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The Bahamas — Not a Real Place?

Following the shooting of 15 people at a party in Montel Heights where the intended target ran into the crowd, the Commissioner of Police said: “I feel safe and I think you feel safe.” This is a puzzling statement, particularly given the incident being discussed.

How did he arrive at the conclusion that we feel safe? We have been expected to believe that criminals are killing each other, and as long as the rest of us keep our hands clean and away from bad company, we will be fine. Unfortunately, that is not the way crime works. Sometimes innocent people are hurt, whether or not it is intentional. What are we going to do about that?

The Commissioner of Police and the Minister of National Security said the shooters did not plan to shoot multiple people. This suggests the other 14 people were simply collateral damage, so we should all feel safe, right?

We have been further warned by the Commissioner to watch the company we keep, all while being encouraged to go about our “normal daily business”. The intended target ran into a crowd, resulting in multiple people being shot, but watching the company we keep will protect us? How can we read about people enjoying themselves at a party in one moment, and being on the ground with gunshot wounds in the next, yet believe that we are safe?

None of us are safe from a stray bullet if we ever dare to step outside.

We do not want to create a society in which people are unable to go anywhere or do anything because they fear an untimely death by a semi-automatic weapon, whether because someone wants the contents of their bags and pockets, or because they are in the vicinity of a target. We like to believe we are immune because we are good people, our family members and friends are good people, we live in good areas or in close-knit communities and we imagine we know exactly what to do if approached by a criminal. That is what we think until we hear about people at a party being shot, unable to make sense of it.

The truth is we are particularly vulnerable in certain settings. We cannot predict what will happen. We tend to assume, in many cases, we will be safe. We go about our daily business – and for some of us that includes particular precautions – without expecting harm to come to us. Even as we go on as usual, we remember what happened on the weekend. The victims were are at a party, and we go parties without knowing everyone present all the time.

What does it mean to carry on as usual and to watch the company we keep? What does it mean to feel safe, especially in a place with so few degrees of separation between people, inability to reach emergency services when one phone company’s system goes down, and too many guns (coming from somewhere, because we do not manufacture them here) in the hands of people who use them to solve problems?

The Ministry of National Security needs to focus on getting guns off the street and stopping them from entering the country. Figure out what it is happens at ports of entry and deal with it. Spare us the positive spins on statistics and illusions of safety. Deal with the gun problem.

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The Bahamas is in a real place and we have work to do if we want it to work for us

Hashtags that say a particular country “is not a real place” have become quite popular. It usually accompanies the story, photo or video of a ridiculous experience. It is often used to bring humour to an otherwise sad state of affairs, but is sometimes a sign of frustration or disappointment. There is very little to connect the broad range of experiences the hashtag connects except for the sentiment that the people participating in its use are not impressed. Whether it is a joke or a protest, it reduces the place to a particular deficiency and does not directly challenge systems or the people within them to do better, nor does it offer solutions. We can all think of situations that made us wonder where we are and why whatever was happening seemed to be acceptable. Take a minute to think of your own recent example.

As I write this, the electricity is off for the second time in a 15-hour period. I know there are people in Nassau who have been having a worse experience, suffering through outages for long periods of time and with greater frequency. Does anything rile us up more than this? It is hot and there is very little breeze. Households with babies and elderly people become especially miserable when everyone is hot, no one can do what they want to do and essential functions are more difficult to access. Traffic is a disaster near certain intersections. Many businesses cannot operate, or the cost increases because they have to run on generators. Other utilities are affected. We do not just lose the lights, but the ability to function. Feeling the heat becomes even more frustrating because its source, the sun, laughs at us and our refusal to acknowledge its ability to give us power. It just doesn’t make sense. Is The Bahamas a real place?

Days ago, I observed as people went back and forth, arguing about the announcement that scholarships would be made available for students with GPAs of 2.0 or higher to attend University of The Bahamas. Some said the standard was too low, and would ultimately lead to the devaluation of the degree. Some said students with less than a 3.0 GPA did not deserve scholarships. These were the two main arguments and they are terribly flawed.

