The debate on racist attitudes in TT outed by criticisms over local support for the Black Lives Movement (BLM) in the US continues today, even as protests around the world cause countries to examine their racial history and social injustice. Newsday explores the significance of the BLM in TT in discussions with a diverse group of people.
The people of TT like to boast that this is a rainbow country, where every creed and race can find an equal place. But is it really so?
With the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement after the May 25 killing of George Floyd, 46, by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, local stories have been emerging about racism, discrimination and profiling. Another trigger for outrage in the US was the incidents of "Karens" – entitled, demanding white women – calling the police to report black people who were simply going about their business.
The racial situation in TT was highlighted by faux pas made by several business owners, most of whom apologised when attacked on social media, and claimed ignorance or misinterpretation. Some apologies were regarded as public-relations band-aids after these companies realised they might lose money when there were calls to boycott their businesses. According to some social media posts, they realised “black money matters.”
Not always black and white in TT
In TT, people define “black” differently. Some people believe black people are “anyone not white" (Caucasian) while others include people of Syrian/Lebanese descent in the “white” category. Some group both Afro-and Indo-Trinidadians as black, while others identify only Afro-Trinidadians as black people.
However, not only black people in TT have had experiences with racism, racial prejudice and "profiling," both overt and subtle.
For example, one 29-year-old “local white” man from St James said he got stares every day as he took public transport to work. He said he often heard mumblings about “rich people travelling” although he described himself as middle class, and got negative comments when he dated someone who was not Caucasian or Syrian.
A 26-year-old Indian man from Chaguanas said his first experience with racism was at 17. He had an exam but did not know the exact location, so he asked an Afro-Trinidadian woman if she knew where the building was.
“Her response, after I asked politely was just so shocking. This was her statement: 'Wah yuh want? Ent all yuh c----e people does know everything? Why yuh eh look for yuh own kind to ask? I eh know where the place is.'"
In the context of Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, here are the stories of two people of African descent who have had negative experiences because of how they looked.
Stephen Pierre, 24, from Diego Martin, said a few years ago, and not for the first time, he was stopped by the police in a roadblock. He was with two other black friends in his mother’s CRV, heading to their university classes.
He has a neat rasta hairstyle and they were all wearing hoodies because their classrooms were cold. After asking for his licence and registration, the officer questioned where they got the vehicle, told them to get out of the CRV, and they and the vehicle were searched.
Emikule Greene, an entrepreneur and psychotherapist, said his seven-year-old daughter had been begging him to take her on a picnic for some time, so in 2018, when he was on vacation from work, he took her to a park in Cunupia.
She was taking pictures of the plants and insects with her digital camera when he noticed an older man of Indian descent looking at them as he ran by on the park’s running track. Eventually the man approached and asked what they were doing.
“I told him, ‘I’m here with my daughter and we’re taking pictures.’ Then I asked, ‘Who are you? What concern is it of yours?’ And he walked off and continued exercising before sitting on a bench to chat with some other people.”
When he and his daughter finally spread the blanket, and were sharing snacks and drinks from their picnic basket around 5 pm, two policemen asked to see his ID and asked his daughter if he was her father.
He said the police, one of Indian and one of African descent, were professional and did not approach him in a threatening manner. They told him he was not suspected of anything but they were simply following up on a call they received that he could have kidnapped the child and could possibly cause her harm, and wanted to make sure that was not the case.
“It raised certain questions. It made me feel as though, based on the colour of my skin, I had to justify why I was having a picnic with my daughter and I had to prove I was not a threat to my own daughter.
"Also, if I kidnapped a child, would I take them to a park, with everyone around, and have a picnic with them? Unless the person has a mental illness it makes no logical sense… I guess we black people only sell drugs and murder people, so I couldn’t possibly be a father showing love and appreciation to his daughter.”
He said his daughter was traumatised by the incident because, not too long before, his family had seen a foreign TV news report about a white woman calling security officers on a “suspicious” man with a baby in a park in Washington, DC. The man was black and the baby was his child. Thankfully, the security officer simply had a conversation with him and sent him on his way.
