June 2018


Post 290.

Once, Hindus were not allowed to legally marry under Hindu rites because marriage was only legitimate if it was Christian. Spiritual Baptists were not allowed to practice their religion because it was associated with African community and spiritual customs. Muslims could not commemorate Hosay, for the gathering of masses with sticks and drums so threatened authorities that the Muharram massacre of 1884 occurred.

Vagrancy laws were notoriously used to confine indentured Indian workers to sugar plantations, preventing and punishing escape and rebellion. Once, and perhaps still, you could get harassed and locked up just for being Rasta.

These are all struggles which show how violent and oppressive the law and those who enforce it can be, particularly against the poor and those deemed to not fit in or to be out of place. These are all examples of individuals and communities trying to live as they choose, committing no harm to others and being criminalised anyway. Finally, these are all histories of those among us who successfully sought freedom and protection from injustice.

We would be talking history if this wasn’t the story of individuals and groups still dreaming of an equal place in the region, still dreaming of what you may take for granted; the chance to live without threat, discrimination and harm.

Tomorrow, the Caribbean Court of Justice is considering these very dreams of equal belonging. In McEwen et al v The Attorney General of Guyana, a case is being made to strike down as unconstitutional an 1893 law against cross-dressing for an ‘improper purpose’ in public.

In 2009, seven persons were arrested for being ‘males’ wearing ‘female attire’ in a public place for ‘improper purpose’. These were trans or gender non-conforming persons who, not-unusually, pleaded guilty given the small fine and absence of lawyers. They were fined under this 19th century vagrancy law.

‘Females’ appearing in a public place, for a supposedly ‘improper purpose’, in ‘male attire’ can be similarly convicted, which seems excessive, bizarre and outmoded. What is an “improper purpose”? What is “male attire”? It’s not even clear in the law.

This same legislation criminalises practicising witchcraft. In TT, similar summary offences legislation could get you sentenced to imprisonment for a month for pretending to tell fortunes or imprisonment for three months for bathing in the Maraval River. And, God forbid you are found singing or dancing with rogues and vagabonds, a constable has a right to forcibly carry away all gongs, tambours and chac-chacs.

Such loitering or vagrancy laws have also been used against LBGTI persons who are often arrested without being charged or told of the charges or advised of their rights, who have experienced humiliation and violence during detention, and who are convicted of minor offenses for being on the street or dressing how they choose. In other words, simply for being who they are.

It’s like when police rough up fellas on a block who have committed no crime, but are treated as criminals because of their skin colour, hairstyle or clothes, and who could get hard slap for resisting such profiling. Such advantageousness happens to those whose race, class and gender get them cast as illegitimate, threatening, and subordinate.

Curiously, when four of those convicted in 2009 challenged the constitutionality of the 1893 offence, the Acting Chief Justice in 2013 ruled that cross-dressing in Guyana was perfectly legal, just not for an improper purpose. Yet, in 2016 and 2017, after the CJ’s judgment, various trans women were prevented from attending magistrate’s court dressed in ‘female attire’, as if going to court amounts to an ‘improper purpose’.

At the CCJ, McEwan et al will be arguing that that the law is too vague to be valid or applied without enabling dangerous and arbitrary application by police, that their rights to protection of the law, freedom of expression and non-discrimination have been infringed, and that the law therefore violates constitutional and human rights as positively upheld in Guyana. It also exacts conformity as the price of equality, and reproduces both impunity and social exclusion.

Once, colonial powers decided who we should be and punished us for wanting to decide for ourselves. The CCJ judgment will set a precedent for a region rising up against the savings clauses which keep such colonial laws in place and penalise marginalised communities.

There is now none but ourselves to free each other, whether from poverty, stereotyping or an inhumane justice system. Imagine shaking off colonisers’ boots and walking in the footsteps of those who sought inclusion.

Advertisements

Post 289.

US government inhumanity is being broadcast as globally as World Cup soccer. Yet, few are tuned in.

Maybe you’ve seen the anguished images. The US Department of Homeland Security reports that close to 2000 children were separated from their parents in just the six weeks between April 19 and May 31. More than a hundred children separated under this policy were under four years old.

One Honduran woman reported US agents taking away her breast-feeding baby and handcuffing her when she tried to resist. It would be unimaginable if it wasn’t being broadcast as real. The United Nations has called for an end to the deep violation in current Trump policy toward illegal migrants. Humanitarian organisations have called it “willing cruelty”. The American Civil Liberties Union alleged that border patrol agents were kicking, beating and threatening children with sexual abuse.

The words on the Statue of Liberty say, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. Yet, this about-face from a country whose majority population are immigrants, and which is ruled by white supremist power established through a history of illegal, violent and genocidal entry, is the height of hypocrisy.

Only those seeking a better future from difficult lives try to irregularly cross borders. From El Salvador and Honduras, migrants are escaping forced recruitment by gangs, extortion of their small businesses, rape of women, and kidnapping of children for the sex industry plus straight-up poverty.

People with wealth, power and opportunity in their own countries don’t experience such desperation and have the resources to legally negotiate migration. Vast class inequality in migrants’ home countries, at the hands of their own governments, cannot be ignored here.

