Photo: Jermaine Cruickshank
Ah living right dey.
— Joel Jacobs’ last words, spoken with his hands up, before being shot and killed by the police
It was you who shoot me.
— Ornella Greaves’ last words, spoken to an armed officer
In late June, a series of demonstrations erupted across Trinidad and Tobago in response to the police killing of three Black/Afro-Caribbean men — Joel Jacobs, Israel Clinton and Noel Diamond. The men were reportedly shot with their hands up in the air after their car was stopped by the police in the community of Morvant, a designated crime hot spot.
In addition to demanding justice for the three extrajudicial killings, protesters from the community also issued a collective response to long-standing issues of state neglect, police brutality and social denigration that people in so-called “hot spots” experience. The deaths of Joel, Israel and Noel are a direct result of the same institutionalized racism and police brutality that sparked the international movement for Black lives after numerous high-profile police killings of Black men and women in the United States. Amidst the protests in Trinidad, local residents proclaimed: “This is our George Floyd.”
Then, on June 30, two days into the mass civil unrest, Ornella Greaves, a 30-year-old pregnant mother of five, was shot and killed during a protest along Trinidad’s Beetham Highway. Greaves — who already lost her brother to police violence back in 2013 — joined the protests to speak out against the frequent police abuse in the community. Protesters created makeshift roadblocks, shutting down the traffic on two major highways. Upon arriving at the blockades, police opened fire on the crowd, critically injuring Greaves who later died in the hospital.
At present, whilst the demonstrations have dissipated, the dissidence continues with online forums still being scheduled and supporters mobilizing to pay fines and bail protesters out of jail. The growing prevalence of the #blackghettoyutelivesmatter hashtag in Trinidad, as opposed to the more common #BlackLivesMatter, explicitly drives home the point that, besides race and gender, both geography and a lack of class privilege are determining factors when it comes to police brutality in the country.
The same racial logics and liberal-capitalist values that fueled colonialism in the past, lie at the root of state violence in Trinidad today. That is, whilst Trinidad and Tobago is purportedly in its post-independence era, a closer look at the country’s racial, classed and gender-based violence reveals that the state remains actively colonial. Nevertheless, movements, activists, students and youth from the West Indies have a rich track record of rising up and asserting their political agency against colonial power and state repression.
Persistent Coloniality and Patriarchal Capitalism
The cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression.
— C.L.R. James
Trinidad and Tobago is an oil-rich twin-island state in the Caribbean, widely recognized for Carnival, calypso and soca, as well as its racial, religious and ethnic diversity. It is a pluralistic and complex society that comes with a sobering history of imperial penetration, dispossession, enslavement, indentureship and erasure.
Notably, Trinidad and Tobago also carries a proud tradition of creativity, resistance and collective action. Reports of political corruption, partisan conflict and violent crime often make the newspapers, as do celebrations of culture, imagination and kin. All this said, both Trinidad’s social relations and physical landscape remain profoundly shaped by the racism of colonial worldviews and class stratifications of patriarchal capitalism.
Here, as Caribbean economist George Beckford would argue, the role of the plantation and its durable legacy across regional institutions cannot be overstated. Similarly, as Marxist-Feminist Cecilia Green and socialist revolutionary Andyaie illustrate, the devastating consequences wrought by neoliberal logics and the privatization of social reproduction upon postcolonial societies must be factored into any examination of state violence. This is not only because of the repercussions austerity carries for people who are laboring in informal economies — but also because of the harm it causes to women, and the hot spots and ghettos it creates.
The government of Trinidad and Tobago, along with its institutions, remain structured along the lines of the British Empire-imposed Westminster model. It has a fraught history and regrettable track record of corruption and failure to protect and assist the people it purportedly serves. That is, abandonment and explicit violence persist, whether it be against women, children, migrants, refugees, the LGBTQI community, Indigenous people or university students. These iterations of state negligence and structural oppression look chillingly familiar, mirroring the practices of colonial governance and plantation culture.
A Geography of Hot Spots and Ghettos
Hot spots in Trinidad are neighborhoods or wards with high concentrations of low-income families, informal housing, illicit economic activity and gang violence. In turn, they are regularly and problematically stereotyped as being “pest-ridden,” “parasite-infested” ghettos overrun by “marauding thugs.” Households in hot spots are disproportionately Afro-Caribbean/Black, cash-poor and under-served. They often lack access to basic services like running water and serviceable roads.
People from the ghettos are often stigmatized and discriminated against. Hot spots are also branded as “disreputable” and “threatening” spaces by both political and civil society, and as a consequence, are militarized and heavily surveilled by the state. The disparaging discourse surrounding hot spots elides the fact that the ghetto is home to a diverse array of unique Caribbean thinkers and cultural producers. Even so, the negative connotations remain.
