The “Me Too” Phenomenon

Gleaner column of October 18, 2017

“If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem,” read the Facebook update. So said, so done. Within a couple of days the #MeToo hashtag gathered so much momentum that women who didn’t post #MeToo as their status update on Facebook were in the minority.

It was the logical outcome of a wave of outings of famous men who have systematically assaulted women, using their power to extricate sexual services from their victims either without consent or by manufacturing it. Whether it was the drugging of victims by Bill Cosby or demands for sexual favors in return for Hollywood stardom by Harvey Weinstein, the public outcry has made it clear that such blatant abuse of power has to stop. If not  the perpetrators will be named and shamed in no uncertain terms.

Interestingly there were many who rushed to Cosby’s defense insinuating that he was the victim of a plot against black people, and that the increasing number of women accusing him of sexual abuse were lying. In the Harvey Weinstein case one has yet to hear of sinister plots against Jewish Hollywood producers but no doubt its a matter of time. In the meantime he is being pilloried in no uncertain terms, losing contracts, respect and prestigious positions left, right and centre.

Note too, that all of this is without benefit of police charges, trials in court and conviction by jury as was demanded by the Jamaican public when a small group of women here insisted that it was time to expose sexual predators by naming and shaming them. In the Weinstein case it was the New York Times that broke the story, after in-depth investigation and interviewing of some victims.

The outing of Weinstein is not only loosening the tongues of his victims, it is pushing other women around the world to talk out about the routine sexual harassment they face, particularly in show business. A former member of popular American band the Pussycat Dolls has claimed in a series of tweets that the girl group operated as a ‘prostitution ring’, with the members forced into sex with entertainment executives. “’To be a part of the team you must be a team player. Meaning sleep with whoever they say. If you don’t they have nothing on you to leverage,’ tweeted Kaya Jones who spent two years as a band member.

It’s bad enough to be sexually exploited but far worse to face denial and vilification when you try and report or talk about the offense committed. Instead of receiving help and sympathy the victim is often hounded and disparaged as Kaya Jones found out. In India Sheena Dabholkar, a Pune-based writer and blogger, started a thread on Twitter highlighting the harassment she experienced at popular bar and hangout spot High Spirits, as well as the response she got for calling it out.

Sheena’s tweets elicited social media testimony from many other women who had experienced the same disgusting behavior from the bar’s owner, Khodu Irani, who has been accused of groping, sending lewd messages, fat-shaming and harassing multiple patrons/employees of his cafe.

Sexual exploitation is not just an occupational hazard of show business and entertainment however. It abounds at universities too. John Rapley, who worked at University of the West Indies for many years, wrote an interesting blogpost titled ‘The Weinstein Syndrome’. Said Rapley:

“I once worked in an environment where this sort of thing was rife – a university, where most of the students were women and most of the teachers, men. The students were in the full flower of youth and the teachers, well, were not. But they had something more potent. The authority and aura that go with scholarship sometimes suffice to bring young students tumbling into a lecturer’s lap; but for those who lack charisma or charm, there is plain power. They determined grades, they assigned scholarships, they controlled promotions. And enough of them were ready to use that power to impose themselves on reluctant young women that it became what Weinstein called ‘the culture.’”

There is no institution that is immune from the abuse of power. Earlier this year the founders of the Tambourine Army and others found themselves the subject of hostile media attention after outing members of the Moravian Church for preying on underage girls. It is astonishing that outrage is reserved for those who find the courage to name and shame rather than the perverts who commit the crime of sexual exploitation.

“‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality,’ declared T. S. Eliot. But bear it we must, and stand alongside those for whom reality is too often a punch in the gut. I looked at my many sisters and friends declaring “me too” on their Facebook walls (knowing that for every “me too” said aloud, there are thousands-upon-thousands whispered or left unsaid) and I am floored. It shouldn’t be a surprise—and in many ways it isn’t—but to see the avalanche of evidence rushing down… Reality does feel like too much.”

If only more people thought like Garnette Cadogan, quoted above, one of the few men to respond compassionately to the #MeToo confessions. There is simply no excuse for demanding that women (or men) remain silent in the face of systematic sexual depredation.

What Really Happened in Grenada? Part 2

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Bernard Coard signing my copy of his book, The Grenada Revolution: What Really Happened? at the launch

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Gleaner column of Sept. 27, 2017

In this column I continue my reportage of the launch of Bernard Coard’s book The Grenada Revolution: What Really Happened? Put on by the Department of Government at The University of the West Indies on September 15th the anticipation-filled event fully lived up to its promise.

One of the enduring beliefs about the unhappy events of October 19th, 1983, when Prime Minister Maurice Bishop along with several cabinet ministers and other supporters were lined up at Fort Rupert and assassinated was that the orders to kill him came directly from the Worker’s Party of Jamaica (WPJ), from none other than its leader at the time, Trevor Munroe.

The question of Munroe’s role came up more than once at the launch, the first time during

Professor Rupert Lewis’s eloquently articulated response to Coard’s book. Lewis who had lived in Prague 1982-84 as a representative of the WPJ on the World Marxist Review, a theoretical journal containing jointly-produced content by Communist and workers parties from around the world. As such Lewis  had direct access to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. What he said was this:

“The letter that Trevor sent to me to deliver to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union basically said there were two trends in the New Jewel Movement (NJM). There was a working-class trend, a proletarian trend led by Bernard and a petit-bourgeois trend led by Maurice. I was very angry at this simplistic portrayal of the complex struggle that had taken place in Grenada.”

