WE HAVE tough questions to answer about last week’s violent protests in and around Port of Spain, and if we don’t answer those questions soon, I fear this country is in danger of imploding. It is no coincidence that protests over the deaths of three men in Morvant erupted in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd died while being arrested by police in the US.
We have our own issues with the police here, and while they are culturally specific and not racially motivated as they are in the US, many underprivileged in our society do share experiences that they describe as police brutality. A prevailing feeling of injustice ties us to the Black Lives Matter movement.
In the 36 years I have lived in Trinidad, I have seen general public opinion sway like a violently rocking pendulum from cheering on Police Commissioner Randolph Burroughs and his Flying Squad that swooped down mercilessly on the “criminal element” to desperate cries to curb a police force that has overstepped its boundaries. We play this dangerous game constantly, never achieving any middle or fair ground.
The problem is – excuse my convoluted argument here – understanding what the problem is. We are light years away from the Black Lives Matter movement because we have not yet answered the important questions that Americans are addressing, namely: why do we arrest people and what purpose do prisons serve in this country?
Only those privileged people in the US who pretend to be ostriches with their heads buried in the sand do not admit that race plays an important role in police arrests there. It is difficult not to accept that US prisons serve as a replacement for slavery. This is impossible to dismiss after reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.
The US census says that 13.4 per cent of Americans are black. According to the Pew Research Centre in the US, blacks have nearly six times the imprisonment rate for whites. Those are some terrifying statistics that back up the belief that if you throw black people in prison, you disenfranchise them – just like slavery.
Angola in Louisiana and Parchman in Mississippi are two examples of prisons that are said to be worse than slavery. David Oshinsky wrote a book called Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice to illustrate that issue. It is a scary book indeed.
We haven’t reached this level of understanding yet in this country. There are still many people here on the privileged end of the scale who believe that all police arrests and police shootings are justified and everyone in prison is a criminal. It’s not true.
In the last six years I have worked in prison, I haven’t had a single person in one of my classes who did not either win his case or have it dismissed after waiting eight to ten years for a trial, which is a grave injustice in itself. So again, I ask, what is the purpose of our prisons? It certainly is not just a place to keep guilty people. I can tell you this: Slap a murder charge on anyone in this country and he or she goes away for about ten years. I find that terrifying.
You can dismiss the violent protests of last week all you want, but you can’t dismiss the rage that is festering in this country. Poverty, irrelevant education, social and economic injustice prevail. We have lost the feeling of “all o’ we is one” – the five-word motto that once defined this country – and replaced it with division and gang warfare.
We extract poor or middle class Black boys from troubled communities, put a gun in their hands, call them police and unleash them on poverty-ridden communities with gangs. The police make little or no effort to understand the communities they serve. With the exception of National Security Minister Stewart Young, no one else ever came to my prison debates which shed great light on important topics like legalising marijuana, unlawful killings, the legal system and cell phones in prison.
We can’t solve a problem without understanding it. Brute force never solves any problem. I have learned from working in prison just how little most of us really know about this country and how people feel. The division is appalling. It’s time we work on our communication skills and talk to the people we have marginalised and disenfranchised. Even in war, both sides have to call a truce, sit down and talk eventually. Let’s not implode out of ignorance.