Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Missouri to Freeport: How civic passion fails

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Mark Fraser

 “Michael Brown was left lying in the street for hours.” This sentence appeared in a New York Times report on the fatal police shooting of the 18-year old in Ferguson, Missouri. 

In the USA, too, a human carcass oozing blood could lie, encircled by yellow tape for endless hours, awaiting arrival of the official who in T&T is titled the DMO, district medical officer. Consumed by local annals, only grudgingly could T&T focus on that US story, though it’s one playing big internationally. 

The Missouri killing called out President Barack Obama. Momentarily, it distracted him from war in Gaza, Russian threats to Ukraine, “Islamic caliphate” aggression in Syria and Iraq, upcoming Congressional elections, and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s disparagements of his foreign policy. 

Nondescript names, “Michael Brown” and “Ferguson”, had by last weekend gained almost household-word familiarity in reports of the black teenager’s killing by a white police officer. The reaction—protests and riots, marked by “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” dramatisations, and military-scale law enforcement by city authorities—recalled the 1960s civil rights uprisings, and the Watts, Los Angeles riots exactly 39 years before.

Last Sunday, as I followed the coverage, I scribbled in my diary: “Were I in Ferguson, would I have marched?” It was a foreign story, but it resonated with reports of fatal shooting by T&T police and the local fall-out.

“Cops kill three more”, said the Express’ and other banner headlines days later. Without the white cop/black youth angle, the fatal police shooting somehow joined the slow-moving queue of other T&T slaying, toward mental and emotional assimilation.  

Some of them, classed as murders, are ritually totted up, but without hope of achieving bottom-line meaning for T&T today. Only figuratively can it be supposed that a “war” is on, and that multiple casualties are only to be expected.

In their high hundreds, people annually die unnatural deaths, and also natural deaths, conceivably avoided by prompter or better medical care. It has struck me, however, that people here are resigned to T&T cultural mores, accepting death, by whatever means, as an inseparably constant companion.

Death happens; end of story. Nearly three decades ago, a brother insightfully counselled me: “It easy to dead here.” 

An episode, ritually reported in the media along the lines of a man who “walked up” to another man and “opened fire”, gets routinely recorded, if at all, as a murder mystery. We are fated never to know the whodunit revelation. Eventually, it hardly matters. 

What survives as an inchoate civic-minded concern is the role of police, not as detectors and prosecutors of unlawful killings, but as ultimate executors of putative killers. It remains an under-articulated source of worry that the rule of law is capable of being distorted to justify, or ignore, killings by (police) agents of the state.

If police kill and kill again with impunity, can anyone, outlaw or law-abiding, really feel safe? Last Thursday, the dailies had counted since January 37 deaths by police gunfire.  

The following day’s Express, however, also reported the 2014 “murder toll” at 276. About which of these figures, then, should concern more conscientiously arise?

As a civic entitlement, feeling safe may not be reliably available, as long as a) murders multiply unsolvably, and b) police shoot their way to survival and to inculcation of fear, if not also enjoyment of respect. 

The “Cops kill three more” narrative entails the drawing of a line in the sand somewhere near the Caroni bridge. The three bodies, ages 19, 23 and 28, dragged along the blood-daubed floor of a Freeport apartment, as TV footage showed, had “migrated” there. They were seeking safe “haven” from La Horquetta, where they had apparently been “wanted” by (non-police) gunmen. 

In Freeport last Tuesday, bullets had “perforated” their hearts, which, forensic scientists suggested, means they had confronted police sharpshooters, rather than trying to escape them. From Kadisha, a relative, but not a witness, came a different version of the fatal encounter. “These three men died like dogs,” she said. “They did not get a chance to defend themselves.” 

Police, too, have evolved into media-friendly, soundbite-ready, spokespersons. “I am sending a warning again for criminals to stay way from Central,” said Senior Superintendent Johnny Abraham, referring to “these three men from La Horquetta”, in whose Freeport apartment the police reported their findings of guns, bullets, and stolen bullet-proof vests.

He was demarcating the “turf” of the Central Division under his command, where wrongdoers from elsewhere should not expect welcome. In this, he was assured political support from People’s Partnership MP Rudy Indarsingh. 

Some less well-identified blogger on Friday gave voice to the mixed feelings about T&T police shootings of bandit-types, in Central and elsewhere: “As much as I hate to say it,” he wrote, “the police have no choice but to light up their backsides when they confront them.”

In Missouri, I would take to the streets and shake my fists against white police killing and brutalising black bandits and others. In Freeport, as police shoot those “in bad company”, doing “wrong things”, as relatives concede, such motivation is far harder to derive.