Notes From a Native Son: Desperate Youths are Resorting to Shoot-outs as they Battle to Survive
Barbados is becoming like a war zone, with reports of shootings almost everyday by reckless and underemployed young men (they are almost always men). It is now taking on the characteristics of West Kingston in the mid-1970s when a surplus of arms fuelled the resentment of gangsters affiliated to the two dominant political parties. This aspect of Caribbean shootings has not yet raised its ugly head in Barbados, nor has the savagery of the murderous gangsters in Trinidad, although the choke and rob muggers of Guyana has been adopted by some Barbadian youths. In all this, the apparatus of law and order seems helpless, apart from a demand to better arm the policy and the unopposed willingness to put the Defence force on the streets and parading some of the West Coast beaches. It is a development that will eventually end in tears.
Crime and punishment is one of those subjects that have been raising people’s blood pressure since Adam and Eve. From the church to every man and woman at the street corner, we all have explanations for the break down in law and order. Those opposed to the drift in to a more repressive society (see: Stuart Hall: Drifting in to a Law and Order Society) are frequently forced to ask: whose law, what order. However, crime causation is the issue that pre-occupies most criminologists and criminal justice workers.
Why do some people, brought up under similar social and cultural circumstances, go on to commit serious (or even minor) offences, while their brothers, sisters and peers, brought up under similar circumstances, do not? It is easy to look for an answer in the individual’s unique circumstances; his/her psychology, physical make-up, DNA. Experts have given many explanations, from evil to alcohol, greed, poverty, social upbringing, education, and, recently, the re-emergence of eugenics.
But all are agreed that crime is a social construct which cannot be explained simply by religious laws or basic social explanations. In some societies, race is an important factor in why some people are suspected, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned. In fact, history is dotted with the execution of people – legally and illegally – simply because they were of the wrong ethnicity and in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Gender, Crime Mental illness:
Apart from the low educational scores of the vast majority of prisoners throughout the Western world, another feature is the low number of females who are imprisoned. Some have explained this away by claiming that the chauvinism underlying our society prevents the criminal justice system from even perceiving women as criminals. Others claim that when forced to commit crimes, women usually commit economic offences such as shoplifting, begging or more domestic crimes violence against an abusive spouse. However, that does not explain such historic female characters as Bonnie Parker, of Bonnie and Clyde notoriety, or Myra Hindley, of the Moors murders infamy.
The other fairly common feature of imprisoned people, both men and women, is mental illness. A very high percentage of prisoners are mentally ill, some obviously more so than others. This raises the question: is prison the rightful place for a mentally ill man or women?
There is a popular view that offenders who commit certain types of crime should not be eligible for parole or early release since most of them do not show any remorse. As usual, the reason why is never defined, apart from a general assumption that these crimes (often some types of violent and sexual offences) are so bad that the perpetrator has lost all right to be called human. The offender is more often than not a male. Such extreme punishments often border on the so-called biological, t hat the persona has suffered some illness, or his neurological system is such that he was incapable of self-control.
The way to confront growing street violence is not by arming the police, or travelling round in armoured vehicles, or by forming silly specialist squads with muscle-bound young men and angry women. Rather, it is by putting officers back in uniforms and getting them to walk the streets of Barbados, talking to people, knowing the people on their beat, tracking the villains and, when they step out of line, bringing them to justice. It is by not allowing anyone, no matter how wealthy, to be beyond the law; if the rich and famous do not obey the law, no matter where they live, bulldoze their doors and pull them out; if they refuse to come out peacefully, then surround their homes and blast them out. The American-influenced militarisation of civilian policing is based on a number of flawed premises and half-truths: that drug gangsterism is growing, that terrorism is a global threat, that ordinary criminals are resorting to arms in the execution of their criminal activity.
