Black lives matter indeed!
A few weeks ago, my family left a very sentimental possession at the Frank Collymore Hall. I had given up on having it returned but a friend persuaded me to call and see if it was found since there is a high rate of return for items lost or misplaced in the Hall.
I halfheartedly called and the possession was retrieved. There are still good people in Barbados. Thanks to the management and staff of the Frank Collymore Hall. My gratitude to the guards and the cleaners particularly. Meeting honest people feels like an exception more than a norm nowadays and individuals who come together to ensure that people who leave belongings in the Hall are reunited with them, deserve high praise.
Like most people, my attention has been focused in the last week on America and the unfolding racial tension spurred by police brutality against black women, children and men. There are a few things in relation to America worth mentioning but, past that, it got me to thinking that perhaps since our neighbour’s house is on fire, we should also get to wetting ours down.
The flare-up of racial tension in America seems to have caught many, even Americans themselves, by surprise. However, anyone following America in the last few years could have predicted the current goings on. The focus on the American border with Mexico has resulted in much discussion on the migrants who come over from Mexico and provide cheap labour to the American economy.
In addition to the Mexican immigrants, there has been a fairly steady influx of Haitian migrants to America after the earthquake of 2010. The unaddressed frustrations about immigration in America (as is the case in Britain) has caused citizens to take matters into their own hands. These manifestations at the individual level turn into something much more sinister at the institutional level because of the remnants of systemic inequalities which have trickled down from the slave past which built these societies.
The first glaring point which emerges is that both presidential front runners in the American election cannot add the type of leadership that can defuse the situation. The only focus in Clinton’s campaign seems to be that she is a woman and should be elected on that basis. Trump, in many ways, stirs up the racial tensions by his comments and acceptance of support from groups such as the Klu Klux Clan.
These two presidential nominees are metaphors for ‘the system’. Their seeming inability to offer any kind of direction to the current unrest does not leave voters in the affected groups with many more reasons to repose confidence in either nominee.
Another major issue is in questioning whether what is taking place is actually racism or not. Since some of the officers involved in the fatal police shootings in America are themselves immigrants or non-caucasian, people question whether the motive can be put down to racism. It is racism. It is institutionalized. Institutionalized racism does not need to be perpetuated by white people only.
The system over the years in America has constructed a black man in a particular way. It has criminalized him. It has made him have no right to carry arms although it is enshrined as a constitutional privilege. When the system trains officers, it passes on its inbuilt prejudices and these are used as the yardstick against which all black men measure up.
Barbados has some of these remnants of institutionalized racism in its own law enforcement system. This is why I believe a good wetting of our own house at this juncture may not be wasted. Last week, our Attorney General made a case to release a murder accused based on the fact that he is a police officer and if other accused murderers could get bail, this accused should be treated no differently. Alas, the Attorney-General missed a fundamental part of what is fuelling the frustration and friction between police and (especially) black Americans.
Most Americans feel that the system is picking up for police officers – whether they are right or wrong. If a man who takes an oath to serve and protect commits murder, it must be considered more grievous than murder committed by any other man. A man taking an oath to serve and protect holds a responsibility which comes with much power and also much weight.
This power and weight were manifested by the flexing of the muscle which the police collectively exhibited last week before the Attorney General. The family of any of the victims in America or the Knight family in Barbados do not have the support of any organization with comparative muscle and power. These imbalances, left unchecked, are what lead to frustrations that become pent-up and toxic.
The mother of a man accused of shooting a Barbadian police officer took to our Facebook forum Tuesday to express her fear for her son’s life. Most of the responses in the Facebook thread encouraged the youngster to turn himself in. Most people also told him to brace himself for the licks and abuse that he was sure to face at the hands of the police when he finally turns himself in.
Just as in America, there is a systemic image of an accused black man in Barbados. Good people are not wanted and wanted people can be treated anyhow. I do not think that this bother is the average Barbadian. Although many average Barbadians seem to have bought into the Black lives matter campaign, we still are comfortable to come down on the side of our police force even when we hear about one or two excesses.
Black Americans were like that once. They did not care how black men in custody were treated because they had to be criminals anyhow. Today, there is a completely different scenario unfolding which is causing people to question policing in a way they never have before. How many of us realize that the Black lives matter campaign is seeking to re-adjust the images of black women, children and men? Black lives matter is asking for the removal of the institutional image of the black man/person as automatic criminal – guilty until by some miracle proven innocent.
In Barbados, the paradigm for the treatment of an accused person (except when they are former police officers) is still very much, ‘guilty until proven innocent’. As a member of the Rastafarian movement and a bearer of locks for some years now, most of America and some of Barbados are where I have been for a long time with regard to questioning policing.
I know what it is to be on the wrong side of the profile. Black lives matter – in Barbados and in America. Bring de hose!
(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies.