Robbing Hoods

By Raffique Shah
February 03, 2020

Raffique ShahAs we battle against the crime-plague that is devastating the country, and we in the media add our two-cents’ input to what should be considered a national discussion on the issue, I was jolted by an intervention from well-respected commentator Ira Mathur that turned up in my email inbox last weekend. Ira wrote that a “bomb” landed in her smart-phone in the form of a report on gang violence in Trinidad and Tobago by a researcher named Janina Pawelz of the Institute for Peace, Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, Germany.

What Pawelz wrote after spending four months here in 2015 and interviewing 53 people who lived in high-risk communities was not startling, except perhaps for the estimated size of the “gang army” (30,000) and the report’s reference to “250 gang leaders who are given CEPEP funding and control of communities in return for keeping gun violence under control”. This latter assertion is sure to offend many legitimate CEPEP contractors.

Also, Pawelz dramatised her report with some choice quotes (I have not read the report— I’m relying on Ira’s accuracy), such as: “Machine guns everywhere. I’m afraid to go to church,” whispered a receptionist.

“Gangsters are booking their own funerals with expensive coffins. They know they will die young and a fancy funeral is all they ask of life…They don’t fear killing or being killed,” said a businesswoman.

What shocked me most, though, were the columnist’s conclusions: “We are losing this battle against the 30,000-strong gang army. For every man you arrest, 100 youngsters are waiting to take his place.

“The CoP and armed forces can’t fix this. The State can’t fix this. Business can’t fix this. NGO’s can’t fix this. The media can’t fix this. A joint vision can. This is a call on behalf of citizens for collective action as a people to ask humbly for a ceasefire, listen respectfully to the human rights lacking in these communities and fix it starting with empowering families and women who can guide their boys. A fish rots from the head down. They are us. We are them.”

I should point out that earlier in her commentary, Ira cited claims from gangsters that they and entire communities in which they fight to survive on a daily basis are victims of a political system that ensures they remain poor while others, especially the politicians who hold power, are corrupt to the core. The gangsters argue that in this fairly wealthy country, a few at the top cream off a grossly unfair chunk of the pie leaving only the crumbs for folks like them. They vow to continue acquiring firearms and shooting their way to their share, unmindful of who gets caught in the cross fire. Some see themselves as “freedom fighters of the oppressed”.

Against such a bloody backdrop, and with no hope that we will see an end to the violence that has intensified, one can understand why Ira and other citizens are prepared to virtually capitulate to the criminals, plead with them for a ceasefire, and shift the conversation to a new social and economic order, a more equitable society.

Let me state that I am among those who support socio-economic interventions in depressed communities in general, not just in “high risk” districts, as a means of rebalancing the inequities of the past sixty-plus years that we have been in charge of our destiny. Indeed, I have written repeatedly about initiatives by different governments, NGOs, churches and other individuals and organisations that have laboured in the slums to uplift their residents.

While our education system has its deficiencies, no one can deny that close-to-equal opportunities have been in place for decades, from pre-schools to tertiary-level institutions. Any eager child or young adult, especially those supported by ambitious parents, can access a wide range of studies and practical training, pursue careers that are available in few other developing countries.

But even as these opportunities go a-begging, there are tens of thousands of poor people who ignore them and instead reach for and rely on government handouts, which politicians generously dole out through multiple programmes that are supported by public funding. It is amidst such mindset that dependency syndrome flourishes. And young criminals mushroom in such environments, demanding their share of the largesse, rather than access education and training to uplift themselves from the wretchedness of poverty.

For this and other reasons I cannot agree with Ira that we capitulate to criminals, that we go on our knees, beg forgiveness, and run public money their way. Lift the veil of the so-called “freedom fighter” and you find nothing more than a common bandit whose murderous life is dedicated not to helping his community, but to self-enrichment. The politicians give them contracts, CEPEP or whatever, and they muscle their way past the “sufferers”, aiming only to buy themselves luxury sedans or SUVs, adorn their bodies with kilos of gold, and acquire more guns to continue their reigns of terror.