However, Greene’s daughter had seen worse outcomes on the news and was worried her father would be arrested or beaten by the police. He said he was distraught about the situation and disturbed that his daughter had to experience that, especially at such a young age. He said after that he had to teach her that she would have to deal with both racism and sexism in her life, so education was important.
He said it drove home the point that no matter who you are, what you accomplish, your wealth or character, the only thing some people see is skin colour.
“It makes you feel as if you can never really rise to your true potential, because your colour is a negative stereotype and has a negative stigma…
"My concern is that we do not import the foolishness that is happening in America. Fortunately, our demographic sort of mitigates against that happening. But who knows? Someone who is overzealous might respond to a call one day, and before you know it people might end up dead.”
Greene added that he has never returned to that park and has no intention of doing so.
Allies against police brutality
Local demonstrations in support of the movement began on June 1 at the Queen’s Park Savannah in front of the US Embassy.
Cherisse Berkley, a “predominantly Indian” activist, said she has been an activist for equality for most of her life. She said over the past five years she focussed on equal rights for the LGBT community, which include Afro-Trinidadians.
As such, a few years ago she and a friend threw a #BlackGirlMagic party. “It was meant to empower black women and to make sure they knew that they were supported and had a place and a voice.”
She said just the week before the first protest she saw videos of police entering a man’s home and possibly shooting him. He was then unceremoniously thrown, bleeding, into the back of a pick up truck before the police drove off making the man’s body “roll around like a sack of flour.” A few days later, the official police report said he “died on arrival.”
“I think that would stay with me for a while. It seemed ridiculously brutal.”
Therefore, she said when talks about protesting came up she knew she had to participate because she said what was happening in the US and in TT kept her awake at night.
“I said we can’t just sit and let this pass. If we could rally troops for all of our other causes whether it be the death of Asami (Nagakiya, the Japanese steelpan player), women’s rights, march at the pride parade or any of those things, we could do this too.”
Berkley said she became involved in Black Lives Matter in solidarity with the US movement but also because of what she had seen perpetrated against black people in TT. She said the US media influenced everything Trinidadians did, so the events there would inspire emotions and people would link it with what was happening around them.
“I have family abroad and I’m worrying about what my niece and nephew have to witness and what their friends have to face. We are in 2020 and we should not have to be in a place where we have to rally people to say, ‘Don’t be racist.’ It should be the norm at this point to just accept all people for who they are. We’re saying black lives definitely matter and we should be at a point now where we don’t need to have a movement that says it. We should be together already. And I’m glad we have people who are a part of Black Lives Matter to ensure that we get there.”
Another LGBT activist and member, Amy Li Baksh is a mix of Indian, Chinese, African and Caucasian.
She said she had the privilege of not having to face police brutality, discrimination, and racism in her everyday life, but she felt strongly that she had to show support as an ally so was at the savannah on June 1 and 5.
“I think all these issues are intersectional. If you are against injustice in one form, you have to be against injustice in all forms.”
“I think the reason people were touched emotionally by George Floyd’s death and by everything that’s going on in America right now is because we are seeing the connection to our own lives and what we witness every day. I know, in my life, I don’t get pulled over or roughed up by the police. I’m not in an area where I am at risk if police comes into my neighbourhood, and it should be that was for everybody. No one should have to be afraid of the people who are supposed to protect you.”
She said police brutality had a different aspect of racial inequality in TT because the police force was predominantly black where in the US it was predominantly white. In this country, she said it was about how people living in poverty, especially black people in “hot spots” were treated by the police.
She said that was why the new call to dismantle or reform the police system, and defund the police, that is, cut the police budget and reallocate those funds toward social services, resonated with her.
If this happened in Beetham
She told Sunday Newsday one activist who worked with people in Beetham said if the incident between the police and protesters on June 8 happened in Beetham or Laventille, the situation would have escalated to violence on the police’s part.
