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SALAAM: Beetham’s urban violence: can we kill our birds of prey with a big stick?

I would have liked to write a comical or even a satirical piece but Mr Live Wire has a patent on those types of columns.  And, frankly, I don’t think the Editor would have allowed anything I wrote in that vein to be so much as edited for publication, far more to actually see the light of day.

Besides, on reflection, I came to the conclusion that the issue facing us is emphatically no laughing matter.

So I am left with little choice but to stick to the tried and tested format to seek to make sense of the growing urban—and, to a lesser degree, rural—violence which has always been, in theory, a major concern for governments and policy-makers.

Photo: A fiery protest at Beetham Gardens in 2012.
(Courtesy Anonymous Motorist)

The increased urbanization of the last two decades has converted this issue into an even more pressing one. Current levels of violence—gang violence in particular—which we have now grown accustomed to seeing impact negatively on the social development of our population and undermine the very foundations of the society.

Gang violence has destabilized the overall governance of the environs of the city, such as Sea Lots, Beetham and Laventille, which have degenerated into “war zones,” ensnaring already dispossessed citizens in a dangerous cycle of poverty.

Poverty is, of course, no excuse for lawlessness, let us be very clear about that, and I am not condoning the lawlessness displayed in Beetham last week. But when we observe so-called exemplars of our society almost ritually getting away with breaking the law, when we repeatedly witness favouritism and bias in the justice system—from top, mind you, to bottom—we understand the frustration and anger that may drive the ordinary citizen to overreact.

Prime Minister Keith Rowley did not see overreaction; what he saw looked to him a lot like anarchy. I submit that the PM needs to deal not so much with symptoms but with causes; he needs to look beyond surfaces to concede that oftentimes violence and “anarchy” stem from lack of opportunity and lack of development.

The link between violence and development is not just in my head. “Violence,” says the World Bank, “can have strong, negative impacts on economic development by drastically reducing growth and producing long-lasting detrimental social impacts.”

Photo: Port of Spain South MP Marlene McDonald (second from left) poses with alleged gangster Cedric Burke (third from left) and President Anthony Carmona (fourth from left) after her swearing in ceremony as Minister of Public Utilities on 30 June 2017.

Obviously, the World Bank is not speaking specifically of Trinidad and Tobago. But if you’ve lived here long enough, you know that what they say has merit. You know that the politics has greatly influenced what these communities have become.

Beetham, Sea Lots and Laventille are communities on the outskirts of the capital that have been exploited and abused by myriad politicians since before Independence. These are communities ostracised, stigmatised and estranged, communities largely bereft of basic opportunities and social outlets and amenities. For too long, they have been promised jobs, vocational and technical educational programmes, improved infrastructure and an equal share of the national patrimony.

No government has, however, delivered on those promises, not even the one for whom they have voted overwhelmingly in every election since the mid-50’s.

Listen carefully to Singing Sandra’s “Voices from the Ghetto.” “They christen their heroes Renegades, Desperadoes,” she sings.

I transcribe the lyrics with capital letters but do the young men who inhabit these communities? Do they perhaps believe that they have to fight for what is their fair share of the national wealth? Is it possible that they genuinely believe that, if their basic needs are not being met, their only option is to take matters into their own hands? Do they perchance perceive violence as a credible means of getting what is rightfully theirs?

Photo: RSSR coach Marlon Phillips (far left) and his players pose with their silver medals after the RBNYL Under-15 final at the Hasely Crawford Stadium on 1 July 2017.
Looking on (far right) is Republic Bank manager Anthony Subero.
RSSR draw their players from Port of Spain South and Laventille West including the Beetham Gardens.
(Courtesy Allan V Crane/CA Images/Wired868)

In other words, where Government—or whoever—does not provide for their needs, they are justified in meeting their needs by any means necessary, including violence and crime.

According to the Johannesburg-based Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, “The climate of fear and distrust created by chronic violence can become so entrenched that it engenders additional violence, which then is justified as defence.”