Sorry, Ira, I not on that! These thugs that intimidate the mass of law-abiding citizens are no Robin Hoods. They are robbing hoods. They have not even a remote resemblance to the legendary thief who stole from the wealthy and gave to the poor. And I, a proud product of the 1970s, an era when real freedom fighters liberated entire colonies from colonialism and imperialism, will not allow the term to be tarnished by thieves who give only to themselves and who rob and murder their own people.

The people from the ghettos need to liberate their minds from harbouring and idolising these career criminals, otherwise they will remain trapped in persistent poverty and have nobody to blame but themselves. Nuff said.

8 thoughts on “Robbing Hoods”

  1. Many other groups in various parts of T&T are suffering from similar neglect and have been marginalized since Independence. Many of these are in the Southern communities without running water,gainful employment and other basic services. Their solution to their problems is not to pick up guns and indulge in lives of crime, but to work harder in spite of government neglect and marginalization. These groups have learned that government is not the answer to every problem.They make sacrifices. They search out innovative ways to make a dollar honestly by hard work and the establishment of long term goals to ensure that their children will not suffer the same fate. The results are visible. Families are moved out of poverty in spite of no assistance from the government.

    1. Some of the biggest street-level gang leaders were/are Indians, including the one who was hanged and the other one who got killed in the Beetham recently. The Scott Drug Report also pointed to the top bosses being of other races. Most of the foot soldiers in the East-West corridor are mostly Africans from depressed communities.

  2. A large segment of ‘our youth’ has embraced the ‘thug life’ phenomenon, popularized by individuals such as Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. The so-called ‘adults’ who have acted as their cheer leaders must accept responsibility. When I was a youth in T & T, we had heroes like Mr.K.B ‘Kent’ Bernard, Edwin Roberts et al. We did not rely on lame excuses because our parents did not tolerate foolishness. I agree with the writer-we must take a stand. The problem is: Who is going to rebuild the barn now that the horse has fled? The last set of parents were of my parents’ generation.

  3. I think Raffique Shah’s analysis of Janina Pawelz’s article of crime in Trinidad is spot on. Janina Pawelz wrote an article “Hobsbawm in Trinidad: understanding contemporary modalities of urban violence” published online in September 2018 based on fieldwork done in Trinidad from March to June 2015. Her article tried to apply Eric Hobsbawm’s idea of social banditry outlined in his book Bandits, written in 1969, to urban violence in Trinidad. Hobsbawn was considered one of the great historians of his time; he was a Marxist historian and made no bones about it. Bandits claimed that the peasant bandit was in fact a revolutionary figure who saw himself/herself as fighting against capitalist and imperialist oppression. Hobsbawm draws reference to peasant revolutions led by Latin American revolutionaries. Hobsbawm saw two aspects to the peasant bandit, one his social consciousness and the other his role as an avenger. Pawelz writes that she finds “the figure of Hobsbawm’s avenger has even greater potential to explain the multifaceted phenomenon of gang violence as it combines two contradicting perspectives on gangs: as caring social actors and violent actors or fear and terror at the same time.”
    In my opinion, Pawelz’s attempt to fit the data and the realities of urban violence in Trinidad to Hobsbawn’s theory is like fitting the reality of violence in Trinidad to a Procrustean bed of inapplicable theory. Science tries to get theory to fit the facts, the data and reality, not the other way around. As a Marxist historian who wrote Bandits in 1969, Hobsbawm was very aware of the failure of Marxism to bring about Marxism in Europe. Many Marxist intellectuals sought to explain this fact. Many saw the failure as the “embourgeoisement of the proletariat”, i.e. the spread of “false consciousness”. Many were influenced by the writings of Antonio Gramsci, his interpretation of it and his turn towards looking for a revolutionary class who could embody the revolutionary spirit. Mao found it in the peasants, identity theorists found it in oppressed minorities. Franz Fanon had written about the revolutionary class that combined Mao’s peasant revolutionary potential with urban resistance. So in fact Fanon had anticipated the ideas of Pawelz but, and this is the important factor, Fanon and Hobsbawm were writing about a different historical period. They were writing about the historical spirit of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Those were revolutionary times. The spirit of the times was revolutionary. Times have changed. We are living in a time of which 50 cent “Get rich or die trying” is more descriptive than “revolution or die”. We are living in the age of neoliberalism, of the free market, of get rich or die trying.
    So gangs are not revolutionary organizations which as Pawelz writes are there to avenge the poor through social benevolence and terror. Gangs should be viewed more as conglomerates there to squeeze a profit out of terrorizing their communities through criminality. And it is easy to see how Pawelz theory of the social benevolence and anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist sentiments of gangs goes against reality. You don’t see gangs attacking the 1%, or big business, or imperialist representatives, you see them killing their own people, those in their own communities and other communities are suffering just as much as themselves. What gangs market is their violence, their criminality, their ability and skills to commit violence and criminality. Whatever illegal activity that can be applied to create a profit, whether it be in drugs, guns, land disputes, family squabbles, community infighting, contract killing, it will be applied. It is said that the price for a contract killing is as low as $6,000. So wherever the rich want to spend money to accomplish things through criminality, gangs are there, ready to provide the skills and the experience. So gangs are not revolutionary organizations, they are criminal business organizations, there to provide the criminal skills to get things done that cannot be done through lawful means.
    Marx seems to be more correct in his assessment of what he called the “lumpenproletariat” than his epigones. He considers the lumpenproletariat to be a reactionary class and refers to them as : “ … decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, vagabonds (vagrants), discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni (scoundrels), pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaus (pimps), brothel keepers, porters, literati (men of letters), organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars – in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French term la boheme”. Marxist intellectuals have tried to redeem the revolutionary potential of the lumpenproletariat but in an age of neoliberalism where money is king, gangs are no revolutionary class, they are as Raffique Shah rightly said Robbing Hoods, not Robin Hoods.

