Wed | Jan 19, 2022

Orville Taylor | SOE what?

Published:Sunday | November 28, 2021 | 12:11 AM

There is no question at all that there is a crisis in homicides in this country. Up to the end of last week, the increase was 12 per cent more than the past year, with some of the killings taking on a level of brutality and scale, beyond the...

There is no question at all that there is a crisis in homicides in this country. Up to the end of last week, the increase was 12 per cent more than the past year, with some of the killings taking on a level of brutality and scale, beyond the imagination. Indeed, it tempts me to wax religious and state that the devil and his minions are walking among us; literally.

Last Thursday in the Senate, despite the pleas and arguments from the government senators, the Opposition voted to discontinue the state of emergency (SOE) declared on November 14. Livid perhaps, but criminal lawyer, President Tom Tavares-Finson, was not amused. “On a knife edge” we are, he says, and lamented that, “three unelected members of this Senate have put this country in grave danger”. He then called on civil society to sanction the Opposition for their approach to the issue.

As I stated last week, the law allows the Government to call the SOE based on its majority. The same law empowers the Opposition to do exactly what it is doing. Thus, inasmuch as their action might feel like haemorrhoids, this check and balance must be respected. In his wisdom, late former prime minister and leader of the governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), Edward Seaga, piloted and introduced the very safety valve which is preventing Tavares-Finson from sitting comfortably. Seaga knew exactly what an untrammelled government can do.

In my view, any initiative from government, which attempts to suspend the Constitution or any elements of citizens’ fundamental human rights, must have unanimity. True, there are times when the elected and selected members of the Houses seem to conspire to remove rights in an Apocryphal way. For example, few are willing to admit that the 1968 ban of University of the West Indies (UWI) lecturer, Walter Rodney, had the support of the then Opposition People’s National Party (PNP). Indeed, even the American government, with its own civil rights struggles occurring concurrently, was unimpressed by our behaviour, describing the Government as “prone … to take suppressive and harassing action … where the basis of arrest and conviction is uncertain or likely to be unpopular”.

CONSTITUTION AMENDED

We might have not noticed, but in 2011, the Constitution was amended based on the recommendation of a bipartisan committee. Two ‘labour’ parties, built on the back of the working class and trade union movement, conspired to remove Section 23. Now missing, the erstwhile section read, “Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of peaceful assembly and association, that is to say, his right peacefully to assemble freely with others and in particular to form or to belong to trade unions or other associations for the protection of his interests.”

Still, my question is: is the Opposition playing ‘politricks’ or is there a genuine concern? After all, it is on a sticky slope, because according to the Don Anderson polls, there has been consistent support among the electorate for sustained states of emergency, reaching over 70 per cent last August, when the homicide rate was lower. At the time some 66 per cent supported SOEs being used as long-term fighting tools. Therefore, taking an unpopular path might very well be a very good strategy for securing its tenure on the minority side of the House.

Then again, inasmuch as they are popular choices, what is being measured is the acceptance of the use of SOEs in particular areas and communities; not nationally. Although not a gambling man, I would bet my last pay cheque that a national state of emergency, which allows ‘Sojie’ to kick down my door in Norbrook, or pepper-spray my Rottweiler to gain access to my house in Hope Pastures without a warrant, or to stop my slightly melanised English-speaking UWI student son, would not be supported. We support SOEs unthinkingly, because we never think those ‘others’ could be ‘us’.

Yet, if we are serious that we need additional powers in the hands of the police and military, then it must be not limited to the inner city or vulnerable crime spots. True, anecdotal evidence is that at least in one police division, there has been a pause in homicides during the short period of the SOE, but we need greater evidence of their long-term success. Doubtless, in some less democratic nations, citizens are unfree to move between regions without being tracked or given permission. However, all that our gangsters need to do is to move to other communities where there are no SOEs; and we have more than circumstantial evidence of gangsters being bedfellows with ‘decent’ upper (middle) class residents.

For all the grandstanding, one-upmanship and bullying, our parliamentary process forces the leaders to agree on the fundamentals. The law will not be changed out of expedience. Never mind the colour of the members; the Houses do not recognise JLP or PNP. If we do not arrive at a respectful consensus based on the common goal of reducing violence; then ….

You finish it!

- Dr Orville Taylor is head of the Department of Sociology at The University of the West Indies, a radio talk-show host, and author of Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.