Depending on where you’re coming from, “Laventille” begins and ends somewhere outside the zone undergoing “home invasions”, and worse as a war-time ground zero. “We have never seen anything like this,” said Housing Minister Roodal Moonilal, raising alarm over “almost an organised campaign of home invasions in the Port of Spain area”.
Inside “Port of Spain area” habitations they call home, various victims had been evicted by force of arms and terror threats, as invaders commandeered the space. Before unbelieving eyes of those taking for granted the reign of civilisation and the rule of law, a state of nature had declared itself into being.
The strongest were effectively asserting superior claims to survival in habitats that had evolved downward to make this even thinkable. The HDC apartments had reverted to stage settings of Darwinian drama. In less than a week, however, “home invasions” had yielded headline space to murders.
The location common to both stories was Duncan Street, Port of Spain. Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar went there, and shared sobs and hugs with the mother of a 16-year old whom assassins had taken from an apartment and shot 15 times. The Prime Minister announced that a garrison force of police and soldiers was being billeted in Apartment 64.
Now, is this dateline meant to signal an inner-city version of Laventille? Residents who are assigned authentic postal codes for the area find that “Laventille”, as spoken and written by others, often registers more as a state of mind or a metaphor than as a geographical destination.
In Success Village, some cutting-edge community leadership is exercised toward the goals of “bringing back” the Highlanders steelband, and of renaming the Old St Joseph Road as the Bertie Marshall Boulevard. The late Mr Marshall had been the captain, arranger and virtuoso pan tuner for Highlanders, then at a famous Old St Joseph Road intersection. To no other neighbourhood does such a name-change mission belong.
But the site of the old Highlanders yard is close enough to see and hear the helicopter overflying as part of the “static, mobile and air resources” summoned by the Prime Minister in response to the Duncan Street killings. The Duncan Street setting declines rapidly from the sector between Independence Square North and Queen Street, where religious charities feed the homeless, into a hell where people keep killing people, and displacing other people.
From what I read, the police brass didn’t present a map, but they described a 200-metre “radius” where 138 people had been killed over four years. A “radius” of that length stopped short of the circumference of Laventille, which was nevertheless invoked by the spectre being reported. Acting Commissioner Stephen Williams characterised the finding, marked by scientific precision (200 metres; 138 dead; four years), as “phenomenal”.
The Duncan Street “phenomenon” had made itself felt as the result, repeatedly reported, of conflicts among gangs. Unlike those in Jamaica and elsewhere, gangs don’t advertise their names. To resolve conflict among themselves they kill, or issue well-founded threats to kill.
Trinidad and Tobago has struggled to gain an adequate profile of this enemy within which continues to produce the phenomenon of murderous crime. Such “intelligence” as has been gleaned recycles cliche identifications like “Laventille” that today comprehends more a pattern of behaviour than a home on a hill.
Another cliche is “ghetto”, which has survived into academic recognition, over the 14 years since Singing Sandra famously performed “Voices from the Ghetto”, that opened with a setting suggestive of Laventille: “The sun rises slowly over the hill.”
As with last weekend’s march for peace, Sandra’s song voiced a familiar hope for steelband music to supply “harmony to conquer the violence”. Though storied Desperadoes accept the ignominy of having been all but chased off that hill, the hope survives.
Change has been for the worse. “Big men run when cops approach,” Sandra sang. The compelling images of 2013 are those of vociferously defiant men, and women, fighting up against police who, though “heavily armed”, are reduced to equal billing with the rest in the mini-movies shot by media cameras and smartphone paparazzi.
In Duncan Street and other places passing under the loose “Laventille” rubric, people may choose from among available brutalities. Police brutality retains so loud and historically resonant an image as to render today’s officers, sensing themselves always on camera, self-conscious and hesitant.
Inside what academic authors of this year’s study on “engaging youth at risk” call the “ghetto”, gangsters kill and terrorise. They can, however, rely on defence, spontaneously outpouring from neighbours and from MP Marlene McDonald, balancing out evil against evil, as between police and gangsters.
Like the late Lancelot Layne, who declaimed in song against it in the 1970s, I have never accepted the loose transliteration of “ghetto” to apply to any T&T context. But time has proved the reliability of repetition. In 1999, Singing Sandra told of “ghetto” denizens “fighting for scraps with the cockroach”. In 2013, Selwyn Ryan, leading the academic study, found the same people “competing for space in crowded yards or cots on which to sleep, sometimes in shifts”.
And Laventille, not Duncan Street, retains the image of ghetto capital.