, ,

Culture Clash: Justice for All – It Takes Work

Social justice is, at the moment, an imagined future where wealth and opportunities are justly distributed. It is a world free of oppression and barriers due to gender, race, class, sexuality, religion, nationality, or all other identity markers.

Social justice recognises the equal worth of all individuals and the right to have basic needs met. It is a move toward better, more inclusive systems that leads to gender equality, poverty eradication, fair employment, environmental health, access to education and numerous other improved conditions.

Social justice as a field, study and practice is sometimes divided into three parts: legal justice, commutative justice and distributive justice. This comes from the idea that we owe society, we owe each other and society owes us. A great deal of focus tends to be on the latter because we need to have systems and institutions structured in ways that protect, affirm and promote our human rights and give us equal opportunity to participate in political and social life. Social justice cannot be achieved without challenging political and societal norms, deconstructing privilege, and having uncomfortable conversations about history and its widespread effects. Maybe even more importantly, it won’t be realised until we learn to engage people who are not in our communities, schools of thought or organisations.

More awareness, more connection

Social justice movements are increasing in number, inclusion, reach and impact. This is not necessarily because we are facing more issues now than we did ten, 20, or 50 years ago. For various reasons, including the advancement of technology and its impact on ease and speed of communication, we have become more aware of national, regional and global concerns. Some would say we are hyperaware and, for some of us, sensitivity is heightened. We know we have to respond.

While seemingly working on disparate issues, social justice movements are growing more interconnected and interdependent. The 2015 adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the United Nations General Assembly has played in role in bridging the gap between communities.

The SDGs cover a range of social and economic issues including education, health and wellness, gender equality, climate action and economic empowerment. Each goal has specific targets. When all 169 targets are reviewed, interdependence of the goals and relevant issues is confirmed. For example, gender equality is dependent on target 4.5 to “eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable”. None of the goals — a distillation of global issues — can be met without working to meet other goals. Collaboration is key.

How we do the work

There are many different approaches to social justice work. For some, direct action is the way to go. Some use it for everything at all times while others see it as necessary in specific circumstances.

One of the best known forms of activism is protest. People flood the streets with placards, demanding action from bureaucratic bodies. Sometimes they are silent, and sometimes they are not. Sometimes they are peaceful, and sometimes they are not. They are never both the beginning and end of a successful movement. The protest seemed to have died in The Bahamas until recent years. Even being revived, they only seem to draw a few dozen people for any number of reasons. The issues seem too niche, people are generally unbothered, or the action is too inconvenient. Most Bahamians seem to be interested only if the issue personally affects them, and if they can join the protest without consequence. Our protests do very little to disrupt systems and institutions. We protest politely. We give notice, get permission and pack it in after a few hours. No one is unduly bothered, but protests usually make the news.

The petition is another popular action. It is easy on time, effort, and commitment. We can easily create and share petitions, collect signatures, and notify appropriate offices of our demands and the number of people in agreement with us. A petition, however, doesn’t do much to inconvenience the people we need to take action. They can block our emails and ignore the digital masses. They know it’s much more challenging to get the same people who signed to show up and take another action.

Two of the most popular, widely-used forms of direct action are fairly easy and ineffective. This is not to discount the usefulness of these methods, but to highlight the need to take more than one action, and more than one type of action. More than raging against the machine, social justice work requires that we raise awareness, build community, centre the people most affected, open dialogue with relevant bodies, learn, understand and use the law and international commitments to frame and support demands. No one action can get the job done and it’s time to be more creative about what we do, how we do it, and who we invite to join us.

Solidarity

A frequently overlooked component of effective social justice work is solidarity-building. Few communities are large enough to affect change for themselves on their own. Support from unaffected people is critical to building mass, spreading the workload, and resourcing movements. In most cases, for the plight of a group of people to be seen, people outside of that group have to be seen to care. When students were being sent home for having natural hair, non-students and people with chemically processed hair had to stand with them. Numbers are important, and so is empathy in action.

Publicity depends on people, and word of mouth and media are both powerful. International attention to national issues is known to impact the way they are addressed. In banding together, however, we need to be careful. It’s important to be mindful others’ intentions and the ways we all influence outcomes, especially when we are on the outside.

