GET REAL: Caught in the crossfire
THE BLACK LIVES Matter movement will seem strange to some West Indians. We have been surrounded by black lives all our lives. Of course they matter. If you are black, a police officer who does not look like you or your neighbours is odd. We would sooner believe that an incident of unjustified police violence was a result of some personal issue rather than it being racially motivated. Maybe the person was horning the officer or something so.
Then a tourist becomes a victim of a violent crime. Out of the great media attention and law enforcement resources deployed, the impression arises that, though all lives matter equally, some lives matter more equally than others. Some rationalise this by arguing that the murder of a local is one life lost but the murder of a tourist is the potential death of an industry that supports many lives.
But then, the attitude towards the treatment of persons like Jamaican Shanique Myrie and other visitors from the region raises the question: are all tourists created equal? If you visit other Caribbean countries you may be familiar with the question, “Why all yuh Bajans doan like we?”
You can’t help but wonder if black visitors matter as much as white visitors. Race may not be the dividing line. Many people in the Caribbean are quick to point out that, “Fuh we it ain race dat is de problem, it is class.” This avoids the fact that often, lighter skin gives you the presumption of higher class status until proven otherwise. Many white Bajans will testify that prices or standard of service miraculously drop once they start to speak.
We may be quick to assume that a visitor with a regional accent will be a drain on the economy and that one with a North American accent will contribute to it.
After Europe conceived of the so-called New World, class and skin colour were born as Siamese twins, joined at the hip. We have not yet achieved the social surgery to separate the two.
The race and class of a visitor seem to make a difference in how they are treated. So does the race and class of a local. This situation is not likely to be isolated to taxis and upscale stores. White Barbadians talk about the difficulties of being a minority here. There are many stories of them being the focus of racially charged taunting and teasing. A friend relates the story to me of a young white Bajan male, who found himself in a jail cell. The young man alleges that he was taunted and teased by officers, about the likelihood that his girlfriend would have a child by someone who looked like them, preferably one of them. Fortunately he was released with only his pride brutalised.
Recently the NATION newspaper published photos of 20-year-old Nazim Blackett, lying in a bloodstained jail cell. His mother alleged that he was brutalised by police officers. This prompted an internal investigation. The NATION has since reported that four officers were soon to be charged with the brutality against Blackett while he was in custody.
For some, this story is consistent with their perception of law enforcement. Either based on their own experience or stories they have heard, it is not hard to believe. For others it is a shock. The thought of those sworn to serve, protect and reassure betraying their mandate and abusing their position is disorienting. They nor anyone in their circle has ever had any problems with the police. For them the police force is a force for good, case closed. In their minds, “If they hurt you they must have a good reason.”
The black lives matter movement in the US faces similar resistance. It is hard for a large number of white Americans and many blacks as well, to envision a police officer as the villain in an altercation, especially with a black male. Even the video of the innocent African American man, Charles Kinsey, being shot by a police officer while lying on the ground with his hands in the air, begging officers not to shoot him, will not convince them that the police have a problem.
It is often hard to put yourself in the shoes of another, especially when their life experience is so different to yours. If you are not a member of the group being discriminated against it could be a test of compassion, objectivity and intelligence to acknowledge their issues. Even for members of the same race, it may be difficult if you are not of the targeted class.
There is a class of person who finds it hard to receive empathy the world over. They are usually poor, young, energetic, dark-skinned and male. They may wear baseball caps and hoodies, with their pants sagging. In Barbados they often have dreadlocks. In the media they are constantly portrayed as dangerous and violent. Without understanding why, many people see them and get nervous. After he was shot, Charles Kinsey asked the officer, “Why did you shoot me?” The officer said to him, “I don’t know.”
There are officers who know exactly why they shoot and kill. In many places with a reputation for violent crime, the reputation of policing matches. In places like Brazil, Mexico, Jamaica and US inner cities, law enforcement has a reputation of being as gangster as the gangsters. The fact that these jurisdictions show little signs of improving should make us question if we want our lawmen to employ a similar strategy.
When the police become badmen, the badmen get badder and ordinary citizens get caught in the crossfire.
Adrian Green is a creative communications specialist. Email: [email protected]