Last week I made numerous notes in my little red notebook (and on my beloved, hard-working Samsung Note smartphone!) and I realized that they seemed to revolve around a theme. A theme that is ever-present, almost a backdrop to our lives. It reminds me of those old movies, where the actors are pretending to drive along in a car. A constantly repeating moving background runs beside them, giving the impression that they are actually moving. But they are not going anywhere.
And we are not going anywhere on this road of life, are we? Not if we continue to treat crime and violence and injustice as the “norm,” and put compassion on hold. Here are just a few instances that have struck me deeply in the past week or two. There are many others. If I don’t write about them, they will overwhelm me. Please don’t expect me to uncover any profound truths, here; and I know these situations are incredibly complex. It’s just that there’s so much pain, and I need to recognize it.
- The United States: The #BlackLivesMatter campaign has been continuous, across social media and on the streets, for the past four years. It has its own website; it is on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and a Tumblr blog. Its key principles are: Dignity, Justice and Respect. Did you know the campaign was started by a woman, a community activist in Oakland, California named Alicia Garza? She wrote a piece on Facebook after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, ending it with the words “black lives matter.” Patrisse Cullors, a community organizer from Los Angeles, shared the Facebook post and put a hashtag in front of those three words. They resonated. Black lives mattered then, now and will continue to do so in the future. Now where from here? I just came across a new working paper – by the youngest tenured African American economist at Harvard University, Roland G. Fryer, Jr. – on racial bias in police use of force. The author says the study “takes first steps” into what he calls “treacherous terrain.” But we have to start figuring out what is going on here. What happens when a policeman confronts a black man, a gun in his hand and all the power of the State behind him – how could the policeman with the gun possibly say he feels “fear”? Fryer explores this question in his paper. Read the study here: http://www.nber.org/papers/w22399.pdf Fryer starts with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as relevant today as it was in 1963:
We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.
In the past week, video of the killing of Philando Castile (live streamed by his girlfriend, and on YouTube) emerged. I tried watching this, as well as the video of the murder of Alton Sterling. But I couldn’t. I instinctively turned my eyes away after a minute or two. You should watch it, I told myself, so you would know the cold horror of it, so you would truly internalize the grief and anger. Then the shootings of the five policemen in Dallas – men with families, with children. President Barack Obama (who looks increasingly oppressed and saddened) spoke in Dallas today. When talking about the prevalent racism in general terms, he simply said: “It hurts.” Some had rejoiced at the Dallas policemen’s deaths, and I understood why. Revenge is sweet, or so it seems. But these policemen had nothing to do with the deaths of Mr. Castile and Mr. Sterling. Still, I was shocked and saddened by a #sorrynotsorry narrative…and from some Jamaicans, too. Would they be gloating if five Jamaican policemen were killed? What is the matter with us?
- Which brings me to the Jamaican situation. Why do Jamaicans go on long rants about police abuses against blacks in the United States – and yet they don’t do the same for Jamaicans killed by the police? I have a real problem with this. There was so much anger over the killings of Mr. Castile and Mr. Sterling (especially on Facebook, where people can go on, and on, and on). But let me ask: Where is the anger about the four men killed by the police in St. Catherine a few weeks ago (including a sixteen year-old boy)? Does anyone know their names? I am not saying one shouldn’t empathize with one’s brothers and sisters, wherever they are, but what complex emotions are behind this? I suspect this is a kind of Schadenfreude – that weird feeling where one takes pleasure in someone else’s shame and grief – in this case, that of the United States.
But that still begs the question – why can’t we empathize with our own fellow Jamaicans in the same way? Indeed, those who do express concern – such as Jamaicans for Justice, who recently attended the annual community vigil for Jason Smith – are often ridiculed. They were probably bad boys, anyway, people say; these “bleeding heart liberals”! And who was Jason Smith? Oh, none of us would know that name. Jason Smith was fifteen years old when he was shot and killed by the police in a market stall in Spanish Town on July 9, 2002. He was a member of the lower classes. An uptown Jamaican is not going to get shot by the police; we know this. So our lack of concern may simply boil down to classism.
So, then there is the agonizing over a “high profile” murder – such as that of poor little Nevalesia Campbell, who was apparently left home alone with her twin brother while their parents went to a party. In this case, as is common with child murders, there is also condemnation and moralizing. A murder among the upper classes would also be high profile, but not half as common as the body of an unidentified man found on Waltham Park Road with gunshot wounds after “explosions were heard.” Those murder victims (mostly males in their 20s and 30s) were probably mixed up in something bad, in most Jamaicans’ view. There is a frisson when a woman is killed (especially when she is pregnant) – often by a partner or former partner; but probably not enough sensation to spark real outrage.
We soon get over these murders. Even the high profile ones don’t resonate for more than nine days. We’re used to it. It’s our repeating landscape, sliding along in the background.
- Elsewhere in the world, it has been grim. On Twitter last week, I saw a short clip of raging flames, their roar louder than the screams of Iraqis – mostly families and young people, out shopping on a happy Saturday evening at the end of Ramadan. It was a glimpse of hell on earth. Over 250 men, women and children died in Karada, Baghdad. The death cult ISIS (I will not call them Muslims) claimed responsibility. Having lost much ground militarily, ISIS has now turned to blowing up innocent civilians. Was there a #JeSuisBaghdad hashtag? No. Why was this? Was it too far away, or do we not care very much?
- Over in Kenya, I came across the hashtag #StopExtraJudicialKillings. Now, that one rang a bell. Allegations are rife that the Government has been sponsoring secret “death squads.” High Court lawyer Willie Kimani went missing on June 23, along with his client Josephat Mwendwa (who had been shot and injured by the police) and their driver. Their bodies were found a few days later. There have been widespread protests, and three policemen have been arrested; but this is a pattern of police abuse, killings and abductions over the years that has raised international condemnation. According to Kenyan political blogger and cartoonist Patrick Gathara, though:
“As a country, we are obsessed with the problems of politicians, and not those of the people. In the end, this obsession is the real reason why the…state of insecurity across the country will continue to fester once the immediate crisis has passed.”
How tragically familiar this sounds!
As one Kenyan put it on Twitter, both President Obama’s fatherland and motherland are in trouble. Nevertheless, in 2014, 129 Jamaicans and 199 Kenyans were killed by the police. Jamaica has a population of less than three million; Kenya over 44 million. You do the math.
- I must mention the tragedy of South Sudan. Celebrations for the fifth anniversary of Independence of one of the newest countries in the world were set aside for opposing factions to indulge in a bloodbath, in which over 270 died. A ceasefire is now in effect, called by President Salva Kiir and his rival, Vice-President Riek Machar, who are engaged in a power struggle. Many thousands have fled the violence, and it may be a return to civil war. Who knows? Power is sweet.
As someone put it on Twitter last week:
26 days since Pulse; 10 days since Istanbul; 5 days since Baghdad; 3 days since Alton Sterling; 2 days since Philando Castile; 1 day since Dallas
She concluded: #TheWorldHasLostIt
So where is the justice? As we know, Jamaica is the land of justice delayed and justice denied. I am sorry to sound cynical, but that’s just the way it is. And, it seems, we have all just gotten used to it.
The last word goes to Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castile. After the attack in Dallas, she said:
“Today is not only about justice, and getting justice, but it’s about all of the families that have lost people…This is bigger than Philando. This is bigger than Trayvon Martin. This is bigger than Sandra Bland. This is bigger than all of us. So today I just want justice for everyone. Everyone around the world. Not just for my boyfriend, and the good man that he was…”
It’s bigger than us.