“Strong, strong, strong.”
Millicent Forbes died yesterday. This is the word human rights activist Carolyn Gomes of Jamaicans for Justice used to describe her. She kept coming back to this word.
On April 18, 2000, Ms. Forbes’ thirteen-year-old daughter, Janice Allen, was at her gate in Trench Town, Kingston, when she was shot dead by a policeman. There is no doubt about that simple fact. What followed after that was a complex web of corruption, stuffy courtrooms, deception, meetings with lawyers, appeals and repeated rejections. It was like a spider web. The more she struggled and fought, the more the web seemed to tighten, ever so slightly; and there was a spider sitting quietly in the corner, just waiting for her to give up.
Yet she never stopped. Not for herself, but for her daughter and the memory of her, just starting to grow up, turning into a woman. She might have been a singer, a dancer, a nurse, a teacher. She would have always been just Janice, the daughter of a loving mother, and a sister too. She deserved to live and love and grow up, have children of her own. But that chance was carelessly taken from her.
In television footage, Ms. Forbes leans as far as she can with her whole body, across the plain grave of her teenage daughter, painted blue and white, embracing all that concrete. The tomb stood beside a road, where cars and people passed. She was dignified and alone in her grief.
For those of us who followed the slow, painful and increasingly weary journey of Millicent Forbes – and for those who walked with her and gave her support along the way – there was a growing feeling of inevitability. The end would come when all appeals were exhausted, after all the judges and prosecutors had handed down their rulings and walked out of the courtroom, got in their cars and driven home to their families. But it was what we call the “system,” not those functionaries, that finally defeated Ms. Forbes, and defeated Janice, and directed that the policeman should go free, for lack of evidence, in 2004.
Can a human being – a woman, from a poor part of town – really fight the abstraction that is the system? Although it is far from an abstraction; it is very real with its papers and its offices and its courtrooms. Ms. Forbes remained strong at her core. She stood up in countless public meetings and told those around her, and anyone who would listen, that she would not give up. She endured threats and sarcasm, bribery attempts – and the sneering and suspicion of those who, with their contempt for “those human rights people,” wished she would just keep quiet and bear her sorrow and her sense of injustice quietly, like other humble women of the inner city did.
But then, it was not their daugher who fell to the ground that day with a bullet in her brain. It was not their daughter who died in her sister Ann-Marie’s arms on the way to the hospital.
On April 13, 2010, almost exactly ten years after her daughter’s death (just think, she would be 23 now, the same age as the Petchary’s son!)Ms. Forbes’ final, faint hope was extinguished in the Supreme Court.
Was there anywhere else to turn?
Robert Browning wrote, “I count life just a stuff/To try the soul’s strength on.”
That’s all there is? Life is just a kind of test of one’s strength? Then, I guess one day, it will always be time to give it up.
Rest quietly now, Millicent Forbes.