Earlier this week, we celebrated Phagwah. Phagwah is a Hindu festival of colours and celebrates good over evil and the beginning of Spring. The custom of throwing powder, abeer and water on each other has been embraced by many non-Hindu Guyanese. It is a beautiful festival that brings those who choose to celebrate together.
But this year’s Phagwah celebrations ended on a sad note for two young men and exposed that though there have been calls for national unity, we are still somewhat divided.
Dameion Gordon and Vernon Beckles, men of African descent, were beaten by a mob in Canal Number 1, which is a predominantly Indo-Guyanese community. It was reported that racial slurs were uttered by the mob. The men were accused of stealing car mirrors. They said that they had stopped at a shop for some drinks with some friends when they were approached by the mob. They pleaded their innocence but that did not calm the gang. They were beaten and even the community policing group reportedly endorsed the beatings by handcuffing them.
When I became aware of the story, I purposely denied the anger that threatened to consume me. I read several reports and watched the interview with the men and yet I did not allow myself to be angry. However, I could not control the sadness.
I asked myself several questions. Could it be that the young men were guilty? Could it be a case of mistaken identity? Could it be that a group of people were emboldened by their racial prejudice? Did alcohol play any part in it?
I wondered what would have happened if the police had not intervened. Sadly, I thought that if they were killed their innocence would not matter. There would be some story saying that they were criminals to justify the thoughtlessness that was involved in the beatings.
I observed the anger of both Indo and Afro Guyanese as they condemned the actions. The question about vigilante justice and whether it has any place in society was raised again. Is it ever justified? Is it abused? And there were other questions.
“What is the Ministry of Social Cohesion doing?”
“What about national unity?”
We as a society were also confronted again with stereotypical statements asserting that “Black man is thief,” and “Black man rob Coolie.” I asked myself if there was validity to this madness. Have men of African descent robbed Indians? Yes. Are men of African descent the only men that rob Indians? No. Do men of African descent rob people within their ethnic group? Yes. Do Indians rob people of African descent? Yes. Do Indians rob other Indians? Yes. But do any of the people involved in criminal activities represent the majority within the groups? The answer is no.
A couple of months ago, it was revealed that a gang of Indo-Guyanese were carrying out criminal activities in Berbice. I observed persons of African descent calling for East Indians who normally berate and expose men of African descent for committing crimes to say something. It was a situation that again exposed the sickness we have in this country. The fact that criminals being caught was cause for members of another ethnic group to feel validated that it is not only members within their ethnic group that commit crimes speaks volumes about the damage that exists. The fact that some people have erroneously convinced themselves that only a certain group of people engage in crime, even though it is universally true that people of all ethnicities engage in crime, is tragic.
But is it only Indians who exercise prejudice towards people of African descent and believe certain stereotypes? The answer is no. There are many Guyanese of African descent who are angry at their Indian brothers and sisters. Among them are persons who felt disenfranchised under the previous government. After the last general elections, when the APNU+AFC won, though they campaigned on a platform of national unity, there were people of African descent who took to saying that their time had come. It revealed to me that for some people national unity had little or no meaning.
I have heard people say—and I am paraphrasing—that a good Indian is a dead one. Until this week, I never really evaluated what that statement meant. It was just one of those things that you heard occasionally and paid little mind to. It is in fact a very ugly statement. It questions the character of an entire group of people. And as with any general statement made about a people, it is wrong.
Whether the ugliness rears its head from Afro- or Indo-Guyanese, it hurts us as a nation. It sends a terrible message to our young people. When folks from the older generation continue to hold on to stereotypes and repeat them for the younger generation to hear, it causes damage. And though many young people may put it at the back of their minds, it still has the power to influence how they deal with other ethnicities, even if the effect is subliminal.
Perhaps the infection that is prejudice will eventually die in our society. Perhaps we will get to a place where we collectively look at each other and see human beings with the same opportunities and the same nature to err.
We should remind ourselves to be in control of what happens to us as much as we can. We do not have to allow the circumstances of injustice to keep us trapped in anger. We do not have to thrive on negativity. We do not have to let the opinions of others define us. And we must not pretend that the horrible things happening around us are not real.
There were questions about the validity of the claims of vigilantism and racial prejudice concerning the Canal Number 1 beating. The innocence of the men was questioned. The press release by the Guyana Police Force left one to wonder: Who is really there to serve and protect us? The statement began with “Police are investigating the alleged assault.” The men had bruises, swellings and cuts—and their beating is alleged? So, the injuries were self-inflicted? The statement also went on to caution media houses that they said rushed to erroneously publish a story about vigilantism that was unsubstantiated. What was also worrying was how the statement ended: “It is not the first time that persons who are suspected of having committed an offence invoke the wrath of members of the public and while we frown and warn against these behaviors as being unacceptable, the reality is that one cannot necessarily immediately determine what a spontaneous action will be.” This is Guyana 2017. On a holiday that demonstrates what national unity is, such an ugly incident occurred. We are in so much trouble.