On that day, there was an altercation between BLM protesters and police at the Queen's Park Savannah, hours after the peaceful protest attracted the US Ambassador who walked across from the US Embassy to speak to them. One officer on a megaphone told protesters they were breaching the "covid19 act" and turning the protest into "a riot". Later, another officer appeared with a video camera and began recording protesters. Objections to this action were raised but the officer kept filming and, at one point, a man snatched the cap of the officer and ran away. More officers returned, heavily armed, and the cap was retrieved. The man, who has said he is bipolar, has since apologised.
The Beetham activist said without knowing the full story, if the protest was over someone from their community, people would assume that the person must have been a criminal, and asked why the community was protecting criminals.
“A lot of people are having to reckon with their own assumptions and judgements about other Trinis, about their own privilege and what are the opportunities that are afforded to them that are not afforded to everyone in this country.”
Baksh said the police were not qualified to deal with social issues such as social welfare, homelessness, and mental health, and it was not necessary for the people dealing with those issues to have a gun.
“Those things would be better dealt with by somebody who has experience with social work rather than somebody with an automatic weapon in their hands.”
She said TT’s police were not militarised yet they carried large guns even in situations that were uncalled for such as stopping for gas at a gas station or directing traffic. She said while she was not there at the time, protesters told her that, on June 8, the police had guns and live ammunition.
“Even the police in America were shooting people with rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas, and smoke bombs. They did not use live ammo. So why were police showing up to a peaceful protest that people had a permit to attend with live ammo? It was unnecessary and traumatic to have people walking around casually with these types of weapons. It’s not something we should see as normal and become accustomed to.”
Complex issue of race
Abigail Hadeed, a photographer and artist of Syrian/Lebanese and Venezuelan descent said the situation in the Caribbean was a complex mix of race, colour and class.
She believed in equality for all and that led her to be at the protest on June 8. She said she had to support the movement because equality should be important to “anyone with a conscious or a soul.”
She said abuse of police power was a serious matter in the Caribbean, that incidents like Floyd happened in TT and in Jamaica but the average people did not see it. She said it was hypocritical that people were profiled because of their colour or where they lived instead of being treated fairly and with respect because equality was in the lyrics of TT’s national anthem.
She recalled a recent personal experience with an unmarked police vehicle tailgating her. She said the windows, including the windshield was so darkly tinted that she could not see inside. At one point the vehicle moved beside her and was stopped at a traffic light so she took pictures of the license plate and the vehicle. She assumed they saw her do this because they began tailgating her again before putting on their lights and siren and telling her to pull aside.
However by that time she was scared about what could happen and had decided to drive to a police station. She refused to pull over and told them where she was headed. They threatened her with arrest and interrogation and followed her to the police station where the threats continued until she called someone to get in touch with a lawyer.
“That is the level of abuse of power in this country. I look Caucasian so I know I have a certain amount of privilege so imagine if I was a person of colour!”
Hadeed said the protest on June 8 was peaceful with people of all walks of life, including children. Yet the police were there armed with assault rifles. She said in trying to film the protesters with a video camera the officer was also being provocative.
She stressed that she did not agree with the person who took the hat of the police officer but on two separate occasions, over a megaphone, the protesters were asked of they consented to being filmed by the police and the crowd shouted “no” but the officer continued filming.
“What are you filming it for? You’re not media, you’re not a filmmaker, so what is your agenda with this footage? That is not abuse of power?”
To the people who continued to make statements about black on black crime, about the number of black babies being aborted, or about black people making it worse for themselves when they steal or commit crimes she said, “Two wrongs don’t ever make a right. When you have experienced systemic racism all your life and you have never been given a chance, it’s very difficult. We need to find ways to find solutions and those kinds of rebuttals are not solutions so I don’t have time for it. I have time for honest dialogue, I have time for people and governments and structures that want to really empower people.”
She added that governments over the years did nothing to improve the lives of less privileged people. She said TT was wealthy at several points in its history but issues like urban planning, infrastructure, school system, health care system, and others were still “a mess” as politicians continued to divide and rule.