Inequalities among countries are also key. Countries such as Mexico were impoverished by the North American Free Trade Agreement which created higher levels of unemployment, lowered labor rights and reduced environmental rules. Subsidized US corn flooded Mexico’s market leading to some two million being forced to leave their farms. These and other effects of NAFTA have had a direct effect on Mexican migration to the US.

Finally, the facts are that immigrants produce net benefits to the US economy by slowing an aging workforce, slowing the declining birthrate, contributing disproportionately to innovation, filling workforce gaps, and enabling high-skilled Americans, such as working mothers, to maximize employment.

However, more powerful is a language of immigrant-blame which fed Trump’s campaign, his insane call for a border wall, and his ability to rally supporters around zenophobia or hatred of foreigners, as a distraction to his undermining of labour, environmental, health, gender and equitable tax policies.

Once just an administrative process, the new ratched up response is that any migrant family entering the U.S. without a border inspection will be prosecuted for this minor misdemeanor. Parents get incarcerated and children sent to a detention centre or foster care. Parents are having difficulties reuniting with children, and may be deported alone.

Even credible asylum seekers are at risk in this new policy effort. Families are broken up because children cannot be kept in the jail-like immigration detention centres which house parents, but the decision to jail such people who haven’t violated any laws is a choice, not a mandatory or long-established practice.

The Trump regime is now playing politics about an approach that leaves children deeply traumatised. One legitimate, woman asylum seeker in particular, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, was separated from her seven year-old daughter for months. Children have been reported to be at risk of running away, self-harm and suicide, and arrive at over-crowded centres thinking their parents are lost or dead.

Commentator Dan Savage’s tweet got it absolutely right: “Reminder that the people currently justifying tearing children away from their parents spend the last twenty years insisting “every child deserves a mother and a father”.”

One on the one hand, “family values” are touted as the basis for Republican undermining of women’s right to safe and legal termination of pregnancies, and undermining of challenges to homophobic laws regarding marriage, adoption and inheritance.

On the other hand, this is a vastly anti-family practice, enacted by almost no other country in the “free world” experiencing such migration. The world should also remember that, despite being a signatory, the USA has never ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, undermining its global accountability for violation of children’s rights.

Even illegally migrating children should not be treated this way. In between football games, join a world closely watching Trump’s border policy foul play.

 

 

Post 288.

Back in Trinidad, the brown grass in my backyard makes the threat of hurricanes seem far away, but islands up the Caribbean chain are already looking ahead. I didn’t even notice the clock ticking its way into official rainy season until a few days ago when I was up at midnight watching lightning repeatedly tear down through Havana’s cobalt sky.

The next day, amidst heavy, dusty heat, I listened to a panel on climate change at a Caribbean Studies conference. You wouldn’t believe the words speakers threw around: Infrastructurality. Disaster capitalism. The Age of Disaster. The politics of recovery.

They made it seem like one morning you wake up and you understand why Indigenous People believed in Huracan, the god of wind, storms and lightning, because on some dark night you may be too powerless to do anything but pray.

Hurricanes decapitated Grenada’s houses, and almost decimated Barbuda and Dominica. They’ve submerged Havana and flooded roads in Kingston. Parts of Puerto Rico are still without restored electricity since last year’s Maria.

Disaster capitalism is corrupt or exploitative profiting off natural disasters, strategically using them to land grab or forcing privatisation in ways that make governments and populations dependent and pliable to foreign or corporate interests.

In Puerto Rico, people had to resist push to privatise not only electricity, but also public schooling, and push back against reconstruction loans at interest rates that meant permanent debt.

Climate change is the region’s singular crisis, caused by the impact of a global economic order that continues to arrive in waves on our shores. It’s a repeating story of these islands.

The colonial encounter with the Caribbean was fueled by enough profit motive and warped logic to fell thriving Indigenous belief systems, landscapes, ways of life and populations by the millions. The effects were cataclysmic.

Today, scholars consider fossil capitalism a contemporary form of extreme and devastating economic violence. It wields power over our life and death. It leads to overnight collapse of tourist capacity, agricultural output, public health provision and GDP, along with developed country status. It’s also our own brand of development so we have a hand in our demise, and no plan for saving ourselves.

A three-hour rain floods the Northern Range down to the Central plains, submerges Port of Spain, and drowns millions of dollars in crops. The best we can do is have strong, resilient infrastructure in terms of water provision, roads, buildings and the electric grid, but Trinidad and Tobago isn’t near ready.

If you are in a community prone to flooding, start hammering at the doors of your MP and Regional Corporation. Demand a plan that’s bigger than household compensation, which is increasingly going to be insufficient, and unable to protect us from what is considered a ‘tragedy of the commons’.

This is a tragedy that starts with our inability to protect the temperature balance in our shared planetary atmosphere and therefore to prevent worsening regional storms. It continues with our inability to protect our nations from the socialisation of losses resulting from privatisation of fossil exploitation gains. Finally, it ends with our failure to collectively decide what disaster and recovery measures are best for whole, interconnected communities.

