One of the things that always made most sense to me about moving back home was the manageable scale of things. The group of young men looming toward me, who made me flinch my New York flinch, until one politely started up the chorus of “Good Night.” Nationhood, in my experience, connected everyone to everyone—even the clerk at the Tobago ferry, who made life difficult for no good reason, was my people.
I’ve always delighted in sharing with visitors how driving here is a feast of nonverbal communication, merging into traffic is all about a reading of the body language of the other cars. With my African travelling companion looking on in terror, I could cuss a customs officer stink for trying to embarrass me by holding up materials I was bringing in for a volunteer HIV group, blaming him colourfully for killing people. I ridicule visiting sociologists about their theories of the draconian Caribbean state, pointing out how I run into the minister in the supermarket.
But this week, a despair has been seeping in, a fear that this is an irredeemably shallow, selfish, violent place.
People say your life changes irrevocably when violent crime touches you. That’s not the case; and besides, I see the resilience and depth of people who live with violence daily. But as I’ve been engaging with the criminal justice system, advocating for a brave friend who’s been the victim of a crime, I’ve felt a distinct sense of helplessness. It just doesn’t appear to work—for anyone: accused or victim.
Criminal procedure just seems so…tropical. The police investigators have been marvellously polite and friendly, as we waited three hours for a crime scene photographer to become available, sharing stories about their work and their family lives.
When Wendy Dougdeen-Bally doubled my parking ticket for trying to talk in my own defence in her courtroom—and then, when police officers shoved me out of the chamber for saying the sentence was unfair—I recognised that the magistracy operates in another century. It enraged my sense that I deserved dignity. I wondered what it did to people for whom every institution teaches that they deserve none. I also wondered why we had to wear court clothes, while those on the bench could wear plunging necklines.
Virtually all our institutions breed rage and alienation in those without privilege. I know that there’s a violence and criminality out there. I can’t help but relate to this. No one seems able to throw anything meaningful at it but words. But life still goes on in an everyday way, in so many pockets. When parliamentarians throw picong across the chamber, I haven’t felt a distant fear that a throng of Muslimeen might trundle in at any minute. Until now.
The Life Sport exposé, the killings by police, the killing of a soldier, my friend’s attack, the seemingly weekly robberies in my neighbourhood, the appearance of corruption and self-serving behaviour under every political rock, have unseated my faith that there’s any common justice we can rely on at the end of the day. Things have put me in a Things Fall Apart state about T&T.
Citizen insecurity, they call it. Globalisation, climate change, destruction of the environment, the loss of tradition, the unsettling of old truths, the disappearance of visionary politics, the shrivelling of social movements—and the everyday violence. It’s no surprise even Bishops girls are turning to fundamentalism, and 25,000 Jamaicans marched to prevent other people from enjoying their bodies and dignity. Perhaps that is the real source of this week’s unease. I wonder what kind of Caribbean we are building.
It is certainly not the aspirational, imaginative one of my childhood, the one of bright futures and social harmony, the one of proud dignity and mutual respect.
I’ve quite given up on politicians. They will continue to cower to the mob, even in the face of data that disproves the shouters. So when Caricom rejected an initiative called Justice For All because it would “fundamentally reorder our way of life” according to 140 churches, Hair by Marquita, JS Pest Control and the Pure Sex Centre, and PM Ralph Gonsalves objected to the idea of acknowledging that faiths can perpetuate stigma, I was not surprised…. though that sort of historical amnesia by a man fighting for reparations is stunning. But I guess there are no men of God in St Vincent like Spiritual Baptist Bishop Roland Gulston who told the media in February that “all homosexuals need chopping down.” I called our minister of national diversity, and asked him to respond. Neither he nor anyone in Government thought it fit to.
I made a bold declaration in May that my search for equality as a citizen was turning away from politicians and I was now looking to the courts for justice. I still have those plans.
But I can’t help wondering this week where I can find a police officer who can rent me a gun. It seems extrajudicial justice is the only kind that’s swift and effective. Or maybe I should ask Bishop Gulston to lend me his gilpin.