May 2014

Post 148.

Last week’s images of men burning an effigy of Wayne Kublalsingh powerfully illuminated how poor governance and manipulative political leadership can turn citizens against each other, and how we become our own vulnerable bobolees by failing to focus collective attention to our common cause.

Yes, the Debe to Mon Desir dispute is over a highway extension, and it has been emotive, frustrating and vexing to those of different views, but that is not the issue that deserves citizens’ anger. The issue is how state officials and institutions’ failure to be transparent and trustworthy creates and legitimizes blame, intolerance and violence as modes for public deliberation. Beware.

Without full information, different stakeholders resort to accusation. Without a sense of the connected ways we are affected, we deepen popular division. In attacking one another, we undermine necessary national pressure for state accountability.

Some of those desperate for improved transportation are angry with the HRM, as if their struggle lacked legitimacy. Why not also be angry that the UNC, including Roodal Moonilal, Jack Warner and Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar, first supported the Highway Re-route Movement protestors, then turned against them? They stepped beyond the law while invoking it conveniently. They failed to provide the planning, hydrology, cost-benefit and impact-assessments that were due. They mystified their own and state institutions’ irresponsibility, knowing this non-tendered project lacked the necessary studies. Our current leaders caused escalating confusion and conflict among citizens by saying one thing and doing another. Should they feel the heat of a match and gasoline?

As Justice Aboud concluded: “It seems to me that what runs through the evidence is the absence of a clearly formulated policy statement in response to the HRM activities…When a person no less than the Prime Minister promises a review she must be expected to understand what that term means and to have said it with sincerity. Instead of dealing with the HRM in a straightforward and consistent manner…she took a series of steps that are now made out to be half-promises – or no promises at all – to appease, or defuse, or otherwise deal with the activities of the HRM….In the end, the promises of a review and a consideration having been made, the claimants were entitled to believe that the process would have been meaningful and that they would have been consulted. Their expectations were therefore legitimate.”

Public debate over aluminum smelters, quarrying and more is how we sort out what is in our best interest. In each of the struggles ahead over what that means, whom it will cost, and what our rights are to know and decide, there will be sides. Do we then hang by the neck, hack into pieces or set each other’s bodies on fire, even symbolically? Don’t all legitimate expectations regarding citizens’ rights deserve the protection of due process, even if we disagree?

Tacarigua, Chagaramas, Point Fortin, Chatham, La Brea, Toco and Debe, what if one day the government considers your rights annoying, wrong or inconvenient because they are pitted against others’ rights, needs, kickbacks or votes, should you have no defense?

Development is more than infrastructural. It must include democracy. Progress is more than economic. It must be founded on state officials’ credibility and state institutions’ conformity to regulations, policies and law. Citizenship is more than a vote. It must protect our right to challenge all forms of state domination.

I got worried seeing that effigy. It normalizes violence. It conveys fear to neighbours. It sends the wrong message to another generation. It entrenches elite access to conveniently explosive behaviour. Be careful. Citizens will always need each other.









Post 147.

The last thing that my mother said to me this morning was to be extra careful and not write anything controversial. Across the country, citizens are making similar plans, choosing caution over courage. It’s not just the shocking murder of Dana Seetahal, and speculation about her assassination’s connection to her activities as a lawyer. It’s the widespread, desperate sense that there is no protection for anyone, anywhere.

Such overwhelming feeling of powerlessness has been devouring us over the last decade. Many choose silence, hide in our homes and hope against all odds for our family’s safety. That hasn’t helped, as any family who has been attacked at gunpoint by their gate or in their already-barricaded house already knows. As any witness who has refused to testify for fear for her or his life already knows. As any woman who has watched her rapist freely liming in the corner bar already knows. As anyone who reads the newspapers already knows. Yet, absorbing the shock of this powerful woman’s death, we still seek consolation in fictions of retreat.

I’ve tried to resist, as many do, to frequent beautiful, empty coastlines or culturally-rich pan yards or ‘high-risk’ communities as part of work and community participation, or simply to live fully and without fear. And, anyway, retreat to where? Mothers and children are often least safe in their own homes. Young women face real danger just traveling in taxis to or from their workplace. The public space of streets is never free from threat.

We must continue to claim a right to public safety and space for every activity of our lives, from leisure to work to civic engagement. Speak out in every way we can and do. Choose to change our society rather than closet ourselves. Play a role, however minor, in controversial acts of challenging the status quo, political and economic elite power, and state corruption and institutional failure. This is hard to ask of anyone, but we already lose when we are reduced to anxiously living locked indoors. Beyond our vote, we also have to demand better from the state, actual accountability from politicians, police, courts and prisons. We are terrified because criminality occurs without consequences, and with state officials’ collusion. This is the crisis, let’s be clear.

Navigating both an unsettling disbelief and the distracting patterns of normal life, I’ve been wondering what Dana Seetahal’s death really means. Have we now crossed a line or is she just the latest headline? Will the fact that one of the powerful in the society was gunned down make those in her ranks push more effectively for long-identified, systemic state reforms? Should her death make us all more afraid and, if so, afraid of what? Should we really speak out less or, more than ever, do we continue to define the terms on which the nation must be ours? Does her execution strike at the nation’s heart because the social impact of murders is immeasurably cumulative or are we especially stricken at the loss of someone whose lifelong contribution affected so many, or both? Every death counts, yes, but her’s adds hard questions without quick answers.

I understand my mother’s advice, but what is the point of being here? What is it to be responsible? What does it mean to refuse the idea that this place is too far gone, that it is too late? What greater losses and injustices are at stake? What remains possible, beyond despair?

I write with the heavy emotions and questions that increasingly map our experience of this country’s landscape. Refusing retreat is the only step ahead.