Who could have been surprised by the recent riots in and around Port-of-Spain? Anyone who has looked at the decline of the society, the failure of successive governments to fix the growing urban underclass, and the loss of confidence in the nation’s institutions would know this was bound to happen, and there is more to come.
T&T and the Government cannot continue to pretend that all is well and that the people of Laventille, East Port-of-Spain, including Beetham Gardens and Sea Lots, are merely outcasts to be shunned by the rest of the society. And that those areas must be considered crime hot spots, and residents must feel the full brunt of the law when they attempt to step out of their communities and challenge safer zones.
There is an underbelly in the society that has seen governments and institutions fail them, that view the police as enemies, that feel they can settle scores amongst themselves, that think they live in their own world because the rest of the country either does not care to treat with them or that their lives become irrelevant because their ‘order’ is determined by the strongman or strong woman who has emerged as the proverbial don on the streets.
Let me, at this stage, make it clear, that the behaviour we witnessed on Monday was completely unacceptable and anyone involved in breaking the law should be dealt with. We must be a society governed by laws and the rule of law must prevail.
At the same time, we must recognise that if we have a society where the State has lost control of areas, where those areas have ceded to strongmen and women, where crime is a part of life, and where there is no hope that institutions can work for them, then we are in trouble.
All of us must take responsibility for this! The private employers who refuse or are reluctant to hire people from depressed areas, the public and private providers of utilities and services that leave these areas underserved, and the government agencies that failed to provide the kind of infrastructure that can help enable communities to develop and grow. The HDC and its forerunner that appeared not to understand proper housing helps enable better academic performance and quality of life must also shoulder the blame. The Government and political parties use make-work programmes to try and stay in power or keep the communities quiet, while they choose not to encourage business, self-sufficiency, and entrepreneurship as the way forward. The educational institutions that are unwilling to accept people from certain areas in the best primary schools, and even some teachers who are reluctant to work in depressed communities, are all reasons for the failure of these areas.
It was only two months ago that I wrote in this very space an article titled ‘PM, what about the people of East PoS, Laventille?’
In the article, I reminded Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley that it was now two years since he announced that he had set up a Community Recovery Programme team to help reconcile differences within troubled communities that were then involved in protests in Port-of-Spain.
At the time, the Prime Minister said he saw it as an appendage to the National Roadmap to Recovery plan.
“It’s recovery we’re aiming for,” Rowley had said at a media conference, as he announced psychologist Anthony Watkins would head the team.
In the same article, I added, “Crime, of course, is multidimensional, but it is also clear that the inner-city communities, where opportunities are often limited because of a lack of sufficient access to services, including high-quality schools, utilities and respect for the society, all contribute to the generation of a feeling of them versus us, and a rationalisation for anti-social behaviour.
“It also encourages the emergence of strongmen and women, aka community leaders, who provide the breach in leadership that the Government and institutions leave in these communities. It is why the PNM which, for more than 65 years, has gotten much of its sustenance from these areas, has a responsibility to solve some of the myriad of social and economic problems of East Port-of-Spain and Laventille because it cannot just look on and leave the report on the shelf to gather dust.”
I was warning that the unresolved issues in these areas will lead to less and less safety for the capital city and the rest of the country.
The police-involved shooting on Saturday and numerous other similar events may have been a catalyst for the latest protest, but it is not the source of the problem. It is a lack of confidence that there will be justice. It is a lack of confidence in the criminal justice system, and this plays out in many ways, not the least of which is the sense that justice is better served through the barrel of the gun.
It is also a reality that increasingly the PNM has become irrelevant in the lives of its traditional supporters and has little influence on the cohesion of the communities.
This is perhaps not surprising as they have witnessed the aloofness of the Government led by a Prime Minister who feels he does not have to tell the country when he was planning to return, having spent a month in the US, who could refuse to answer questions from legitimate journalists because he is toting feelings from a headline in a story written years ago. It is that kind of hubris that assures the rest of the society that the leader of the Government cannot and will not do anything to deal with the structural problems of those who vote for the party and that they can be taken for granted and can be bought and sold for a mess of pottage.
This has real implications for business in the capital city. How can we revive POS or even make it survive if there is the constant risk of being shot, robbed or even attacked by the homeless? How do we get commerce in a city where people will not venture after six and where no one wants to live because they do not wish to be victims of crime? In case the Government does not know, downtown PoS cannot be rejuvenated unless you fix East Port-of-Spain.
The capital city should be a place where outdoor restaurants and sidewalk cafés are mixed with shopping and entertainment. We do ourselves and our economy a real injustice by not working hard towards fixing the challenges of our urban centres.
As I end for today, I cannot avoid saying a word about the former deputy head of the Business Guardian, Joel Julien. For the last three years, readers of this publication would have read his articles and sometimes his views.
Joel’s unique storytelling ability and headline writing has been an unbelievable asset to this publication. While you will not get to read many more stories in this space from him, it is no surprise that he has been promoted in the organisation so that the wider newsroom can benefit from his wisdom and skills. His promotion is an example that true talent must rise to the top.