Notes From a Native Son: Do We have Any Shared Social Values?
Recently, two cases caught our attention. Divided by 1500 miles, cultures, legal systems, states of development, yet both cases have so much in common: the perceived criminality of teenage black boys, the perceived social dislocation of a marginalised member of a social class, and the class nature of the criminal justice systems.
In Barbados, a 52-year-old shoplifter, with a history of petty offences, was shot by an armed ‘security’ guard when he went stealing from a supermarket. He was sentenced to nine months. In Florida, a 17 year old teenage boy walking home from a 7-Eleven was targeted – racially profiled – by an over-zealous vigilante so-called neighbourhood watch ‘captain’, challenged, and shot ‘in self-defence.’
One jailed for being hungry and the other killed for being black. Welcome to the world of western liberal democratic criminal justice. Both these cases were the outcome of a fixed mind set, what the Jamaican intellectual Stuart Hall calls the steady drift in to a law and order society.
American society has its own problem, but I have raised the issue before and was taken to task when I said that there was no Caribbean or Barbadian jurisprudence or legal theory of worth. What was amazing about the case of 52-year-old David Blackman is that he was arrested, charged and brought before the courts within hours, while nothing appeared to have been done about the armed man. The apparent justification for the shooting is that when he attempted to apprehend the shoplifter he drew a knife and made to attack the guard and was shot in self defence.
Barbados has now become a gun-owning society, from the gated communities on the West Coast, to the Cattle Wash boys, to the boys on the block, all now carry guns. Even the security men delivering and taking cash from supermarkets now carry holstered guns – straight out of the US. This is more a reflection of the break down in law and order, the failure of the criminal justice system, that it is a true reflection of the increase in crime.
To my mind, it is clear that there is a prima facie case of attempted murder, wounding with intent, discharging a gun without legal reason, grievous bodily harm, actual bodily harm, discharging a gun in a public place. What the security guard could argue, in mitigation, is that he shot the man in his leg and therefore it was not attempted murder. But that would be a decision for a jury, to decide if it was murder or manslaughter.
One of the faultlines running through a dysfunctional criminal justice system is not only the number of wrongful convictions, but just as important, the abandonment of due process when the ‘victim’ is a member of a marginalised social group. The class-based perception is that such people do not deserve decent justice, that they get what they deserve, while, of course, others escape justice.
In the gated communities of the US, a black teenage boy – and there is a worldwide war against black boys – cannot be up to any good; his mere presence is a threat so, ipso facto, to kill him will be in self-defence. Equally, a hungry, dispossessed, middle aged black men, in a class ridden society itself living on the edge of being relegated to the social dump, becomes a target for middle class internalised fear of failure. Such people remind the middle class professionals of where they came from and where, with a bit of misfortune, they are likely to return. In a very good book, The Supreme Court on Trial, Professor George C. Thomas raises a number of key issues that can equally be applied to the legal system in Barbados.
What really exposes the underbelly of Barbadian justice is that there are no radical lawyers who step up to defend the principles of equality before the law, no one stepping forward to defend the rights of the marginalised and disenfranchised, no one who speaks out on behalf of the underdogs.
What we have are a small group of lawyers who like the court room drama, the theatre of cross-examination, of challenging the prosecution, of getting in the local newspapers. But, sadly, all that is done if the price is right. There is no pro bono work, not even by the students who would benefit most from it; no judicial interventions to assist people who are clearly in need of defence.
There is also the division of labour within the legal profession: the old solicitors versus barristers; litigation specialist versus corporate specialists; and, the catch-all generalists versus the well established, the old white practices versus the hard-up black ones. Intellectually, most Caribbean lawyers are not theorists and the vast majority – like lawyers in Britain – have had only one or two lectures in criminology and very few in legal theory before graduating. This is the gap between criminology, the sociology of deviancy and legal theory that needs filling. In the meantime, people who are mentally unstable, innocent teenagers, homeless adults and teenage mothers and other victims of a winner/loser society, pay the price of official ignorance.
Barbadian lawyers feel intellectually comfortable debating procedures, rules, motions, given their close proximity to statute law, case law, administrative law, etc. Thinking in the abstract is outside their comfort zone, it makes them nervous just in case they are wrong. What they fail to realise is that part of the construction of knowledge is that one runs the risk of being wrong; the challenge is to have an open mind. We now know that Zimmerman, the Florida gunman, behaving like the typical vigilante, had called police 46 times in a year, most of them for black youths. So it was not surprising when he claimed he acted in self-defence; I am sure the supermarket ‘security’ man also acted in ‘self-defence’.
Sadly, if Barack Obama or any of his senior black colleagues had walked in to Zimmerman’s gated community they too would have been perceived as a threat. Or, put simply, if any black person, no matter who he is, walks in to any of those West Coast gated communities, unless they could be identified, they run the risk of being shot by the heavily armed New Barbadians.
Since the mid to late 1980s, the Western World has been gripped by a so-called fear of crime, a deep psychological condition, bred in the US and spread virus-like around the world. From the fear of muggers, to drug dealers, to gangsters, to gunmen, to knifemen, to whatever the hysterical tabloid press dreams up next. As I said before, we are terrified of our young men. This fear is given intellectual cover through such bogus disciplines as victimology, the rapid expansion of criminology, of penology, of the sociology of deviance. The economics are not far behind: crime is growing, the disciples claim, so we need more officers, bigger courts, more technology, bigger prisons.
And the policy justifications are one step ahead: the so-called broken window theory, three strikes and you are out (Bill Clinton’s gift to western liberal democracy) – the theory of the broken society, the list goes on. Yet, in Britain and Barbados, crime is on the decrease, the people being targeted are black youths (in Britain and the US) and ordinary working class boys, and some girls (in Barbados).
All this – the bogus criminology, the flawed policies and the privatised prisons – are limp justifications to incarcerate huge sections of our communities and an inability to think of ways of integrating the marginalised in to mainstream society.
Part of the problem in Barbados is that we have a shared national mind-set, a belief that we are a small island and we can punch just as hard as the heavyweights; in short, we have a view of the world which is reinforced through all our major institutions, and no matter what, we are not going to change.
In fact, it is this mental stubbornness that acts as a barrier to new ideas and ways of doing things. In reality, what we see is the withdrawal of the well to do and middle class from the rest of the society: they live in their gated communities, come out in the morning and get in their 4X4 and drive their children to their prestigious schools, then go on to their offices where they socialise with people from similar backgrounds, then leave the office early to pick up their children to drive home to their gated communities.
They have no social connection with the real people, do not drive in ZR vans, don’t allow their children to mix with their class mates, and belong to exclusive clubs and societies. This development is the one global social development shared in almost every liberal democratic society. And, when ordinary working people have the temerity to come before them for jobs, or to live in their communities, or worse, to be sentenced, they vent their class hatred on them with inhuman prison sentences.
This is the post-independence Barbados.