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The undeclared war


“There is an undeclared war which is claiming the lives of young people in the Caribbean, but no one seems to be taking any notice”.

[Participant in 2013 Assembly of Caribbean Policy Development Centre (CPDC)]

It ain’t sound good; it ain’t look good – it ain’t good. I am here referring to the tragic spate of killings of young people right in this tiny multi-island state of ours in the past few weeks. It is a situation that is scaring the hell out of many law-abiding citizens.{{more}} If one adds to these the several incidents of violence which have not resulted in fatalities, but are nevertheless serious acts of violence, then we all have very good reason to be alarmed.

More worryingly, these developments are not confined to SVG alone. If one were to take a glance right across the Caribbean, the violence and mayhem are all too recognisable. It may be worse in some countries than others, but basically it is the same, whether in Jamaica, St Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, or even Dutch-speaking Curacao, where a prominent politician was publicly assassinated recently.

It is because of this scenario that one participant at the recent CPDC Assembly in St Lucia was moved to make the statement quoted above about the “undeclared war” affecting our young people in the region. It was a sentiment shared by all the participants in the Assembly, coming from Suriname in the south to Jamaica in the north. Grave concern was expressed in that while raising alarm at each individual act of violence or murder, there seems to be little collective recognition of their implications. That is why the participant said that “no one seems to be taking notice”.

The Assembly as a whole endorsed this view, noting that while we seem to be paying attention to wars abroad, “the Caribbean is paying little attention to the war among young people, young men in particular, which is happening right on our doorsteps”. We get caught up in exchanging the photographs of the dead or murder accused, sharing the gory details, without reflecting on what is happening to our societies.

We are witnessing a volatile combination of young men lawlessly killing off one another, brutal, murderous attacks on young women, increasing conflicts between the law enforcement officers and the public. We, therefore, need to understand what all this is doing to our society, and to, (again to quote from the CPDC Assembly), “pay greater attention to the impact of crime and violence on the lives, chances, and opportunities of young people, especially young men in the Caribbean”.

We are losing our young men, needlessly, senselessly; we are disrespecting and abusing our women; we are succumbing to values which are eating away at the fabric of our society, undermining the respect for law and order, glorifying the resort to guns and violence and eroding the worth of hard work and thrift.

It is a situation for which no government in the region seems to have a solution. Not surprisingly, since any sensible response must involve the citizenry as a whole, a co-ordinated approach by governments and civil society organisations working in tandem. Without it, we are “in danger of losing the productive capacities of our young people, and, until we arrest this problem, we will be faced with what could become our biggest development challenge today”, (From CPDC Assembly).

Forty Years Ago

Writing about this “undeclared war” took my mind back some forty years ago. Last Saturday, May 11, was the fortieth anniversary of some earth-shattering incidents in St Vincent. On that date in 1973, our innocence as a people was rudely destroyed when in one night there was the fatal shooting of the then Attorney-General, Mr Cecil Rawle of Dominica, and on the same night there was an armed robbery, resulting in the shooting of a prominent businessman.

The challenge was an enormous one for our society, one which our Police Force was ill-prepared to handle. Previous to that, the gunning down of public officials was something we heard about from abroad, not here. It also had its political and social ramifications which rocked the entire society. All sorts of rumours and conspiracy theories abounded, and right up to today, there are people who profess to know of a supposed “plot” and who paid whom to kill Mr Rawle. Not one shred of evidence has been adduced to support the libellous allegations.

The long and short of the matter is that the police announced that the prime suspect in the case was a prominent member of the Black Power movement, Junior ‘Spirit’ Cottle, a colleague of mine and fellow-member of the organisation, BLAC, and embarked of a search for Cottle and two other named suspects, Lorraine ‘Blackie’ Laidlow and Marcus James.

Today, a lot of people remember the administration of the late Milton Cato as heavy-handed and prone to repressive acts. But, the aftermath of the May 11 incidents, saw a virtual ”undeclared war” unleashed on young men in the society, especially those affiliated to, or thought to be sympathetic to, the Black Power movement. It was not Cato’s government responsible, but the Alliance government of James Mitchell, then premier, and Ebenezer Joshua.

Wild allegations were made on the radio about a plot to “overthrow the government”. There were even claims that a death-list was found with the names of some 20 prominent citizens, who were earmarked for assassination. A reign of terror descended on the Bottom Town area; several young men were rounded up and detained for days without charges. Some were beaten to try and extract statements to be used against the suspects. These included the brother of the late Caspar London. A community-enhancement project being implemented by BLAC was destroyed, as were drums, reminding one of the responses of slave-owners and colonial administrators in seeing the drum as a “threat”. An unofficial curfew was put into effect and police forcibly prevented the holding of the first-ever African Liberation Day activities.

Unpleasant memories of how the rights of citizens can be trampled by the state in its own “undeclared war”!

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.