Violence in the Time of COVID: Dispatches from the Caribbean

Violence in the Time of COVID: Dispatches from the Caribbean

Johannah-Rae Reyes and Levi Gahman

Across the Anglo-Caribbean, recurrent machinations of state violence and police brutality persist. Institutionalised attacks on negatively-racialised, resource-poor, and politically-active groups correlate with the discomfiting reality that states in the region are purportedly postcolonial nations retaining Westminster-modelled governance that remain beholden to liberal-capitalist values.

Structural oppression continues because regional states have refused to do the difficult work of uprooting deeply embedded Anti-Black/Anti-Indigenous racism; colonial respectability politics; class hierarchies, and heteropatriarchal social relations. Plantation relations, bourgeois decorum, erasure, and elitism also remain alive and well, as do scorn and disdain for the working-poor and stigmatised Others.

This conjuncture of lasting colonial residuals––when confronted by the right to freedom practiced by the masses––has resulted in state power levying its full force against the very polis to which it owes its authority. As the international movement for Black lives has demonstrated, governments and law enforcement systems all over the world continue to engage in the dehumanising treatment of cash-poor people of colour, which has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, state-sponsored violence of this nature is not exclusive to the Global North, evidenced by the fact that police brutality is occurring across postcolonial geographies in the Majority World. The Caribbean, too, is unfortunately not immune.

State Violence and Police Brutality in the Caribbean
On June 27th in Trinidad and Tobago, three Afro-Caribbean/Black men––Joel Jacobs, Israel Clinton, and Noel Diamond––were gunned down by the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service. The men were from the community of Morvant, which is considered a crime ‘hot spot.’ Jacobs, Clinton, and Diamond were apparently guilty of no offense at the time and even had their hands up. This led to accusations that their deaths were extrajudicial, which ignited mass civil unrest and prompted an investigation into the police. A series of demonstrations exploded across the country, which led to the arrest and detainment of over 70 people. Then, on June 30th, Ornella Greaves, a pregnant mother, was hit by police bullets while participating in a protest near Beetham Gardens (another ‘hot spot’) and later died in hospital.

For context, ‘hot spot’ ‘ghettos’ are predominantly Afro-Caribbean/Black and working-poor, which means community members from them are criminalised and subjected to prejudice given Trinidad’s race, class, and gender hierarchies. As we have written elsewhere, disparaging discourses surrounding ‘hot spots’ and ‘ghettos’ illustrate how places can become racialised and classed, as well as how race and class are spatialised. The state subsequently uses classist negative racialisations of particular spaces to justify either militarising or neglecting certain communities, sometimes both. Here, the safety and privilege afforded to the  middle-, upper-, and credentialed classes of Trinidad cannot be overstated.

State violence in the Caribbean is not unique to Trinidad. The killings by the Trinidadian police came shortly after the May 27th murder of Susan Bogle, a disabled woman from August Town, Jamaica. Susan was reportedly shot in her home while sleeping by armed soldiers from the Jamaica Defence Force who were pursuing wanted men. In Grenada, the indiscriminate shooting of footballer Jamol Charles in the leg in Guoyave on July 5th sparked protests led by Soca artist Hollis Mapp (aka ‘Mr. Killa’). Officers from the Royal Grenada Police Force (RGPF) were searching for Charles’ brother.

Following the most recent shooting of Charles in Grenada, officers were reassigned to other units of the force in an attempt by the RGPF to assuage community anger. This uprising comes four years after a similar situation took place in Hell Yard, Guoyave, Grenada, where Soca singer Kennedy Mapp witnessed police brutality against Derrick Francois. These shootings have all taken place amidst a regional context and time in which Indigenous land defenders in Belize and Honduras are also being criminalised and kidnapped respectively. Black Lives Matter demonstrations have since been organised in Grenada, Barbados, Guyana, Belize, and Jamaica, which is instructive about just how widespread state violence is throughout the region. Even so, oppressed people from across the Caribbean are rising up to rightfully assert their worth and make it known they should be treated with dignity.

COVID-19 as a Public Health Threat and Pretext to Authoritarianism
Upon reaching out to regional activists about the above-noted state violence, both Cassandra Mitchell of the Caribbean Association for Youth Development  (Grenada) and Adeola Young of Groundation (Trinidad and Tobago) have argued that government administrations are weaponising COVID-19 legislation against political dissidence. In Trinidad and Tobago, public health ordinances have necessarily been amended throughout the pandemic to adjust the limits of public gatherings, revise definitions of ‘essential work,’ and mandate physical distancing measures.

For example, both Public Health Regulations No. 19, (active June 22-30) and No. 20 (effective June 30-July 19) limited public gatherings to 25 people and stipulated a two meter distancing rule. Correspondingly, the 72 people arrested during the protests against police brutality across Trinidad were fined for breaching these public health ordinances, while others were jailed for prior offences and are pending trial. The Walter Rodney-inspired activist group Groundation, which is focusing on getting protestors out of jail, has reported that some arrested demonstrators have disclosed being beaten, kept in overcrowded cells, left without toilet paper, and unable to contact family members for days.

There are two contradictions here: the first being the state-sanctioned violence being perpetuated by the Trinidadian police who claim to be ‘keeping the peace;’ with the second being the fact that the state violated the very public health ordinances it used as a justification to arrest and fine protestors––the vast majority of whom are cash-poor and Black/Afro-Caribbean––in the name of ‘safety’.

