We, as a nation, are perched at the point of tipping into anarchy, but all is not yet lost. The choice is ours to make.
There is no magic bullet or pill to take away our pain. Only a sense of determination, commitment, and a clear vision will drag us away from the edge of the abyss. But the signs are ominous. What will we do?
Let me share my experiences in what my friend, Bishop Harvey, likes to call ‘the belly of the whale’. On Monday, I was in a conversation filled with frustration about a single mother having to choose between food and paying for transport for her sons to attend school. Weary from night shifts, she is on the verge of giving up.
I also listened to two teenagers attending relatively good schools in the last two weeks, but both have been suspended. Their cases are different, but the same peer pressures are prompting deviance.
Our teachers are stressed, so suspensions are now a common cooling-off mechanism. This spate of suspensions is not limited to Port of Spain schools.
School performances are deteriorating. We saw the Common Entrance results, and what did we do? Those results are the proverbial canary in the mine.
These results are more damning than the near-miss bullets. But did we stop to take notice?
We see the school fights; are we doing a root-cause analysis? Scores of new Secondary School students can barely read—how do we expect them to pay attention in class? How could we ask students to dream big visions while hungry?
The Rose Hill video caught the nation’s attention, but this is the reality of many communities. Ducking under the bed at night morphed into ducking under desks that day.
The ‘borders’ are being contested. Nearly all the East Port of Spain schools are surrounded by ‘borders’ which prohibit parents from attending PTA meetings. Children are traumatised many nights by gunfights.
The horror of life in East Port of Spain was revealed for all to see: will this be a passing moment of concern? Did we observe that the schoolchildren were not crying? Their sangfroid supports the contention of the Rose Hill residents: they live wretched lives ignored by the rest of the country.
Do we see when parents put other relatives’ addresses to give their children a better secondary school selection chance? The stigma is palpable.
It is easy to politicise the situation, but the pain has been tangible, regardless of the political administration.
We lack complete information on our crime situation, so it is easy for demagogues to go with the vibes of the moment. Murders and gun violence are the things we care about the most, but home invasions are climbing and we do not have appropriate information on their drivers.
We do not understand the other crimes that create fear and go largely unreported. In this information vacuum, we have misinformation and wild anecdotes that drive faulty decisions and wild passions that cannot solve the problem.
The lack of information about geographical patterns in crime trends means no one has much ability to assess what social or policy factors may be in play. How do we solve a problem we do not understand?
Inflation has robbed our mothers of the ability to maintain their boys. Think of what happens when they miss school and are at home alone while she works.
When people cannot make ends meet, they lose faith in institutions, particularly the government, and their sense of control to direct their lives. The children become stressed and are tempted into ‘helping to bring money into the homes’.
Robberies increase, with some inadvertently turning into murder. Yet, across other communities, we see brand-new multimillion-dollar vehicles and people having fun. We look at the quarterly and annual reports and note that some inflation costs are going to the enhanced bottom lines.
Is there over-invoicing that contributes to inflation? Laws in our country are mere suggestions on all sides—neither the rich nor the poor are innocent. Drive on our streets and see. But it is easier to blame each other. Meanwhile, the train of a deep recession is leaving the station and heading our way.
Covid has distressed many: it has been traumatic, and simple incidents now escalate into major confrontations. A sense of frustration, triggered by a loss of jobs and, at times, housing, has spilt over into violence.
Mental health issues are affecting all, especially our children. The school closure period has stressed our teenagers and the uncertainty of life, including the loss of loved ones, is being played out in our schools.
Vagrancy is one expression, and violence in schools is another. Our unsupervised children, who have been at home for almost two years, have had a ringside seat to understanding violence as a means of resolving problems and getting money.
What are our business chambers committing to do? What will ‘more boots on the ground’ achieve?
This is not to say there is no need for robust policing. There are people out there who would kill you, eat a KFC, and never miss a beat. They will think zero about killing you or your family. Those people need to be put away—but that does not give the police the right to kill on sight.
It is a chilling indictment that Laventille schools are run-down, yet we blame the gangs. In 2014, a major commercial bank gave a Laventille school $500 in response to a request to help equip a classroom. Thankfully, a conglomerate stepped up and helped.
What will it cost our leading businesses to adopt the area schools and help them provide a learning environment? The Ministry of Education cannot do it all. Their Safety Officers do yeoman service, but there is an enormous need for sustained psychological help. How is that to be funded?
The Laventille mothers must rise and confront the besetting evils. They know the shooters from childhood. They have the ‘rank’ to push back on the leader and his clip. But do we provide these mothers with the requisite financial and emotional support? Will we support them to do so?
We should not move the Rose Hill school—we must confront the issues around and in it.
Felicia Dyer-Francis is not the only woman killed by shooters. There was a mother shot near the Besson Street police station because she was suspected of having snitched on gangsters in her building. There are risks, but the women can deliver.
Can we provide meals for their children? Clean the communal garbage bins, so rats do not run riot! Provide remedial classes.
We, as a nation, must contribute by imagining and delivering opportunities to lift students out of despair. Relationships and mentoring are crucial needs. Everyone can help with this.
What will we do to take back this country? Do we continue the political dogfight? The blame game is for the egos of the politicians—it will never fix one problem.
Where are the plans? All we hear is heated rhetoric and tone-deaf commentary from the professional politicians. We need more than that.
No police actor or action can fix socioeconomic issues. We can make it if we try a little harder! Should we choose to do nothing, the place will burn flat down.