Coard’s own response to the question of Munroe’s role during the tense and emotion-filled q and a afterwards was passionate, his voice rising an octave or two:

“With respect to the role of anybody, any Jamaicans, and in particular the WPJ, let me just say this, that Rupert’s critique of myself and all of us in the leadership in Grenada was based on the fact that we were very jealous of the little piece of sovereignty that we had. We bad for wi piece of sovereignty. We will decide everything ourselves, we will listen to advice but we will take our own decisions. Listen, if people givin’ us arms and training and economic help and help with our international airport, and we weren’t prepared to let them dictate to us, you think Trevor Munroe or anybody could tell us what to do in the Grenada Revolution? Come on, get serious. Call it petty nationalism if you want but that nationalism runs very deep so I don’t care what anybody says, or what anybody says to anybody else, we are going to make our own decision. That’s how we are. I don’t agree that that’s a wrong approach. I don’t agree that people helping us have a right to tell us what to do, they can advice yes, but we decide whether to take that advice or not. I’m sorry, I make no apologies for that.”

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Militia

Coard’s own response to the speakers before him was methodical, articulated in nine points. He started by describing how painful the process of writing the book had been, how he had been unable to write for the first 19 years in prison despite being urged to do so by many and had finally decided to do so because there had been hundreds of thousands of articles published on the Grenada Revolution during that period, most of them by outsiders, almost exclusively detailing one side of events and it was important for someone to write from within the revolution as it were. So as emotionally painful and difficult as the recounting of those traumatic events was Coard had finally decided to write to provide a different perspective.

After outlining his methodology ( extensive use of contemporaneously kept minutes and court documents) and objectives for writing this memoir (to document the mistakes they made), which he said would be the first of several volumes, Coard mentioned two things that to me are worth highlighting. He said a study of US actions in Grenada, not just at the end, but throughout the life of the revolution, “would help to cast light for those who are interested, in happenings going on right now in various parts of the world.”

“You cannot understand what is going on in Venezuela unless you understand what we went through in Grenada. And just like we made mistakes from the beginning, the Venezuelans are making mistakes. But the fact of the matter is it is one thing to make mistakes and to suffer the consequences of those mistakes. It’s another thing to have a very powerful country deciding that in addition to whatever stumbling you make on your own I’m going to make sure you can’t get up and walk.” Coard said that despite having held 11 elections Chavez was consistently referred to as a dictator by US media.

The next point Coard made was that on August 9, 2017, an article had appeared in the Washington Post, by a specialist on North Korea, Benjamin Young, in which he details the connection between Reagan’s decision to invade Grenada and the current potentiality for nuclear war between the USA and North Korea. “This is important because what he says in that article is that Kim il Sung, the grandfather of the current leader, was not just extremely disturbed by the invasion of Grenada but that it was the basis of a decision by the North Korean leadership to embark on a program of acquiring nuclear weapons.”

The Korean leader’s fear that N. Korea would be next in line for a Grenada-style invasion led to an investment in nuclear weapons as a deterrent, a “delayed fuse” as Coard put it that we are confronted with today. “In other words the US invasion of Grenada, as far back as October 1983, is directly linked to the current potential for nuclear war between the United States and North Korea.”

A sobering note to end on.

From Nation to Abattoir?

Chubby

 

My column of September 6, 2017. The funeral for Leonard Collins “(Chubby”) is this Saturday at Church of Christ, Mona. I still shed tears at the wantonness of his killing.

I didn’t know his given name. On campus he was known as Chubby, a dread with a bicycle and a green thumb, who worked in the Maintenance Department for many years. Involved in a job-related accident some years ago, Chubby was waiting to collect some long overdue compensation monies.

On Friday, the 25th of last month, the money finally arrived in his credit union account and Chubby went and collected it. The first thing he wanted to do was buy a cake for his two-year old son. He sat down outside his August Town home with some friends idly discussing where to buy the cake. Some said Megamart, others said he should get a Cherry Berry cake from Sugar and Spice in Liguanea.

I remember when the ‘yout’, as Chubby called him, was born. The proud father came to my office to see if I could help in any way, as there were complications. I gave him some money. What Chubby really wanted was for me to visit his son in hospital because he said ‘they’ would treat him and his family better if someone like me visited. It haunts me to this day that I allowed my fear and dislike of hospitals to dissuade me from going.

Two years later Chubby did not get to buy his son a cake. The same night he got the money, someone pushed their way into his house and robbed him, viciously shooting and killing him in the process. I don’t think his death made the news. Sometimes I wonder if murders in August Town are under-reported to protect the much vaunted but fragile ‘peace treaty’. I know that not all murders are reported to the media by the Police in time for them to carry the news.

It’s heartbreaking when from he that hath not, even that which he hath not is taken. A good, hard-working man has been struck down, separated from the one thing he could call his own—his life. What lies ahead for Chubby’s son now, joining the legion of fatherless children?

There was a series of gruesome murders in Clarendon during the same period but  it’s human nature to mourn those closest to us, especially if they lived in physical proximity and you knew them. Someone from one’s own family, country, class or caste takes precedence over nameless strangers halfway across the world. The media too spends more column space or airtime on individuals who were prominent because of talent, brains, money or beauty. Thus the murder of designer Dexter Pottinger last week has dominated social media, where shell-shocked Jamaicans have been expressing sorrow, outrage, anger and bewilderment at his killing by a person or persons unknown.

