With the two shootings in East Port of Spain and the mystery of the San Fernando ‘kidnappings’, the uncertainty of life in our country is writ large. Fear stalks. These circumstances have the potential to paralyse the commercial life of Port of Spain on one hand and to drive deeper an ethnic wedge because of the dynamics at play in the San Fernando incident.
Who wants to be the next victim while shopping? Are the ‘kidnappings’ a symbol of governmental impotence?
Claudia Rankine, a Jamaican-born professor of poetry at Yale University, captures this present dread in her recounting of a friend who had given birth. She reports: “… before naming him, before even nursing him, her first thought was, I have to get him out of this country.”
We, too, desperately want our children to escape the commonplace horror, but getting out is not an option or possibility for most. Living is precarious and we are stuck here with the random intrusion of violent crime into our daily lives. Since we cannot all leave, let us find a way of dealing with our situation.
Firstly, we should agree with Russian novelist/philosopher Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that ‘the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor through classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart’. There are, and have been, evil people in all ethnic groups.
Neither the PNM nor the UNC can individually help us. We have tried them both and over the last 20 years, neither delivered despite the promises. Crime remains stubbornly our biggest concern.
Further, we should accept Martin Luther King’s 1963 argument that we are in an ‘inescapable network of mutuality … I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be’.
Some allow their success to make them disrespectful, like Marie Antoinette, who famously told the starving French that they should eat cake since they did not have bread, and yet expect no blowback. We keep buying larger and larger cars to push others off the potholed roads, while the public transit gets scarier.
The poor are ‘responsible’ for being poor in the eyes of others. It is true that some do things that are self-harming. But if whole swaths of our country are poor and suffering, how much of that problem is not the choices that the children make?
If you go to the pre-school graduation ceremonies in Laventille, you will see parents who have hope that their children will do better, and you would be impressed with the children’s unalloyed cheerfulness. What goes wrong?
Why was there no protest over the casual sharing of the photographs, designed to spark animosity, of the San Fernando suspects receiving emergency care? We should be offended by that clear breach of protocol, seeking to help us identify the ‘Others’ as the cause of our pain. The intent? To have us act as judge, jury and executioner, thus making us no better than the criminals among us. We need to choose to seek facts and not be swayed by those who ‘spin’ stories for easy replication in the media.
Justice is a great ideal and can become more probable once we have worked out who suffers disproportionately and who inflicts suffering disproportionately. Violence is not restricted to a blow or the final step, murder.
Michel Foucault, the French social theorist, speaks of biopolitical violence, which abandons people to death or refuses to offer them the help needed to save their lives. We face this daily in our hospitals, schools and our criminal justice system. Many die, literally and figuratively, because they have no money.
Spousal violence, criminal activity and murders are not random; they are connected events. Our spiralling crime demands that we look beyond the individual perpetrator to the social conditions that give rise to what we term as ‘hotspots’.
Reaching for an aggressive police solution is an easy but not sufficient one. We know that even as we desperately wish it were. In a video of the shootout by the CGA ruins, it was depressingly sad to view a police car casually drive past the live incident on the Bus Route, mere yards from the action. It tells us that there is no coordination—All Points Bulletin, we used to call it in the old days—for backing up the police under fire.
We also saw that the firearms used by the reckless criminals were just as effective as those used by the brave policemen. The sad reality is that in another video, we saw two under 10-year-old girls demonstrating how to load a gun. This means we will not be able to kill the young fast enough if that is our strategy.
Socio-economic inequality directly contributes to increased crime rates (Blau and Blau, 1982). Abandoning ‘Together we aspire, together we achieve’, we show off our obscene wealth to the ‘Others’ thereby producing the most fertile soil for violence. It is relative deprivation more than the absolute deprivation produced by much poverty that generates crime.
Crime is worsened when ethnic differences play into the equation. Pronounced ethnic inequality in resources implies that there is great wealth available and in view, but not in the reach, of those who are persistently poor. Our high intensity of interpersonal contact generates much potential for conflict and even murder.
Inequality breaks up home structures, further triggering the conditions for ever-burgeoning crime. Poor men do not marry. Spousal abuse breaks up homes, creating female-headed homes. These profound disruptions rob our young of basic love and make them witnesses to the violence.
The schools are under-resourced and cannot spend the time to help traumatised children. The children can therefore only get entry-level manual jobs, despite what opportunities are available. For them, the existential question is: When you are robbed of life chances, why should you fear anyone?
You are already dying. When nobody cares for or values you, you distrust all. Violence then becomes the language to express that deep-seated pain. This is a step away from gang life and murders.
We, individuals and businesses, need to fund our NGOs instead of splurging our money in ‘charity’ events to bask in self-praise. NGOs, operating in the crime-ridden spots, make a difference (Sharkey et al, 2017).
We need to fix our schools in crime-ridden areas. We need to provide support to parents who work and cannot provide adequate care for their young.
We should demand a national front—all political parties and civil society—to tackle crime. We need to help those who are less fortunate to have better life chances. This is a slower route to shutting down the crime factory, but it is needed just as much as the police action.