DR GABRIELLE JAMELA HOSEIN
SUNDAY’S semi-finals provided annual bliss of sweet pan. As night fell, I rolled up on the dusty asphalt of the track, loving the tradition of rich and poor rubbing shoulders.
This is always my favourite place to be. As the bands move toward the Savannah, all and sundry stand up close and in between the pans, holding on and swaying in suspension of tensions of sex, race, class and creed just for those minutes of high mas, and watching the players practise like anointed spirits that descend back into ordinary life once the last note is played.
You could close your eyes and safely get lost right there, for around you others also seem lifted by sounds of iron and steel dissecting and combining and jumping up into the air.
Wandering toward the stage, I meandered through children and babies playing amidst families and friends drinking, eating, talking and leaning back against muted sounds of soca from food vendors, for this wasn’t a fete in here, with its distorted bass and its bawling DJs, this was a social space for communities of pan players and lovers to congregate over finer points of music.
To see the police walk through, maybe 20 strong and parting the crowd the way Two Face Crew once – a long time ago – used to, showed an approach at odds with its own cultural context.
People are happy for policing that makes society safe, but that effort doesn’t always have to appear more badjohn than the bandits. There’s an embeddedness in the local rather than a separation from people, that if conveyed, would make police presence more welcomed, and more respected.
I thought about how much more accepted police would appear if they walked through dispersed in smaller groups, acknowledging those around them, rather than seeming at odds with or distrustful of informal cultures of togetherness.
Seeing them, these blue-uniformed women and men who are indeed our own, I didn’t feel safer, I felt criminalised and infantilised, as if the relaxed intergenerational joy I had been experiencing hd been sternly told to keep within bounds of good behaviour. I felt like when old schoolteachers walk into a classroom of talkative students and a hush descends as they menacingly take out a hard ruler, and you get frighten even if you haven’t done anything wrong.
Threats are everywhere and police have their job to do, but policing isn’t just swagger, it’s engagement with multiple representations and strategies. It requires an assessment of the present and an understanding of the past.
During Carnival, there are tensions around policing itself, for completely valid historical reasons. It was the police, in keeping order, who kept oppression in place, and Carnival revitalises significant memoryof why such force should be resisted.
At the same time, levels of gun crimes, murders and feelings of insecurity also provide valid reasons for police visibility. Still, the whole country doesn’t need to be intimidated as if it is a criminal gang.
We’d all have felt their presence, and all have appreciated that could mean deterrence of crime and quick response when required, but we would have felt that way even without such a mass show of strong-arm force. There’s skill in asserting the professional authority that connects to what publics expect and what makes people feel reassured without overkill.
In my decades on the track, I’ve seen how spaces of public safety and artistic connection, and family feeling and national togetherness do exist. These are a resource for policing which should be embraced, rather than dismissed.
Part of pan bliss is the collective energy of people pushing steelbands on stage in a powerful metaphor for the idea of taking care of our own, and putting a hand in with beloved and stranger alike to press ahead, in pace with sweetness, ambitious camaraderie, and excitedly beating hearts.
As I crossed with All Stars, the phalanx of police appeared again, burly, with stern faces, set jaws, helmets and big guns, to hurry us off stage, for such togetherness has to be kept on time and in order by the threat of a lil rough-up for not listening quick enough.
I would have exited just as quickly if such anti-riot assemblage had been replaced by nice ladies in bright T-shirts, without guns in competition for power with all that steel. As the band began, I looked on thinking about what Carnival taught us long ago. There’s fear and there’s love, and no power can govern legitimately through the first alone.