The usual arguments are making the rounds. As Pottinger was openly gay there are those who suspect he was killed directly or indirectly because of his social orientation. Others counter this by saying he was likely killed by a lover in a crime of passion, so this can’t be classified as a homophobic murder. I find the latter a strange claim the fallacy of which is illustrated by looking at women who are murdered by their partners, ex husbands or boyfriends. Does the fact that this might be a crime of passion negate the fact that beneath the casual slaughter of women lies a deep-seated patriarchal belief that they are inferior and therefore expendable? Does it negate the widespread misogyny that permeates such societies and drives violence against women?

“Please don’t make it about the fact that he was gay” implored someone on my Facebook timeline. And I get that people don’t want Jamaica to get bad press again, especially if this was a straight robbery and murder, so to speak. But the fact is if a black man is killed in a racist country, the first thing you’re going to wonder is whether the color of his skin was a contributing factor. If racists view black people as an alien species endangering the public, in much the same way as homosexuals are viewed as dangerous threats to society here, it makes them more vulnerable to violence by those who feel justified in ridding society of the ‘menace’ by killing them.

Thus some men feel justified in killing men who make advances towards them instead of politely brushing them off in the way women do 365 days of the year when men make unwanted passes at them. Imagine what the world would look like if women killed every man who made a pass at them! I’ve never understood the “I killed him because he made an indecent proposal” defence that seems to find such currency here.

We might never know the reason Dexter was killed but in the meantime how about building a nation where people are as concerned to eliminate unwarranted prejudice as they are to protect their country’s reputation?

Feeding the Troll…

laughing Troll

The day after my column Feeding the Dragon (see previous post) was published in the Daily Gleaner the indefatigable Jacqueline Bishop tried once again to draw me into a Facebook spat by tagging me in her snarky response to my piece (see above). On a previous occasion when Bishop did this (that time it was an article by Seph Rodney in the online art forum, Hyperallergic) I politely declined to engage saying that although she was clearly spoiling for a fight, she wouldn’t get any satisfaction from me. I had responded to the article in question on Hyperallergic’s website and saw no reason, I said, to explain myself to Bishop on Facebook. Bishop then proceeded to troll Seph Rodney, the author of the article, and myself, both on Facebook and in the comments section of the Hyperallergic article. Her seemingly proprietary interest in the matter has never been made clear.

This time around I decided to do what they advise you not to do, which is feed the trolls. Feeding them only emboldens trolls and gives them an opportunity to amplify their attacks. But since I was curious about the nature of these attacks by Bishop and how low she would stoop this time, I decided to respond, albeit tongue in cheek.

In the sorry exchange that follows (excerpts from which can be found at the end of this post) Bishop calls me a dunce and a simpleton who needs to take basic lessons at “the institution where I work” (the University of the West Indies), as well as an ‘elite’ benefitting from the colonization of the Caribbean. The vehemence and the venom with which she excoriates me might lead one to think that I had advocated something similar to Bruce Gilley’s infamous Third World Quarterly article called “The Case for Colonialism” which is exciting much comment and vituperation right now on social media and elsewhere.

Yet all I had done was mildly suggest, based on interviews with scholars such as Richard Bernal (Pro Vice-Chancellor, Global Affairs, University of the West Indies) and artist Bryan McFarlane who has had a studio in Beijing for a decade now, that perhaps the accusation of ‘colonialism’ to describe the relationship between China and the Caribbean might be overstated.

Bishop takes exception to my quoting McFarlane saying that the Chinese are new at ‘colonizing’ in the classical sense of the word, having had little or no history of European-style colonizing of the planet. This leaves Bishop incredulous and she lists Japan, Thailand, Korea and Tibet as counter-examples. But, as an eminent writer said, after  reading her comments, she seems not to know the difference between ‘colonization’ and ‘invasion’, a rather crucial distinction in this instance.

My article is a far cry from Gilley’s which asserts that colonialism is a force for good in the world, anti-colonial sentiment is ‘preposterous’ and a new  program of colonization is needed, “with Western powers taking over the governing functions of less developed countries.” As outrageous as his article is, Gilley hasn’t attracted the kind of ad hominem attacks I have from Bishop. Whereas it has been widely ridiculed, the standard of put-down has been considerably superior to the abuse that was lobbed at me, with the following example being a stand-out in my opinion:

Crispin Bates: Next week’s special issue could be about why we need to bring back castrati in order to restore the quality of Italian opera. This author and Shashi Tharoor seem almost perfect mirrors of one another. Are they related by any chance?

Dilip Menon: There would be high-pitched objections to that surely.

But at the end of the day, the wittiest take-down isn’t enough to discredit an article appearing in a respected academic journal even if many consider it self-evidently absurd. Hooting and cackling on Facebook isn’t going to do it, you actually have to engage with it, demolishing it by systematically countering its arguments with historical facts and evidence. This is what Nathan Robinson does in the latest issue of Current Affairs saying  that it’s worth responding to the case Gilley makes because he appears to be sincere and the article appeared in a mainstream journal, and the sentiments it expresses are somewhat common:

I go into this level of detail because I think it’s crucial to show that Gilley’s article is not a serious work of scholarship. I think the gut reaction of many people will be that Gilley’s arguments are “self-evidently” absurd. But apparently this is not the case, because the Third World Quarterly chose to publish them.

