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Carnival is peace – at a price


“Carnival is mas and music, Carnival is calypso,
Carnival is mas and steelband, Carnival is peace.”

In 1975, Becket sang his way to the Calypso Monarch with a spell-binding tribute to Vincy Mas. Becket is St Vincent and the Grenadines’ (SVG) greatest calypsonian, due in part to a voice of extraordinary range and a musical inventiveness that few in the Caribbean could equal. But part of Becket’s strength, however, rested on something much less remarked upon: a lyrical brevity that captures the fundamental reality about which he sings. His Carnival History provides one such example. Even as he glories in the revelry associated with Carnival, Becket insists, “Carnival is peace.”{{more}}

The St Vincent of 1975, however, is gone. The peace we took for granted in 1975 is not guaranteed in 2016. We were, in fact, a far more peaceful country then, than we are today. Nothing better illustrates this than the level of gun violence and the murder rate which our country has witnessed this year alone. In 1975, not a single person was shot and killed in the streets of Kingstown or any other streets for that matter. Today, the threat and incidence of gun violence have compelled us to use this page to urge the Government to employ all elements of state power, and particularly the police force, to return a sense of safety to all law-abiding Vincentians. And this was all the more urgent in light of the upcoming Carnival festival and the opportunities it offered for gun-toting criminals to despoil the premier cultural extravaganza of SVG. Becket’s “peace” needed to be protected.

The results are in. Vincy Mas 2016 has come to a glorious end. Tens of thousands of Vincentians took to the streets on J’Ouvert and Mardi Gras. And as the big trucks blared out Carnival music with ear-splitting power, revellers danced, sang, and consumed copious amounts of alcohol, surely providing plentiful work for those who distil and distribute alcoholic beverages and plentiful material for those who sing about rum. Next year, there will be another rum song. But in this maelstrom of mostly young, intoxicated, and dancing bodies, a rather astonishing fact emerges: only one person was shot; no one was killed; and very few serious crimes were reported. Against the backdrop of escalating crime in SVG, the peace of Vincy Mas 2016 rivalled that of Vincy Mas 1975 – even though the term itself was not yet being applied to St Vincent‘s Carnival.

The explanation behind this peaceful celebration of carnival can be summed up in two words: police power. This Carnival witnessed a tremendous projection of police power. It is certainly true that greater police resources have had to be deployed each and every Carnival. But this year, uniformed police officers were stationed at every corner in Middle Street, Bay Street, and Back Street. Scores of officers from the Rapid Response and Special Services Units mingled in the midst of the revellers and this heavy police presence had an impact: a precipitous decline in the incidents of violence and several arrests where police deemed it necessary to intervene.

The projection of police power, however, and the peace to be derived from this, should never be seen as a licence for the police to abuse law-abiding Vincentians. In fact, even law-breakers, once they are in police custody, have a right to the sanctity of their bodies and the safety of their persons. A person beaten by a criminal or a person beaten while in police custody is a person whose rights have been violated. In one case the violator is a private person. In the other the violator is the state. But in the instance of the state, this is utterly unforgivable, since the very role of the state is to protect its citizens, not to harm them.

Some of our police officers clearly do not fully understand the principle that the police have an obligation to let the courts determine the punishment to be meted out to convicted law-breakers rather than to administer physical punishment themselves.

To do otherwise is to obtain peace, but at a price – unlawful police behaviour. It is not the peace Becket envisaged. Nor is it the peace we seek.