Education is not just for the individual, but for the society we form together. It does not lose its value. The real issue is that some people derive their own value from the resources they are able to access that others cannot. They build a sense of self on the privilege — nothing they have earned — to access, use and control resources like information and services. Mobile devices do not lose their value when more people have them, but it sure feels great to have the latest model while everyone else is “behind”.

It is strange to see people argue against wider access to education, particularly for those who would otherwise be locked out due to financial need. We want stronger leadership, better customer service, deeper public dialogue and improvements all-around, but oppose access to tertiary education for a student with a 2.5?

It is important to note our school system is imperfect, does not adequately respond to student needs and misses opportunities to recognise learning differences and mental health issues, and does not account for this in curricula or examination design. We look at examination results and GPAs as if they are separate from other systems, practices, and circumstance. We do not agree that financial difficulty should not keep anyone from pursuing tertiary education. Is The Bahamas a real place?

A man convicted of rape had his sentence reduced because he is a first-time rapist. Is The Bahamas a real place? We are paying $9000 for the Governor General’s housing rental. Is The Bahamas a real place? BTC systems were down and it was impossible to reach emergency services. Is The Bahamas a real place?

The Bahamas is a real place when Shaunae Miller wins a medal or breaks a record. The Bahamas is a real place when Sir Sidney Poitier is on the big screen. The Bahamas is a real place when anyone outside of it says the wrong thing about it and faces the online abuse many Bahamians unleash. It has produced people who make Bahamians proud. It drew over a half million people to its shores just in the month of May. It may have a certain magic, blessing, or favour, but it cannot be great in the ways we want if we do not turn our lamentations into demands. If we do not turn our demands into actions. If we do not act collectively. If our collective actions does not have vision. If our vision is not stated, understood, shared and consistently used to drive us forward.

The Bahamas is a real place and Bahamians are real people. We have the opportunity to not only identify the challenges we are facing, but to create and implement solutions. Where is the hashtag for that? Before climate change takes us seriously and makes The Bahamas history, let’s understand we are in a real place and have work to do if we want it to work for us.

Published by The Tribune on July 3, 2019.

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Culture Clash: Violence Breeds Violence And It Begins In The Home

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on October 4, 2017

Crime is never off our minds for very long. News reports, stories from friends, social media evidence and personal experiences guarantee our awareness and vigilance. It’s difficult to manage our own fear of crime. For many years crime has been viewed as an evil affecting other people. The likelihood that we, as individuals, would become victims of crime seemed low enough to allow us a relatively carefree existence. Now, with numbers rising — particularly violent crimes like murder and rape — we all feel a bit closer to the issue. It could be our homes, businesses, cars, or bodies next.

Our fear of crime is not irrational. It is a threat we know too well and consider far too often as we perform the most mundane tasks. We do not want to lose what we’ve earned, we want to avoid pain and we want to live. Unfortunately we will not survive without sober consideration of crime and its root causes. From poverty to conflict there are a number of issues to study and remedy. One of the most pervasive issues in Bahamian society is violence and the way we perceive, perpetuate and perform it.

Violence includes physical and nonphysical acts intended to cause harm. For now, let’s focus on the former. Physical violence exists in the media and entertainment we consume including television shows, movies, music and video games. In many instances it is the selling point. We have become so accustomed to on-screen violence it hardly elicits a response. We expect it. We ignore it. We encourage. We find endless ways to excuse acts of violence, insisting the victim deserves it because of some act or failure to act. Perhaps more disturbing this attitude is not limited to the fantasy worlds we enter through screen. It accompanies us in our daily lives.

We have a communication problem. Physical violence has become our go-to form of expression. It is the quickest and easiest way, it seems, to express displeasure. Someone thinks their partner is cheating on them. They respond with violence. Someone loses their job because a former co-worker didn’t take responsibility for a mistake. They respond with violence. Someone’s personal property is accidentally damaged. They respond with violence. Where have we learned this behaviour? Why, when we feel we have been wronged, do we respond with acts of physical violence?

