By Raffique Shah
September 04, 2011
NOT surprisingly, the Government has extended the State of Emergency (SoE), citing its “successes” thus far, and all but promising citizens a crime-free country by the time it is lifted. Although no one in Government made this commitment literally, daily, ministers and top officers of the national security agencies dazzle us with statistics that look impressive.
With arrests averaging 150 a day, our law enforcement officers are doing far better than their counterparts in war-torn Kabul or Baghdad. Indeed, if they continue at this rate, and should Government see it fit to extend the emergency for one year, our boys could place more than 50,000 felons, or innocents, behind bars. Do not laugh off the idea of a one-year emergency. In 1970-71, Dr Eric Williams imposed two six-month emergencies, and Sri Lanka and Egypt both had emergencies that lasted 30 years!
So we must consider ourselves lucky that we are facing only three months, at least in the first instance. If the numbers arrested are impressive, the relative tranquillity that citizens now enjoy is cause for celebration. In the designated “hot spots”, residents no longer dance to the music of “potow-pow”. Now, they hear only the rumble of police and army jeeps, the crunch of government-boots, the snapping of handcuffs, and the moans of mothers, “Oh Gawd…mih chile gorn!”
The refrain might be familiar, except that now they do not know where their sons might be. Before the Emergency, they had only to visit the morgue, and later arrange with pastors and funeral agencies for disposal of the corpses. Now, the arrested disappear in Trinidad-Gulags that are so secretive, not even the police can say where they are. I note that attorney and ex-minister Subhas Panday could not get a habeas corpus (present the body) for a client of his who has been detained. The disappearance of young people, even if they are criminals, is something we ought never to condone.
Last week I confessed to having been among the voices that screamed for something to be done about the crime epidemic that has crippled the country. However, I pointed out the serious flaws in the way the Government went about declaring and implementing the Emergency. One week later, I cannot say I feel comfortable with the way things have panned out.
There is a serious racial undercurrent swirling beneath the relative calm the Emergency has brought. It could prove to be explosive if we do not take stock now. The police and army have targeted as “hot spots” districts in which mainly Afro-Trinidadians live. No one, least of all residents of these areas, can deny that there are gangs and criminals in those communities.
But one gets the impression that the police (and maybe the army) have been arresting young men willy-nilly, by race and age profiling. It’s almost as if officers have arrests-quotas, or there is an arrests-competition among the various police divisions and districts.
Let me put it another way. Before the Emergency was declared, did the police not have the names and rap sheets of suspected gangsters? Did they not know where they lived? How could two suspected gang leaders hold sizeable contracts with government agencies? How many more among those arrested as gangsters have “arrangements” with state institutions?
There is also the manner in which people are arrested. As a journalist and former editor, I would love to get photos or video-footage of criminals being taken away by the police. But is it fair to these men, more so if they are innocent citizens who might never be charged with any offence? Often, the media use file photos, which means a particular photo or video-clip can be used repeatedly—wrongfully profiling one person.
I note, too, the Government has decided to clamp down on scrap yards operating off the Beetham Highway. These sites have been eyesores for far too long, and since they are no doubt located on state lands, they should be removed. But since they are businesses and offer employment to nearby residents, why not offer the operators alternative sites?
Besides, the Beetham scrap yards are not the only eyesores in the country. They may be the only ones operated by Afro-Trinidadians. There are many more, some along the Butler Highway, others on main roads in rural Trinidad, that are also eyesores. Many of these latter operate perilously close to roadways, with unlit shipping containers parked nearby. Why pounce only on those in Beetham?
While bandits from the so-called “hot spots” are known car thieves, the “big fish” who buy and alter or scrap the stolen vehicles have big businesses spread across Trinidad. Have the police thought of going after them? What about the gold jewelry that bandits steal? It is common knowledge that they sell these to certain jewellers. Given that many innocent citizens have lost their lives in such robberies, those who profit from banditry should be made to feel the full force of the law.
They do not. Indeed, many of them can be seen at receptions or in upscale establishments with senior political and law officers.
Which is why so many Afro-Trinidadians believe they are being unfairly targeted by the police and Government. This is what ought never to happen, more so in an emergency.
For those citizens who believe that the Emergency is a panacea to the country’s crime woes, I leave them with these words of wisdom from Benjamin Franklin: They that give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.