Free bodies only belong to outlaws


I inched forward patiently to the head in the line snaking across the Royal Bank atrium. I walked to the counter, took out the cheque, and tried to endorse it with the pen installed there. It’s the cheque paper, she explained, handing me another pen that worked. (Seems like you’ve put the wrong pen, I thought.) She asked if I had an account.

No, I answered. There’s a $15 charge for non-customers to cash cheques. Regardless of the amount of the cheque? She confirmed so.

I don’t understand. Banks seem to create policies to punish and push away small customers. After half a day of the signatories’ lives spent filling out a million forms to open an account, First Citizens suddenly proposed they’d need to keep my organisation’s money and monitor us for months before letting us write cheques. The reason we’re giving you our money, I had to explain, is because we want something in return. We can buy a safe and give people cash, without standing in a long bank line to get access to it. Besides, what are you monitoring: we can’t overdraw a savings account. I filled out a complaint form.

I got a prompt call from a senior customer service representative. I tried in vain to say I was offering customer feedback about how they would have lost my business. Her mission, however, was to repeatedly justify the policy.

I visited my bank after leaving Royal (with the cheque). But I forgot I was in Port of Spain, where most financial institutions along the Promenade have a harsher set of rules for “urban” customers. They essentially assume we are thieves. I was told, by the manager I had to ask for, that the two transactions I wanted to perform were against the law and bank policy. So I left, drove to a mall branch and, as I told him would happen, I got treated like a middle-class customer, and had both transactions happily completed.

A friend in from Tobago overnighted by me that evening. The last time he did, we’d met at the Hyatt and had dinner. I was early, so I headed there and parked. He called and I decided to go fetch him. I walked up to the front desk and asked for my parking ticket to be validated. She looked at me and refused. Why can’t you? It’s not our car park. We do that only for hotel guests. As I paid the parking attendant the $10, I shared that I’d be spending $300 or more somewhere else that evening.

I haven’t recognised Trinidad & Tobago this past week—a place where, before midday last week Thursday, the sexuality—at least of people in power—hadn’t seemed to matter too much, even when it was raised scandalously, and raised serious ethical questions. Why, all of a sudden, did what other people do in their bedrooms matter so vitally? Not just in mean-spirited public rhetoric, violence posted on social media, but punitive action. Evictions. Firings.

I still don’t get it. But I think something at the teller windows and Hyatt desk starts to explain it. Something about the United counter agent who denied two families with small children boarding on an empty, foreday-morning flight, lecturing them about the correct time to arrive at the airport. Something about the reporter who called and needed five foreign organisations who offered congratulations on the Rampersad judgement, like it was a school assignment.

Our lives in their smallest and largest spaces remain fundamentally ordered around denying something that is useless to us to others. Enforcing rules that matter more than keeping customers happy. Spiting our own business just to feel the power of withholding something.

It’s not about morality. It’s about shame. The irrational preachers themselves concede people will break the buggery law with impunity. It just has to be the law.

We cannot imagine courts that refuse to demean us. We cannot imagine rules or a law that deliver justice. Ones that free and empower. Only ones that compel and restrict. Our aspirations are to acquire the privilege to circumvent the daily accretion of humiliations, not dismantle them.

It exacts a huge cost preserving this legacy of plantation authority. Far beyond banking. It will continue to foster small inequalities that keep us crime-ridden. Perpetuate an education system that Vision 2020 described as having “a 19th century, old colonial, missionary value system.” It will prevent productivity and innovation and keep us at the bottom of Global Competitiveness Index scales. It will prevent us from imagining the nobility of anyone different from ourselves.

The descendants of peoples who were thrown to the dogs for sodomy, captured and enslaved, indentured and exploited, cannot envision people free to own their own bodies. The way we conceive of those with bodily liberty is as outlaws.


"Free bodies only belong to outlaws"

More in this section