In diagnosing social relations across the Caribbean, West Indian journalist Sunity Maharaj and novelist George Lamming suggest that while European imperialists no longer hold the reins of power, historical amnesia and the old colonial order endures. Caribbean political economist Lloyd Best and author V.S. Naipaul go so far as to describe the Trinidad’s post-independent class dynamics and racial tensions as competing classes of “Afro- and Indo-Saxon” elites pitted against not only each other, but also against “ghetto yutes.”
Both Trinidadian poet Colin Robinson and activist Stephanie Leitch assert the Westminster-modelled state remains doggedly heteropatriarchal. Many argue that whilst the country won its political independence, the racial hierarchies, economic disparity, oppressive gender regimes and socio-spatial segregation that characterized the colonial plantation carries on to this day. Indeed, to understand Trinidad, as well as the inherent violence of the state, it is important to take geography into account.
Slaying Like A Capitalist State: “One Shot, One Kill”
In the wake of the recent killings and subsequent protests, police commissioner Gary Griffith, a former military captain who “serves God” and notoriously implemented and adamantly defended a “one shot, one kill” use-of-force policy, stated that demonstrators deserved the full brunt of law enforcement. Per Griffith’s approach, the police fired live rounds, used chemical irritants, beat protesters and arrested 72 community members who participated in the collective action. The protesters were charged under the Public Health Ordinance Act, which was updated in light of the coronavirus pandemic and provided officers an excuse to detain protesters who did not adhere to social distancing regulations.
According to organizers, the arrested demonstrators were confined to overcrowded cells — in clear violation of the Public Health Ordinance Act — where they suffered physical abuse at the hands of the police. Local activists, in response, contended that the state was weaponizing COVID-19 against the public.
The current militarization of the police force follows a long history of state violence. The Trinidadian police carries a jarring and exceptionally brutal legacy of caging, maiming and executing Indigenous, African and Indian peoples, amongst others. For over 400 years, the mandate of the police force has been to suppress the uprisings of the disenfranchised, displaced and subjugated in the name of “law and order,” putting the interest of capital over the well-being of the public.
Here, one need not look any further than the exploitation of local workers and ecosystems facilitated by free trade deals, fossil fuel dependency and Structural Adjustment Programs to understand the social and ecological damage caused by the increasing neoliberalization of economies and societies across the Caribbean.
On this front, and related to the Trinidadian police force’s “war on crime,” gangs and the drug trade, Caribbean scholarship explains that the surges in organized gang activities stemmed from structural adjustment policies that were being implemented in the 1980s. Upon the state slashing social spending and its public sector budget in order to service sovereign debt, liberalize its economy and cope with plummeting oil prices, countless people across the region were left on their own.
In turn, many opted for livelihood strategies in informal, illicit and illegal economies. Moreover, other regional researchers have noted that market shocks intrinsic to global capitalism resulted in stagnating domestic economies, which opened the door to the drug trade. Hence, there is an argument to be made that if the Trinidadian police force was honestly concerned with eliminating gangs and narco-trafficking, they should be taking aim at neoliberal policies and the capitalist state.
Misanthropic Skepticism: From “Caliban” to “Cockroaches”
Photo by Jermaine Cruickshank
The concept of misanthropic skepticism is particularly illuminating given it casts necessary light upon the racial logics, colonial worldviews and chauvinistic rationalities that have historically been used to legitimize the damning, dispossession, dehumanization and elimination of Others.
Maldonado-Torres’ insights on misanthropic skepticism are particularly germane when analyzing the Trinidadian government’s policing regimes and discourse surrounding criminality. State rhetoric is influential in shaping social norms, respectability politics, the perception of certain places as well as who should be included in, or excluded from society. The language government officials employ has sway, and loaded terms about who is “good,” “upstanding” or “law-abiding” produces certain truths. That is, language is power-laden, and the rhetoric deployed by the state sets the boundary around who is accepted as a model citizen and who is condemned as a criminal.
The same dynamics delimit what is seen as a “safe” community versus a “threatening” one. In short, discourses can be deployed to define, discipline and castigate people and places. Accordingly, the Trinidadian state’s misanthropic skepticism becomes evident through its use of labels like “cockroaches,” “savages,” and “criminal elements,” which it recurrently associates with hot spots and ghettos.
In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon outlines how dehumanizing discourses can be mapped onto differing places as a way to pillory and forsake communities: “…the ‘native’ quarters, the shanty town, the Medina, the reservation, is a disreputable place inhabited by disreputable people. You are born anywhere, anyhow. You die anywhere, from anything.” Subsequently, the state has a convenient pretext to either neglect or inflict what they claim is legitimate violence upon communities and spaces it deems abject or disreputable.
Put differently, via misanthropic skepticism, space becomes both racialized and classed, and race and class, in return, become spatialized. Institutionalized processes of this nature harken back to the Caribbean’s brutal and haunting colonial past, not to mention echo the rhetoric of imperialists who besieged the region. In short, Prospero, the European patriarch and enslaver, condemns Caliban, the grotesque native and islander, redux. Notably, these dehumanizing machinations have historically been resisted and continue to be confronted, contested, rewritten and challenged in Trinidad and across the region.