Unfortunately, neither I nor the Daily Gleaner was afforded this courtesy by Bishop who chose instead to insinuate that the Gleaner’s fact-checkers had fallen asleep. The abusive tone of her responses on Facebook hardly shows either Bishop or New York University where she is a clinical associate professor, in a good light. It’s important to note, especially for those not familiar with the American academy that a clinical professor is not the same as a specialized, tenure-track research professor or what in our system is called a lecturer. You would hardly see such professors/lecturers resorting to the kind of cyber-bullying that Bishop seems to revel in.

Bishop is a highly regarded writer and art impresario who occasionally writes for The Huffington Post and I have given her no cause, personally, to nourish a grudge against me. The raging desire to belittle and discredit me displayed in the screenshots of our Facebook exchange below requires some other explanation. Perhaps she is acting on someone else’s behalf?

Whatever her motives are I would urge Bishop the next time she decides to publicly berate me, to not tag me in her posts. Despite her repeated claims that “no malice is intended” she might find herself running afoul of the Jamaican Cybercrimes Act. “Use of a computer for malicious communication,” is actually a thing here.

Below are snippets of the Facebook exchange that followed Bishop’s opening salvo, quoted at the top of this post.

 

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personal elementegging on etc

Screenshot 2017-08-30 13.33.06

dunceHoyes not productive

Kingston: Creative City Not?

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Kingston on the Edge (KOTE), an urban art festival held every June, will not celebrate its tenth anniversary this year due mainly to dwindling support from corporate Jamaica. The email press release from the organizers of the festival said simply:
“The staging of KOTE is a large undertaking and can be difficult given that it is a 10 day studio and performing art festival held at over 26 venues throughout Kingston with hundreds of artists participating.”

“This year KOTE Milestones would have been our 10th anniversary however unfortunately given a combination of factors and unforeseen circumstances including not least of all the financial strain of the festival, we have been forced to cancel KOTE 2017.”

The cancelling of KOTE is a blow to Kingston’s cultural calendar as it was a showcase for artists, writers, musicians, poets, dancers and others involved in the expressive arts. Typically KOTE events catered to aficionados of alternative music (alternative to Reggae and Dancehall that is), modern dance, poetry, theatre, architecture, pottery and visual art, bringing a wide range of patrons, young and old, out of their closets for this rich cultural immersion.

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David Marchand (photo: Chloe Walters-Wallace)

For example at KOTE 2015, David Marchand, the fantastically eccentric and reclusive visual artist found dead in his Runaway Bay home last week, had his first solo exhibition in 23 years featuring 55 of his art works. Titled “Tsunami Scarecrow: A David Marchand Retrospective” the launch of the exhibition featured opening words by Maxine Walters, a dedicated patron of his work, jazz compositions by Seretse Small and a preview of a documentary on Marchand by Chloe Walters Wallace. Marchand liked to think of himself as “a visual Bob Marley”, but I think Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry offers a better comparison.

Another year the highlight of KOTE was a guided bus trip starting at Wolmer’s Boys’ School, the site of the 1891 World Fair and stopping at different locations in Kingston that once were tourist sites. Conducted by architect Evon Williams, the tour extended from the site of the now defunct Myrtle Bank Hotel downtown to Immaculate Conception Convent in uptown Kingston once better known as the Constant Spring Hotel. To visit its beautiful lobby and environs is to take a step back in time, for the nuns have changed the buildings very little and done a good job of maintaining its serene ambiance.

KOTE also pioneered what has become a regular feature of the National Gallery of Jamaica, its Last Sundays programme, when the Gallery is open to the public for free with performative offerings in addition to the art exhibtions. Hard to believe that sponsors were not forthcoming for such a beautifully curated series of events showcasing Kingston as the creative hub it is.

Trinidad and Tobago, on the other hand, even with a depressed economy due to plummeting oil prices was able to find the resources to continue hosting their excellent little literary showcase, the NGC Bocas Lit Fest. Aside from their title sponsor, the Trinidad and Tobago Gas Company, Bocas has 30 or more other sponsors including One Caribbean Media willing to support and celebrate Caribbean talent.

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Ishion Hutchinson (2nd from left), Safiya Sinclair at Bocas Lit Fest. At mike Nicholas Laughlin

Jamaica dominated the festival this year, leading people to refer to it as the Jamaican Bocas, which culminated in Kei Miller winning the overall Bocas Award for his consummate novel, Augustown. Also in the running was another Jamaican, Safiya Sinclair, for her book of poetry, Cannibal. Safiya was the Bocas winner for poetry this year and is the latest wunderkid of Jamaican poetry to hit the international circuits, winning several mainstream fellowships and awards.

Another headliner at Bocas Lit Fest this year was Ishion Hutchinson, the Portland prodigy, the shearing of whose locks as a schoolboy inspired Kei Miller’s novel, Augustown. Hutchinson’s many honors include the American National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, a Whiting Writers Award and the Larry Levis Prize from the Academy of American Poets; he is also a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize in poetry. Like Sinclair, Ishion grew up in a Rasta household, she in Montego Bay and he in Port Antonio.

Festivals such as KOTE and Bocas are also about developing a ground for home-grown talent to thrive in…for how much longer can we expect our best and brightest to live in their heads? Safiya Sinclair pinpoints the sense of ‘unbelonging’ quite eloquently:

“Home was not my island, which never belonged to us Jamaicans, though it’s all we’ve known, and home was not my family’s house, which we’ve always rented, all of us acutely aware of the fact that we were living in borrowed space, that we could never truly be ourselves there. Home was not the body. Never the body—grown too tall and gangly too quickly, grown toward womanhood too late. Like a city built for myself, home was a place I carved out in my head, where the words were always the right words, where I could speak in English or patois, could formulate a song or a self. Home for me has always been poetry.”

