Reginald Dumas writes a weekly column for the Newsday.
When Eric Williams announced “discipline” as the first of our national watchwords, he knew what he was talking about. Later, he was to call us “crabs in a barrel.” You know what that means. Our national indiscipline has greatly worsened since. Mind you, Trinidad and Tobago is not unique in this respect, but that isn’t justification for the decline.
The recent disturbances in and around Beetham, which frightened and traumatised many — I found Nikki Crosby’s video most affecting — were not the first in that area. The blocking of roads with burning tyres in other parts of the country isn’t new, either.
What we do on each occasion is send in armed police (who sometimes make arrests) and backhoes to clear the debris, deplore what we call “lawlessness” and say it inconveniences the public, is bad for the country’s image and mustn’t happen again, and go back to our business until the next time.
We are past masters of the art of concentrating on effects, not on causes, and on personalities, not on principles. Shouldn’t we instead be asking: “If these community upheavals, however localised, take place (and seem to be getting more frequent), why is this so? What can be done?”
Yes, there may be immediately preceding events that trigger them — the arrest of a resident, for example, or the appetite of a cannibalistic pothole — but are there deeper, long-prevailing considerations that underpin those events? If so, has any concerted attempt been made to identify and examine such considerations, and look for solutions?
I sometimes tell people that this place is still being run by Eric Williams, in the sense that the top-down model of governance he put in place — actually, he didn’t introduce it, he merely adapted it from British colonialism — has flourished through the decades. Political parties do not win office; they come to power. Ministers do not ask or request; they instruct (how they love that word!), or direct, or mandate. It is their demonstration of “power.”
Cabinet has decided such-and-such, they tell us, confident we will accept that body’s judgment as well-informed, and its concern for the general welfare as unshakeable.
Yet they hardly ever seek our opinion, though they do make occasional gestures of consultation with us, as if to show they are really democrats at heart. That is all, however, since they never seem able to get back to us to discuss findings and try to hammer out what could become genuine national policy, or at least one largely accepted by the people. Politics, for them, is not about people, except on the quinquennial election platform, when we all miraculously become “brothers and sisters;” politics is about power.
Thus, titled officialdom doesn’t interact with communities on a regular basis; the people almost never see their representatives. Where Beetham is concerned, we are told — “power” speaking again — that what happened on November 23 must not, will not, be repeated. But how is that to be achieved? Have the fundamental issues in that community been pinpointed, let alone confronted, with the aim of resolution, or at least mitigation?
The police express disappointment at the Beetham disorder but want camera footage to single out the “perpetrators.” Yes, lawbreakers must be firmly dealt with. But if we are going to ignore causes and not try to locate and correct basic deficiencies, if we think that a heavy hand is the only, or best, answer, we should not be surprised if November 23 recurs.
Sheila Prince, a retired police inspector and head of the Beetham Police Youth Club, spoke candidly in a November 26 Newsday interview. Among other things, she blamed the police for fraternising with criminal elements in Beetham, thus “compromising integrity.” Are these the same police who are to detain and charge “perpetrators?” Prince added that officials give large contracts to these elements. So who exactly are the undisciplined and the lawless?
We always proclaim our guaranteed constitutional rights of equality. But why is it we hardly ever speak of equity, as distinct from equality? About justice and fairness as contrasted with the legal concept of an equality which exists on paper but not necessarily in fact? How many of us consider Beethamites our equals?
Instead of contemplating our navels with our customary intensity, we must lift a dispassionate gaze to the national level. For instance, are lawbreakers to be found only at the lower socio-economic strata of society? If not, are the others pursued with the same zeal as Beetham “perpetrators?” Above all, is it wise to be neglectful of the vulnerabilities of a society that is at once fostering both burgeoning inequality, with deepening divisions between classes and races, and dwindling equity? Can we face the probable consequences of that neglect?