On Tuesday, we celebrated Emancipation Day in Barbados. It was the 179th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Barbados. A day later a young Christ Church man narrowly escaped becoming the island’s 21st murder victim for 2017.
The entire island at the moment is talking about the crime situation. But talking about crime when tempers are high and people feel a real sense of fear for their safety will not bring the needed returns.
As I reflect on where Barbados is today, there can be only a feeling of mixed emotions. On the one hand, Barbados was able to move past rampant poverty and unavailability of opportunity to begin to create a society where people could expect a reasonable standard of living. While access to land, jobs and education improved significantly since the 1930s, perhaps what we overlooked was the treatment of the unseen structure which upholds relations in Barbados.
There are outstanding adjustments which have not been made in the Barbadian society. Actually, before we get to the point of addressing adjustments out of the system of slavery upon which Barbadian society was based, let us deal with acceptance. If we can pinpoint a number of facts about Barbados and how these have been culturally implanted by history and practice, I think we would be on a better course toward the adjustments needed.
Let us start by accepting that Barbados is a society which was founded on extreme violence. This violence played out predominantly against women, black men and children. The pattern of violence has morphed over the years, but the general imprint of violence is still very much a part of the Barbadian culture. The way that we respond to conflict, punishment and reasoning is all constructed based on our violence-infused past.
In order to control the violence currently spreading throughout Barbados, we have automatically resorted to our old historical nodes which tell us that black men are unruly and uncontrollable, senseless and innately violent. The only way to control them is with the use of policing and military might that is unbridled and empowered to do anything it takes.
As a country, we are being encouraged to accept stop and search strategies regardless of Constitutional rightness or wrongness. These strategies are not novel and they will not break the back of crime in Barbados. What they have the potential to do is allow a largely unchallenged system of perceptions and treatment of the majority of people in Barbados to continue unchecked, to the detriment of that majority.
Let us accept another thing about our past which could shed significant light on what is happening in Barbados now. Family life in Barbados among the black population has never been encouraged or supported. The remnants of the organization of the plantation where men were used to ‘breed’ women but were not expected to play father roles have proven to be pervasive. Research on domestic violence, completed across countries of the Caribbean, has shown poor family environments and the lack of father figures as a significant factor in domestic violence cases. We also know that there are correlations with other variables such as delinquency, criminal activity and substance abuse.
If we are serious about curbing the crime challenges in Barbados, we have to be willing to map the communities which are known to be hotbed areas for crime. It is no coincidence that the majority of families in those areas have similar characteristics. There are significant in these communities. There are high levels of poverty, comparative low levels of education and high attrition of community members who have overcome their circumstances, so the areas lack anchors and role models.
If we overlook the social factors fueling crime and just give away more of our constitutional rights to the police and army, we will end up perhaps with more young men dead or battered in custody, but we will have no less crime. This response to crime will sooner get us the Trinidad, Jamaica or Guyana outcome, where disaffected communities were left to fester when the response to the crime generally became more militant. The result is that as fast as criminals were eliminated by the armed forces more were born and inculcated into lives of crime in the hot bed communities.
Let us accept, finally, that our perceptions of each other, which influence factors such as education and upward mobility, are perhaps the greatest colonial relic of all. They hinder the growth and development of a real Barbadian thinking which promotes the success and wellbeing of every Barbadian. If a Barbadian is white we expect success and privilege. If a Barbadian lives in a particular neighbourhood, we assume that they are involved in no criminal activity or have no dubious nature. Still based on another address, we assuage ourselves that these Barbadians are ‘duncy’ and not deserving of much more than they end up with.
In the shadow of the 179th anniversary of our Emancipation, and with our crime situation escalating, we are being called to complete the independence project which we started just over 50 years ago. We are being asked to reconcile the psychological elements of the system, of slavery and violence upon which our society was built. We are being challenged to move this society forward in a way that hopefully catapults us beyond some of the challenges faced by some of our sister societies.
Although we have done great things before, I find myself wondering about our ability to withstand what is on the horizon – and yet as a descendent of a strong and overcoming people, I feel like I betray them if I lose hope now.