Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Black men face police violence north of the border too

Originally Posted on: ricochetmedia.ca
December 30, 2014

No doubt the names Michael Brown and Eric Garner ring a bell for people who follow current events. Both men were murdered by police in the United States, with grand juries declining to indict the officers responsible.

These displays of police impunity led to widespread protest throughout North America. Indeed, outrage north of the border led several thousand Torontonians to loudly demonstrate outside the U.S. consulate to denounce the Michael Brown verdict.

But what about Jermaine Carby?

Likely most Canadians have not heard of this young man’s untimely death, though his murder by Peel Regional Police parallels the better known case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The response to the deaths of local, unarmed black men such as Carby has not been comparable to the outrage and mobilization triggered by incidents south of the border. This needs to change now.

The death of Jermaine Carby

On the night of Sep. 24, Jermaine Carby was shot and killed by Peel police during a traffic stop in Brampton, Ontario. Carby was riding in a black Jetta that was pulled over near Queen and Kennedy. Within moments the officer had activated an emergency switch, calling for backup.

Eyewitnesses reported that Carby exited the car with his hands up, in what can only be assumed to be an attempt to show the police officers that he was unarmed and not a threat. As one eyewitness stated to CP24, “He had his hands up… saying ‘What?’ to the cops and he started walking towards them.” She added, “As I drove by, I didn’t get to look back but I just heard gunshots, like five gun shots.” It has also been reported that Carby’s lifeless body was handcuffed by police.

Richard Applebee, another eyewitness who spoke to CP24, heard police tell Carby to drop a knife but did not see a weapon in Carby’s hands. “He walked slowly towards them with both arms stretched,” Applebee remarked. “I was too far to see a knife. It might have been small.”

To date, the officer involved in the shooting has not been named, and information on the shooting has been scarce. Carby’s family and their legal counsel have asked for any evidence revealing that Carby was armed at the time of his death, as well as the identity of the driver of the vehicle and the driver’s current whereabouts, but these requests for information have been repeatedly denied.

In another parallel to the case of Michael Brown, instead of focusing on releasing information pertaining to the case, the media have released Jermaine Carby was posthumously subjected to a slew of negative information about Carby’s his past in an attempt to justify the actions of the officers.
But at the time of Carby’s interaction with the police, his identity was unknown; he died as a “John Doe” at the hospital. He was a young black man who was murdered by the Peel police.

Civilian oversight requires civilians

In Ontario, the Special Investigations Unit becomes active in incidents where the police are involved in the death of a civilian. Led by Paul Dempsey, the SIU was immediately called to the scene of Carby’s death.

Established in 1990 as an arm’s-length criminal investigative agency tasked with investigating alleged police misconduct in Ontario, the SIU is intended to be a civilian agency on paper, but in reality is staffed largely by former police officers and judges, who have proven to be incredibly reluctant to press charges in cases related to deaths, assaults and sexual assaults carried out by police. In 2010, the Toronto Star wrote that “Ontario's criminal justice system heavily favours police and gives officers breaks at every turn — from the SIU, which hardly ever charges officers, to prosecutors, juries and judges.”

André Marin, the Ontario ombudsman, released a report in 2011 titled Oversight Undermined, in which he called for reforms to the SIU. Marin noted “a number of serious problems affecting the SIU, including endemic delays and a lack of rigour in SIU investigations, a reluctance to insist on police co-operation, and an internal culture overly influenced by a preponderance of ex-police officers among its staff.” Further, “the SIU’s mandate still lacked clarity” and “transparency was also missing in action, as SIU reports and significant policy issues remained hidden from public view.”

“I am left with the impression that the Ministry does not want to consider any reforms that would prove too distasteful to the policing community,” stated Marin. “It is content to adopt partial solutions and ride out the media storms. The citizens of Ontario are the losers in all this. The Ministry’s stance frustrates the promise of strong and independent civilian police oversight, thereby undermining public trust in policing.”

Marin’s critique highlights the need for a truly civilian organization to oversee the police in order for justice to be served, as police will not indict themselves. Community organizations and members of impacted communities should all be able to serve on police oversight bodies, and decide whether an officer should be charged with criminal offences when they are involved in the killing, assault or sexual assault of civilians.

It’s happening here too

While Canadian outrage over recent incidents where U.S. police officers have executed unarmed black men is an important act of solidarity, we are ignoring what is happening right under our noses.
Perhaps this different response to police violence in our country is rooted in the misguided idea that multicultural Canada does not have a history of visceral racial tension and oppression like its neighbour does.

