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Crime and The Unspeakable
The China Society’s ad in last Saturday’s Guardian adduced a strange dimension to the crime issue. The content, warning its members that local security was a dud, was not remarkable in the circumstances. It was the fact of the message, when added to Cunupia businessmen saying crime was so bad they might close their businesses, the ordinariness of multiple-murder days, the siege of communities as varied as Cascade and Carapo; all this converging to a consensus of national helplessness.
A cursory look at that helplessness reveals an interesting cause: ambivalence among sections of society in condemning criminals, even an eagerness to condone and encourage them. When you see this ambivalence in the police and other political institutions, it’s clear that the chaos we’re roiling in is ill-defined by the flimsy label of “crime.”
What we call crime more closely resembles a low-intensity guerilla conflict, where the urban criminal underclass is making war on the rest of the population. Guerilla conflict isn’t new to Trinidad; there were anti-government guerillas in the 1970s (NUFF and WULF). The present conflict is different in that the guerillas are anti-society.
Their provenance was outlined in an editorial of June 25, 2008, which described “the [PNM] Government’s appeasement policy in which gang leaders are given lucrative contracts as a means of buying their allegiance.” This tradition was a gift from “the late Dr Eric Williams” who “initiated this supposedly peace-bringing policy.”
And like its illustrious founder’s efforts, when the PNM weapon-ised the gangs, it wasn’t just with money. An indispensable element was ideologisation, via talk radio, mainly, which added a new level of insanity. In 2005, the Telecommunications Authority (TATT), responding to myriad complaints, finally woke up to the reality of talk radio. Dr Ralph Henry, then head of TATT, said that “some of them want to take us down the road of Rwanda or Burundi.”
Radio commentators were spewing some fairly horrific anti-Indian race hatred, which the media establishment defended—press freedom and all that. A main theme of this talk-radio narrative was dispossession; the “other” was stealing the native’s “patrimony;” and it was morally acceptable to take it back.
Calypso threw in with, for example, Cro Cro’s Face Reality, which openly directed “bandit pardners” to “kidnap dem,” to “equalise de economy.” Reality was the most high-profile example of that genre. There were others in the tents which never got wide airplay. One that did was Singing Sandra’s Genocide in 2007, which said Indo-doctors performed unauthorised hysterectomies on African women.
The coup de grace of establishing the guerillas’ legitimacy was the PNM’s PR campaign: deny that crime existed as it was growing exponentially: kidnapping was only “in certain areas, affecting certain people;” crime was “all over the world;” and to complain about crime was “bad-talking the country, making us look bad abroad.”
There’s no ambiguity in what criminals read from these responses: encouragement, even exoneration. The ambivalence encouraged much latent criminality to manifest in new criminal enterprises, and when the gangs began to recruit and crime went viral, the narrative adapted to accommodate. You started hearing: “Is only little black boys getting kill, dem is the victims of the ‘others’ who giving them guns and drugs. Doh blame de criminals. Blame the ‘others.’”
Talk radio solidified the epistemic frame which allowed the evasion of key facts, like the PNM supplying the little black boys with capital that allowed them to evolve from street gangs into criminal corporations; the dystopian character of family life in the underclass; and factual data on gangs, like those provided by Prof Anne Marie Bissessar in the Guardian of September 18, 2011. Gangs were mainly along the east-west corridor, membership was 83 per cent Afro-Trini-dadian, 13 per cent Indo, four per cent “other.”
These responses coalesced, and provided a signature for a particular constituency during the state of emergency last year, once the images of young black men being arrested en masse began to circulate. In Parliament, PNM MP Joanne Thomas said it: we people suffering but the doubles vendors in Debe still making a living.
The head of the Emancipation Support Committee, and various other commentators, like Lennox Bernard, Mikey Matthews and so on, and so on, all moaned about woe to the black youth. (The constituency evaded its own silence when the PNM was creating the criminals.)
This sounds like an ethnic response, and in significant part it is. The PNM MPs during the SoE debate, talk-radio hosts and various press commentators certainly gave it an ethno-political stamp, but to suggest this “constituency” is Afro-Trinidadian would be inaccurate. The message of ambivalence to criminality, and the licensing of guerilla behaviour was ingested and manifested across ethnic groups. Violent crime is only one manifestation, and several “conscientious objectors” of various ethnicities quite happily babbled the narrative(s) outlined above.
You might understand this coming from the poorer sections of “urban” society, but (to repeat) the ambivalence-defence of crime came from surprising places, some of them quite high up in the society. The reason (I believe) is the powerful Fanonian element of racial entitlement and revenge hiding in Creole nationalism, which no one admits is there, which was activated by the talk radio, calypso, and the propaganda. So people who thought they were above racial concerns found themselves manifesting the racial paranoia.
And here we find ourselves: crime is endemic and unstoppable because of the society’s confusion: even agreeing what crime is, and who the criminals are, and how they should be treated, seems beyond us—and this confusion shows in police and institutional paralysis. And the criminals exploit this. Until those problems are solved, as they say in Star Trek, brace for multiple impacts.
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