.
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.