Four days into a state of emergency declared by the government of Trinidad and Tobago to combat rising crime, the public's initial surprise and confusion over the emergency provisions — which include a nighttime curfew over most of the country's urban areas — have given way to closer scrutiny of the authorities’ strategy.
The Emergency Powers Regulations [PDF] now in force temporarily curtail various civil rights and give the police special powers to arrest and detain citizens without a warrant, as well as search homes and vehicles. The ostensible reason is to find and seize illegal firearms and detain criminals without witnesses being intimidated. But after three full days with these legal provisions in force, official figures suggest that fewer than two dozen firearms have been seized, and arrests appear to include mostly petty criminals, with no drug “kingpins” detained.
Senior attorney and former senator Martin Daly, interviewed on national television, summarised the thoughts of many: “the state of a emergency is the strongest weapon in the government's arsenal … you must have objectives that rise above the normal objectives … I have not seen any of these big objectives being accomplished.” (The interview has been widely circulated online, after being posted to YouTube.)
Online commentors echoed this view:
Others pointed out the surprising scarcity of law enforcement officers in some areas:
And claims that the state of emergency was already successful because of a sudden drop in violent crime were met, in at least one case, with sarcasm:
Blogger Jumbie's Watch also weighed in: “A State of Emergency declared and only small fries getting rounded up. Not one single white collar culprit.” Plainly Talking was even more harsh. “[Prime Minister] Kamla Persad-Bissessar has turned an entire nation against her and her government,” he wrote:
The business community is counting its losses in the millions of dollars, and the small man as usual is being hit the hardest. All businesses that exist for a “night” trade usually employ hourly paid workers who are not getting paid now because there is no work.
Strangeness and Charm mused: “Denying people civil liberties in the name of busting maybe a dozen more drug-runners a week is not the way to go.” He added:
Our parents and grandparents always talk about a time when “you could’a leave yuh door open and no body would’a break een yuh house”. To be honest, I never believed there was such a time, but if the past was at least close to that, this is a tremendous leap backwards in my opinion.
Meanwhile, opposition leader Keith Rowley, who has described the state of emergency as an overreaction, took to Twitter to suggest an alternative strategy, referring to bipartisan anti-gang legislation passed a few months ago:
And blogger Random Ramblings Rambled Randomly questioned the scope of the Emergency Powers Regulations and argued that circumstances do not warrant such a broad curtailment of basic rights:
So we have a State of Emergency with regulations which are not suited to the specifics of the circumstances surrounding the proclamation… that’s like having a political system without regard to the specific needs of the society… wait…
For ordinary citizens, it is the 9 pm to 5 am curfew that has the most immediate effect, with shops, offices and transport services needing to adjust their schedules. On Twitter, @globewriter remarked:
Feeling very Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest by way of Kamla Persad Bissessar. #SoETT
Forced to retire early to their homes, many are seeking entertainment online. @Buhwamoder noted:
Never see so much people online in meh life #stateofemergency
Jokes, humorous graphics, and spoof invitations to “curfew parties” are circulating widely on Facebook, where most of Trinidad and Tobago's social media activity happens in semi-private. Several comedy videos have popped up on YouTube, of varying degrees of actual humour and raciness, and D Beat Boyz have released a song and accompanying video, “Lockdown”, poking fun at the curfew.
Another YouTube user posted a now-infamous television interview between veteran journalist Dominic Kalipersad and attorney general Anand Ramlogan — in which Ramlogan threatened to leave the set and Kalipersad, live on the air, replied, “Don't be rude.” The retort has become a Facebook catchphrase, and musician ozymajiq has remixed audio clips from the original interview to create what he calls “Don't Be Rude (Extended AG Mix)”.
Other creative responses include “curfew fashion”: “I live in a hotspot” t-shirts, shared by blogger Copy Book Page.
Satire aside, it remains unclear to what extent the wider populace supports the government's state of emergency declaration. In an online poll set up by blogger ban-d-wagonist, 45 percent of the respondents were against the state of emergency and 25 percent for — with 13 percent apparently undecided and 15 percent voting for “Bring back Manning”, a reference to the former prime minister whose government was voted out of office in 2010.
However, some media coverage suggests there is broad support for drastic steps to curb a violent crime rate that successive plans and strategies over the past decade have failed to reduce. Public opinion of the Persad-Bissessar government's handling of the current situation will ultimately depend on the state of emergency's long-term effects. Blogger Guanaguanare, posting a classic song by calypsonian King Austin, makes a comment which perhaps summarises a widespread feeling:
Government of the people … we are trusting you to treat … us with care and reverence.
A Beginner's Guide to Building WMDs remarks:
All my usual objective non-patriotic nonsense aside I want to live in a peaceful country with leaders I can trust.
But he adds:
These last three days, I haven’t felt as though I do.