  4. Former Prime Minister Manning met with several gang leaders aka community leaders and gave them massive housing, CEPEP, URP, school repairs contracts. The community leaders had a true friend in Mr. Manning who wined and dined with them at Kapok hotel. Police was confused, supposing they arrested a community leader who was the PM friend? They decided to play hide and seek, they hide and the citizens seek their services. The result was a grand total of 550 dead in one year of murderous gang rampage. With turf to protect and heavy government contracts along with drug money overflowing, the gangs began to purchase high end weapons. No one was safe including the lovely Dana Seethahal.

    The UNC came along and sought to address the problems of unemployed black youths by creating “life sport”. A way to engage them in sport and steer them away from crime. We all know how that went. So here we are in 2020 with the minister of national security claiming he have evidence of the UNC using gangs to kill and make the PNM look bad. This minister believes whatever his friend Gary gives him. And so with 45 murders in one month the bodies are piling up and the blame game continues. When will it end.

  5. Race, Crime and Education Pt 1
    Is there any doubt that the critical pre-Independence education issue prevails—inequity. Is there universal access to quality education, or is it access to school seats after the SEA competition? All children have an innate ability to learn, though not in the same way, pace, and style. For many of them, the eyes of justice are wide shut to the distribution of inequity. And when the waves of gang shootings and murders crest, race and skin colour seem to trigger much dialogue about social justice and equity.

  6. This problem is not capable of a military solution. Even if the ‘authorities’ were able to detain-indefinitely, all the known criminal elements, other will step forward to fill the vacuum.
    A complete economic re-organization will not solve the problem either. One only has to look at the experience of the ‘socialist’ regime in Cuba and ask oneself why was there a Mariel ‘boatlift’. Most of the youth who were ‘fleeing’ from ‘communism’, were not doing so for some political ideology. They yearned for the materialism of the arch-enemy, the USA. These young people were born after the revolution, were given everything they needed (not wanted) but were dissatisfied and were enchanted by the sirens of Miami Beach and the ‘good life’. The answer lies in a resurrection of our ancient mores and has to start in the home. Everything else is a stop gap measure which leads either to frustration or to the rise of a fascist state where the leaders will dispense with civil liberties and the ‘good people’ will look the other way when the armed forces take ‘extra-judicial’ measures to extirpate the lumpen elements and their cohorts. Look no further than Chile after the overthrow of Salvador Allende by ‘General’ Pinochet.

    God Bless T & T.

Comments are closed.