In Grenada, proposed amendments to the COVID-19 Control Bill, which are set to be implemented as part of the government’s recent State of Emergency declaration, are being contested by advocates who say the provisions infringe on constitutional freedoms and human rights. Grenada’s Attorney General, conversely, claims the government ‘is making decisions based on feedback, decisions coming from the medical and scientific community, and an analysis of the rest of the world.’

According to activists from the social media platform @caribbeanchatforchange, however, certain aspects of the bill will enable police officers to enter homes without warrants, expropriate private property without cause, and unilaterally regulate basic life necessities. In contesting the amendments and querying whether enforcing a permanent state of emergency was an opportunistic move by the state to use the pandemic as a pretext for authoritarianism, they asked the pressing question: ‘Why is this needed in Grenada if there are neither  active/diagnosed  COVID-19 cases?’

Moreover, organisers avow the Control Bill amendments were ushered in to crack down on dissent using the pandemic and public health as a smokescreen. They also contend it was a targeted reprisal for recent protests demanding justice and accountability on the part of the current administration and police force. After days of intense backlash, the Government of Grenada announced the bill would no longer be tabled for debate in late July, stating it: ‘accepts responsibility for not ensuring that the public has a full explanation of the bill, before attempting to take it to Parliament, and therefore commits to improving the process.’ Community organisers and social media activists continue to maintain a high level of suspicion about the victimising behaviour of the state in the context of the pandemic.

The Need for Structural Analysis and ‘New Values’
In his ground-breaking text, The Wretched of the Earth, Caribbean guerrilla-intellectual Frantz Fanon contended that if newly independent ‘Third World’ countries did not opt for radical and democratic change––then colonial era domination and violence would endure. Fanon was calling for a full-scale transformation of social institutions, economic relations, and even humanity. In offering a specific warning about institutionalised hierarchies and the exercise of consolidated power in postcolonial contexts, Fanon (1963, 111) argued ‘the State …imposes itself in a spectacular manner, flaunts its authority, harasses, making it clear to its citizens they are in constant danger.’ Fanon’s words continue to reverberate and it is indeed high time for the Caribbean to orient a course towards real independence and actually-existing democracy.

Trinidadian revolutionary Kwame Ture writes, ‘reorientation means an emphasis on the dignity of humanity, not on the sanctity of property. It means the creation of a society where human misery and poverty are repugnant to that society, not an indication of laziness or lack of initiative. The creation of new values means the establishment of a society based… …on free people, not free enterprise.’ Across the Caribbean, we are yet to create the necessary ‘new values’ Ture spoke of, just as we are yet to reckon with persistent coloniality owed to the social institutions imposed upon the region by imperialists. Nevertheless, the Caribbean’s pluralistic yet collective culture of resistance continues to chisel away at imperial structures. Notably, breathing life into a culture of resistance also means acts of cultural resistance, which has meant this most recent turbulent period of state-sponsored violence has generated subversive art and solidaristic music, in addition to mass protest and collective action.

Joel Jacobs was an Afro-Trinidadian celebrating his birthday when murdered, Jamol James is an Afro-Grenadian footballer who was shot in the leg whilst walking out of his home, Susan Bogle was an Afro-Jamaican disabled woman resting at home before being shot and killed, and Ornella Greaves was an Afro-Trinidadian pregnant mother exercising her right to political protest when she was gunned down by the police. The list goes on but the point is clear: Black people and the cash-poor are not afforded lives free from either structural violence or state maiming. Frantz Fanon was right when he argued the Western-liberal state was a ‘constant danger,’ just as Audre Lorde was correct when she called it the ‘Master’s House.’ To secure liveable Caribbean futures, Anti-Blackness––and the state––must be abolished.

If anyone would like to offer support to TT Black Lives Matter, especially lawyers, local organizers can be reached at: tt.blacklives@gmail.com.

References:
Fanon, F. 1963. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.
Lorde, A. 2018. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. London: Penguin.
Ture, K. and Hamilton, C.V. 1992. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. New York: Vintage.

 

Johannah-Rae Reyes is an organizer for Black Lives Matter (Trinidad and Tobago) and a coordinator for WOMANTRA. As a Caribbean educator, researcher, sign language interpreter, and activist with a degree in Geography from the University of the West Indies, she writes on political issues faced by marginalized communities across the region. Johannah is following a tradition set by generations of radical Caribbean women who have committed to struggling for justice and freedom, which she advances by volunteering for the local advocacy groups Deaf Empowerment and Advancement Foundation (DEAF); Alliance for Justice and Diversity (AJD); and WOMANTRA. Levi Gahman is a social movement sympathiser whose research explores how collective action, mutual aid, and emancipatory praxis can animate pathways out of structural violence and alienation. Currently based in Toxteth, he remains a research affiliate in Development with the University of the West Indies, works in Geography at the University of Liverpool, and is author of Land, God, and Guns: Settler Colonialism and Masculinity (ZED Books).

 

Image: By permission of Trinidad Express photographer, Jermaine Cruickshank, whose original piece can be found here: ‘Mayhem in the City. Protesters Seek Justice!

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