Post 171.

Amidst signs from Guave Road farmers showing government’s crop destruction in Chagaramas, banners from Tacarigua, increasingly intoxicated folk singing about Kamla drinking puncheon, and a cute Indian rasta with long dreads who danced spiritedly the entire way, last Friday found me in Port of Spain marching against corruption.

Amassing with unions can be pure joy for their unique sense of collectivity and reminder of popular strength. When else will exuberant songs and drums echoing through the street remind you that labour needs to hold the reins of power and that we might indeed overcome economic inequality and exploitation. Someday, someday.

As an anthropologist and activist, my instincts were to read all the handmade signs, walk within the energy of the unions represented, from contractors to oilfield and communication workers to UWI staff, and, as I was to speak on the platform later, give voice to protestors’ own ideas.

I especially tried to talk with women. One carried so much heavy determination to survive domestic violence and current unemployment that I couldn’t imagine how to begin to talk about politics. I could have connected her with a job, but despite having a computer, she didn’t have typing skills. Feeling her defeat, I could only think, may Jah provide the bread.

As I moved through the ranks, asking people how they would end corruption, many weren’t interested in talking, maybe because they wondered why an Indian like me, maybe ah UNC, was asking such questions. Such reticence wasn’t surprising. Dishonesty is the historical modus operandi of every party, yet this was opposition not national politics, personalizing corruption with a capitalized, yellow K.

Some women I spoke with lamented that race was holding back the country, but were clear that racism was worse now than ever before. One man said he’d end corruption by bunnin down Port of Spain. Most just said the solution was to vote out Kamla. I countered that PNM history tells us corruption isn’t because of this Prime Minister. Remember Tarouba Stadium? But, that mood wasn’t there amongst unionists, MSJ supporters, ILP members, PNM faithful, San Fernando workers wanting their back pay, and others wronged and disappointed by a Minshall-named ‘Mama of Mamaguy’.

A number of women told me that we can’t end corruption, we doh have no power. But then why march? On the platform, I hoped they heard me honour Caribbean women’s long tradition of resistance against oppressive systems which used sexual and other kinds of violence, including the law, to control their rights, bodies and fertility, paid women less than they paid men for the same work, and assigned them tasks worth less pay. This is why our great-grandmothers fought in their numbers, to give us this capacity we have today.

I didn’t expect marchers to bring up procurement legislation, political party financing reform, whistleblower protection, increasing police convictions for state fraud, reviewing operations of our tax department or strengthening the Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC) process. Yet, it’s also clear that unions need to make such specific solutions household words as well as call workers to the streets. They need to show how corruption bankrupts the treasury, and undermines the quality of schools, roads and hospitals, leaving the poorest the most hungry.

My speech emphasized that communities must be connected to each other, not to political leaders, and disrupting any myth of Indian women’s docility, I was clear that Jack Warner doesn’t have the moral authority to be on any anti-corruption platform with me. I then left early for a date with my husband, to give enough time and thought also to marriage and family.

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Post 151.

I’m revising my book on citizenship in Trinidad, building on Indian political theorist Partha Chatterjee’s distinction between civil society and political society. It’s helping me to explain how Trinidadians both in and out of the state navigate authority. Brought home, this is how I’m thinking his distinction applies.

When governments make decisions for us, without proper consultation or process, they ignore fundamental citizen rights. Often, state officials impose such authority to enable continued rapid growth of corporate capital. We can see this in everything from aluminum smelter agreements to lack of sufficient regulation of quarries to highways and rapid rails planned without necessary studies to the proposed privatisation of Chaguaramas. De-fanging institutions, such as Town and Country Planning or the EMA, are vital to enabling elite expediency to triumph over transparent, people-centred development.

Having undermined civil society, how then do governments appear participatory? Direct benefits, baskets of subsidies and poverty-removal programmes. These control specific population groups by identifying them as targets of government policies. Men with a history of crime get hand outs through sports. Muslims and Hindus get a cheque on Eid and Divali for diversity. Victims of tragedy get new mattresses and food directly from a Cabinet minister. Ex-Caroni workers get deeds a week before casting their vote. Here, the role of the state and bureaucracy is to transfer resources, not to represent our rights. Ordinary people are thus simultaneously marginalized and managed.

This strategy fragments benefit-seekers and divides potential opposition. All we notice are bags of goodies thrown from budget speeches, platforms and public appearances. Asserting claims to a life of worth and dignity through unions, associations or citizens’ groups becomes so much harder. Popular mobilization instead happens through fleeting, temporary and unstable forms of political organization such as marches, rallies, protests, and vote-trading.

These forms are not directed toward fundamental transformation of structures of political power. They are mostly matters of water and electricity provision, and jobs and so on, meant to make sure that those who can’t be absorbed into economic growth won’t become socially dangerous. Meanwhile, institutions, from the hospitals to the Police Complaints Authority to the Auditor-General, edge closer to the tipping point of collapse, leaving us to marvel at how little justice is protected in a system that works best through contacts. This brings us to political society, where we may forego participation for populism and invest more in politicians than in democratic institutions.

Today, thinking as just a citizen about such politics, I wonder how those groups desperately trying to secure due process can actually win. How can Tacarigua residents protect their public, green space from the stadium Anil Roberts decided they would have? How can Chaguaramas citizens say no to Bhoe Tewarie’s vision of a coast handed over to the private sector? How can Mon Desir homes be protected from the Housing Minister’s commitment to illegal asphalt-laying without the reports which should be publicly accessible?

The upcoming election season will precisely aim to extend this displacement, seducing us from being national citizens to target populations who substitute benefits for rights, disbursements for representation, and love for the leader for true equality. This is how power works in political society, where bigger budgets replace good government, and we are all disciplined by and negotiate in relation to our access and dependence.

There’s a book to be written about our politics, but there’s also exercise of authority that we have to collectively change. It means connecting with each other across our diversities, ideologies, issues, pro- or anti-government analyses, and communities. I hope to contribute to how that unfolds in practice and theory.