An astonishing and beautiful thing happened in Beetham Gardens a couple weeks ago that contrasted with the ugliness to which it stood opposed. It was a group of people led in turn by an elderly woman and by a young man not out of his teens appearing on TV and offering an apology to the family of a man found dead in a river near Beetham, the victim of a maxi-taxi hijacking.
These were citizens apologising on behalf of their community. They were ashamed that their community was associated with such a horrible crime. The woman said she was aware that Beetham is a ghetto but that did not mean that everyone who lived there was involved in crime. A small group of criminals had taken over the community she said, but many people wanted to be law-abiding.
The youth said he was fed up with crime in the area, and wanted crime in the community to cease. The group wanted the family of the murdered man to know that they were sorry that he was killed, and his body disposed of in their community. They apologised to the family for this killing and empathised with them on their loss.
We are accustomed to seeing the people of Beetham and Sea Lots so fearful of reprisal that each time a gangster there is held by police the entire community comes out in support of him, blocking traffic, taunting the police, dancing and singing his praises. These are not spontaneous occurrences, but rather the well-rehearsed responses of people under siege and living in fear. People who refuse to participate in these acts run the risk of being targeted as snitches, thereby putting themselves in peril when the word gets back to the big man.
But this group of Beetham community members had had enough. So they have dissociated themselves and others who are law-abiding from the activities of the criminals. They are saying to us that their community’s hand is in the lion’s mouth.
The first lesson of this act, and one for all of us who do not live in crime hotspots, is that we cannot indict whole communities for the acts of a few. Many of the residents in hotspots would like crime to cease so they could carry on with their lives. They have children whom they wish to raise, and for whom they have aspirations just like citizens who are not trapped in these crime enclaves. Many times these people prefer to remain silent because they fear repercussions if they do not toe the line.
When my mother built her shack in Cocorite in the 1950s it was out of poverty, not because of choice. The authorities are caught in two minds about these hotspots. They want their votes, but they are loathe to provide them with anything other than basic amenities, such as water. Police stations are out.
When we see members of one of these communities breaking out and coming before the cameras like this we must see this as a desperate cry for help. Water more than flour. Like the rest of us, the people who live in hotspots want safe streets on which to walk. They want their children to be able to play in their yards and on the local playground without being at risk. They want their adolescent children to have the same range of options as those of other communities, besides joining gangs merely because of the untoward existential costs of not doing so.
The second related lesson here is that the society has failed these communities by leaving them virtually unpoliced and at the mercy of criminals. We have not figured out ways to police hotspot areas other than rapid response after gunshots are heard and a body is ready to be picked up in a culvert. Hotspots tend to be geographic enclaves where the movement of citizens is predictable because there may be very limited routes by which they can get to their homes.
For example, the Beetham and Sea lots area are basically islands. If you stand at any strategic corner, you can get a grasp of the activities of significant sections of the community. If you live in Laventille, there are few areas you can use to drive your car up to your home and park it in your yard. There is one main road up the hill, then a set of alleys. In Cocorite, there is one main road, in and out. The average citizen has to run a gauntlet each day, on his way to work or school. The criminals know the activities of all.
The police do not have permanent presence in these hotspot areas. There is no police station up Laventille Hill, in Beetham, or in Cocorite. These areas cry out for some sort of breakthrough insight where the country learns that community policing means active policing, not waiting for a phone call that gunshots have been heard, and a man is dead on the basketball court. The police by now should have found out that if you are in a blimp or helicopter, the gunmen would find these to be easy propositions to work around, since there is no place for them to land.
The police in these areas need to cultivate citizens as eyes and ears. Many citizens would be willing to collaborate if the authorities could create effective avenues for such communication. This is tricky, but so is life. Rudy Giuliani, when he was mayor of New York, broke the back of the Italian Mafia through infiltration. People have been put on the moon. If the problem is how to make people in communities come forward with information, we should feel confident that this can be solved in a country that prides itself on its high level of literacy.
This calls not just for creative policing, but for progressive courts. In a small society like this, we must find ways, as has been done in the US and UK, to be able to use, for example, tape-recorded evidence in court. We also have to find ways to have people give evidence without having to be present in open court.
The people of Beetham have shown us that many citizens in crime hotspots wish to take their communities back. The ball is in the court of the authorities. Can we find ways, or offer protections, that allow citizens with vital information to come forward? This calls for smarter policing, smarter courts, and a smarter, more collaborative Parliament. In the war on crime, the status quo is our enemy. It is time to break the mould, or that group of heroic citizens who came before the cameras in Beetham, would have exposed themselves in vain.
* Theodore Lewis is emeritus professor, University of Minnesota.