Noble: Pivot or perish; how T&T’s constitutional violations led to violent crime surge

Covid-19 brought an exhausting string of events. First, we had to wash our hands, and then we had to wear masks, social distance from all, then lockdown. 

To be vaccinated or not. Fear populated our every moment as we realised how little control we had over our lives. The feeling of being trapped and not knowing the next thing that would come sapped our usual zest for life. 

Photo: Can’t be too careful…
A statute of iconic chutney singer Sundar Popo in Debe is given the protection of a face mask during the Covid-19 pandemic on 23 April 2020.
(Copyright Ghansham Mohammed/GhanShyam Photography/Wired868)

We learnt to live with death. Almost all of us know someone who has fallen to the effects of the dreaded virus. 

Covid-19 had taken the place of our fear of crime. Then this week happened. The virus’ wearying brutality was intensified by the murders of two prison officers and the viral video that captured the young daughter’s distress in the terrifying moment. 

We need to ask what kind of country we are in and which direction we want to go to at this challenging moment. Now is the time for this reflection! Do we wish to postpone it again, or are we willing to confront it directly?

The best way to answer these questions is to look at the trajectory of the last three decades. It will be folly to isolate the killings and attempted assaults of the week as though it is a new thing that has come upon us. Nigel Jones is the fifth officer from the Maximum Security Prison to be killed within five years, and the 27th officer murdered over the past 30 years. 

Wave one began with the shooting up of the presidential car in 1989, followed by the murder of Selwyn Richardson (1995). These were the bookends to our infamous 1990. 

Photo: Former Attorney General Selwyn Richardson.

In the first instance, Mrs Zalayhar Hassanali was returning home. A white Mazda vehicle pulled up alongside, and shots were fired into the presidential car, barely missing the president’s wife. Prime Minister ANR Robinson swore, ‘all measures to catch the perpetrators have been put in place, and I urge the public to remain calm’. 

Richardson was shot six times and never had a chance to unholster his firearm. The two suspects were themselves assassinated. There has been hot debate about the reason for Richardson’s murder, and Dr Keith Rowley most recently referenced it. 

This first wave also saw the murder of prison officer Joey Seegobin in 2009, which prompted a fellow officer to comment: “The general feeling is that the criminals have declared war on prisons officers.”

Wave two took Dana Seetahal (2014). It was alleged that this murder was linked to the murder of well-loved businesswoman Vindra Naipaul-Coolman. One of the better narratives about this murder and its aftermath was Mr Livewire’s. 

Photo: A Woodbrook tribute to murdered Trinidad and Tobago attorney Dana Seetahal SC.
Seetahal was gunned down in the wee hours of Sunday 4 May 2014.

He noted, ‘For once, National Security Minister Gary Griffith offered the most dignified response to the assassination-styled killing. He gave no information, offered no solace or comfort to bereaved family members or the stunned public and, best of all, did not say that the people responsible were cockroaches running scared from his brilliant work as a minister. Griffith, eloquently, said nothing all.’

Significantly, this murder coincided with a heated public discussion over allegations against the Attorney General’s office involving questionable business dealings between attorneys and inmates involved in prison litigation against the State. A matter still to be resolved. 

By 2015, Prison Superintendent David Millett, who was on vacation, was shot dead within hours of a stabbing incident at the Maximum Security prison. The Law Association called it an attack on the judicial system.

It was interpreted as a message sent by the criminal element. His mother suggested that he was on a list of 100 prison officers targeted by inmates. 

Photo: An armed and hooded thug shows off his wares.
(Courtesy Wehearit.com)

In 2018, then Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith had a show of force walking through the Maximum Security prison when Prison Superintendent Wayne Jackson was brutally murdered outside his Arima home. Mr Jackson was the second prison officer killed in that same month. 

But by February 2019, the then Commissioner of Police was named a potential ‘hit’ target by gang leadership. According to the newspaper report, two opposing gangs had come together to kill the Commissioner of Police. The article quoted from a Special Branch report in great detail.  

Wave three had begun. 

How did we get here? We betrayed our 1976 Constitution when the oil money of the early 2000s gushed through our country. 

Did we adhere to ‘principles that acknowledge the supremacy of God, faith in fundamental human rights and freedoms, the position of the family in a society of free men and free institutions, the dignity of the human person and the equal and inalienable rights with which all members of the human family are endowed by their Creator’? 