What price press freedom?

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When you were a child and got punished for doing something bad did you ever wish for a world in which wrong was right and right was wrong? Because then, you resentfully imagined, you might not find yourself the target of a beating or scolding so often? Well, I’m beginning to think that I may be living in such a world after all.

There are several reasons for thinking this. The arithmetic of crime and punishment in Jamaica for one. Take the fact that Former Commissioner of Customs Danville Walker was found guilty of breaching the Contractor General Act for which the maximum fine was only J$5,000 (approx US$35) or 14 days in prison.

Let’s add to that the fact that reputed gang leader Tesha Miller was recently fined the maximum penalty of J$100 (under US$1) after pleading guilty to one of two counts of making a false declaration to Jamaican immigration officials. In effect Miller was found guilty of entering Jamaica under a false name. In what I can only assume was sarcasm at the paltry sum involved Parish Judge Sancia Burrell in the Kingston and St Andrew Parish Court imposed the fine accompanied by the following statement:
“I hope you are prepared to satisfy the maximum fine and I hope you are able to call a relative or family member to help you if you can’t manage it”.

In contrast section 9C of The Town and Communities Act specifies that “any person who shall make on any fence, wall or other building, any obscene figure, drawing, painting, or representation, or sing any profane, indecent, or obscene song or ballad, or write or draw any indecent or obscene word, figure, or representation, or use any profane, indecent or obscene language publicly can be subject to a fine not exceeding $1,500 or to imprisonment with or without hard labour, for a period not exceeding thirty days.”

Well, clearly using “indecent or obscene language” publicly is 15 times worse than pretending to be somebody else, in essence trying to mislead immigration officials, in Jamaica. And it’s twice as bad as breaching the Contractor General Act, to calculate by the dividend of the maximum number of days one can be sentenced to prison for. Keep in mind that the Act in question is designed to curb corruption in public office, one of the scourges of the developing world. Clearly this crime is viewed with mild disapproval and no more in Jamaica.

The boom shot however is the new Cybercrimes Act under which human rights activist Latoya Nugent was arrested and charged for allegedly publishing information on social media accusing several persons of being sexual predators. According to a report in one newspaper, “Under Section 9 (1) of the Cybercrimes Act, which speaks to the use of a computer for malicious communication, in the case of a first offence, Nugent faces a maximum fine of J$4 million or imprisonment of up to four years, or both, if convicted.”

Blow wow, well blow me down with a feather. Do the math and tell me what you think the Jamaican justice system is telling us about which crimes it considers serious and which ones to rap us on the knuckles for. Tell me why we’re not to conclude that the Jamaican state feels much more threatened by a freedom of speech violation than nefarious crimes such as sidestepping the laws of the nation or brazenly lying to officials about one’s identity.

Senior Trinidad and Tobago journalist Wesley Gibbings says that freedom of expression and freedom of the press are really hard sells in the Caribbean, that deep down Caribbean societies don’t believe in these freedoms. Apart from “financially induced self-censorship” new cyber legislation is a threat, according to Gibbings, who was speaking at a forum on press freedom at Bocas Lit Fest in Port of Spain, because any statement viewed as having embarrassed someone can be considered libelous and subject to punitive fines. Cyber legislation is being invoked under criminal law so that you can be arrested and jailed for being insulting, ‘unpatriotic’ and other such vague and loosely defined terms.

While May 3 is celebrated as World Press Freedom Day there are different metrics of press freedom, according to Gibbings some of which may not be relevant to the Caribbean. Reporters without Borders compiles an index in which Jamaica ranks 8th out of 180 and Trinidad 34th. Despite this says Gibbons “in the Caribbean journalists are not being killed, but many stories die,” though in most places stories die because journalists are killed. But in the Caribbean, according to Gibbings stories die without journalists being killed, silenced by threats to their jobs and self-censorship so the metrics need to be compiled in a much more nuanced way.

The other problem Gibbings feels is that there is little real interest in investigative journalism. “…whether you look at civil society and their representative organizations, journalists themselves, the corporate sector, the state—none of them really want it because a lot of them really wouldn’t last too long in their positions if you had proper investigative journalism.”

This is a chilling realization borne out by the calculus of crime and punishment detailed at the beginning of this column. What it makes clear is that too many sectors of society have a serious interest in maintaining a corrupt status quo, and will use the legal system to suppress those who would expose the wrongdoing while giving a bligh to the wrongdoers.

 

 

Policing Profanity

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Clovis cartoon, Jamaica Observer, April 17, 2017

My Gleaner column of 19/4/17

If I were ever to be tried for murder I would want QC Valerie Neita Robertson as my lead defense attorney. For as we have seen in the case of hapless Kay-Ann Lamont, murdered with her 8-month old fetus for using ‘indecent language’ after being robbed while out shopping for school supplies for her children, Neita Robertson is able to move juries to do the unimaginable: acquit her killer of murder, manslaughter or any kind of wrong-doing whatsoever.

Police Corporal Smart, who killed Kay-Ann Lamont, was regarded as “a very mild-mannered police officer” and his defense was accident, intermingled with self-defense, according to Director of Public Prosecution Paula Llewellyn. In fact the DPP’s statements about this trial are instructive. The Jury, she says, was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the guilt of the accused with respect to murder, manslaughter or wounding with intent in respect of Kay-Ann Lamont’s sister, also shot by the policeman, was made out.