We will not survive attack on commonly shared resources and realities through short-term, individualistic or selfish recovery strategies. For us, it’s not an ‘if’, but a ‘when’, once the global economic order continues as is.

Soon, our brown grass will turn brilliant green. Our Caribbean neighbours will become anxious about the eight hurricanes and four major hurricanes predicted. Besides climate change, there’s a natural climate pulse cycle that produced hurricanes in the 1950s and 1960s, and is back again.

Following Huracan’s sweep, the disaster isn’t just the damage, it’s also the recovery. Global media will descend to package stereotyped apocalyptic scenes of devastated citizens in need of rescue. What we need is resilient, regional power to stop this exceptional harm.

After its first category 5 hurricane in recorded history, Dominican PM Roosevelt Skerrit described Dominica’s state with the words, ‘Eden in broken’. This metaphor of Eden isn’t random.

The whole point of the Caribbean in the Western narrative of modernity is to be a perfect paradise, to be beautiful and consumable and an escape from elsewhere.

That was the story of the region repeated for five hundred years and it’s how we understand ourselves today; In Eden, under God’s eye, in fear of his wrath, wondering how much, this season, Huracan will weep with us along our tragic path.

Post 287.

Wandering through Havana’s streets and Cuban history this week, I wondered what lesson to draw from their contradictions.

Then, independent Afro-Cuban artist, Nancy Cepero, softly shared a saying she lives by, “Cuando la verdad despierta, no puede volver a dormirse”. In English, “when truth wakes up, she cannot go back to sleep”. I’ve been walking with it since.

I was here in 2004, still dreaming of the 1959 Cuban revolution and its renegade socialist idealism. The Museum of the Revolution, with its bullet-holes, and letters and photographs of lost, loved comrades, struck my heart with the intimacy of its remembering.

Trinidad and Tobago has nothing like that for the 1930s height of Indian-African labour solidarity nor independence in 1962 nor Black Power consciousness in 1970 because we identify with the modern and Miami, as if our past and its foot soldiers have neither familiarity nor value.

It’s like Ziya said to me during one of our moments of internet connection, “Auntie is travelling to a better place than you”. “Where’s that?” I asked “Walmart”, she responded, leaving me mid-sentence about the devastation of hurricanes on the Cuban economy, the crumbling dignity of once-beautiful buildings, and the inspiration of a place that bravely waged armed war against imperialism and injustice.

Now in 2018, I know better than to over-invest in myth. At the same time, I still can’t shake off admiration for a boldfaced, small-island Caribbean experiment that might have succeeded if not for the punishment of a half-century US blockade, the wielding of tightly controlled state power, and human fallibility.

Listening to lectures on sociology, economics and international relations with the fourteen UWI graduate students whom the Institute for Gender and Development Studies (IGDS) brought here on a study tour, we heard the official story: everyone has a house, women are excelling in academics and professions, sex workers are assisted out of their exploitative occupation, the nation is a democracy, and racism is firmly rejected by the state.

Later, as we listened to the marginalized voices of Afro-Cuban scholars, grandmothers, lesbians, trans-women, sex workers, poets, artists and activists, the official story rang as both narrow and untrue.

In her own youthful experience, Nancy felt too excluded from the Cuban revolutionary dream to identify with its national women’s organization, the Cuban Federation of Women (FMC), to which all women automatically belong.

In her twenties, she was a generation too far from 1959 for nostalgia. She hasn’t seen enough Afro-Cuban or politically independent women, or both, to feel such state politics is truly inclusive.

She’s not alone. Afro-Cubans describe the invisibility of their role in Cuban struggles and how blackness still correlates with greater poverty. It’s a continued injustice that one isn’t really supposed to organize against. Still, once alert to your reality, it’s impossible to be lulled by yesterday’s dream.

In old Havana, we almost missed a small plaque dedicated to the massacre of about 3000 Afro-Cubans who were forming an independent party in 1908.

Such struggles against racism are hardly taught in schools, we heard. Many countries, including the US, with its whitewashing of vast Indigenous genocide, are guilty of such amnesia. That’s why truth awakens and then quietly seethes.

The polishing-up of Old Havana has meant that its urban neighbourhoods are increasingly becoming wealthier and white as poor Afro-Cubans are pushed to outskirts.

Their buildings may be left to fall apart slowly over years and eventually become unlivable, while a new hotel might be up and running in the same spot in a year. All over the world, valuable urban real estate changes hands through such gentrification.

The IGDS brought our graduate students here so that they could be intimate with iconic places of Caribbean envisioning and resistance; so that they could know our own regional history of small island big dreams. The kind of dreams that confront the Goliath of elites, empires, global economic orders and big-stick neighbours with a slingshot, small like Haiti, Grenada or Cuba.

Students also learned a lot about the risks and challenges of being truthful about failures amidst hugely admirable successes in health, education, international solidarity, and equality.

In sleep, you can dream to change the world. However, having awakened, you can learn from the ancestors and become better makers and movers of history.

It’s a less romanticized Cuban revolution that teaches the lesson students need. When truth wakes you up, do not go back to sleep.