By KEN CRICHLOW
Rubadiri Victor’s op-ed feature on gangs and the golden age had the advantage of timing. A couple of days in writing, it was published on the weekend after the freeing for lack of credible evidence, of the ‘Nelson St 21’. He reports the gangs include some 6,000 boys and their 60 charismatic leaders; incredibly, they are “secret societies – with initiation rituals, codes of conduct, and ways of dress”; the boys have heroes, whom they worship and try to emulate by applying abrasive systems of reward and punishment. More insidiously, “hillside communities” breed gang formation. Why? Because of the distance of young males ages 12- 27 from civic services and the “cultural civilizing centre” and “the gangs are a way of achieving wealth, status, women, belonging and meaning”.
Far from providing a practical perspective beyond the louder claims and counter claims about racial motivations, urban poor, unemployed, under-educated PNM supporters, this feature emerges as another ‘nancy story’, another retreat from reality. It is the recycling of a sentimental urban legend -the nation’s Golden age. A time arbitrarily chosen from 1930 -1950; a time when “the greatest human cultural inventions of the 20th century were created by young criminal boys!”; when Pan, Mas, and Calypso from ‘behind the bridge’ and gangs converted into orchestras, poets, inventors, and managers” – transformed society for the better”. Escapist fantasy when perspective is needed.
The most troubling question of our time finds resonance here: What is the “intelligence” on which Mr Victor’s assertions are written?
There is considerable hard evidence in the public domain that has not been ‘trumped’ by recent political action to ‘solve’ crime.
As long ago as 1981, Michael Leiber wrote of the social circumstances and outlook of Afro-Trinidadian urban men, identifying connections between the street as the sphere of social life in which ‘liming’ and ‘hustling’ set out the range of activities available to black, poor males in East Port of Spain. His research discussed in Street Life: Afro-American Culture in Urban Trinidad raised concern for the ways the ‘mainstream’ backed by political and legal authority have consistently “oppressed” and “subordinated” these men. Thirty years later, the ‘mainstream’ relying on the criminal justice system seeks to solve chronic problems of social immobility and worklessness. It is of interest that official action is taken only to avoid the blatant use of gun violence; in the immediate circumstance it is alleged to have been necessary to resolve conflict between the local representatives of international criminal networks. More recently in 2009, Dorn Townsend in “No Other Life: Gangs, Guns and Governance in Trinidad and Tobago” published by the Small Arms survey reports higher homicide rates are evident in 7 of the country’s 71 police station districts. The greatest danger has been in the Besson Street police station district in the suburb of Laventille. This old, congested area is mainly made up of one- and two-storey dwellings. The terrain is quite hilly and the roads are narrow. Some areas have no sewers or pipe- borne water except that from community taps located on the side of the road.
Not a shanty town, but hardly a tranquil setting, Laventille attracts immigrants from other Caribbean islands and many low-paid, unskilled workers. Although the national unemployment rate hovers around 5 per cent, in this area it is believed to be much higher, with many people only partially employed through Unemployment Relief Programme (URP) odd jobs.
The literacy rate is said to be about half the national average. Residents of these neighbourhoods represent something of an underclass for whom crimes pay better than legitimate jobs-if they could get them. Although only about 3 per cent of the country’s population live within the borders of the Besson Street police station district, the homicide rate there is 249 per 100,000 people, comprising about 24 per cent of the killings throughout the entire country. This grim fact is often overlooked outside the country; yet comparisons with other violence- ridden cities suggest that Port of Spain is among the cities with the world’s highest murder rates. Within Port of Spain, this violence is highly concentrated. Together, the seven police station districts around Port of Spain’s hillside suburbs (i.e. Laventille, Morvant, and Beetham) have yielded about 60 per cent of all the nation’s murders. (Dorn Townsend. No Other Life).
It is passing strange that the information – including maps of Gang Territories, the names and aliases of twenty-eight gang leaders in this research document was bypassed.
The real discussion of gangs and society is as urgent today as it was in the period 1930 to 1950, the alleged ‘golden age’. At that time, Trinidad and Tobago was in another economic depression. The Moyne Commission reporting on the “condition of life of the non-European populations” observes “the most serious problem in the labour situation is “the intermittent employment, both in towns and in the country”. It was next to impossible for the men to earn enough to support a family” with the result that women “have to work and cannot devote themselves to the maintenance and care of their children”. It was only the prevalence of ‘food gardens’ among estate labourers that mitigated the severity of conditions in rural areas.
Gordon Rohlehr in Calypso and Society writes of the routine censure and outright banning of calypsos -’the voice of the people’ and reflection of the thoughts of local storytellers and griots.
It was a time as well, when people could not vote. The franchise was limited by property and income qualifications: “Only male candidates able to read and write English were eligible for election. Members of the Council were unpaid, although a subsistence allowance of $5 was granted to the elected member for Tobago when attending meetings of the Council. Not until 1939 did unofficial members of the Council receive payment at the rate of $720 per year, which was increased to $1,800 in 1947 (an increase of over 100%) and again to $3,840 (another increase of over 100%) in 1949. (Eric Williams, History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago).
It is to be noted that due to the conditions of life in the ‘golden age’ labour totally shut down the country in 1937.
For one thing, persons who favor direct action to ‘solve’ crime must be concerned that police action remains skewed toward repression of the weakest among us. We may have returned to the ‘golden age’ in which the ‘small man’ is there to be snared while the ‘big man’ continues to be safe in his castle on other hillsides.This is no time for ‘nancy story’. This is a time is to meet the challenging endeavor of social history and transformation of the cultural geography in urban Port of Spain. Mr Victor’s op-ed feature on gangs and the golden age does not warrant a long response, except to say research in the public domain indicate there are other propositions about the emergence/persistence of (criminal) gangs in 21st century east Port of Spain.