In an interview with RJR’s Dionne Jackson-Miller the DPP explained that Corporal Smart heard expletives being uttered, decided to make a “lawful arrest” but in attempting to restrain Lamont while trying to “overcome her resistance” to arrest, there was a struggle during which his gun accidentally went off. ”A lot of members of the public are not aware that when a policeman is making a lawful arrest he doesn’t even have to touch you, he only needs to say ‘I am arresting you’ and the citizen has a duty to comply, then you complain after,” explained the DPP.

A video shot by an onlooker was pressed into evidence and Prosecution called five eye witnesses, including two sisters of the deceased, one of them the wounded complainant, to testify to the jury how their sister had received her injuries. There were also two policemen testifying for the crown and an independent businessman with no connections to either side. “But remember” continued the DPP, “the jurors are not only listening to the evidence being given they are also observing the witnesses give their evidence, observing their demeanour, their tone, their manner.”

The accused, Corporal Smart, had six character witnesses and according to the DPP was crying throughout the trial, and from his antecedents, the statements of his character witnesses and his demeanour—“he was a very soft-spoken, mild-mannered policeman who had an excellent report from the character witnesses about how he conducted himself professionally so you go back to what the jurors as common-sense persons coming from different backgrounds would have been looking at and observing…They can see elements when human rights are being infringed and they see police brutality, examples of it, but they can also see when members of the public are not being disciplined or not obeying when a police officer is seeking to effect a lawful arrest (pl retain italics). So it is finally left to the jury to observe, listen and assess the demeanour of the witnesses and the accused to decide can they be sure beyond a reasonable doubt of the guilt of the accused.”

I was struck by the DPP’s repeated emphasis on the ‘demeanour’ of the witnesses, in particular the two sisters of the deceased. What does this suggest? That their demeanour was somehow not appropriate enough to work in their favor while the ‘demeanour’ of the policeman—‘mild-mannered’ ‘decent and honourable’ according to the defense attorney, sobbing uncontrollably in court during proceedings and verdict somehow gave him the edge as far as good citizenship was concerned while the dead woman, first in cursing her bad luck at being robbed, and then resisting arrest by the policeman for the ‘crime’ of doing so had somehow wantonly squandered her right to go about her business? Her demeanour wasn’t one of milk toast niceness and obedience so ultimately she was herself responsible for losing her life at the hands of this ‘decent and honourable’ policeman?

QC Neita-Robertson explained in a separate interview that the video showed the 8-months pregnant Lamont and her two sisters advancing on Corporal Smart who then drew his gun in ‘self-defence’. In retreating the policeman fell and his firearm went off killing Kay-Ann Lamont and injuring her sister. The shooting itself was not caught on video but the accused claimed that he was attacked by a crowd who were supportive of the sisters. This claim according to Neita-Robertson was corroborated by a crown witness who testified that crowds in Yallahs “have a habit of attacking police and disarming them.” Of course with the Police’s record of abuse of power and extra-judicial killings this is hardly surprising if true.

Ultimately as the DPP kept repeating “This case also involved whether a lawful arrest was being effected.” And there in my mind lies the rub. Had there not been a law proscribing the use of expletives in public Kay-Ann Lamont would still be alive and so would her unborn child who would have been five this year. At a time when the DPP complains of an acute shortage of court rooms to try the many serious criminal cases that keep being postponed as a result, this case tied up a courtroom, legal luminaries, jurors and judge for five whole weeks.

Isn’t it about time we did a cost-benefit analysis of the law against ‘indecent language’ to assess what exactly the gains are compared to the egregious loss of life demonstrated by this case? Why is the law and order system so intent on criminalizing the use of expletives while allowing alleged criminal masterminds such as Tesha Miller and others to operate without hindrance? Is something being lost in translation here?

Uncivil Disobedience

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My Gleaner column of April 5, 2017

It all started with UWI anthropologist Herbert Gayle saying that in his not so humble opinion there is no such thing as violence against women. The Gleaner followed that up with a 24-page supplement this January titled “Light on Violence” based on Gayle’s research. Naturally there was no mention in it of violence against women because as has been made clear, in the Gayle universe such a thing doesn’t exist.

While I can understand and sympathize with the desire to push back at UN-dictated terms of reference in the funding of social research I thought putting out a 24-page document on violence in Jamaica with not one page or section referring to the violence women face daily was going too far. A section called “Four forms of violence we need to worry about” doesn’t identify violence against women or domestic violence as one, despite the fact that in the months preceding this publication and the weeks immediately following it, the news was filled with reports of horrific murders of women very often by men they were close to.

In addition, the number of women and children routinely being raped points to a pervasive ‘rape culture’ that is so deeply ingrained and accepted that there is hardly any outcry against it. A blogger calling herself Natural Icon Beauty recalls at the age of 6 reporting to the family helper that she had been molested by the next-door neighbor and being told that this was normal, that the helper had gone through this too as a child and that it was probably because the man’s wife was away (!)

Because nine out of ten times this is the reaction of adults to whom a child confesses his or her violation the conviction rate for rape and sexual abuse is abominably low; most women don’t even bother to report their rapes because of the tortuous procedures involved that make them relive the trauma in the process of being interviewed by police and legal personnel bristling with disbelief and completely lacking in empathy. So much for the worry that women are going to come out of the woodworks making false accusations when evidence shows that even when there IS a case they are routinely dissuaded from reporting rape or are reluctant to do so because of the loss of reputation they suffer in the process.