Dr. Ajamu Nangwaya, an organizer with the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence, explains that “police violence in Canada is a fundamental feature of society wherein social oppression is present. Colonialism is a very violent process, and its continued manifestation as settler-colonialism is based on the need to use force and the prison industrial complex to maintain economic, social and political order.”

“It should not come as a surprise that the Indigenous peoples and Afrikans are the two groups in Canada who experience the highest levels of police violence and are the most imprisoned,” says Nangwaya.

In the Greater Toronto Area alone, the list of predominantly black and brown people who have been killed by police runs far too long.
Willful ignorance can no longer be an excuse for the systemic issues of police brutality, impunity and racial profiling in Canada. In the Greater Toronto Area alone, the list of predominantly black and brown people who have been killed by police runs far too long.

Junior Manon, Alwy al-Nadir, Reyal Jensen Jardine-Douglas, Eric Osawe, Michael Eligon, Sammy Yatim and Frank Anthony Berry are among those who have lost their lives in recent years due to police violence. A fact sheet on police violence, compiled by Nangwaya, can be accessed here.

Nangwaya argues that Canadians are losing trust in the police, and there is a need to keep educating the public about the systemic nature of police violence and “the police's principal function being that of serving and protecting the economic, social and political interests of the socially dominant groups or the ruling class in Canada.”

Christmas Eve vigil

Christmas Eve marked three months since Jermaine Carby was gunned down by the Peel Regional Police. At the corner where he was shot, a candlelight vigil was held by Carby’s family, the Justice for Jermaine Carby Committee and community members.

Despite the holiday and bad weather, roughly 60 people showed up in solidarity with Carby’s family and the other individuals who have been killed at the hands of the police in the Greater Toronto Area. After a moment of silence the group managed to shut down the major intersection of Queen and Kennedy in the heart of Brampton for nearly an hour. During this time a public education action took place. Carby’s cousin La Tanya Grant and Kabir Joshi-Vijayan addressed the public via a sound system, and flyers were handed out to pedestrians and those sitting in cars.

Several annoyed and impatient individuals were vocal in their opposition, while others asked for flyers in order to learn more about the case. Community members passing by joined in the blockade, expressing frustration about how they have been treated at the hands of the police.

While the action drew the attention of the Peel Regional Police and Toronto’s CP24, the demands of the family and committee were not given airtime. The media have tried to spin the issue into a tragic, isolated incident, instead of the most recent episode of systemic racial profiling and police brutality.
The media have tried to spin the issue into a tragic, isolated incident, instead of the most recent episode of systemic racial profiling and police brutality.
Until honest discussions about police brutality and race in Canada are held, change in the status quo of injustice on the streets, within the SIU and within the courts is unlikely.

Racism and police brutality exist. History has demonstrated that institutions like the SIU have undermined progress to bring justice for victims of police brutality, whether it is Jermaine Carby or the thousands who were detained during the G20. Community organizations such as the Justice for Jermaine Committee need your support.

Please consider supporting the Justice for Jermaine Carby Committee online or in person.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Ganja and Globalization in St. Vincent

Originally posted on: stabroeknews.com
December 15, 2014

20130930diasporaJanuary 2015 will mark the 20th anniversary of the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and its one size fits all prescription for global trade. Despite its steadfast refusal to do otherwise, dominant economic theory must take into account the diverse realities of the countries which make up the global community. Due to matters of geography and history, no two countries are alike – and any effort to universalize a set of best economic practices is fundamentally and dangerously incorrect.

In the Caribbean context, what we have seen is that economic globalization has unfolded to the benefit of the most powerful nations and their respective multinational corporations. The resulting economic marginalization of small countries like the Eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent are seen as collateral damage of the liberalized global trade regime.

The statistics of economic growth reveal that contrary to the assumptions made by proponents of free trade, trade liberalization has not increased economic growth in St. Lucia and St. Vincent. Indeed in recent years one can see a trend of stagnation – if not outright decline. As Vincentian farmer Ras Jacob laments, “the IMF/WTO put them in poverty, they mash down all the EC [Eastern Caribbean] livelihood”.

