Thursday, January 18, 2018

A vanity of vagrants

Kevin Baldeosingh logo1

Mark Fraser

If someone told you to loiter, would you know how to do it? Me neither. Yet this is apparently a skill that vagrants and drag queens are well-versed in. How do they pull it off? I mean, I understand in a general sense that loitering is staying in one place too long. But Patrick Manning did that, and nobody arrested him. (Well, not yet.)

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines loitering as “to stand around or move without apparent purpose”. I find this less than helpful. In my teenage years, I may have stood purposelessly from time to time but, now that I’m older, I always do so with a definite purpose. Louis Lee Sing, however, said that critics of his vagrant removal exercise should “stop talking and do something about it because we tend to plan ourselves into impotence.” I’d always believed that was caused by smoking, drinking, lack of exercise and certain medical conditions: but apparently Lee Sing knows something I don’t.

Still, who is Louis Lee Sing to judge whether vagrants have purpose or not? Some of them could be following Jesus’ injunction in Matthew 19:21 to get rid of all their possessions so they can enter the kingdom of Heaven. Or maybe for the men a bushy beard is a political statement, like support of Fidel Castro, and for the women old ragged clothes a rebellion against the fashion police. It’s even possible that vagrants lime in Woodford Square just to embarrass Dr Eric Williams: which, since Lee Sing’s own main purpose in life is to prop up the PNM, is why he wants to put vagrants in jail.

Mind you, Lee Sing continually claims that he puts his family first, nation second, and PNM third: but that so-called principle negates the possibility that the PNM isn’t good for the nation, and logically means that Lee Sing would betray the society once his family benefits. Still, I suspect that it is Lee Sing’s PNM-till-Ah-deadism which is really behind his campaign to get vagrants off the city streets.

Science writer Robert Wright in his book The Moral Animal notes, “We seem prone to grow indignant about the behaviour of distinct groups of people whose interests conflict with a distinct group to which we belong.” And how can there be homeless people when the PNM government has boasted continually about how many houses it has built? Worse yet, most of these individuals are Afro-Trinidadian, yet how can this be when a caring PNM government has been in power for 34 of the past 44 years? So, being a politician, Lee Sing probably believes that once you can change how something looks, this changes how it is.

In our land of masks, it is therefore unsurprising that Lee Sing’s plaster has found favour with some members of the public. For example, letter-writer Ashwini Koonjie in last Wednesday’s Express praised Lee Sing for removing the “smelly, unsightly, dirty vagrants”. Koonjie generously admitted that the vagrants were humans, but went on to say that so were “the rest of us who have to walk the streets of Port of Spain risking our well-being as we could well be attacked or molested by one of these ‘humans’.” (Koonjie’s quote marks, presumably, mean that some are more human than others.)

Statistically speaking, though, only ten per cent of mentally ill persons commit violent acts and, in T&T, you’re more likely to be caught in a cross-fire between gangs than attacked by a vagrant. But Koonjie and Lee Sing are probably less concerned about that since, unlike vagrants, bandits wear brand-name sneakers and deodorant. Wright notes, “We tend to be inconsiderate of low-status people and exceedingly tolerant of high-status people.” Which is why vagrants are arrested for loitering while Calder Hart is living overseas on T&T money. After all, vagrants in this place are treated worse than squatters, pet dogs, and writers.

Lee Sing, however, claims that he is moving vagrants off the city streets because “The street dwellers are the most vulnerable in society”. But he only started saying that after individuals who actually understand the problem criticised his Gestapo methods, with the head of the Association of Psychiatrists of Trinidad and Tobago, Hazel Othello, describing the exercise as “cruel and inhumane”. When he first put on his mayoral chain, Lee Sing had warned that persons found giving food to vagrants would be charged. That never happened, and instead vagrants were suddenly carted off to jail or to the St Ann’s Mental Hospital.