It’s difficult for many to talk about, but there is an issue with the way we raise children, and it is manifesting itself every day in our society. In many cases, children are not regarded as human beings. Their participation is limited, they are heavily guarded and missteps are met with violence under the guise of discipline. Parents and guardians convince themselves that beating children is the best way to control their behaviour and mould them into what they deem to be acceptable human beings. Little thought, if any, is given to the negative — largely psychological — effects of corporal punishment. It is simply known as the quick fix that “worked for me.” It is believed to deter children from doing “wrong” and serves as an immediate means of correction. As with every action, we must consider impact versus intent. Sure, parents and guardians may intend to do their best in raising law-abiding, mannerly, well-behaved people, but what else are they doing when they beat children? Might this send the message that when someone does wrong, the appropriate response is to cause them physical harm?

What if we taught children to think critically? Can we teach them to stop and think before acting? To acknowledge their emotions and recognize what they feel in any given moment may not be the most important thing? Could it be useful to teach them self-control? We could do all of this, but probably not before we learn and model them ourselves. We must first come to the realization that punishment is not the most important thing, nor is it the most effective.

Our obsession with punishment is evidenced by our rigid positions on corporal punishment for children and the death penalty. We are more concerned about exerting power and using fear as a control mechanism than we are about building character and addressing environmental and societal issues that influence behaviour. In addition to the use of fear, punishment is frequently meant to cause embarrassment and prompts children to hide their mistakes instead of talking about and learning from them. This focus on negativity leaves little room to acknowledge and encourage good behaviour. Positive reinforcement is severely lacking and, in combination with the glorification of heavy-handedness in punishment, is causing harm to the psyche.

It is critical to our wellbeing that we exercise more intentional thoughtfulness and constructive criticism of current behaviour and the long-lasting effects of the same. It is not safe to assume that our survival of our parents’ methods is indicative of their merits. In fact, being in-one-piece is not all there is to survival and many of us carry the trauma of childhood abuse with us. Some among us are fighting mental illness, diagnosed and undiagnosed, further complicating navigation of everyday life. There are apologies we may never get. Wrongs that may never be made right. Healing that may never come. Nothing could make any of these things worth the loss or grief, but admitting to ourselves that what we witnessed, survived, or mimicked has caused harm and choosing to find better, healthier ways is a start to tackling the seemingly unsurmountable issue of crime.

This, of course, is not the only reason for the rate of violent crime in The Bahamas, but that needs individual, family, and community response.

It is the beginning of a vicious cycle that teaches us, over and over again, that violence is an appropriate response. Corporal punishment has not remedied any social ills. This form of “discipline” in many Bahamian homes is a lazy, emotional response that forms the root of a larger problem. It’s one that demands our attention on a daily basis and will not go away without a shift in our thinking and behaviour. Why not start in our own homes?

Featured image by nitpix at Morguefile.com

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Culture Clash: Raising Questions Over the Future of Democracy

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on July 26, 2017

The results of the 2017 general election left The Bahamas in good spirits. Many of us have been in celebration mode for months, and insistent that we all temper our demands with patience and manage our expectations of the new FNM-led administration.

Criticism has generally not been welcome — an odd sentiment to express during “the people’s time” and unbecoming of a democratic nation. Fortunately, the second annual Future of Democracy Conference created a “people’s space”, inviting Bahamians to presentations, conversations, and workshops at University of The Bahamas to consider, critique, and address issues of governance and democracy.

Presentations and roundtables from educators, activists, community workers, Bahamians living abroad, (former) politicians, and practitioners covered a broad range of topics. Their questions, challenges, and messages spoke to the limited understanding and exercise of democracy, the (under)use of people power, and the need for better systems. A common thread throughout the two-day conference was the importance of civic participation and careful attention to systems, especially those that do not reflect the principles espoused by the Bahamian people or meet the needs of the collective.

Public Disclosure

For the past few years, there has been an increase in attention on public disclosure as required of Members of Parliament. It has become a part of the conversation about transparency and accountability, and civil society has demanded compliance with the law.

