Young people learn not to expect justice

Halfway through the year, policing has killed 12 young men under 23. Capital punishment, its humanity or deterrence become academic when police kill as many civilians as they solve murders. Wrapping himself more tightly in the blindfold and straitjacket of his war on crime, the National Security Minister responded to this week’s police killings of three more young men: “I stand firmly behind them that, as it pertains to criminal elements, they need to do it to them, before they do it to us.”

If citizens felt the police were out there putting their lives on the line for us while they killed our children, the minister’s words might hurt less. For even law-abiding, middle-class people, our experience of policing is not one of protection and confidence, but unresponsiveness and abuse.

Ensuring a professional police force earns a dignified wage and has incentive to solve crime is pure self-interest—yet pious counterarguments erupted when such recommendations came from the Downtown Owners & Merchants Association or a former police commissioner of the two largest US cities.

I spent last weekend with a group of young people who feel their lives are under siege for distinct, yet similar reasons to young men like Hakeem and Tevin Alexander and Chakiulle McCoy.

Youth from Barbados, St Lucia and Jamaica joined their counterparts from the Silver Lining Foundation in Port-of-Spain to catalogue the ways in which sodomy laws criminalise young lesbian, gay and transgender people, and how families, schools, churches and government policy drive them toward self-hate, self-harm, homelessness and underachievement.

Those from T&T noted how both Government and Opposition rejected calls from the Independent Senators to remove provisions in the 2012 Children Act that will soon increase penalties for two minors of the same sex having sex with each other to life imprisonment. The young representatives also spoke of unsolved and poorly prosecuted murders and other violence against those in their communities.

But they spoke as well about their determination to be a generation for change. Addressing the UK High Commissioner, German ambassador, US Embassy public affairs officer, head of a British gay charity and others, Jamaican Jaevion Nelson issued a remarkable challenge: people both outside and within our region must reassess our investment in representing the Caribbean as these superlatively homophobic places. Public attitudes have shifted, he argued; governments have undertaken measured engagements with sexual diversity, and heterosexual young people support their gay and lesbian friends.

Some spoke at the event. A report from Belize even talked about governments building capacity to serve particular needs of lesbian/ gay/bisexual/transgender/inter sex (LGBTI) citizens, just like other social groups—people with disabilities, seniors, young men.

Politicians up and down the region have recently made bold statements about the human rights of gay voters, but few convert into meaningful policy, and many leaders remain locked in cowardice on matters of sexual diversity, despite growing poll data that indicate little political cost to treating LGBTI people with equality and fairness.

“Two pull” isn’t just a way of referencing contradictions in the People’s Partnership drug policy; it also fits its stance on sexual rights. (Under PNM we had “1919 vision.”) One “pull” has been big statements like those from Attorney General Ramlogan’s Office to the UN Human Rights Council, repeated by Justice Minister Moore to visiting Commonwealth parliamentarians: “Government seeks to recognise the human rights of all citizens, which includes the LGBT community.” Or those in the Prime Minister’s letter to a foreigner promising to “forge the way forward for…my government…to put an end to all discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation.”

The other pull is in the opposite directon. Since Winston Dookeran took over the Foreign Ministry in mid-2012, it’s moved from not taking positions on LGBT human rights in international forums, to taking backward ones.

Last year, when I had the honour of being a civil society representative to the Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly, foreign-service staff arranged for us to have a few words in a corridor. I raised an LGBTI-related OAS resolution T&T had endorsed for the past five years.

My human dignity, he responded, needed to be balanced with something else; and T&T later proceeded to lodge a reservation to the resolution.

“Keep flying the flag high,” he ended the exchange.

I felt ashamed.

The reason we are “unable to support” human rights based on sexual orientation ran to 113 words this year. Dookeran’s retreat is part of a broader retrenchment of the administration’s campaign promises of justice, as it sees itself as more and more under siege, feels more of a sense of Griffith’s “us” and “them,” and reaches for more failed options like “warring” against crime, repeatedly demonstrated to be a policy dead-end, much like criminalising consensual sex.

Both rob young people of opportunity, dignity—sometimes life.

We’ve entrenched our “us–them” world of race politics, even into policing. But “us–them” wars—and, as I argued last time, voting—don’t build nations. Many young people, like the one who replaced me at the OAS this year, will encounter politicians like Dookeran who refuse to lead us out of this dynamic.

Some will change that. Some with guns, until we listen. Some as change leaders who will transform our politics from the vote them in-and-out musical chairs.

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