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Black lives matter

Published: 
Sunday, June 18, 2017

Attillah Springer had the quote of the week.

It broke through what seemed a national competition for the most offensive or inane public comment on missionary Roman Catholic priest Father Clyde Harvey being robbed in a church, threatened with kidnapping, and left hog-tied. We as Trinis are so much more profound at picong than poignancy.

One leader of a respectable Christian denomination saw the final straw in our moral decline: the wicked attacking God himself.

Kamla shamelessly politicised things, comparing armed bandits’ threats to the priest’s life to PNM politicians’ criticisms of Sat Maharaj’s insistence Hindus be allowed to marry pubescent girls. Our Prime Minister (who desperately needs a press secretary if Maxie is not up to the job) resorted to shaming and blaming the young men’s parents.

And Wayne Chance. He went on and on or longer than broadcast standards ought to allow, certainly longer than I could stomach, about demon seed, a sort of supernatural theory that violence is spawned from semen of blighted men in the wombs of young women in their communities.

Even Fr Harvey’s own responses—to a media he knows is careless and sensational—served to redo some of the damage he pointed out is at the root of the endemic violence and alienation he rightfully noted had merely crossed the door of his presbytery.

There was so much stupidity recklessly trumpeted last week that I began to wonder if this column would enter the competition itself. Whether I am being as laughably naive and simplistic in my own analysis of the significance of what happened. My sentiment that our responses last week demonstrate most poignantly what is wrong with the country—where we reach, as Attillah reflected on. Not the church break-in, or threats to the life of a priest widely seen by the middle class as the champion of the communities his attackers come from, and the minister of East Port-of- Spain.

Attillah wrote back to the hand-wringing Cassandras’ wails that “Trinidad gone through.” She offered that any such conclusion ought to be attributed, not to the proliferation of young men toting guns, but instead to the failure of more of us to be Clyde Harveys.

It was brilliant.

But I don’t agree. I think it is far, far simpler than that. And more complicated.

First, the stock images on newspaper covers, following the incident, of the gold-robed priest over an altar, on which stood a gold-plated lectern, ought to help us better understand how the young men failed to distinguish between his institution and others. And we forget how recently the man being extolled today so unthinkingly as an icon of goodness was demonised by many as a politically dangerous radical.

But, fundamentally, it isn’t about us being as Mother Theresa as we’ve made Clyde into. About keeping injustice in place and being sacrificially charitable to those lesser.

It’s that we have all committed to replicating a society passed on to us after servitude and colonialism that remains devoted to devaluing some people’s humanity. The simple and challenging root of almost everything we suffer is the fact that we all collude actively in reproducing and justifying inequality in needless ways, in order to see ourselves as better—or even better-behaved. It’s the font of all the violence—of the alienation from each other in this tiny place that enables the excess of the violence—despite our immense wealth and talent and Carnival-like capacity for energy and production. Judging and excluding some group of people is the point of our every institution, the fabric of our social lives. Getting through is a privilege, a favour, a grease hand; not a right.

Finding a way to share the nation’s heritage and liberty has eluded us. We struggle to imagine a value system focused on inclusion, on inherent worth; and find ourselves constantly distracted by rituals and etiquettes that should not matter. It’s why the Education Minister thinks teaching penmanship a more important obligation for his ministry in a digital age than sexuality education. Why Krysis’s politeness matters more than officers’ corruption. Why we’ve become righteously obsessed with the protocol and race of a handful of judicial appointments as a failure of governance, in ways we never have for the hundreds the justice system fails—as both victims and accused.

On the one hand, the everyday opportunities to undo this in every small transaction—at service counters, at intersections, in classrooms, on judicial benches, in families, in barbershops and nail salons—are boundless.

On the other hand, the immenseness of our failure to make building a nation of fairness and opportunity central to law, public service and public education is staggering, and requires systemic change and aggressive leadership.

The lives of all young bad boys matter. Deeply. They ought to matter more to us than to their gang lords. They will not kill each other out; nor will corrupt police. They are all very human. As human as we are. No one else is responsible for them but us. We can cling to self-righteousness and neglect, blame and old-fashioned stupidities. We can have many more weeks of prayerful lament.

Until we all invest meaningfully in the futures of the families of the young men who grew up to attack Fr Clyde, in the young girls who grow up to be their mothers—as long as young black people see people their prime minister calls young black leaders spending $59,000 of the VAT they pay on a week of phone calls, or $92,000 on a weekend in Tobago, nothing much will matter to us but violence.

It’s that we have all committed to replicating a society passed on to us after servitude and colonialism that remains devoted to devaluing some people’s humanity. The simple and challenging root of almost everything we suffer is the fact that we all collude actively in reproducing and justifying inequality in needless ways, in order to see ourselves as better—or even better-behaved.