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Authorities’ response to social unrest in Trinidad & Tobago raises debate about police power and public trust

Riot police at the St. James Amphitheatre in Trinidad during the Drummit2Summit protests on April 18, 2009. Photo by Georgia Popplewell on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

After officers from the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) shot and killed three men in the disadvantaged community of Morvant on June 27, there were widespread street protests and accusations of their deaths being extrajudicial.

Although the officers involved have since been placed on administrative duties, the unrest has prompted ongoing discussions about the powers and role of the police, further exacerbated by a July 1 front-page photo in the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday showing heavily armed police pinning a protestor to the ground. One of the officers, in a tactic that echoed the manner in which George Floyd was killed, was caught pressing his knee onto the protestor's neck.

A history of aggression

Such abuse of police power was put into historical context by Facebook user Tillah Willah, who shared a photo of a slave cell she had visited on July 3, an experience she described as “an interesting way to end a week of intense rage and reflection on what it means to have a police force:”

Consider the fact that the TTPS was first set up in 1592 to protect the property of people who were holding people as property. That the Police Force was essentially formed to protect Spanish interests against the First Peoples. Consider that during the 300+ years after, all plantations had their own security/policing systems to protect their property, including the humans that they owned. Consider that after full Emancipation in 1838, the police force was disbanded in 1839 for reorganization and reopened in 1841 to protect plantation owners from loss of property, that is, to stop the people that they legally owned a few years before, from stealing their property. This is of course after they were given compensation for the loss of their human property.

So at its root, the police force, was not set up to protect and serve the population at large. The criminalization of the bodies of Indigenous, Africans and Indians is built into the DNA of the police force. […] Which came first, the idea of criminality or the idea of who is a criminal? That’s the question I’d really like to get an answer for.

Similarly, many social media users shared journalist Sunity Maharaj's musings on the history of revolution in the region:

It took rebellion and rioting, not a sense of justice, to restore our humanity from enslaved property and to inch us forward from people without rights to full citizenship, even if only in name for too many in Morvant, Laventille, Beetham and Sea Lots, to name a few. […]

In the pantheon of that first civilisation of Caribbean leaders were men and women of extraordinary courage, intelligence and deep love and understanding of this land. Their heroic stand against European invasion is the first volume of the Caribbean's epic story of travail and triumph.

Language matters

The purpose of the police, centuries later, is still at loggerheads with the purpose of protest — and netizens are connecting the dots.

The issue of language quickly reared its head: Not only has Police Commissioner Gary Griffith been known to use words that belittle and humiliate, referring to criminals as “cockroaches,” he has defended his decision to do so by saying that his words are intended to protect his officers and reassure law-abiding citizens.

Podcaster Franka Philip, however, saw it as much more far-reaching:

The language used by some of our leaders to describe criminal elements has infected many and now they describe all people from particular areas in those pejorative terms. This disturbs me. When we stop respecting people's humanity, we have a huge problem.

As if to underscore the point, university lecturer Amilcar Sanatan shared a series of quotes on Facebook — brutal in their starkness and honesty — from people living in such depressed communities. For example:

These protests is about identity and respect. We poor and we might not be as great in academics and everything and we have wrongdoers but we are people. We mean something. We are people.

Facebook user Marcus Skinner also stressed that for progress to happen, language usage must change:

Watching the incidents that took place today and the reactions I saw across the social spectrum of ‘these violent animals…troublemakers…good for nothings…vermin…I bet their mothers are going to say they were good boys…never hurt anybody'…I have to stop and weep
I’d like to say first and foremost these are human beings […]
We are looking at symptoms of a problem
A deep, difficult and longstanding problem
And we are blaming the victims [and] if we don’t stop missing the god damn point
It’s not going to be the last time we see it.

The position of the state

Another aspect of the unrest that got people talking was Minister of National Security Stuart Young's suggestion that citizens from disenfranchised communities were being paid to stir up unrest.

While some felt this might be plausible considering that Trinidad and Tobago's general elections are carded for August 10, others felt that Young's assertion negated both successive government's roles in the neglect of such communities as well as the agency of the protestors.

Rapso artist Wendell Manwarren noted that this approach “comes straight out of the colonial playbook:”

The recent words coming out of the mouths of the Commissioner of Police and the Minister of National Security is serious cause for concern. To describe people protesting and demanding justice for the killing/'murder’ of Joel Jacobs, Noel Diamond and Israel Clinton as ‘enemies of the state’ and ‘criminal elements…being paid to create disturbance’ With a ‘well orchestrated plan to destabilize the country’ is to seek to demonize and discredit a sector of the national community that continues to be regarded as less than and spoken down to and treated in a heavy-handed manner by those sworn to serve and protect us all from abuse of power.

History repeats itself

One of the most disconcerting aspects of the issue is the fact that the story is not new. In a passionate post, Facebook user Keston K. Perry attempted to dismantle the causes:

So another 3 black men killed right? Joel Jacob, Noel Diamond, Israel Clinton have now lost their lives to the systemic racism and oppression that is poverty, hardship, overpolicing, corporate and political corruption in Trinidad and Tobago. 43 people lost their lives to police shootings this year alone, most of whom were Black. […]

It's because in a society like Trinidad and Tobago, some people's children are more valuable than others. Black people's children especially if you live in certain areas and you don't look, speak or appear a certain way, your life is of no value to the state or to the corporate elites that fund the political office holders who are beholden to them and would not act against their corruption.

Criminologist Renee Cummings, meanwhile, suggested a few justice-based solutions:

We must invest in — not alienate — underserved and vulnerable communities. We must also invest in efforts to amplify the voice of civil society to accelerate change and reimagine police/community relations through robust public engagement and programs that build community resilience. […]

We need to discuss disinvestment within the context of discrimination and the painful interconnected challenges of intergenerational trauma, poly-victimization and a list of co-morbidities which includes police violence. A granular examination is required of the policies of separation and social isolation and how we have historically quarantined some communities, pre COVID-19, with prejudice, policing and politics. Justice brings closure and the lack of it leaves open wounds. The absence of a trauma-informed approach to criminal justice is like rubbing salt in those open wounds. Trust and transparency are required for police legitimacy, without them there’s no confidence in the justice system.

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