At the behest of the WTO and spearheaded by the banana multinational corporations (with no less than former US President Bill Clinton as their dedicated advocate), a gradual elimination of the protected banana trade with the United Kingdom began, as it contradicted the assumptions of neoliberal economic theory. These reforms would lead to numerous negative and widespread impacts on rural communities – such as an increase in unemployment, poverty, crime and a dramatic cutback in government programs and services. Given that there were no readily apparent jobs to replace those lost in the banana industry, a great deal of the farmers took their skills, knowledge and cutlasses into the hills.

Twenty years after this economic shock, based on its size, St. Vincent and the Grenadines is one of the largest, if not the largest per capita cultivator and exporter of ganja in the world. During my research on the island studying the ganja trade, I have been fortunate enough to have learned from farmers, activists, smugglers and dealers – providing incredible insight into St. Vincent’s real, albeit illicit economic engine.

Presently in the Caribbean, marijuana is not legally recognized for its medicinal purposes. In March 2014, the Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) established a regional commission concerning marijuana use, with the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, acting as the Chair. The two primary focuses of the regional commission are concerned with the medical use of marijuana and the decriminalization of small quantities involved in recreational use.

A July 2014 communiqué from the CARICOM conference in Antigua put forward that the “Heads of Government agreed to establish a Regional Commission on Marijuana to conduct a rigorous enquiry into the social, economic, health and legal issues surrounding marijuana use in the Region and to advise whether there should be a change in the current drug classification of marijuana, thereby making the drug more accessible for a range of users.” Since then, not much else has been released to the public, as a search of CARICOM internet archives and requests for updated information have not produced any new information on the progress of the initiative.
(Photo: Courtesy Kevin Edmonds)
(Photo: Courtesy Kevin Edmonds)

Despite this, Prime Minster Gonsalves has tried to deflect criticism that the Commission would be an asset to his election drive, stating that regardless of the politicization of the situation, “I am hoping that we take more than baby steps in addressing the issues”

Seeking to avoid the politicization of the issue, Conley “Chivango” Rose, the Coordinator of The National Marijuana Industry Association (NMIA) of St. Vincent and the Grenadines is working to get a medical marijuana institute built in St. Vincent, due to its position as the leading cultivator in the Eastern Caribbean. Rose told me that roughly “40 percent of the population are connected to the industry either directly or by accommodating it” and that an estimate that ganja contributes 30 percent to the GDP is quite conservative. Rose argues that the Caribbean must abandon current laws which are based on inherited colonial legislation, and calls for a major reform of the region’s ganja laws, arguing that they be based on “science, compassion and reason”.

The National Marijuana Industry Association (NMIA) of St. Vincent and the Grenadines states in its charter that “Medicinal and Recreational Marijuana Sales in St. Vincent and the Grenadines could generate extra revenues and taxes for the government in licenses, fees, sales taxes, VAT, excise taxes and so on, government and the people would benefit tremendously from this lucrative industry… According to Vincentian economists, financial analysts, tax collectors, bankers and professional accountants, marijuana, if regulated and taxed in the same fashion as alcohol, can bring in over $500 million dollars for the St. Vincent and the Grenadines economy between 2014-2016 ! Much needed revenue to assist in stimulating growth, creating wealth and helping to transform the economic landscape of the island”.

While the legalization of ganja would bring immediate economic benefits, it would also have widespread social consequences. Ras Andre believes that the legalization of ganja will lead to a greater transformation in the class structure of St. Vincent and the wider Caribbean, stating that “It will be a class change, you have poor citizens getting into a multi-billion industry, who is poor is now becoming rich, while people which have become comfortable in their wealthy lifestyles will get shifted… This is important for people like Rasta, who are marginalized – but with this change they will be able to handle their affairs, to many it is frightening”.

In addition to the legalization of ganja changing the island’s entrenched class structure, it would also free up a huge sector of economic activity from the criminal element.

One farmer, “Power”, highlighted that it is the criminalized status and classification of ganja as a dangerous drug which leads to crime, arguing that “In the heights we always exposed to the thief man, our investment is at risk. Very often there are rip-offs where people saying the crop bust when they made a shot [got intercepted by the police during smuggling abroad], when they really keeping it themselves. This is what gets people killed. If it was legal we could have real sales and not have to worry and hide”. Additionally, he argues that it is the hustle and profit of ganja which has led to the “baldheads going up in the hills, brining guns, cocaine, crime and robbery”.

