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Wednesday 19 June 2019
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Thema, test case for black people

Attorney on gymnast’s lawsuit over Olympics

Gymnast Thema Williams won her case last month against the TT Gymnastics Federation over her removal as TT’s competitor at the 2016 Olympic Games.
Gymnast Thema Williams won her case last month against the TT Gymnastics Federation over her removal as TT’s competitor at the 2016 Olympic Games.

Attorney Keith Scotland was moved to tears last Saturday as he reflected on the injustices that continue to befall people of African descent in TT, more than a century after the end of chattel slavery in the Caribbean.

Alluding to Thema Williams’ recent victory against the TT Gymnastics Federation in the Hall of Justice, Port of Spain, after she was replaced by Canadian-born Marisa Dick to represent this country at the 2016 Brazil Olympics, Scotland asked a forum on the status of African people at UWI, St Augustine, to ponder on the contents of Justice Frank Seepersad’s ruling.

He said the ruling highlighted the issue of bias.

“Imagine a gymnast who looks something like what we look like here about to go to the Olympics, trained very hard and there was another gymnast who was supposed to go. But the gymnast who looked something like us, she qualified and she was there in Rio ready to go–and the night before, without justification, a federation pulls that right from under her feet and flew in another athlete from another continent, of another ethnicity, to represent TT. Where are we then?” Scotland asked the audience.

Attorney Keith Scotland during a press conference on gymnast Thema Williams’ lawsuit against the TT Gymnastics Federation on March 18. Williams won the case last month.

“Where is our status as persons of African descent in TT?”

Scotland and senior counsel Martin Daly represented Williams in the matter.

He said bias, particularly against African people, bombards his mind every day “because I always say to myself, ‘Why do I always have to be constantly affirming and re-affirming?’”

Referring to the trans-Atlantic slave trade in which millions of Africans were brought to the Caribbean, Scotland, who spoke on the topic of justice for people of African descent, claimed the tragic event has continued to facilitate racial bias in modern-day TT.

“I feel the system churns for itself because we only arrived here because we were paid for, or we died for it.”

Scotland then reflected on Buju Banton’s (Mark Anthony Myrie) release from a US federal prison on December 8, after serving seven of a ten-year sentence on drug charges, saying: “I look around and before I go to bed, I remember a brother who was released yesterday and I look forward to the concert. I know he is coming in July and I say, ‘I’m living while I’m living to the Father I will pray. Only him knows how I get through everyday.’

At this point, Scotland became emotional.

“I am among friends. But I feel it,” he said, apologising to the audience. “I’m terribly sorry but I feel it.”

Scotland said although he was “guarded against” certain injustices, because of his position as an attorney, “I think about my brothers and sisters who may not be guarded and I wonder how they get through everyday.”

Struggling to regain his composure, Scotland said he took consolation in the lyrics of late reggae icon Bob Marley, who famously sang, “Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights. Don’t give up the fight.’”

The attorney said he was usually emotional about racial injustice “because we (people of African descent) don’t get to whisper among ourselves.”

“Everybody else whispers among themselves. And I am honoured I have an opportunity to whisper.”

Scotland said while he may not, for example, associate with the anger shown by African men who feel perpetually wronged by the system, “I understand the anger because it is a sort of reaffirmation that ‘I am here. Look at me. I am here.’”

He urged the audience to channel that anger into something that was legitimate.

“Not lying down in a gutter in the road but legitimate, meaning an expression of self that says we are worth something.”

Scotland was among several speakers who shared insights on the status of people of African descent at the forum, hosted by Marpe Global and the UWI Afrikan Society.

It was billed as the first National African Conference in keeping with the United Nations’ decision to designate the period 2015 to 2024 as the decade for people of African descent. The event, though, was poorly attended.

A dominant feature among the speakers was that the effects of slavery in the region had continued to underpin racial injustice in modern-day TT.

Nigerian High Commissioner Hassan Jika Ardo presents his credentials to former president Anthony Carmona at the Office of the President in St Ann’s in this file photo.

But for Nigerian High Commissioner Jika Ardo Hassan, TT’s citizens still live harmoniously despite claims of racism and bias against African descendants.

“Even though there are some people that practice racism here and there, different tribes, religions, sit together and dine and wine together.”

Hassan, who was appointed Nigerian High Commissioner to TT in November 2017, noted, however, that such harmony did not exist among some countries in the African continent.

“Some African countries are divided along religion, tribal lines, regional lines,” he observed, saying such a situation did not augur well for the future of African people.

Rather, he said one of the major problems confronting African people was the absence of self-love.

He said: “Finding ourselves as Africans can only be done when me and you agree that we are Africans. We are proud to be Africans and we are ready to accept we are Africans.”

Hassan said there was also a general feeling that African people did not value their own.

“If you don’t know your trumpet, someone who collects it from you can blow it for himself and that is exactly what is happening with the Africans.” Saying African descendants in the region have been instilled with certain societal norms and values, some of which has been eroded through various means over time, Hassan said there was also a common view that the continent, in many respects, was not developing.

“That is why they are sometimes labelled ‘s..t hole’ countries and nobody cares what we should be and nobody can plan for us. We have to plan for ourselves.” His comment referred to a controversial statement reportedly made by US president Donald Trump, in January, about people from ‘s..t hole’ countries in reaction to a suggestion to approve a visa lottery system for people from African countries and Haiti.

Hassan argued that leadership was one of the major issues confronting African people.

“Leadership is what matters today with us because poor leadership within ourselves, where we find ourselves undermining each other, is what is considered a great problem for people of African descent wherever they are.”

He added: “Because of that, everyone who is opportune, when they look at themselves and his immediate society, he does not look at the wider society and accommodate one another. That is one of the fundamentals that is lacking in our African continents of black African nations.”

Earl Lovelace

Award-winning novelist and playwright Earl Love Lovelace said the status of people of African descent in TT can be measured by how the country has dealt with the trauma and pain inflicted on Africans as they were introduced enslaved to the New World.

“What has been done to restore Africans to full humanness, not as a peripheral, second class group but as human beings responsible for ourselves and the world in which we live by repairing the physical and psychological damage done to us?” he asked.

Lovelace said TT’s African descendants can no longer accept “being a little people on the side.”

“We have to look forward to being restored to our fullness as human beings, responsible for the world in which we live and for ourselves.”

Rhonda Thomas, CEO, Marpe Global and Mama Edith Oladele, president, African Slave Memorial Society, Antigua & Barbuda, also spoke.

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