Take Larissa Rhone who gathered the courage after 30 years to bring her grandmother’s husband to court in Jamaica for systematically violating her from the age of 5 to 16. For this she was vilified by the defense lawyer, as well as by her grandmother and others who called her wicked for ‘ruining’ an old man’s life, completely oblivious to the number of young lives his marauding libido had wrecked, for it wasn’t just Larissa but her younger siblings, cousins and even her own mother who had been violated by this man. Yet she and the other victims were all urged to remain silent about their traumas.

Matters were bound to come to a head. On March 11 women dubbing themselves survivors, marched in Kingston and all over the Caribbean protesting the violence routinely meted out to them. In Kingston the march was organized under the aegis of a new organization calling itself Tambourine Army. The protest was preceded by much disgruntlement and kass kass within the activist community between what someone referred to as an older, more ‘staid’ form of activism and the bolder, more risk-taking approach of younger activists fed up of a violent status quo immune to the tactics of older activists.

The newcomers were accused of being too angry, emotional and confrontational. Worse they had no qualms about lobbing profanities. But as singer Tanya Stephens, herself a survivor, retorted: “ The question is not why am I so angry. The question is why the f*%$ aren’t you?” To the criticism that the Tambourine Army was born out of an act of violence (what Global Voices called the bonking on the head of one of the accused with a tambourine) Stephens says: “Yes guys, the tambourine army was formed around an act of violence. That act of violence was RAPE.”

It was writer Kei Miller who neatly put his finger on what is important about Tambourine Army’s modus operandi.

“What is truly radical about the Tambourine Army and the #SayTheirNames campaign is not that a raping parson did get kuff by a tambourine, or that they took to the streets to march and make up noise, or that one of their leaders got thrown into jail. All of that is par for the course in social justice movements. So no. The most radical thing about this movement is the simple belief at the heart of their campaign. ‘I choose to believe you.’ Just that. So simple. If you are a victim of rape, and you come to me, ‘I choose to believe you.’”

In the meantime to quote Stella Gibson, the alter ego of Latoya Nugent, who was arrested under the Cyber Crimes Act for naming alleged sexual predators: “I stand with survivors because ‘enough is b0#$%&#@?t enough’.” To my mind the burning question we are left with is this: what exactly are we doing as a society when we penalize the use of words like’ f&^%#g’ while systematically deflecting punishment from the men f&^%#g underage girls and raping women?

See and blind, hear and deaf…

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The following is my unedited Gleaner column of March 22, 2017. Because it goes directly against the anti-Latoya Nugent and anti-#saytheirnames position adopted by the Gleaner this column wasn’t even shown in the Commentary lineup today (the sidebar showing columns published on a particular day), and you would have had to search hard to find it, very odd considering the number of views it has attracted. Anyway, thank the various gods for blogs…i can easily remedy the situation by posting it here.

The latest is that Nugent’s case which was to have been heard today has been postponed to March 31 because DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) Paula Llewelyn has announced ‘an interest’ in the case. We shall see when the time comes what this ‘interest’ means for issues of libel and defamation in cyberspace. Meanwhile the fate of Latoya Nugent aka as Stella Gibson on Facebook (the name of a hardcore police detective who’s an unapologetic feminist from the British show The Fall) hangs in the balance.

As I pointed out in an earlier column, Jamaican men cry rape every time women say, “Yes, let’s say their names.” A kind of hysteria breaks out because somehow they hear this as women demanding the right to falsely accuse men of raping them. But this is not what women are demanding at all, particularly in the new activism around violence against women.

According to Latoya Nugent, one of the founders of Tambourine Army, most of what has been said in both traditional and social media about the#saytheirnames movement is a damaging and gross misrepresentation. She clarifies that the movement is emphatically not about recklessly calling names without any context:

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When we encourage survivors to say the names of perpetrators we are not telling them where to say that name, when to say that name, we are telling them that if they are ever ready to say the names of their perpetrators in private and/or in public that support is available. Whether you want emotional support, psychological support or legal support, it is available for you. I want folks to appreciate that this is about facilitating the empowerment of survivors and about shifting the blame and shame away from survivors and placing it squarely at the feet of perpetrators and institutions which have allowed folks to abuse their positions of authority and trust because they are aware that we as a society silence our victims and our perpetrators. Our first response when a woman or girl says to us that they have been sexually assaulted or raped is that we don’t believe them and #Saytheirnames is about saying to such women, ‘we believe you, if you decide to come forward we believe you, we will provide the support that you need and if we can’t provide it, we will point you to the entities, or the agencies or the individuals who can give you the support that is needed.’ (Transcribed verbatim from an interview with Nationwide’s Cliff Hughes the day before Latoya Nugent was arrested)

Basically there has been a ‘see and blind, hear and def’ or “see not, hear not, speak not” policy in place in Jamaica for decades. There is widespread buy-in from civil society, the media, the Church, the University, the legal fraternity, you name it. It is enforced by an army of prim citizens, whose first reaction when you speak out about an injustice is to raise their finger to their lips in the universal gesture that means ‘halt your speech’ or ‘stop your noise’ as they say here.

People are socialized to believe that it is fundamentally wrong to ‘call someone’s name’ in public, especially in the media. This should only be done after accusations have been proved in court they say. But court cases take years to be completed in Jamaica and even when they do, often fail to deliver justice. Take the case of the Reverend Paul Lewis, accused of raping a 14-year old girl in Sav-la-Mar, in the presence of another 14-year old girl who testified in court to the rape. Despite the Reverend’s semen being found on the child’s underwear, despite the testimony of an eyewitness, a Jamaican court saw fit to hand down a ‘not-guilty’ verdict.

