By Dr Tye Salandy
July 02, 2020
Approximately 50 years ago, mainly young people — disillusioned by the continued colonial nature of the country, the deep racism, classism and limited opportunities — made brave efforts to improve things. Instead of the then government, led by Dr Eric Williams, listening and properly engaging with these persons, the leaders of the movement were arrested and jailed, people were beaten and brutalized, and persons were hunted, shot and even killed. “Law and order” were not about the best interest of the citizens but about preserving the status quo. Fifty years later we are faced with unrests that parallel the Hosay Riots, the Camboulay Riots, the 1919 Labour riots, the 1930s Labour uprisings, and the 1970s Black Power movement. It is this eruption of discontent from those who are experiencing the depths of marginalization and brutality that has historically brought about the greatest improvements in conditions in unjust social structures. All of them were met with brutal violence by authorities, yet when history looks back, all these events were important parts of the evolution of our society. By all indications, the present government has not learned these lessons and may repeat the grave errors of the past.
Since independence, Trinidad and Tobago has pursued various development models ranging from Sir Arthur Lewis’ Industrialization by Invitation to Vision 2020/2030 to the People’s Partnership’s Seven Interconnected Pillars for Sustainable Development. These frameworks have been disrespectful to our local history, culture and grassroots thinkers and thus have taken the country into a state of dependency, violence, wastage and environmental destruction. Billions and billions of dollars have gone into “National Security” paying foreign so-called experts, buying high tech surveillance equipment, anti-riot gear, and the infamous blimp, while individuals and organizations that have long been doing important work on the ground are being ignored. There is an urgent need to defund the national security programme and spend the money on positive community projects that come from and are run by the persons in these communities. Imagine what improvements could have been made if our local indigenous organizations and our grassroots intellectuals were supported to expand the work that they have been doing. Instead, successive governments have pursued a top-down neoliberal and capitalist model of so-called development that have given us fancy big buildings but have failed to develop the potential of the people. Failed mega-farms, failed megaprojects, legitimized corruption, token projects in marginalized communities and the close relationship between various governments and big business interests have seen much of our oil and gas revenue squandered or stolen. Billions of dollars of state assets were also placed in the hands of elite interests (See Chagville beach).
Politicians, Conspiracy Theories and the Dodging of Responsibility
At a press conference National Security Minister Stuart Young expressed that the ongoing social upheavals around Port of Spain are orchestrated and people are being paid to protest. The insinuation here is that there is some political motive behind the unrest. It has been a trend with this government that whenever there are issues or people offer dissenting views it is usually dismissed as someone having some political agenda. This is a defence mechanism to avoid confronting issues in communities that the PNM has been in charge of since independence. This is quite similar to the claim of the government that the crime spike in the last part of 2019 was a planned political strategy. And, it is disrespectful to the lived experiences of people from the Port of Spain communities who know that when they go through the normal channels, they usually do not get relief or justice. They know that the quickest way to get attention is to protest and burn tyres. Why are our leaders so quick to dodge responsibility for what is happening? Why are they so quick to try to conspiracy theory their way out of any major situation that they should take responsibility for? People in these communities are genuinely hurting and dodging responsibility and using strong-arm military tactics to repress peoples valid issues will lead to more social problems.
I do not know any sensible persons who think that any government in the last 20 years genuinely cared for them or value what they think. Even people who have traditionally been hard-line PNM and UNC supporters are fed up… but do not see a way out. The antagonistic political situation where there are little opportunities for independent candidates or small parties is an inheritance of a British Westminster style system of governance. The dominant parties know that they do not have to do much work to retain their stronghold. Political hand-outs, token projects, and election trinkets are part of the processes that have done little for marginalized communities. More than any other party, the PNM, with more than 45 years in power, has contributed the most to the underdevelopment of stigmatized Port of Spain communities. Of course, other political parties in power have done little to reverse this. It is part of the culture of political antagonism that makes it easy for persons from both sides of the political divide to put narrow political, ethnic and class interests above the interests of the nation.
