HIGH NOON on July 4 and cars had slowed to a crawl on the Beetham as I drove out of Port of Spain and headed east. Police positioned themselves along the highway and groups of young men gathered in clusters to look on. They inched closer to the police. Both sides squared off with anger and frustration brewing over a week of multiple murders and police shootings.
Anyone could predict the next move – fires, smoke and burning debris – and understand that these confrontations will continue to haunt us until we ask ourselves some tough questions about the purpose of police and prisons in this country.
Two books raise many of the important points we should be considering. Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America written by Kristian Williams and The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander examine policing and prisons in the US where the majority of police officers are white, but the majority of people in prisons are minorities.
The situation is different in Trinidad and Tobago. As a former university professor pointed out to me in an interview last year, we have a police force and prison population that is mostly black. He said, “What does it say about a country where we take young, black men from poor communities and make them police officers who must confront young black men in the same areas they both come from?”
What does it say when the majority of people in any profession are predominantly from one socio-economic class?
We are enraged with crime, the murder rate and police killings, but no amount of passing rage rectifies a situation we have little understanding of. What role do police play in our society? Can anyone really explain that, and how do we measure the degrees of force police use and decide what is fair force, obsessive force and illegal force?
Critics will point out that Kristian Williams is a self-proclaimed anarchist. Still, he raises many salient points in his book. He writes, “If we are to understand the phenomenon of police and brutality, we must get beyond particular cases. We can better understand the actions of individual police officers if we understand the institution of which they are part.”
Our inherited colonial institutions – like our education system – mostly serve the purpose of perpetuating colonial values of obedience and conformity. Schools are subject-oriented rather than value-oriented, and their main aim is to produce professionals – not leaders, I would argue.
What is the focus of our police service? Race aside, do we believe that middle and upper-class individuals and neighbourhoods are policed in the same way that lower-class neighbourhoods are?
Don’t bother to argue that police target the areas where drugs, guns and crime are. Crime is not confined to any one socio-economic class or place. It’s just more visible in some areas than others. If crime is a snake, are we going for the head of the tail?
As Williams reminds readers, “...violence is an inherent part of policing.” He says, “In the field of social control, police are specialists in violence. They are armed, trained and authorized to use force. With varying degrees of subtlety, this colors their every action. Like the possibility of arrest, the threat of violence is implicit in every police encounter. Violence, as well as the law, is what they represent.”
We put guns in police officers' hands so we shouldn't be shocked when violence or an abuse of power occurs. How we deal with those problems is another matter.
Here’s Williams’s most interesting point. “The police represent the most direct means by which the state imposes its will on the citizenry. When persuasion, indoctrination, moral pressure, and incentive measures all fail – there are the police.”
But what is the State’s will in a country where 95 per cent of inmates in prison re-enter society, as former prison commissioner Gerard Wilson pointed out in his tenure. Why do so many inmates have their cases dismissed or win their cases? What does that say about our policing?
In the new Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that the disproportionate number of black people in US prisons exists because prisons replaced slavery as a place to control and disenfranchise black people. Why do prisons exist here?
When examining the police and prisons, we must take into account our colonial legacy.
The question is, when it comes to policing and prisons in TT, what is our story?