As another planter, and a very skilled, self-taught horticulturalist, “Bongo” stated, “We need to separate ganja from the drug trade… It is unfairly attacked because of what has been colonial and cultured in the mind. Ganja has helped so many people, sent thousands of children to school and bought plane tickets for being to go foreign and better themselves. We are losing a golden opportunity, if we don’t move on this we won’t have anything. It will be turmoil”.

To Empress Modupe Olufenmi Jacob, it must also involve the “creation of provisions to compensate those who have been charged and jailed before it was legal” and “ensure that the farmers who have sacrificed for so long are the immediate beneficiaries of a regulated system to plant legal ganja”.

Indeed there was also a sharp criticism of the political leadership, with many arguing that independent governments and the CARICOM Commission were moving far too slow. While the legalization of ganja is often portrayed or presented as a panacea for much of the region’s economic woes, it would certainly go a long way in increasing respective governmental revenues, providing legal employment and sparing vast numbers of people from the prison system. For these reasons alone the individual and regional leadership must push forward with their efforts to at the very least, decriminalize marijuana and allow medicinal marijuana for compassionate and research purposes. If they continue to take a “wait and see” attitude on this issue, they will indeed see that regional competitors will have taken the lead, scrambling to justify their position to a population in a society which has no real opposition to ganja. As Conley Rose said, “Ganja is not a fad, it done been here for a long time”.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Censorship and the Need for a Freedom of Information Act in St. Lucia

December 5, 2014

It has been stated time and again that an informed citizenry is an essential prerequisite to the functioning of a democratic society. Indeed the Caribbean region is often hailed as being a bastion of democracy and stability by many academics in comparison to their Central and Southern American neighbours, where a historical cycle of coups, rebellion and dictatorships prevailed throughout the Cold War years.

In the present era, the intensification of globalization has been welcomed by the economic and political powers that be as a stabilizing force, one which brings financial, technological and information flows to all corners of the globe. Yet, despite these promises, globalization also has a much darker side, one of which outside of the threat of terrorism is very rarely discussed.

Despite the World Trade Organization promoting tourism and financial services as the saviour of St. Lucia after the enforced decimation of the banana trade, these industries have in many ways entangled themselves in a manner which threatens both meaningful development and democracy on the island. While it has been repeated ad nauseam that the forces of globalization seek to free up the restrictions former placed upon the mobility of capital, it in no way seeks to make the necessary information about these processes more accessible to the people that they purport to be serving.

A very real way in which this has manifested itself is the growing number of failed tourist mega-projects on the island and the related threats against bloggers, journalists and writers who seek to expose the realities of these deals.

Due to the efforts of the anonymous “Piton blogger”, we now know much more about the 3 failed and another stalled mega development in St. Lucia. The “Piton blogger” repeatedly pointed out that St. Lucia was witnessing the privatization of public lands with dire consequences for the local communities and environment.

Just to give an idea of the scale of the problem, a quick summary of the failed projects is as follows. The total cost to St. Lucian taxpayers to reacquire the Crown lands from the failed Ritz-Carlton development due to the 2008 economic crisis amounted to $EC 57 million. The Marquis Estate development was a multi-island development, which failed – dragging 3,000 British investors to fall victim to the $250 million USD scheme. The investigation has since been taken up by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office. Thirdly, the La Paradis resort, located in Praslin fell victim to the CLICO insurance scheme which rocked the rest of the Caribbean. As a result, the massive development appears as an open wound on the Windward side of the island, a reminder of the excesses of the international financial sector – and the resulting burden placed on the general public.

Central to this point, the “Piton blogger” also sought to bring about transparency and educate the public on the new Freedom Bay Resort development, which is being built literally at the foot of the Petit Piton, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with government approval. The “Piton blogger” had frequently wrote articles outlining that the resort development threatened the status of the Pitons as a World Heritage Site due to environmental and cultural destruction (ie. Amerindian archeological items). Additionally, local residents were being forced to sell their property to the developer. The “Piton blogger’s” desire to follow the money and openly challenge to the developers resulted in the Friends of UNESCO site getting shut down in May 2013, after four masked men, wielding automatic weapons broke into the bloggers home stealing computers, modems and phones. US Federal Agents later confirmed that there was indeed a hit out on the “Piton blogger”, but the story has not surfaced in the St. Lucian mainstream media due to the fact that it may very well lead to dangerous territory.