All the political parties that have been in power have to also take responsibility for the naked hate, classism and racism directed at persons from these communities as efforts were never taken to have inclusive dialogues so that persons can understand shared and diverse histories to be able to relate better. Parties in power have been far more interested in using the state machinery, including the state media, to bolster support for their political party instead of encouraging deeper awareness of the perspectives, history and culture of the people of Trinidad and Tobago. Our leaders have consistently ignored local grassroots scholars and organisations who have pointing out these issues for decades, so it is no surprise that the chickens are coming home to roost
Behind the politicians are the big and middle business class who are also versed in fancy talk but lacking in will and actions to decolonize a society that they materially benefit from. The comfort in putting profits over people and taking the assets of the people has an opportunity cost. This cost is borne mostly by marginalized communities.
Police Brutality and systemic racism are legacies of plantation society
It is not difficult to understand the roots of all of this. European colonial rule created a society with laws, institutions and ‘knowledge’ that were not in the best interest of all people but instead for the benefit of the mostly white elite. This is what Caribbean intellectuals such as Lloyd Best and George Beckford called the plantation economy and society. Law and order operated not for the benefit of ordinary people but to protect the status quo. When these laws were not enough additional laws were created, such as what happened in the aftermath of the 1919 and 1930s labour uprisings, and the 1970 Black Power Movement. Colonial institutions and rulers placed its knees on the necks of ordinary peoples, yet 58 years of successive post-independence governments have not removed these knees…at times they have even added another. With all the distractions and glitzy bling bling that oil and gas money can buy, many have been blind and desensitized to the fact that people in various stigmatized communities cannot breathe.
While the Black Lives Matter protests have been forcing companies and power structures worldwide to confront racism and white supremacy, many of those issues are relevant here and have long been articulated by various local thinkers and activists. Police Brutality and systemic racism are unaddressed legacies of our plantation society. For this reason, the dialogue about removing colonial statues are relevant and connected to the social unrest happening right now. It is because of the state ignoring efforts at decolonization that many issues are left to fester in both marginalized and affluent communities. We are in the 6th year of the UN Decade for People of African Descent but little to no acknowledgement or support for ongoing activities have come from the state. This is quite strange as the government and its various ministries are often quick to jump on the bandwagon of other United Nations commemorations.
Persons living in marginalized communities are quite aware that their lives mean nothing to many people in society, including people in high positions of office. They are seen as lazy, dependent, expendable, criminal, as useful pawns to maintain political power and as “cockroaches” who stand in the way of a crime-free paradise. There are many stories of people having decent ideas and trying to meet with a member of the government to share their ideas, often with little success. There is also the feeling that the mainstream media has also contributed to the neglect and stigmatization of these communities. If there is a protest, crime, or a visiting politician they are present, yet they are often absent from positive community activities.
State Violence Is not the Solution
Videos from Port of Spain show heavily armed police officers firing tear gas and beating protesters who were chanting “no justice, no peace”. In Beetham Gardens, police officers reportedly shot an unarmed woman who was among a group of protestors. Reports indicate that she later died at the hospital. The brutal repression of dissent is a strategy that was used by colonial administrations. Now, more than 58 years since independence, the announcement by the Police Commissioner for officers to arm themselves with riot gear, tasers, and pepper spray is yet another sign that we have not learnt from our past mistakes. The harsh language, brutal police tactics and the huge rise in police killings are part of a mindset that says that certain lives matter less. Even if people think that all of the persons shot and brutalized by police are criminals, the job of law enforcement is not to be judge, jury and executioner. It is deeply problematic to be encouraging law and order and an end to violence and also supporting the killing of citizens who were not posing any threat to the lives of police officers. The issues in these communities are a reflection of failed plantation institutions and policies and cannot be solved by killing out members of the community. It is hypocritical for the state to be encouraging people to leave violence behind and take responsibility for their actions while at the same time it is perpetuating violence and refusing to take responsibilities for its policies that have led us here.
The antagonism between the police and protestors is unfortunate as both are victims and used as pawns of the system. What is often called police brutality is actually more accurately state brutality as the police simply carry out policies from the government. Police officers are often from these marginalised communities and also have friends and family there. Yet the origins of the local police force as slave catchers and a colonial militia means that there is little sensitivity to people from these communities. The police are not the enemy, and violence is not okay just because it is done by law enforcement. It is not fair that members of these communities are being left to be brutalized by the state. If so, they would be right in their feeling that society does not care about them. Privileged citizens who are disconnected from these communities should make an effort to learn more and dialogue instead of simply condemning protestors as it is an opportunity to work on conditioned biases.
Dr Tye Salandy is a sociologist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.