So pushed against the wall by years of dispossession and neglect, left to use their own limited talents to build enterprises that give them a chance at survival, the angry, bitter and disgruntled young men in these communities see themselves as fighting fire with fire. And easy access to guns and drugs, high levels of alcohol consumption, school truancy and unemployment exacerbate the degree of violent behaviour.

So what is needed is not the dismissive, authoritarian response we have seen from the PM and the PNM politicians. What is needed is a comprehensive, multi-level response calling for greater coordination between Government and civil society.

We will never be able to reduce the coercive power of so-called “community leaders” until and unless we embrace genuine community elders who can speak authoritatively for all. We must encircle and give the latter the tools to create their own self-awareness and generate and enhance genuine pride in their community.

Photo: Morvant residents enjoy their first taste of Pro League football as Morvant Caledonia United and San Juan Jabloteh battled at the Morvant Recreation Ground on 16 October 2016.
(Courtesy Sean Morrison/Wired868)

It is only by replacing the criminal culture that now informs much of the action in these communities with a new validating culture that we shall make it possible to move forward. Only if this new culture emphasises opportunity, positivity, personal progress and public and private support will we be able to leave behind once and for all the urban violence that exploded in our faces to such spectacular effect last week.

But my guess is that, once he has access to all the potentially punitive and repressive resources of the State, we as a people will have a problem convincing the Prime Minister of that.

About Salaah Inniss

Salaah Inniss
Salaah Inniss is an ardent writer with an enthusiasm for bringing insightful views on national issues. He graduated from Cipriani College in Environmental Management, and is presently working in the Integrated Facilities Building Service Industry. He is an empathetic supporter of conservation and the protection of the environment.

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8 comments

  1. The writer suggests the government and civil society should meet. Who are you referring to specifically as civil society? clarify for me please.

  2. I agree with your point of view. different strokes for different folks

  3. “So pushed against the wall by years of dispossession and neglect, left to use their own limited talents to build enterprises that give them a chance at survival, the angry, bitter and disgruntled young men in these communities see themselves as fighting fire with fire.”

    Who has been more neglected than persons from Moruga, Cedros, Icacos, Biche etc? Persons from Cedros have fewer opportunities, have been neglected more and are more exposed to firearms and illicit drugs than persons from Beetham, yet look at the glaring difference in community behavior.
    Beetham residents have much easier access to educational and employment opportunities than many persons in this country just by their geographical location, yet they do not utilize the opportunities they get.

    The persons who were being stoned on the highway were persons who got up early, spent money for transport, endured heavy traffic, enter POS, work and face traffic and transportation woes again, to reach home at night and prepare for the next day.

  4. I read your article and must pose this question to you in the light of your findings that nothing to date was provided for the residents. Whatever happened to the technical college that occupied the old rum bond on the Eastern Main Road? Where people from the very area it was meant to serve not only stole instruments but even murdered on the compound. Their own foolish attitudes keep denying them a better standard of life. They are their own enemy #1

    • Its very very confusing how some people expect the Gov’t to feed us….send us to school .
      ..teach us proper manners….show us how to dress….teach us how to raise our kids.. show us how to live peacefully with each other…teach us to aspire to better living standards…
      Its real sickening….
      My guess is that enough $$$$ has passed through this community in the past 8 years so as to make living much better than it is now…BUT……
      They choose to mix up their priorities….they choose to spend like there is no tomorow….they choose to support crime and so called Leaders who only live like Kings and advantage people…they choose to rally behind men who abuse and disrespect their teenage daughters…they choose to dwell in a world of make believe where poverty is a badge to be worn proudly and gives them the authority to do as they please…
      Wake up people….all of us are feeling the squeeze… If we all fight for RIGHT we cant go wrong….
      UNITY is COMMON SENSE….

  5. Seeds of anarchy are starting to bear fruit. Beware my brother!

  6. Beet-them isn’t that what they teach in schools?

  7. If the bog stick doesnt work they can always rely on the raining of bullets.