In the midst of this situation, enter long-time journalist Jason Sifflet, who had previously wrote for many of the island’s established media houses. Sifflet began the Flogg Blog as an independent platform to ridicule the St. Lucian political system – leaving no party or politician behind. Given this journalistic independence, Sifflet wrote that the situation “… got real in ways I could not imagine. Unshackled from advertisers, media managers and the most vile laws stifling free speech in St Lucia, I was suddenly imbued with all my natural powers. As a trained journalist, a kind of heretical activist and a consumer of history, I couldn't help but make the FLOGG grow from a joke into an investigative journalism machine that reinvents the language, ethics and methodology of journalism in the image of Negmarron.”

Behind the veil of humor and the occasional curse words, Jason countered with pointed attacks on many of the issues which people discussed privately, but rarely, if ever publicly. One such issue was his controversial (albeit accurate) comparison of the island’s tourism industry and how it increasingly resembled an apartheid system.

Not long after the launch of his blog, Sifflet wrote that “I got my first death threat and law suit threat around this time [October] in 2013” – but it would not be his last. Several months later in August 2014, after criticizing and insulting the United Workers Party opposition leader and hotelier Alan Chastanet, his blog was mysteriously shut down, with Google stating that it supposedly breached their standards of acceptable speech, thus engaging in a form of “hate speech”. While the timing of the blogs shut down was suspicious enough, Sifflet’s estranged wife would then lose her job at the St. James Morgan Bay hotel, with pundits claiming everything must have been a simple coincidence and the public should not jump hastily to conclusions. While the Flogg Blog would eventually be reinstated, the death threats continued to follow. One can read Sifflet’s investigation and account of the death threats here.

While there are indeed a myriad of issues related to these situations, a major problem with all of this is that there is no St. Lucian version of the Freedom of Information Act to back up what the journalists, bloggers and writers are putting forward. While the St. Lucia Freedom of Information Act was drafted as a bill in 2009, it has yet to see the light of day in regards to its implementation. While the draft of the Freedom of Information Act stated that it would bar dissemination of information pertaining to commercial issues if it “i) contained a trade secret or (ii) to communicate it would or would likely to, seriously prejudice the commercial or financial interests of that third party”, the importance of this is that it would set a legal precedence or benchmark from which the public could inquire about the interaction between government and investors.

At a Regional Conference on Freedom of Information in March 2013, The Saint Lucia National Trust, Communications and Advocacy Officer, Karetta Crooks Charles remarked that, “it was inspiring to see how ordinary citizens, civil society and the media from fellow Caribbean countries were utilizing the FOI Access to Information laws to hold public authorities more accountable. Furthermore, it is hoped that Saint Lucia will follow suit and ratify its draft FOI Act of 2009,as well as sign on to the LAC Declaration on Principle 10 which promotes sustainable development through access to information, public participation and access to justice.”

Yet until this curtain is pulled back, to reveal those at work behind the scenes, brave individuals working in the public interest are called conspiracy theorists, straight out liars and increasingly threatened physically, economically and electronically censored. This is not the foundation of a democratic society, but rather that of something more sinister.

Whether or not St. Lucians agree with the writings of Sifflet or those of the “Piton blogger”, the reality is that they have both literally put their lives at risk in order to inform the general public about the inconsistencies and problematic issues related to some of the island’s major tourism developments. While scandal is often the engine of St. Lucian politics as is elsewhere, the fact that both political parties have stalled in regards to implementing a St. Lucian Freedom of Information Act is highly problematic considering their supposed commitment to the democratic process.

While many would argue that every investment involves a certain level of risk, it really downplays the reality of the situation in St. Lucia. While wealthy investors can literally walk away from failed projects with bankruptcy protection, yet given that the country is so small the government does not have that option. Indeed those left behind in their wake are subjected to a stream of debt, corruption and even death.

St. Lucia’s Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott remarked that he was “ashamed of my country”, referred to the ongoing development at the foot of the Pitons as “whoredom” but conceding “… what can you do when a country approves of its own disfigurement?” Indeed Walcott’s statement is in reference the current physical damage done to the natural environment, but it can also apply to the country’s political system which seeks to maintain this troubling status quo instead of taking measures to change it for the better.

While it might seem as a naïve goal, the only way to get rid of this block in the political system is to empower and protect the individual citizens who decide to become Whistleblowers with the ultimate goal of fostering an engaged citizenry. Let the argument be settled by facts and not threats. As such, these figures and the ones who will inevitably follow them must be protected from the grudges held by the private sector and their friends and potential business partners in both political parties, as acting on behalf of the public good should not be a death sentence.