For example, when monitoring events in other countries — especially if the cause is close to us — it can be tempting to jump into action. Even with the best intentions, this can be a careless, dangerous response. There is usually someone on the ground, already working and strategising, and outside voices or initiatives can steal their thunder, confuse community members, and potentially sabotage the developing action plan. It is not only courteous, but responsible and professional to do research and reach out to people who are already doing the work. If you don’t see anyone doing it, you’re probably not very good at research. Get some help.

The role of civil society

Civil society is critical to a fully functioning democracy. We have to constantly remind ourselves that we are more powerful than the people we elect. We need to collaborate, and create opportunities for knowledge-building and skill-sharing. Social media has made it easier for us to raise our voices, but also to preach to the choir, and facilitate laziness. We need to reach people who disagree, and people who are undecided. We need more conversations than sermons. We need to find new, accessible ways to engage. If we fail to engage and onboard new people — those who do not look or think like we do — we won’t get to that world we imagine. Empathy and creativity need to be in the social justice toolkit. They are critical to building a community prepared to help drive us into a better future.

Published by The Tribune on February 21, 2018.

,

Culture Clash: Black Lives Matter in The Bahamas Too

It’s open season, but don’t worry. They’ll only kill the people they recognize, and only if they’re afraid. The Royal Bahamas Police Force is on a mission, and no one cares to intervene.

Many in The Bahamas have looked on and formed strong opinions of the Black Lives Matter movement and the actions it has taken in response to state-sanctioned killings by police officers. We often feel far-removed from events in the U.S., especially where issues of race are concerned. Black Lives Matter is necessary because black people were — and continue to be — specifically targeted by police.

Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th gave context to the issues of race, policing, and prisons experienced today, linking them to the historical oppression of black people from slavery to the prison industrial complex. Again, we have mentally distanced ourselves from what we read as a U.S.-issue. For most of us, the majority of the people we encounter on a daily basis are black. Our police officers are black. Surely that means we cannot experience racism. That has to mean black people will be treated fairly, and we are free of the oppression African-Americans suffer. Right?

If you hold those opinions, you are definitely wrong. There are two things we need to be aware of — internalized racism and institutional racism.

Internalized racism is learned. As we experience racism, we begin to develop ideas and behaviors that uphold racism. It is systemic, structural, and cross-cultural, so it can pit members of oppressed communities against each other. Think, for example, of how women can internalize misogyny, and begin to support the idea that we would all be better off if we dress and behave in particular ways, finding it easy to look down on a woman of different socioeconomic status, age, or marital status. Internalized racism functions in a similar way. He wouldn’t be pulled over if he would just cut his hair. Stop driving that Honda. Move with less people in his crew. Stay out of that area. We find excuses for people to be violated by those who hold power.

Institutional racism is enforced. It is a pattern of treating a group of people poorly because of their race. Examples include students being sent home from school because their natural hair does not meet the Eurocentric beauty standards. As in this example, the action seems to fit a rule or standard of the institution; not because it is valid, but because the institution was built for the benefit and service of white people. We don’t have to know it is happening to participate in it. Just two years ago, I heard police officers brag about chasing young black men out of the downtown area, sending them “back Ova Da Hill.” Hearing this, I asked them who The Bahamas is for, and why they think they can restrict people’s movement based on race, age, and gender. They could not respond, and were forced to acknowledge, among other issues, institutional bias coupled with internalized racism.

The rhetoric around police killing civilians is ludicrous. People would more readily excuse homicide than interrogate the practices of police officers on the street. The assumption is always that the person must have done something wrong for the police to be engaged, and if they have done something wrong — whatever it is — they deserve death. The entire justice system goes out of the window because we find it more expedient for the police to operate like vigilantes. We do not believe people are innocent until proven guilty. Location, appearance, association, and proximity to a weapon are all valid reasons to meet your demise. Did we believe that Trayvon Martin should have been shot for walking through a neighborhood with a bag of Skittles?