Analysis and Conclusion:
Whatever the criminological explanation, the brute reality is that Barbados has taken on all the features of the Wild West, with even teenagers reportedly having access to guns and ammunition. What is remarkable about this anarchy, is that the response of the law and order brigade is to give the police even more arms and to militarise policing by drafting the otherwise redundant and untrained Defence Force on the streets with high-powered weapons providing cover on everything from Crop Over to parading along West Coast beaches, as has been mentioned.
Although other cultures have ready access to guns, Switzerland for example, the readiness to use them to murder or maim appears not to be as common as the US. From the Columbine High School shooting, to Newtown, to everyday police shootings, the US is the home of the gunman. This Americanisation of Caribbean culture is a heavy price to pay for living in the US spheres of influence. In a macho culture, in which the fist and bull whip are no longer the first weapons of choice, it is obvious that for street fighters to maintain their reputations they must resort to more and more deadly weapons. It is an endless pursuit.
It will not be long before the street thugs have access to AK47s, Heckler and Kochs and other weapons more suited to the battle field then to the Edwardian streets of small Barbadian towns and villages, if they are not already there. If the state responds to gun crime by arming the police more heavily, then it becomes a game of poker in which the only loser will be the general public. America is a nation that cannot pull itself back from the brink of self-destruction. Just look at the political power of organisation like the Tea Party, the National Rifle Association, the ordinary guy in the Mid-west and below the Mason-Dixon line. They believe it is a constitutional right and, no matter what, they intend to use it. Even after the school and college shooting, those of senators and presidents, the nation is still unable to pull back. If for no other reason, the US can stand as a model of public policy decision-making to less mature democracies. Of course, it is not too late for Barbados, and the approach Barbados should take is to ban the holding of all weapons of any size in private hands. The only people allowed to legally to hold arms should be the Defence Force, the police and members of gun clubs.
For those people in gun clubs, all weapons and ammunition should be held under lock and key in the club; it should be made illegal to take weapons out of the security of the club without the approval of the police.
Strip all so-called licensed gun dealers, and those private citizens with licensed guns should have them withdrawn. There are those who will argue that criminals, including those in the illegal possession of weapons, would not necessarily hand them in just because the law states that. After all, they would put forward the moral hazard argument: that it is already illegal to have an unlicensed weapon and that does not stop the criminally inclined. Of course it does not. But with strong legislation, imposing tough, long sentences on those found in illegal possession of weapons, or threatening to kill or injure people with an alleged illegal weapon, the gamblers will realise they are taking a risk by either possessing or claiming to have illegal weapons. At the same time, the government should take steps to remove arms from non-state organisations, such as private policing organisations, such as G4S. By failing to strengthen the law against the illegal possession of firearms, and restricting ownership, the government is taking an unnecessary risk with public safety. Stricter legislation, better policing and tighter control of the containers coming in to the country – for example, searching them in the port in the presence of the firm or person for whom they are destined – would reduce the risk of gun smuggling.
The courts and director of prosecution’s office also need to respond with greater urgency in cases of shooting, both in terms of the speed with which cases come to the courts and the charges the accused faces. The gunmen in the urban villages such as New Orleans and the Ivy do not manufacture the guns they wield so brutally; the same people who sell them everything from hand-held pistols to sub-machines guns are the same who sell hungry Africans the most deadly of weapons.
The people who sell arms to gangsters in London and Paris via the internet are the same people who sell to guys in the Heights. The same people who have no moral compunction about not paying their national insurance and VAT are the same business people who smuggle guns in with their goods and produce. Do we honestly think that all those New Barbadians, those with their big yachts and access to private jets, visiting Barbados come here with empty hands. Although there is no suggestion of illegality, why is it that visitors to Sandy Lane have an underling taking their passports through immigration and their baggage often bypasses customs?
America is a society that is at war with itself, so it finds great pleasure in exporting its violence: from Hollywood to popular music, it defines its cultural, economic and military might through the ways these values have been absorbed by the rest of the world.
Such savagery should not define Barbados.