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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.

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Culture Clash: Consent

I’ve seen and heard about people lamenting the ongoing discussion about women’s human rights specific to our bodies. While it can be exhausting to engage in seemingly endless conversations on a popular topic, or even observe them, it is far worse to be repeatedly violated, taught to accept it, and face attempts to dissuade you from believing your own experience. We have to talk about sexual violence, particularly against women and girls, for many reasons. One of the most obvious is that it continues to happen, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable among us.

Conversations about sexual violence against women and girls are frustrating. It is emotionally draining for those of us who have experienced it and continue to experience it. There is a burden on us to talk about some of the worst things we have ever gone through, We are expected to participate in story-sharing campaigns, little thought being given to the psychological effects of reliving the trauma, or worrying about who may find out and treat us differently. It makes people uncomfortable — even those who consider themselves “good guys.” The black and white of sexual violence and rape culture scares people to the point that they are desperate to believe and convince others that a gray area exists. There can be no gray area when we are talking about people using their power to exert control over another person’s body. Whatever form it takes, it is a violation without explicit consent.

What is consent?

It’s difficult to address these issues without defining consent. In the simplest of terms, it is permission, a yes, and confirmation of willingness to participate from a person who is over the age of consent, conscious, and sober. Consent cannot be assumed. There can be no guesswork here. Certainty is a must, and that can only exist when an option has been offered, and the other person has been given the opportunity to accept or decline on their own terms. Silence does not count; consent has to be explicit.

Once you have consent, know that it is for the activity and time agreed upon, and remember that consent can end. It is not granted forever, and people can change their minds. You need continuous consent. It is possible to consent to something, start an activity, then decide not to continue. You may not like it if someone does this, but consent is mandatory so you need to accept it.

What isn’t consent?

Consent for one thing does not mean consent for another. You may think one activity “naturally” leads to another, but you need to check in with the person to see if they want to move on to something else. Consenting to kissing is not the same as consenting to kissing followed by digital penetration. Be honest about what you want to do, and respect the person’s right to decide whether or not they want to participate.

It is important that consent is recognized as a necessary step that protects all participants. It is not difficult, and it is not a hurdle. It is not a contest or a conquest. Coercion voids consent. No is no, and no amount of bullying, begging, or wearing down will turn that a no into an enthusiastic, continuous yes. Doing any of these things takes away the person’s choice, and creates a situation where the only answer is yes, and that is not consent. It is a violation on its own.

What is sexual violence?

Sexual violence is a term to describe sexual acts against someone who has not given consent. It’s a spectrum with harassment toward one end and rape at the other. Many people find it difficult to see sexual harassment and rape in the same category, largely because harassment is considered harmless. Street harassment, for example, has been so normalized that some refuse to acknowledge its affects on those experiencing it. An unwanted interaction can begin verbally, and has the potential to escalate to following or physical assault, regardless of the initial response.

Like rape, harassment and every other form of sexual violence is about power — not sex. Conversations about sexual violence are most often derailed by perpetuators of rape culture. These are people who believe the victim is somehow always at fault. They use respectability politics in attempts to put women and girls in our place, and hypermasculinity to excuse men and boys for unacceptable, predatory, criminal behavior. At Hollaback! — a movement formed to end street harassment — we challenge people to think about what could happen in the dark if we excuse harassment as appropriate behavior. Events like Junkanoo and Carnival give us an idea.

Law Enforcement Says

In December 2017, the Royal Bahamas Police Force (RBPF) foolishly made a victim-blaming post, warning women to “dress appropriately” to avoid sexual violence at Junkanoo. After significant backlash, the post was deleted. Unfortunately, some saw fit to defend the RBPF, suggesting that sexual violence is a response to certain styles of dress. This, of course, is incorrect, victim-blaming, and suggests the inferiority of the men and boys through perpetuation of the idea that they have no self-control.

Earlier this month, Trinidad & Tobago police took a different approach. Carnival quickly approaching, they advised the public that wining on someone without consent could be considered assault. Rather than addressing women and attempting to restrict their movement or choice of dress, they spoke directly to potential perpetrators. While this was lauded by women’s rights organizations and activists, some took exception the message. In particular, soca artist Machel Montano told a crowd to ignore the police advisory and “find somebody to jam.” In response, Police Public Information Officer ASP Michael Jackman said, “I want to make this clear that is important to respect any female’s right to say no to any physical touching in or outside the Carnival season, and that is the position of the TTPS.”

The police in Trinidad & Tobago clearly have a better understanding of the right to body autonomy, the mandatory nature of consent, and the appropriate group of people to address about sexual violence.

A (Trinidad & Tobago) “wining etiquette” flowchart has been circulating over the past few days. It is meant to make men think about their relationships with the women they want to “jam” on. Yuh know she? How yuh know she? Based on answers to these basic questions, it advises on how to approach her, whether, usually beginning with a face-to-face interaction. It ends with either “Gih she wuk!” or “Cease & desist.”

One part of the flowchart brings the marital rape debate to mind. From the “How yuh know she?” question, if the person chooses “We currently romantically involved,” the result is “Gih she wuk!” This suggests a romantic relationship gives a man access to a woman’s body, as though consent is automatic and perpetual (or lasts as long as the relationship). How is this different from Bahamian legislation where the definition of rape excludes the married rapist and victim? We still have work to do. All of us need to understand that people are not objects, relationships do not give us ownership, and consent is always mandatory. Whether it’s a wine/wuk/dance or a sexual activity, it is necessary to ask. Otherwise, your actions could be on the spectrum of sexual violence. You’re a nice guy? Great. Respect the other person. Ask for consent.

Published in The Tribune on January 24, 2018.