The Royal Bahamas Police Force’s press team has learned to use “in fear for their lives” to convince us that there was a good reason to shoot and kill a citizen. There is a popular opinion that fear is a reasonable excuse for firing a weapon to kill another person. In a social media post, Erin Greene said, “the constant response of ‘in fear’ suggests an emotional response, and not a determination made with critical reasoning skills.” This should terrify rather than assuage us. Are police officers not taught to think critically and consider all options? Even if the decision is to shoot, why shoot to kill rather than incapacitate?

Sure, police officers need to make quick decisions. It is also a reasonable expectation that they are sufficiently trained and able to police themselves. Police officers are not the judge or the jury. They should not be the executioner, especially given the ruling of the Privy Council on the death penalty. Wait.

Perhaps this is the RBPF’s way of carrying out the death penalty. It is entirely possibly that they, as has been rumored, are fed up with the justice system. They are tired of making arrests, putting their lives in danger, and waiting for verdicts. Maybe they are tired of seeing the people they arrested out on bail for extended periods of time, or being found innocent. Is this an informal strategy?

Do not be tricked into believing in a false dichotomy. A commenter on social media said, “We are at a junction in our development where we have to decide on whose side we are on; the police or the heartless criminal.” We must first understand that every person police officers encounter is not a criminal. Even if they are suspects, they have the right to a fair trial. Fighting on the side of criminals is not the same as demanding due process for all. It is not the same as acknowledging the value of a life. A text message to a radio talk show read (in part), “police have to get royal,” meaning they need to take extreme action to send a clear message. This is how the people around us are thinking.

There have been five killings by police in 2018, and 10 since November 2017. Minister of National Security Marvin Dames said, “the focus on counts shouldn’t be the issue.” Just last month, he reminded the PLP that there were 33 homicides in the first two months of 2017, and in September 2017, he noted that crime was down 19 per cent along with other statistics. Numbers are obviously important, and we need to pay attention to trends.

Dames, less than one year into the job, is shirking responsibility. He said of police officers, “[if] he or she feels threatened, I can’t make that decision for them. They have to make that for themselves.” So much for accountability. Zero tolerance only applies to civilians, and police officers can do as they please, so long as they feel fearful or threatened. What a license to have. Is any one else scared out there?

Dames would also have us believe it is excusable that most people killed by police this year were “known to police.” We all know people in this category, for various reasons, who do not have a criminal record. They may wear their pants low or have dreadlocks, and may have spent nights in the police station, but they are not criminals. That’s just too bad. They are known to the police, and it’s open season. What number must we reach, who must be killed, or which scripture do we need to read and understand to intervene in state violence and affirm the humanity of the black Bahamian people we know, do not know, and are “known” to the police?

Published by The Tribune on February 14, 2018.

, ,

Culture Clash: Christian Nation

The Bahamas is a Christian nation. That’s what we like to say. It is the proclamation that sets us apart from other countries. It is the reason for every good thing that has ever happened to us. Being a Christian nation protects us from natural disasters. It wins elections. It provides the perfect excuse and opportunity for marginalizing vulnerable people, and with the backing of scripture, largely misquoted and misinterpreted, to which we do not all ascribe.

Where did we get this idea?

Aside from declarations by leaders of the Christian church and the rhetoric of laypeople, the preamble of the constitution is the main source of the belief that The Bahamas is a Christian nation. The constitution does not explicitly state The Bahamas is a Christian nation, and it does not commit the country to Christianity. It says the people recognize that “the preservation of their freedom will be guaranteed by,” among other things, “an abiding respect for Christian values.” It establishes The Bahamas as a “free and democratic sovereign nation founded on spiritual values.”

No one ever seems to mention the other elements — self-discipline, unity, or respect for rule of law — required for the preservation of freedom. They aren’t nearly as convenient for exclusion and alienation of others, or easily manipulated and redefined according to specific circumstances. A supposed commitment to Christianity is the answer to almost any question we don’t want to answer. “Christian nation” as a response seems to result in an automatic bye, and it is not being used to our advantage as a country, but to deny, deter, and delay. It automatically brings processes and conversations to a halt, because we can’t risk angering a vengeful god, or defying the words of the preamble to a bible-like text that must always, by nature of its existence, be right.