On Race, The State and Who Gets to Be (Human)
Michel Foucault, while offering insights into the intrinsic racism of the Western liberal state, noted that “racism is the precondition that makes killing acceptable” and that state racism marks the “break between what must live and what must die.” While it is important to realize that Foucault was not writing explicitly about either the Caribbean or postcolonial contexts, his analysis very much holds true for the “Master’s House” state foundation upon which Trinidad’s Westminster system and social order rests.
Members of hot spot communities in Trinidad, surrounded by officers in tactical gear, are aware of this precise reality, and are actively opposing it. Their demand to be seen as equal was made even clearer by one Morvant protestor who proclaimed “jail mek fuh you an me!” (jails were made for both you and me!).
Reflecting on the limitations posed by Western notions of what it means to be human, the Jamaican decolonial thinker Sylvia Wynter notes that the lived experiences of negatively racialized people are profoundly affected, if not scarred, by their recurrent and pervasive encounters with Eurocentric conceptions of “Man.” Meaning, in the eyes of imperialists and under the ideology of liberalism, what humanity should be is predominantly coded as white, male, Christian and rational.
Consequently, given that people who are negatively racialized under colonial worldviews are thought not to measure up to Western standards of “Man” — they live with the constant threat of experiencing abuse, humiliation, or even death. For Wynter and other anti-colonial thinkers, this liberal-Western version of humanity continues to debilitate, endanger and damage Black, brown and Indigenous people, not to mention is deeply embedded within the punitive capitalist state.
(Re)Turning to Fanon
As Fanon explained about societies that were founded upon the ideals of liberal-capitalist modernity — both racial animosity and class-based animus can and will continue to be shrewdly grafted onto the bodies of disobedient and different Others. Just as each will be levied against “disreputable places.”
This, for post-independent ruling classes, serves as a rationalization for demeaning, punishing and exiling those perceived as Others. It also affords the postcolonial nationalist bourgeoisie a convenient means to cast Others into what Fanon refers to as the “zone of non-being.” This can be conceptualized as an abyss reserved for the damned who must suffer justifiable and deserved — in the eyes of the state — abandonment, alienation and anguish: “the State imposes itself in a spectacular manner, flaunts its authority, harasses, making it clear to its citizens they are in constant danger.”
Meaning the lives of the negatively racialized neither matter nor have worth and they are deemed by the powers-that-be, as Maldonado-Torres notes, to be rapeable, killable, disposable and forgettable. That is, certain Others within the colonial imagination deserve to be condemned and vanquished because they are monstrous and subhuman — “cockroaches,” to borrow a term from Commissioner Griffith.
Ironically, this is a page taken straight out of the white supremacist’s playbook. As one resident of Sea Lots, another hot spot, asserted: “They protestin’ in America and killin’ we here in Trinidad… …allyuh [the police force] killin’ us here fuh nutin’.”
The Struggle Against “Sickening Mimicry”
In short, when the ghetto mobilizes to engage with the state, it is breaching the profane space to which it has been relegated and seen as a threat. Yet, when the state puts people from the ghetto in its crosshairs and pulls the trigger, it is seen as keeping the peace. This is neither a hyperbole nor a one-time incident — this is the state.
Fanon was correct to equate such vulgar displays of power with the actions of past imperialists and declare: “The national bourgeoisie, appropriating the old traditions of colonialism, flexes its military and police muscle.”
Indeed, the Trinidadian government and the police brutality it sanctions — along with its complicit sycophants who feel entitled to calling certain poor, Black humans “cockroaches” — are performing the most belligerent type of “sickening mimicry” possible. Fanon warned us about such obscenities over half a century ago and rightfully called it betrayal: “Let us not lose time in useless laments or sickening mimicry. Let us leave this Europe which never stops talking of man yet massacres him at every one of its street corners…”
The latest killings by the Trinidadian police are as disgraceful as they are disheartening. And whilst perhaps necessary to note that, yes, the violence of gangs in the country is indeed as intolerable as it is reprehensible, it is as equally vital to assert that the same goes for both law enforcement and the nationalist bourgeoisie.
In sum and to put it bluntly, for anyone who earnestly takes the prospect of actually-existing emancipation seriously, the state will get the critiques — and riots — it deserves. As for the spirit of Ornella Greaves and the people of the ghettos who continue to assert their worth under the shadow of a repressive Westminster-modelled state and defiantly refuse to go quietly as “cockroaches” into the darkness of non-being — their rage is precious. A luta continua…
If any local, regional, or international sympathizers would like to offer support, especially lawyers, TT Black Lives Matter can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
With special thanks to Yucatec (Maya) scholar-organizer Filiberto Penados for his insights on decolonization and misanthropic skepticism.
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/trinidad-tobago-protest/