Makandal Daaga scholar and law student Kareem Marcelle says he never got a chance to meet the fellow east Port of Spain resident for whom his award was named. He and I haven’t met either. But we had a rich chat last week about policing and politics that was bigger than the last column. I got to listen to how young men like him who belong to communities like Beetham Gardens understand the issues these communities face, and how they imagine solutions and a future.
The key problem with the new anti-gang law, Marcelle shared, is police accountability. He has vivid childhood stories of police abuse. Officers breaking down the family’s door in the middle of the night and trampling over a bed, realising they had the wrong address, and moving on remorselessly. At age 16, he was among ten young men thrown in the back of a police vehicle and locked up when the GPS on a policeman’s son’s stolen phone showed it at a woman neighbour’s house. It was relationships made through the police youth league where he grew up that secured his release.
He has faith in law enforcement; but it is respectful, responsible policing his community needs.
Even in conversation, he displays considerable literacy with criminology ideas. Our policy responses to crime rely overwhelmingly on corrective measures, instead of preventive ones, he complains. Community policing can play a critical role, especially in violent schools, which are increasingly becoming gang garrisons. It can also provide a safety net, he believes, through truancy initiatives that investigate students’ absences with home visits, provided there is the ability to link families to social interventions without red tape. His illustration troubles me, though: the young man in it who is missing school, he says without the slightest sensation, is being raped at home, and needs to be placed elsewhere.
He is sceptical about whether politics is what will deliver needed change. But, I ask playfully, what if someone won the next election and offered him a Cabinet position? Sure: Community Development or National Security.
I mention that his MP once asked me on the spot my sense of the nation’s top problems; and I ask him what—besides the MP—he thinks are key solutions.
Representation is a central problem, he is quick to point out. Constitutional reform to separate legislative representation from the executive duties of ministers would vastly improve the quality of constituent representation, he contends, and undermine the stranglehold race and party hold over the ballot box.
Equity is one of our main problems. And changes in campaign finance a major solution. While academics decry cash transfer programmes to poor communities as bad policy, welfare for party financiers in the form of post-election contracts continues unabated. Some even get ministries. This crowds out the role state contracts with small and medium-sized businesses in the legitimate economy could be playing as a form of economic development, he argues.
“Justice on time” comes up. And we return to the big problem, which he has lived, of procedural justice. He observes that, other than contracted transportation of prisoners, nothing is timely about justice, despite the availability of numerous procedural innovations that, if implemented, could speed trial time. He reminds me of his childhood false arrest and how many months he might have languished in remand.
In combination with this, witness protection is another glaring weakness in the effectiveness of criminal prosecution. Even when it is available to key witnesses for the seven to eight-year period before a criminal case gets to trial (only to be thrown out then because Forensics lost the gun), their families remain easy targets.
Environmental racism is another critical issue he raises, pointing to the effluents from the manufacturing companies whose plants adjoin residential areas of the Beetham that poison the air and water.
We even talk of corporal punishment, which he thinks is permissible, but as a last resort, with limits, as there are other methods for teaching children discipline. “But no girlchild of mine…” he has a double standard here.
I couldn’t do what I do without the community’s support and love, he says in conclusion, as he notes how when people become successful they leave his community, though his mission is to stay.
Education and scholarships aren’t the only solutions that places like Beetham Gardens need. I wish the national conversation around Kareem’s scholarship would shift from pappyshowing his childhood poverty or his tears over UWI’s choice, and hinge more on the common sense ideas and actions that young men and women like him have to contribute to community development.
"I have faith in our generation," he told me. I do too.