By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
September 20, 2011
Sooner or later it had to happen. Amidst the chaos and head-in-the-sand posture, a mature voice had to rise up and address the implications of the state of emergency (SOE) that was declared by the government. While so many of my fellow citizens, buoyed by the apparent calm of the society welcomed the suspension of many of our civil liberties, it took a brave voice to remind us that a constitution cannot suspend itself and that the declaration of a SOE does not automatically abrogate all of our right as citizens.
Such a restatement of our citizens’ rights was not only essential. It was crucially crucial (in the words of the Rastas) to assert that we are a nation of laws rather than a nation bullying personalities; especially when we are overwhelmed by an irascible and ill-tempered Attorney General who no one elected but who believes that his major function is to intimidate and chastise the public and an Opposition that has lost its way, unable to say much about anything; an opposition that has remained mute, unable to articulate a specific position on the SOE.
In spite of the PNM’s silence, at least we know where the CJ stands, how the judiciary sees its role; and how seriously he takes his function. Listening to the CJ address at the opening of the new law felt like a cool drink of water in a hot barren dessert. It was just what the country needs at this time. It was wise for him to remind the public that as one arm of the state it “hold a critical role in our government structure;” that, in fact, it remains part of the triumvirate that seeks to maintain the integrity of the society.
As a black man, the Chief Justice could have been pleased with what he is seeing. He admits that the nation is in crisis and bemoans that over the last 50 years “we have too often placed politics above statesmanship, personalities before principles and yes, family and tribe before the nation. We have lost the broad sense of community. In perceiving each other as enemies, or at least rivals for our country’s rich heritage, we have attacked and denigrated each other at the expense of those offices and institutions that are meant to provide the connecting tissue of our national corpus, and therefore should be held above the fray.”
These were brave words for a fitting occasion but I am not too sure where and how our CJ draws the line between politics and statesmanship; personalities and principles; tribe and nation since they are all so closely bound together. Necessarily, the CJ—if only in respect of the separation of powers—could not come out and say that the effects (perhaps, even the intent) of the SOE fell disproportionately on one of the tribes as certain politicians continue to do their best to extract the most political mileage out of it.
This is why the CJ bent over backward to emphasize the role of trust in the polity and its importance in binding any nation together. He noted: “Trust is important in strained economic times when we ask citizens to endure hardships. Trust is important for effective policing otherwise citizens will not cooperate and share information. Undoubtedly there are times when vigorous action must be taken in the face of a real threat, there can be no gainsaying that, but an effective justice system must ultimately rely on the trust of our citizens.”
Such a statement takes us back to what I asked last week when I noted that there are 180,000 Africans within the ages of 15-34 in Trinidad and Tobago of which approximately are African males. When the state and its apparatuses—including the courts, the police, and the politicians—brutalizes and criminalizes a significant segment of these young men—keeping in mind that their next of kin are also affected by this brutalization, how are they supposed to emerge from this experience trusting the system, reaffirming principles, honoring the nation?
It turns out that all of the leaders of the state were there to listen to the CJ: the prime minister, the acting president, the speaker of the House and the AG. The CJ did not have to point his finger in any direction but those who sat at his feet must have known what he was talking about if they possess an iota of sense, sensibility or decency.
Indeed, they must have frozen when he reiterated the words of the preamble of our constitution that state: “we are a people who respect the principles of social justice and therefore believe that the operation of the economic system should result in the material resources of the community being so distributed as to subserve the common good.”
In uttering those words a black CJ could not but have in mind the fact that young black men were being thrown in jail for a $1,000 worth of marijuana or the non-payment of $100 parking ticket while we are yet to find to person to whom a consignment of 20 million dollars’ worth of marijuana was shipped. No breaking down of apartments; no knocks at the door at night; no Mr. Big; n nothing.
I would have like to hear Keith Rowley offer something that reiterated our core values as a nation as I would have been happy if the PM could tell us, apart from the need to pick up young black men at random, why it remains necessary to extend this SOE and how such an action reaffirms our core values as a nation.
It was therefore a welcoming sight to see the intervention of the CJ if only because it served to remind us that we are a society of laws rather than men and that every action the government takes should be in the interest of all of its citizens rather than those of a tribe. In spite of the popular support the SOE we will live to see it as one of the darker periods of our history.