We are more tied to the preamble of the constitution than most of its articles. The referendum exercise of 2016 evidenced the lack of knowledge about, not only what is in the constitution, but its purpose and importance as supreme law. That is clearly stated in Article 1. If people haven’t made it past Article 1, how much weight can we put on their understanding of the constitution and the purpose of the preamble?

Stifling democracy

The “Christian nation” cry is a well-practiced, dangerous, self-centered move to divide and defeat. Citizens, presenting themselves as practicing Christians, find Bible verses to justify their points of view, and argue against any law, policy, or person they deem to be unchristian. This type of argument is seen as king. It is holy and untouchable because its words came straight directly from The Bible. While Christianity — one of many religions — is relatable and sets the bar for a subset of Bahamian society, democracy is for everyone. The democratic system has to work for everyone, and to the same extent. There is not supposed to be special treatment, allowances, or power granted to any subset, religious or otherwise. The constitution of a democratic country, then, cannot limit the rights of some subsets.

The same constitution that makes reference to “Christian values” includes in its chapter on the fundamental rights and freedom of the individual the right to “freedom of thought and of religion,” to opt out of religious instruction and ceremonies in places of education, and to practice their religion. How, then, can The Bahamas specifically be a Christian nation?

One of the core functions of democracy is rule of law. This is referenced in the preamble, immediately after “Christian values.” Rule of law says all citizens are equal under the law, regardless of demographics including religion, gender, and race. The law is to be fair and impartial. Another core function of democracy is the protection of the human rights of all citizens. For this to be true, there cannot be laws that serve on group of people to the detriment of others. The Sexual Offenses Act is a timely and relevant example. In its definition of rape, it excludes perpetrators when they are married to the victims. This is clearly a violation of fundamental human rights, and the issue has finally been raised again. In the name of Christianity, many have argued that rape cannot exist within a marriage because, according to The Bible, the two become one and certain agreements are implied and perpetual. Even if this was anywhere near acceptable as an argument — and it absolutely is not — what of the people who are not Christians? What about married people of other faiths, and those of no religious affiliation at all? Should the law of this country not grant them recourse? A Sexual Offenses Act that does not limit the definition of rape to occurring outside of the context of marriage would not force Christians to bring rape charges against their spouses, but would protect those who want to use it.

While the preamble to the constitution — not the constitution itself — suggests respect for both Christian values and the rule of law will aid in the preservation of our freedom, it is incumbent upon us to respect one another. We need to put as much emphasis on and effort into self-discipline, industry, loyalty, and unity as recommended by the same preamble. Christian or not, we live in a democratic country with people of different beliefs and practices, and the constitutional right to them. Christian or not, we are all entitled to the same protections, rights, and freedoms. Whether or not we are a truly Christian nation, the state has an obligation to its citizens. If we take the preamble as gospel, we must also believe we have an obligation to each other. It tells us what we ought to know and choose to ignore: our freedom is bound up in one another’s. As long as we choose to hold others down, or separate and apart, regardless of the reason or the way we use texts we believe are irrefutable — like The Bible and the constitution —  to validate them, the fight to preserve our freedom will continue without positive result. This nation is more than the preamble to its constitution, and if we, today, are truly a Christian nation, we should be aiming higher.

Published in The Tribune on February 7, 2018.

,

Culture Clash: Yugge Farrell

Yugge Farrell. That is the name echoing in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and throughout the Caribbean. It is the name of a young woman being vilified and victimized by a powerful dynasty desperate to make her disappear. Hers is a terrifying story of what happens when corruption runs rampant, nepotism is the order of the day, and court decisions can be bought. Yugge’s story is one we need to hear and remember, and she is a woman we need to defend.

Who is Yugge Farrell?

Yugge Farrell, 22, was arrested on January 4, 2018 on an “abusive language” charge. It is alleged that she calle Karen Duncan-Gonsalves — wife of Minister of Finance Camillo Gonsalves a “dirty bitch.” She appeared in court the next day and pled not guilty. After her plea, the prosecution made application, without supporting documents, for psychiatric evaluation. Magistrate Bertie Pompey ordered her to the Mental Health Center for two weeks.

Why the drama?

