Reflecting on Trinidad and Tobago’s State of Emergency

By Gabrielle Hosein

Gabrielle Jamela Hosein is a feminist, activist, poet and Lecturer at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. As a new mother, she has also started a blog, http://grrlscene.wordpress.com/category/momentous-trivialities-diary-of-a-mothering-worker/

Going into the second week of Trinidad and Tobago’s current state of emergency, reviews are mixed. Rich and poor alike were terrified and horrified by the escalation of violent crime and gun related deaths over the last decade. There have been more than 250 murders for the year and citizens were already feeling trapped and powerless when reports of seven killed, virtually overnight, hit the headlines. The state of emergency and a curfew, set between 9pm and 5am in selected ‘hot spot’ areas, was the next major announcement to shake the population. Mired in cynicism, people nonetheless hoped that the government could use this period to bring down gang and drug related activities, and return the nation to the days when ordinary living wasn’t defined by self-imposed curfews.

At the beginning of the state of emergency, there were a variety of mis-steps and mis-communications. The Prime Minister, Mrs. Kamla Persad-Bissessar, declared the emergency before it was authorized by the President’s signature, and people felt that proper procedure was not followed. The two top cops, the Commissioner of Police and Deputy Police Commissioner, were out of the country, and only after beginning to direct police procedure was the Acting Commissioner of Police retroactively given power. People wondered if his initial orders had legal authority. These are not major issues, but they were sensitive ones and created a sense that things were not really thought through.

There were also conflicting reports from Cabinet. One Minister commented that the state of emergency was being planned for a long time. Yet, just days before the declaration, another had denied that there was any need for one. Passes were to be given to persons needing to be on the streets past 9pm, but it was unclear where or how these would be issued, and on what grounds, and naturally people eventually began to circulate their own photocopied versions. Even Kamla’s initial announcement of a ‘limited’ state of emergency led to days-long radio discussions about what ‘limited’ meant and whether it referred to geography, scope or duration.  There was mass public confusion, though the government seemed to be clueless why.

Afro-Trinidadian representatives have spoken about the tragedy of seeing young, black men handcuffed by police, an image reminiscent of slave shackles and injustice by a racist, colonial regime. Their valid concerns about holistically tackling the association between criminality and Afro-Trinidadian males under 35 years old overlaps ethnic sensitivities about stereotyping of this group by an Indo-Trinidadian, male-dominated government. Indo-Trinidadians, represented by conservative male Hindu voices, have praised the government for finally acknowledging the fear that middle-classes and business people were living with particularly since the People’s National Movement (PNM) took power in 2002.

Syrian-Trinidadian merchants in Port of Spain, who had long been calling for this measure, warned of the need to capture both the ‘little’ and ‘big’ fish in order for justice to be seen to be done. Poor and working class people, in areas that were targeted by police, used the media to cite security forces’ ethnic and class profiling and injustice. Their doors had been kicked in, their beds trampled upon and their houses searched by men with dogs and no legal responsibility to be polite, fair or reasonable. These groups want to see wealthy Syrian-, White- or Indo-Trinidadian businessmen, rumoured to be the wholesale drug traders, also arrested and paraded across the TV. Tobagonians have been worrying about the long-term impact on tourism and the effects of reduced travel on their own livelihoods, food supply and mobility.

The unions are another powerful group weighing in. Public servants and police were in the middle of antagonistic negotiations with the government. Winston Dookeran, Minister of Finance, had been arguing that the government could not afford to increase wages by more than 5%. The unions disagreed and were planning a national strike. The population was torn between acknowledging the loss in real buying power a 5% increase would mean for these workers, and concerns about the state of economy. The past Prime Minister, the spendthrift Patrick Manning, had left Trinidad and Tobago with both debt and deficit. The crux of the issue, however, was that no one knew for sure what we could afford. The state of emergency conveniently did what the unions were threatening to do and what the criminals had not quite accomplished. It shut down the country. The economic costs of the curfew now have to be added to those of crime and the unions’ collective bargaining, which will resume full force in weeks to come. Right now, no one can assemble, protest or speak out against the government without risking arrest.

The opposition PNM is still wounded from the blow of the last election and has been desperately attempting to drum up public discontent. They lack enough moral legitimacy to effectively do so, but will have their day in Parliament on September 2nd. This was a party that illegally wire-tapped the phones of state officials, including the President. It hosted a meeting with gang leaders in Crown Plaza hotel as part of its crime strategy. It was in government during two states of emergency.

After presiding over decades of neglect, dysfunction and deterioration, the party can hardly validly demand radical change in only fifteen months of a new administration. In the debate, each party will be able to accuse the other of illegalities, failed crime plans, suspension of civil rights and creeping dictatorship. Rather than focusing on opposition noise, citizens are more likely to be listening closely to the government’s justifications and it markers of success as they seek to decide for themselves if this has been worthwhile.

Despite the gun-slinging Attorney General’s gladiatorial approach, there have been daytime armed robberies and attempted kidnappings during this period. Many wonder if the criminals really are ‘on the run’ or if the majority are just resting until the curfew is lifted. Incomes in the legal, illegal and informal labour markets have been lost and some will be looking to make ends meet however necessary. Knowing this, citizens are already asking about the plan for after this period ends.

Criminals don’t expect to be caught or punished in a system where less than 20% of offences result in convictions. The police service is widely considered to be inept, uncaring and corrupt. Drugs, guns and ammunition routinely go missing from police station evidence rooms. The courts are drowning in backlogged cases and function in conditions magistrates often publicly complain about. Communities live with bad roads, schools, water supplies, recreation grounds and community centres – or none at all. The in-shore economy remains woefully underdeveloped leading to few real options to make a legal living wage. Finally, the problem of crime can only be tackled by creating new understandings of manhood, ones not linked to dropping out of school, quick money, bling and brands, gang belonging, and violence as means of control. While a state of emergency is useful for specific state action, the solution to runaway crime is institutional, economic and gendered. With a country locked indoors after nightfall and on the eve of our 49th independence on August 31st, there is quiet time to reflect on whether hope or despair surely lies ahead.

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