Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Balancing Safety and Civil Rights

During our present period of heightened public sensitivity around violent crime there are urgent calls for  action. People want to see the Bermuda Police Service making tangible progress in this area and they want to see the perpetrators of such crime brought to justice. One tool adopted by the BPS in arresting criminal behavour is the stop and search policy. Use of this policy, though, has raised important human rights questions the merit examination. Tonight’s forum on this issue organized by the newly formed Centre for Justice will no doubt prove instructive.

Under current laws the police have the authority to stop and search persons as part of a preemptive crime reduction initiative. So far this year about 15,000 stop and searches have been carried out and, according to the BPS, they are focused on “prolific priority offenders.”  With reported crime showing declines over last year this no doubt reinforces the view that stop and searches are both a credible and effective part of reducing crime.

An opposing view urges caution and restraint. Amid claims that persons with no criminal record are routinely stop and searched, there are concerns that one’s human rights, particularly regarding the presumption of innocence, have been comprised under this power. Lawyers and other human rights advocates arguing this see it as part of the slippery slope of the erosion of civil liberties.  

From the public perspective there is likely to be greater emphasis given to public safety over public freedom given that criminal behaviour has permeated our community in ways never before witnessed. Moreover, residents, generally, want to see the police more assertive and more in control in contrast to what for many seemed like police passivity amidst growing lawlessness. 

To be fair, those advocating caution equally want to see a community free of crime and where pervasive public safety is a fact of life and not merely an aspiration. Their concern is that in our quest to significantly reduce crime, in “policing the crisis”, we do not sacrifice the liberties so many fought for for so long. 

Specifically, there is concern that any member of the public can be stopped while travelling on our roads and be subjected to search of their vehicle and person. There is concern that this has a level of arbitrariness to it that impinges on the larger principle of freedom. Further, the argument is made that if we allow our freedoms to be carved back because of this issue a precedent will have been set for dealing with other issues.

Crime, particularly violent crime, is a fact of modern Bermuda that requires a strong and effective response. The BPS has a number of tools at their disposal to tackle their responsibilities in dealing with this issue, with stop and search powers one such tool. What we are prepared or, indeed required to give up in terms of freedoms to grant the authorities the power to act should be a matter of public debate.

The Centre for Justice needs to be commended for taking the initiative and bringing forward and juxtaposing  views on this important national problem. I have no doubt the panelists will inform, enlighten and help us to see a clearer way forward.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The OBA and Racism

“The legacy of racism is the root cause of many of the social ills and the dysfunction we are grappling with today….white supremacy has imposed injustice…and still works to maintain the status quo.” Powerful words coming from a new voice. These are neither the exhortations of the venerable Dr Eva Hodgson nor of the irrepressible Mr Rolf Commissiong . This is the voice of the leader of the One Bermuda Alliance, Mr Craig Cannonier. That this is now the official position of the official opposition on the impact of racism is instructive.

To begin with, there is recognition that racism not only has contoured our island home in significant and deliberate ways, but more importantly, its impact continues.  The OBA, then, has embraced the position long held by the much maligned Dr Hodgson and, effectively, endorsed the work of the Big Conversation, led by Mr Commissiong, to raise awareness of the legacy of racism. If the OBA Members of Parliament who were elected under the UBP label and who previously excoriated the work of the Big Conversation have embraced the perspective of their leader then Bermuda is moving in a better direction.

One of the challenges for the OBA will be to persuade many of their supporters—the thousands who previously supported the UBP—that racism has had a real and meaningful impact on the lives of people today. Too often we hear comments such as “I am not responsible for what my grandparents did” or “I worked hard to get where I am today” as if our racial past never matters. Mr Cannonier is correct to remind us that it does. That he chose to give it prominence in his Reply to the Throne Speech suggests the OBA will make racial injustice a theme in their future campaign.

While it is important to recognize the legacy and ongoing impact of racism and white supremacy as the OBA does, that is merely the first critical step. The more difficult challenge is what to do about it. On this front the OBA has not provided any direction. If one recognizes the playing field is unequal and unjust because of racism it is illogical to fall onto the false notion of equality of opportunity. Mr Cannonier: “We should all have a chance to make the most of our God given gifts no matter what colour we are.” Asserting equal opportunity without equal capacity is a false construct. In simple terms, a new business owner with $1 million of family money in backing has a greater capacity to succeed than a new business owner with $10,000 in savings. 
If the OBA is to be taken seriously on an issue their leader argues is responsible for many of our social ills they have an obligation to inform us what they plan to do about it. The PLP government initiated the Big Conversation, introduced the Economic Empowerment Zones to provide greater opportunities for marginalized groups and began discussions on work equity legislation. I look forward to the OBA proposals to address the injustice created as a result of racism.

My view has long been that race is the prism through which many issues are refracted. Understanding racism is a critical part of understanding the making of modern Bermuda. But it should never be a crutch on which everything rests. Rather, we should recognize it, understand it and then devise suitable initiatives, policies and programmes to remedy the damage it has caused. If the OBA can contribute toward this end we should welcome their input.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

De-Occupying Wall Street

The movement to challenge corporate greed and excess that began on Wall Street and rapidly became a global protest movement is nearing its end. Many countries have seen working people, and the formerly working, come out in the tens of thousands to lend their voice and bodies to the clarion call for a fairer, a more equitable society. As governments exercise the ‘rule of law’ to close down the tents and end the demonstrations—“illegal tenting”, “sanitation”, “obstruction”—while still claiming to embrace free speech and expression, there are important lessons to be learned from the Occupy movement.

Firstly, as much as people are legitimately aggrieved by the destructive policies pursued in the realm of high finance, it is critical for any protest movement to have a clear goal in mind. The Occupy movement is a genuine eruption of the collective will of everyday people but its objective has been limited to consciousness raising and calling out corporate crooks. Many participants, though, longed for changes in policies or laws that would limit the seeming free rein financiers appear to enjoy. If the goal is to raise consciousness the organizers have achieved this; and at some point further protest loses its relevance. 

Those commentators who liken this movement to the Arab Spring misunderstand: those movements in the Middle East had the explicit political objective of toppling authoritarian rule and developed mass consciousness as part of that effort. If there is any parallel to be drawn it is that 2011 saw a rupture of people power in raw, unadulterated form.  Indeed, this year can be seen as a tamer version of that pivotal year, 1968, which saw students, peace activists, black power activists and Prague Spring all challenge hegemonic power.

Secondly, the Occupy protesters set out to challenge a group who has no requirement or obligation to answer to the public. This is an altogether different undertaking than going after those who hold political office. And given their objective of merely raising consciousness, the men in suits could simply ignore them publicly while working vigorously behind the scenes to bring an end to the protesters’ campaign. If there is a weakness in their strategy there was a failure to link politicians with Wall Street: bailouts using tax payers’ money, repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act separating retail and investment banking, and tax loopholes for major corporations, were all designed and passed by legislators with cozy relationships with the corporate world buttressed by campaign donations.

Thirdly, while the Occupy protests may well be at an end entirely by week’s end, there is an important message they leave behind: people have a voice outside of the formal political process, they have power irrespective of their wealth and they have the capacity to make change, even if in this instance, it remains at the level of consciousness raising. 

Alice Walker once said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” The Occupiers have given away none of their power.  And through their example they have inspired everyday people everywhere with the notion that elites do not have a monopoly on power  and they power they do have will not go unchallenged.