More often than not rape victims don’t report the crime or give up during the extremely painful, invasive process of going to court to prosecute their attackers. A senior lecturer at UWI says: “I’ve watched helplessly while one of my (now former) students went through 4 years of appearances, delays, and postponements in the courts for the prosecution of two young men whom she had been able to identify as being among her assailants in a gang rape. She eventually decided to pull out of the case. As she put it, they had taken enough of her life, and every time she was required to make another court appearance, she relived the experience. She needed to move on. Justice denied. I wish the perpetrators could be named.”

“Every year, an average of 5,500 people are reporting sexual violence to Canadian police, but their cases are dropping out of the system as unfounded long before a Crown prosecutor, judge or jury has a chance to weigh in,” reports the Globe and Mail. The use of the term ‘unfounded’ to describe cases that the police have dropped due to the inadequacies of their own methods of interviewing victims, taking statements etc has been identified as highly problematic. The article goes on to state:

“True unfounded cases, which arise from malicious or mistaken reports, are rare. Between 2 per cent and 8 per cent of complaints are false reports, according to research from North America, the United Kingdom and Australia.”

There is no reason the numbers would be markedly different in Jamaica. Why then the moral panic about the mere possibility of libel in cyberspace? And why is there not a similar outcry about the out-of-control rape culture here?

‘Tis the Season to Protest

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Correction: This teach in was on Feb 17 which was last week. No wonder the Gleaner removed the information. Mea culpa…have made the necessary adjustments to tense.

It’s time to resurrect Active Voice. My column in the Gleaner today was pruned of most of the last 2 paragraphs which talk about the planned Teach-in at UWI this Friday concerning the review of the Sexual Offences Act (#SOAReview). Since this is a very important example of the kind of citizen participation I’m talking about, I thought it important to carry the unexpurgated version on my blog.

My first visit to the United States since Donald Trump became president of the country was uneventful. New York City was bustling with activity as usual, as was the conference I attended. The College Arts Association is the largest association of art professionals in the US–including artists, art historians, critics, curators, art writers and publishers. Their annual conference attracts 4000 attendees and each of 5 time slots a day might have up to 18 concurrent panels. The mammoth conference runs for four days.

Landing at John F Kennedy airport in the afternoon there were no lines at immigration. In fact everyone had to scan their passports at kiosks, then photograph and press their fingers on screens themselves before proceeding to an actual agent who engaged minimally to retake fingerprints and photographs. Kiosks are always unnerving, even for someone as technologically literate as I am so i wondered how others with less experience were faring.

Then I was off to my airbnb room in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, by public transport, the air train to–where else–Jamaica, in Queens, and then the E train which took me within a block of my accommodation. Unlike hotels, airbnb accommodation in the city might often be in 3-or 4-storied buildings without elevators so packing lightly is a must. My room turned out to be very comfortable though i never fail to be amazed at how constrained for space many New Yorkers are. I had never seen such a tiny bathroom till then. My hosts were incredibly thoughtful and pleasant which more than made up for the cramped quarters.

On the up side i was in the middle of an avenue of good restaurants, a block away from Broadway with all its glitz and glitter and a healthy walk from the Hilton where the conference was. What are conferences and why do people go to them? Those who pooh pooh them disregard the exchange of knowledge, ideas and concepts that occur at such events. The world is not a mechanical place: beneath the technology, the geopolitics and the surface of the societies we inhabit, lie webs of ideas, theories, and hypotheses.

Knowledge is a communal enterprise, not the product of individuals sitting cocooned in their castles. The cross-fertilization that occurs simply by listening to new points of view on the same subject you might be researching is invaluable. The arc of the scholarly enterprise may be long but it bends towards insight. And insight is essential in these dark times.

An unusual addition to this conference was a wall of protest for people to display posters and slogans on behalf of their cause, whatever that might be. Quite a few of them addressed the Trump presidency. Jostling a sign for the Society of Contemporary Art Historians was one saying, “Trump is the symptom, capitalism is the disease.” “Germans against walls and white nationalism” announced another. “NOT MY PRESIDENT”. “This is not normal”. “Make American kind again.”

One of my favorites just said TRUST WOMEN. On the eve of possibly having a female police commissioner for the first time, and a few weeks before March 11 when the Tambourine Army plans to mobilize women onto Kingston’s streets to protest the unremitting violence they face this is a good slogan for all of us.

The Tambourine Army is asking people to wear purple on March 11 and join the protest. “Bring your friends, your family, your colleagues, your neighbours and let’s march in solidarity as one Jamaica against sexual abuse, against rape, against all forms of sexual violence against our women and girls.”

Also on Friday, February 17, the I’m Glad I’m A Girl Foundation partnered with UN Women and the Tambourine Army to host a full day teach-in on the Sexual Offences Act. A presentation on the Act and related Acts was made by Tracy Robinson (Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, UWI Mona) in the morning, and discussions with advocates about how folks can contribute to the current review of the Act followed in the afternoon.

Citizen participation is the name of the game, WE have to become the change we want to see. Purple is the colour of power, let’s put it on and take to the streets come. To all the men out there come show your support for us, with or without tambourines, on March 11 and we’ll reciprocate by joining the one for violence against men whenever you choose to organize it. Deal?