COLUMN – For sake of our children
Over the last two years, the mantra of Black Lives Matter has been an emotional rallying cry in the United States. This has been in large measure inspired by the death of young African American boys as a consistent and repetitive news event over the past few years.
These unfortunate events, from the killing of Trayvon Martin at the hands of a trigger-happy George Zimmerman to the death of Freddie Gray, have united an international community under the banner #BlackLivesMatter.
We here in Barbados are as gripped by these consistent injustices, and through social media have added our voice to an ever-expanding global chorus. When Trayvon Martin was killed, and his killer walked free, the global community said maybe if his death had been caught on video, or if the police wore a body camera, maybe the life of the black boy would matter.
When the next killing was in plain view of a video camera, there was a collective mourning and thought that this was it; that this particular video would be the catalyst for change –– for a systemically racist American justice system to finally be outweighed by the value of black lives in view of incontrovertible evidence.
And we were wrong. And when the other wore a body camera, we were still wrong. And, by and large, we continue to be wrong –– about the idea that if one more step had been taken, one alternative course of action the lives of these African Americans would have been saved.
There is the similar story of if one more step had been taken, one alternative course of action, the lives of two Barbadian boys would have been saved. The parallel can be drawn between the hope that the realities for black boys in the United States would change, and the hope that that we could properly care for our Barbadian children if not merely put an end to some of the devastating situations which they are forced to survive. Shemar Weekes, a 12-year-old St Lucy boy died in an apparent suicide that shook a community and startled the nation. After Shemar’s death, neighbors told stories of long-held suspicions of abuse and neglect in the child’s life, and the public at large was buzzing with conversations.
We said if the neighbours, or the family had been more involved, the child would be alive. We said if the Child Care Board had been alerted, Shemar possibly would still be alive.
Yet, here we are, collectively mourning the loss of Jehan King, a six-year-old boy, who is alleged to be the victim of abuse and whom in his death has started what appears to be a war of words between his family and reignited the debate about collective responsibility, a concept so much a part of Barbadian folklore and tradition. For whatever we think about the varying stories offered to the Press, all the adults proclaim to have had the child’s interest at heart. Perhaps, it was the society at large which neglected him thus contributing to his death.
The death of little Jahan appears to be failure of the system in ways that should make each and every Barbadian uncomfortable enough to force change. In another section of the Press, Child Care Board chairman Ken Knight said the protective agency did not have enough staff to “deal with the overwhelming number of cases involving the physical and sexual abuse of children” –– an assertion that is horrifying in its implications but hardly surprising in the context of financial constraints and, dare I say, a culture that does not value the nation’s children as much as it professes to.
In the context of the BlackLivesMatter movement, the inescapable conclusion has been that the justice system does not value these particular lives, and hence, with each additional step, the result is almost invariably the same to a system where black lives do not matter.
We are now forced to confront the extent to which the lives of our children matter for us in Barbados. Will an additional step achieve more, or is it simply that in Barbados our children do not appear to matter?
We are forced to ask this question not only in the context of the death of these children, but in the context of the high statistics of child abuse in all of its forms in Barbados. We are forced to think about this, in the context of The Nation saga.
A team from The Nation newspaper was last week acquitted of publishing a photograph of minors engaged in sexual activity two years ago. Notably they appear to be headed back to court.
In dismissing the case initially, the magistrate opined that there was separate legal personality between the journalists and the company and thus the former could not be held liable. In essence, the wrong entity was charged.
The question of whether the company should be charged, and then the directors, misses the point that this untenable situation happened on our watch and in a country that is signatory to an international treaty that prohibits the procurement and dissemination of child pornography.
Implicit in the magistrate’s reasoning is the idea that there was a responsibility by the senior journalists to inform the public that the incident had occurred. To the extent that knowledge of the particular incident was supposed to spur us as adults into action it has not. Essentially, we probably sold a few more papers at the expense of publicly shaming a couple of children.
What would caring for our children look like? What would change in this context mean?
Change in this context would mean a clear articulation of reporting procedures. It would mean the training and expanding the staff of the Child Care Board to adequately cater to what is reportedly an escalation in reported cases of abuse. It would mean repairing a system that has long been defined by its lack.
We still lack comprehensive sexual education in our schools. We still lack the qualified guidance staff that would contribute to the proper psychosocial development of our children.
In keeping with Barbadian tradition, there is a responsibility to ensure the protection and support of our children by all of us journalists, neighbours and average citizens alike.
As a society, the cost of not properly caring for our children is too high, and the reminders too tragic –– a reality that must compel us to do more and do better.
(Andwele Boyce is a young communicator who is passionate about politics and popular culture. Andwele holds a master’s in international trade policy and is currently pursuing a law degree.)