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?

‘Nah mek dem win’: The rise of the Tambourine Army

The following is the unedited version of my March 15, 2017, column in the Gleaner

March 11, 2017. Tambourine Army’s emotionally charged, moving survivors’ march from the Moravian Church at 127 Molynes Road to Mandela Park in Half Way Tree Square was one of several held across the Caribbean that day. It was probably also the most heart-wrenching one, organized as it was mostly by survivors of rape and abuse, for many of whom this was a cathartic experience. Impressive also were the number of men who participated in this 700-strong march, a record number for non-political or religious public protests in Jamaica.

Heralded by dissension on social media and fallout with earlier generations of feminist activists the Tambourine Army nevertheless prevailed on March 11, their well-orchestrated, rootsy, Rasta drum- and pan-driven procession moving at a nimble pace through the streets of Kingston. Led by flag woman Taitu Heron, gloriously clad in Orisha-inspired white and expertly manipulating a large white flag in front of purple-clad marchers the procession packed quite a visual punch. Such a pity that neither of the two TV stations in Jamaica seemed to be there (recalling the famous words of Gil Scott-Heron “The revolution will not be televised…”) so that it fell on social media to disseminate the colourful images.

A truck with a sound system accompanied the procession, pumping out the doleful but mesmerizing song ‘Nah Mek Dem Win’ with lyrics telling an all too familiar Jamaican story. Young girl being abused by her father, tries in vain to bring it to the attention of her family, yet:

Mama neva listen
Aunty neva listen
Mi try tell mi sista but…. She neva listen
But this is healing time…
An you don’t have to do it on your own
Just Stan Firmm.

Nah mek dem win
Nah mek dem win…

Keisha Firmm, author and singer of ‘Nah mek dem win’ is the survivor of a horror story herself. After her mother’s death her relatives sent her to England to live with a man who claimed to be her father. The inevitable happened leaving young Keisha full of anger and pain with nowhere to turn for help. Questions kept swirling through her mind. Why had this happened to her? How could society leave children to the mercy of predators with no protection whatsoever? Would she ever be normal again?

I asked her how participating in the march had made her feel. Less empty, said Keisha, less alone. A student in UTECH’s USAID-funded Fi Wi Jamaica arts residency programme, sharing her story and turning it into song has been therapeutic for Keisha, who hopes that it will help other young women like herself. During the march the truck would stop along the way allowing different survivors to share their stories, the singer Tanya Stephens, among them.

Leading the march, right behind the flagwoman, was a row of black clad women, in armour-like. outfits. They were members of En Kompane, the dance troupe started by virtuoso dancer Neila Ebanks. When the procession reached Mandela Park to find that the generator had packed up and there was no sound, the rag tag live instrumental band struck up and Neila danced a powerful ‘cutting and clearing’ dance.

Cutting and clearing space for themselves was what this march was about for the women and men who participated in it. The unseemly pre-March kass kass between older feminists who should know better and younger activists whose zeal and passion at times made them hotheaded and confrontational was unfortunate. The public’s apathy made me realize that there’s no culture here of holding protest marches, or protests generally. The Immediate response of too many is—what is a protest going to achieve? They miss the point. For the victims of abuse who participated the march was part of the healing process. For others like artist Deborah Anzinger, who brought her 6-year old daughter, it

“…felt like a valuable step and exercise. As children we never learned of organized demonstrations/protesting as an option for us to show disapproval of any social problem. It felt good introducing this to our daughter and her friend. It was an opportunity to talk to them about how far we’ve come towards basic equality and human rights for all people and how much further there is to go.”

I’ll close by quoting Kashka Hemans whose Facebook status said it all:

“… Respect where respect is due. I’d like to congratulate the Tambourine Army on their fearless and, in many ways, peerless activism in the cause of ending gender-based violence in Jamaica. I am discomfited by some of their strategies and harbour doubts about the long term effectiveness of the contestational stance they have at times taken but, you know what? So what? I stand with them on the basis of what they stand for. I also stand with others who represent a more staid approach to activism. There is space and a need for many voices and approaches. But the present moment belongs to the Tambourine Army, they are giving a platform to many women to tell their stories, to vent, to ‘gwaan bad’ and cuss claat in a country where claat cussing is the only language many in officialdom seem to understand. More power to you sisters, may your movement grow in strength and impact.”