Fifty-two plus years ago, a great Barbadian, in whose symbolic shadow this country stands, signed our Declaration of Independence. This momentous decree came as a great beacon of hope to the proletariat, the working classes, who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. After the disappointment of working conditions in the 1930s that led to the Riots of 1937, and the subsequent disappointment of further colonial restrictions under the ensuing premiership, Independence came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their economic captivity.
Slavery was abolished in the British Colonies on August 1st, 1834. But 103 years later our grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great grandparents were still not free and rose up against conditions that kept them economically shackled. Sadly, some of them died for their protest. They died for a better life for their children.
Thirty years on, this country negotiated Colonial Independence like its Caribbean neighbours as they again were seeking a better life for their children.
Fifty-two years later, we have admittedly made some progress; we have lifted some out of poverty, but our work is not done, because for so many, life is still sadly crippled by the manacles of stigma and the chains of discrimination. For so many, the dream of doing better than your parents has become a nightmare, the dream of being able to pursue the vocation that you love has become a nightmare, the dream of being able to provide for your family has become a nightmare and the dream of being able to hold your head up with pride and function as a productive member of society has become a nightmare.
One hundred and eighty years later, this situation has become manifest in the decay of the young men in particular in our society who live on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of what they perceive as a vast ocean of material prosperity.
One hundred and eighty years later, young men are languished in the corners of a thriving Barbadian society and find themselves exiled in their own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatise a shameful condition. If you speak with these young men, a subculture is emerging that ‘we’, the society, have all been complicit in its creation.
This group believes that their constitutional rights are under siege. They believe their right of protection of personal liberty is under siege; they believe their right of protection from inhuman treatment is under siege; they believe their right of protection against arbitrary search or entry is under siege; they believe their right of provisions to secure protection of law is under siege; freedom of conscience; freedom of expression; freedom of assembly and association – in their minds, all under siege.
If it’s true or not is not of import; because perception is their reality and we have to change it. Sometimes we need to restrict the rights of some for the good of all, including saving them from themselves.
We are at fault when we allow dog fights and cock fights that breed immunity to violent death; we are complicit when we allow the ‘ ZR’ culture to take hold in our society – a culture of loud vulgar music, profanity as a part of speech and indulgence of the most primitive human instincts. We are all complicit when we say it’s not our affair. These are children and if all you can do is to raise your voice in a crescendo to drive action, then that is what you must do. Our hypocrisy knows no bounds, and it is an ambiguity in our deeds that we must confront as a nation.
When the architects of our Independence wrote the words that have brought us to this day, they were in fact signing a cheque from which every Barbadian was to benefit. This cheque was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of prosperity.
It is obvious today that Barbados has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as a large percentage of her citizens are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, Barbados has given these people a bad cheque, a cheque that has come back marked NSF “Not sufficient funds.”
We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this cheque, a cheque that will give all Barbadians upon demand the riches of legal, economic enfranchisement and security of being able to feed our families, and build a better future for all.
We are speaking to remind this nation of the urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilising drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of poverty and uncertainty to the sunlit path of economic enfranchisement and leaving a better life for our children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of economic injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to bring all of our people together and leave no one behind.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of this moment. This drought we are now enduring is somewhat symbolic of the legitimate discontent our young men endure. Underscored by 15 violent deaths so far for the year as of last night, if allowed to go on without intervention, continued violence over the summer holiday may further restrict our freedom and equality.
2019 is not an end but a beginning. Those who hoped that these young men needed to blow off steam and will now be content when they have settled scores will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.
We have to wrestle this beast to the ground. Over 80 per cent of our distressed youth are from five of our secondary schools. Let me repeat that. Over 80 per cent of our distressed youth are from five of our secondary schools. If we know this what are we doing to fix it?
When these children have completed the 11-plus and failed, we send them to these five schools. We take children who are having problems and set them up for perpetual failure. Low scores equate to low self-esteem. Low self-esteem leads to lifting oneself up by any means necessary – whatever it takes to feel good or make others respect me, because I am seen as a failure already. There is a stigma that ‘we’ the society apply to these schools, and the children at these school’s respond appropriately.
Again, what happens to these children as they progress through a school system that is really not equipped to handle ‘slow’ learners or troubled youth? Does the family dynamic provide an environment that will foster upliftment or will it build more resentment and malcontent? Will there be an attempt by anyone to help these children to do better? Do we have remedial programmes involving educators, psychologists, psychiatrists and life coaches who can identify and seek to find solutions to the problems these children face? We appear to simply be pushing them through an educational system that cares more about the result and not the process.
But there is something that I must say to my people who stand here today. The government did not create the problem entirely, neither can it solve it. This is a problem that all of us have contributed to and all of us have to take a hand in solving. This is one time we have come to realise that their prosperity is inextricably bound to our prosperity. We cannot walk alone.
As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. The evidence suggests that just after primary school, boys, especially from poor communities, start to exhibit the deviant behaviour that is characteristic of the ‘thug’ culture and this is where the feeling that crime is their only path to economic enfranchisement begins to be nurtured.
Psychologists have determined that mental health can be broken down into four categories euphemistically called the Four D’s consisting of deviance, dysfunction, distress, and danger. To oversimplify the explanation, deviant behaviour gives way to social dysfunction and will lead to the individual being in distress and end in either self harm or harm to others. The takeaway from this is that this violence we see today is being perpetrated by children in distress. This will not be the country’s first discussion on this subject. What are we going to do differently? How do we as a society follow through to actually effect change and the ensuing question is, “When will we be satisfied?”
We can never be satisfied as long as our youth are victims to or perpetrate acts of brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as we have students leaving primary and secondary schools without the skills to function socially or professionally. We cannot be satisfied as long as the basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity after being labelled by the areas in which they live, or by the ‘troubled’ schools they attend. We cannot be satisfied as long as our youth believe they have nothing to gain, and nothing to vote for, as a recent study illuminated. No, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until we have an equitable and judicious path for the holistic development of each and every child under our care and I daresay, each and every citizen of this country.
I am mindful that there are readers who have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells, with one hour of sunlight each day. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for upliftment, your quest to be financially independent, your quest to better yourself and lift your families up has left you battered and disillusioned. You have been the veterans of creative suffering.
Let us go out to the slums and ghettos of our beloved country, embracing these distressed young men, rather than fearing them, helping them, playing sport with them – working with them, but safe in the knowledge that somehow this situation can and will be changed.
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the Barbadian dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its vision “to lift the people of this nation in an orderly and rapid fashion.” I have a dream that all children in this country will be integrated, contributing citizens and violence will be limited to theatre.
I have a dream that one day our society will stop turning its back on those who have been incarcerated and find ways to fit them back into society as it is the only way for them not to be a threat to themselves and others.
I have a dream that one day this country will be a beacon of excellence for the rest of the world; an example of a homogeneous coexistence of its people; a country that is able to pull all of its people out of poverty; a country that offers all its people an opportunity to contribute to its development, to hold their heads up and say “I am a part of something bigger than myself and something fantastic.”
George Connolly is a Finance and Technology professional.