It is no secret that many politicians, and others in positions of power, groom and prey upon young women. Youth and poverty are just two characteristics that make women more vulnerable to those of means. In most of these cases, relationships are kept quiet — at least out of the spotlight — so the powerful maintain airs of superiority, family life stability, and moral high ground. If threatened, they exert their power in hopes of silencing the people who know their secrets. If they cannot succeed one way, they try another, and another, and another. This is why a father and son seem to have done all they can to lock Yugge away.

Since her detention, videos have circulated online with Yugge saying she had a sexual relationship with the Minister of Finance. While SVG Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves has made comments on radio stations about the case, he advised his son, Minister of Finance, to hold “dignified silence.” The Prime Minister is also Minister of Legal Affairs, and insists that a magistrate can order a defendant to a mental institution based on information provided by the prosecutor outside of court.

#Iamcrazytoo

While under evaluation at the Mental Health Center, Yugge was given antipsychotic drugs including Risperidone and Lithium. Her pro bono lawyer Grant Connell addressed this matter in court on January 23, 2018, drawing attention to the difference in her behaviour. At her first court appearance, Yugge was composed, but on the second, she made howling noises — clearly affected by drugs forcibly administered to her. Connell noted that the report provided to the court was not signed by a psychiatrist, and suggested the facility is not equipped to handle patients “with the allegation of some mental instability.”

The report from the Mental Health Center stated that Yugge was unfit to stand trial, and she was sent back to the facility. Outside of the court, Yugge’s sister insisted that her sister is “not crazy.” She suggested that Yugge was being victimized by more powerful people who want to keep her from talking. She also said she suspected Yugge was given medication the night before her court appearance because when she saw her on January 21, she was fine and not presenting as she did in court.

People are responding to the vilification of Yugge, especially under the premise that she is “crazy” — an overused, ableist word meant to discredit. To fight back, people in SVG and around the region are using #iamcrazytoo to express their support. A group of people held signs with messages included “I too am crazy” in protest of what was happening with Yugge’s court case and her detention. While politicians and the court work to make us see Yugge as separate, different, and “crazy,” the people choose to see commonalities and recognize that this injustice can be done to anyone.

Dirty business

A number of issues have been raised regarding this case, not the least of which being abuse of power. There have been arguments about information being shared with the magistrate, but not in open court. Specifically, the information that led to Yugge being court-ordered to the Mental Health Center was not presented in court, and not made available to the defense. In addition, the application for her psychiatric evaluation came after she entered her plea. The legality of this has been questioned, and no answer thus far has pointed to legislative support. One of the most recent issues is that the report from the institution was not signed by a psychiatrist. The prosecution claims none of this of any import.

Lawyer and human rights activist Kay Bacchus-Baptiste spoke out against the handling of Yugge’s case. She referred to Yugge’s detention at the Mental Health Center as “a human rights issue that should be properly investigated.”

On January 29, 2018, Yugge was released on bail, and her case has been put off until December 2018.

#JusticeForYugge

Your first instinct may be to find everything that separates you from Yugge Farrell. You’d probably like to think this could never happen to you, or anyone you love. Even if you’re right, Yugge does not deserve to suffer. She has been hauled before the courts to face a charge of “abusive language” because a government minister’s wife was insulted. She has gone through undue stress and had her rights violated because the Minister of Finance and Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines are afraid of her and what her story could do to their political careers, family, and legacy.

Since they don’t, it’s up to us to recognize and affirm that Yugge’s life is more important than their reputations. It’s up to us to take action, support Yugge in word and deed, and push for a system that would not leave room from others to be victimized, dehumanized, or silenced. With the next court date at the end of 2018, we need to be vigilant, steadfast, and vocal in our support of Yugge and her rights. We know this is not the end, and this may not be their final attempt to silence her. Use #YuggeFarrell and #JusticeForYugge to read more about Yugge’s story and the work being done to help her through this case, both legal and otherwise. It will take community to keep her safe and strong, and prepare her for her next day in court. Look for the petition on thepetitionsite.com and the empowerment fund on gofundme.com. If it could happen to her, it could happen to someone else, and that’s not the kind of world any of us deserve. We don’t have to settle; let’s agitate for the change we need and support the people making it happen. Yugge’s could be the case that changes more than a law.

Published in The Tribune on January 31, 2018.