Photo: Young children enjoy a visit from soldiers under the auspices of President Paula-Mae Weekes.
(Copyright Office of the President)

Or respect the principles of social justice and therefore believe that the operation of the economic system should result in the material resources of the community being so distributed as to subserve the common good? That there should be adequate means of livelihood for all, that labour should not be exploited […] but that there should be opportunity for advancement on the basis of recognition of merit, ability and integrity?

Did we not desert our ‘belief in a democratic society in which all persons may, to the extent of their capacity, play some part in the institutions of the national life and thus develop and maintain due respect for lawfully constituted authority’? 

The country became wealthy, yet the lives of most citizens became more wretched. While the wealth disappeared and was flaunted in conspicuous consumption, many cried out for justice. The schools and neighbourhood services deteriorated, becoming nurseries of societal alienation. The hospitals became nightmares. 

The rich did not care about the poor, and the favour was returned. We gave many baubles to distract from the plunder of the Treasury and the rise of plutocrats. The inheritors of family businesses became disrespectful to the faithful workers. 

Photo: Late US television personality Anthony Bourdain (centre) has dinner with representatives from Trinidad and Tobago’s Syrian/Lebanese community in 2017.

The infamous Life Sport was the canker sore. But the problem was deeper; there was a lack of faith and trust. When people lose faith and trust in God, the church collapses. But when people lose faith and trust in the nation’s leaders and institutions, the country collapses. 

National trust levels had plummeted. Its downward trend was faithfully reported in several polls. But we had enough money to ignore the problem. Social trust is the confidence that others will do what they ought to do most times. When this disappears, we get into trouble. 

Look at our driving on the roads. We have become suspicious of all, and anger is close to our skin since trust is our measure of other people’s integrity. We have to do them before they do us. 

We are now witnessing explosive distrust—the aggressive hatred and an urge to destroy. Those who disagree with you are not just wrong but dishonest. Distrust breeds distrust. 

Photo: Late actor Heath Ledger plays the role of anarchist villain Joker in Batman.
Some people just want to watch the world burn…

The sociologist, Emile Durkheim, called it anomie, a feeling of being disconnected from society. We feel that we are invisible and not valued and that the only person we can truly trust is ourselves. The devil takes the hindmost. Who dead, dead!

In such an environment, contempt for those in authority rises. We boost and elevate to our Parliament leaders who use the language of menace and threat. We support political extremists who appeal to our sense of victimhood. The worse they behave in public, the more we believe they are fighting for us. We stop asking, ‘what can we do?’ to crying out, ‘our leaders and institutions are failing us!’ We are all outsiders.   

We become easy prey to those who set out to deceive. How many of the protestors this week realised that they would end up in an anti-Rowley march and not an anti-vax show of strength? 

We are moved emotionally into places of no return. Amid the fury and chaos, the social order dissipates, and nobody has any idea where things will end. Afterwards, we will sit blinking, battered, and shocked, asking what kind of nation we have become? 

Photo: UNC political leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar (centre) takes part in a ‘March for Democracy’ on 27 November 2021, as part of protests against the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
(via UNC)

No single individual can put this toothpaste back into the tube. Systemic problems require collective action; polarisation is unhelpful in this regard. But the country has a choice. We could replace the violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand each other, to bear compassion and love for our fellow citizens. 

We could reject polarising behaviour and leaders. We need to deliver justice to those still suffering. 

The present period is difficult, but we have faced difficulties in our past and have overcome them. Most of us want to live together, improving the quality of our lives. 

The man in the red shirt who rescued Nigel Jones’ daughter reminds us that we have good people here. Let us unite and rise up. Say a little prayer. Help a neighbour. Take back this land. 

About Noble Philip

Noble Philip
Noble Philip, a retired business executive, is trying to interpret Jesus’ relationships with the poor and rich among us. A Seeker, not a Saint.

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2 comments

  1. Serina A Hearn

    Finally a response that isn’t about “poor us …” but a request to look in the mirror of who we have become as a society.

    Ask anyone who has been incarcerated, for the most minor infraction, what the conditions are behind bars and how they were treated and they will tell you that the horrific human rights violations they endured will give any minor civil offender post-traumatic syndrome and create the unbridled rage that Philip describes in his metaphor about the Joker.

    For hard facts about how the T&T prison system is rated, read what the CIA have reported over many years. There is no doubt that we are serious violators of human rights.

  2. Thanks for this brief but insightful recap of how we got here and your suggestion that citizens need to help each other and take back our land. I am confident that we can and with small neighborly gestures we will. The change we wish to see may not happen in my lifetime but at least we can begin the process. Best Wishes.

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