Perhaps more importantly, focus has been on Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition who are named by Article 8 of the Public Disclosure Act as responsible for publishing communication received from the Public Disclosure Commission to the House or Senate and/or provide information to the Attorney General or Commissioner of Police for appropriate action to be taken.

Such action has not been taken, presumably because Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition have found their own Members noncompliant with the law, and are not more interested in lawfulness, transparency, and accountability than they are in the facade of the same and protection of their membership.

In his presentation at the Future of Democracy Conference, Lemarque Campbell explained the Public Disclosure Act in detail, and pointed out the deficiencies in the law and recourse for the Bahamian people. Anyone unfamiliar with the Act can access the recording of Campbell’s presentation on the Out Da Box Facebook page.

One of the expectations of the Bahamian people when they voted against the PLP, leaving us with the FNM by default, was an administration that valued and embodied the principles of transparency and accountability. We expected the FNM administration to repair the system that clearly has not worked for us thus far. Unfortunately, that has not happened, and there has been no indication that it will happen.

On July 12, it was reported that three parliamentarians missed the filing deadline, and the names had not been forwarded to the Attorney General. This came after the report that Public Disclosure Commission Chairman Myles Laroda was instructed to send the list by July 3, after the government-set deadline of June 30. What does this say about the FNM administration’s commitment to transparency and accountability? What does this mean for our democracy; in particular, the principle of the rule of law?

Can this same administration mete out punishment to PLP Members of Parliament of the last administration? Is that what democracy looks like? Is the law for some, not all? Are those in seats of power under no obligation to follow the laws of the land, and only subject to questioning and consequences when they no longer have the safety of seat in Parliament?

We must be careful not to be duped by the theatrics of politicians who act on their own time, in their own mysterious ways, and create events that appear (often in retrospect) to be designed for the gain of quick and easy points at best and mass distraction at worst. The current administration has not been convincing in its attempt to present itself as law-abiding, transparent, accountable, and for the people.

Death Penalty

National Security Minister Marvin Dames said, “We cannot have a lawless society and it is our job as the government to introduce new policies and to enforce old ones to make sure everyone is safe.”

It is unfortunate that the government does not seem up to the task. Not only is there no regard for rule of law as an equalizer among all people, regardless of position or affiliation, but complete disregard for human rights.

Yesterday, we learned of the FNM’s plan to push for the death penalty to be enforced — certainly only one part of their “zero tolerance” plan to curb crime which was not well-detailed in the party manifesto. The death penalty is a breach of two human rights protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — the right to life and the right to live free of torture. The over-referenced theory that the death penalty is crime deterrent has been disproven in several countries.

This administration seems to be under the impression that punishment is equivalent to prevention — a gross error. The death penalty is only an option after a crime has been committed and the accused convicted. The country would have already suffered a loss, spent money on court proceedings, and put victims, witnesses, and their loved ones through significant trauma. Why is this administration’s response to the climbing murder rate a punishment — not a solution to the issue, but a scare tactic that has proven ineffective?

In discussing crime and creating systems and strategies to reduce crime, there must be a conversation about the difference between prevention and punishment. Punishment only happens and has effect after a crime has been committed. This is already something we, as a country, are not doing in the most effective way, failing to incorporate rehabilitation which results in high recidivism. Prevention is the area that needs the most focus. Civil society members from social workers and psychologists to researchers and economists should be invited to contribute to a national crime prevention plan. Bigger prisons, moving prisons, and capital punishment do not help people to resolve conflict, solve financial issues, or push students to finish high school. Crime is a systemic issue, and requires a robust, dynamic plan that responds to the environmental factors that lead to crime.

These two examples — public disclosure and the death penalty — are indicative of the FNM administration’s view to systems.

Our current position is a reflection of the same kind of thinking from a different group of people. To see the change we desperately need (and voted for), we need to build better, more instructive and responsive systems and see the too-little-too-late reactions for what they truly are — unproductive distractions. We, the people, must stop showing up for their poppy shows and demand the systems, policies, and recourse we need and deserve.