Letters

Now is the time to remove slavery era punishments

It is often said that there is no place like home, which evokes feelings of safety, comfort and dignity. But in some cases, home can be an inferno, a place that is a living hell.

African-Americans have lived in a country that has been their home for 400 years. Yet, that home has condoned their public murder aided by legal betrayal by courts and intolerable hatred from their fellow citizens so they would get the messages that their lives does not matter.

Because my life’s work is engaged with the law, I look inward to dig out injustice in order to banish it into permanent exile. It is what all Black lawyers should do particularly in the jurisdiction where they call home and where they practice their craft.

The United States Supreme Court and courts all across that country have a well-known history of conspiracy designed to deny African-Americans their full citizenship. There are over 50 decisions of the highest courts in America that if you read it today you will weep with disbelief. But in 1954 in the seminal decision of Brown v The Board of Education American enlightened jurisprudence emerged to usher in a new phase of racial justice culminating in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the dawning of the Civil Rights Movement.

Still, up until now, African-Americans and Caribbean Americans live in the poorest neighbourhoods in America, they receive the worst health care services and banks give them the cruelest mortgages even though they qualify for better home owner financing contracts. Whites who are poorer and less educated get better deals from banks a study recently done by a newspaper in New York found.

In cases like Dred Scott v. Sanford [Slaves are not citizens of the United States and “Blacks have no rights the White Man is bound to Respect”] (1857) and Plessy v Ferguson [Separate but Equal doctrine] (1896), the foundational pillars which established and enshrined White Supremacy as a normative social and judicial tenet of American life created a legacy of hell on earth for Blacks at home in America. In a case called Shelby County v Holder (2013) the US Supreme Court practically turned back the clock on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by holding that the data which is being relied on today to ensure African-American participation in the basic democratic act of casting a vote is now unreliable because it is 40 years old and outdated.

The recent police murders captured on mobile telephones reveal the lasting effects of a nation at war with its Black citizens. The uproar of people from all racial backgrounds across the world portends a future that racial justice just may arrive in America in our lifetime.

For Caribbean people this Moment and Movement is critical because most Caribbean citizens reside in the United States of America not in the region. We are 3% of the US population. Historically, we are an integral part of American life. A Founding Father of the United States, Alexander Hamilton was born on Nevis as was the first Black Speaker of the New York State Assembly and the First Black female federal Judge. A Caribbean-American led the largest Black organisation in the United States, the UNIA. Today, we vacation in America, our children attend its universities, maintain dual citizenship, serve in its armed forces and the bedrock of our economy in the region cannot survive without visitors from that country arriving on our shores.

Therefore, what happens in America directly affects Grenada and the small island states in the Caribbean. So what about the state of race relations here in the Caribbean specifically, here in Grenada have we retained racist attitudes that denigrate Black Life? Are our courthouses and our laws also conspiring to prolong the indignity of Black Life?

My answer is clear: Grenada has retained several laws on its books that reek of racist intolerance and must be struck out immediately to crush the legacy of indignity to Black Life here at home.

I have two examples. One is proof of the existence of the other.

In April 2017 the Government of Grenada through its Ministry of Tourism had an idea about how it could boost tourism. They held a press conference to announce the inaugural Reenactment of Slavery. But before that, Cabinet met and approved the event as well as the budget for the event’s expenses.

There are no White people in the Cabinet of Grenada, as you know so there was no bullying or coercion for this Monster’s Ball.

The decision to replay the horrors of slavery to attract more visitors to Pure Grenada, the Spice Island of the Caribbean, was a voluntary decision taken by Black elected officials.

The journalists who were all Black asked the customary questions relating to logistics, objectives and expectations as though it were just another event held under the auspices of the Ministry of Tourism. No big deal. Our collective blind spot conspired to unconsciously ignore the indignity of the pain of Black Enslaved Life.

In executing the Slavery Reenactment program, the Tourism Ministry organised innocent school children with no objection from the Minister of Education. The media houses sent reporters; caterers were organised and a local cultural group that regularly participates in Emancipation Day events was recruited and its drummers dressed for the occasion. The wailing and beating and dehumanising of Black enslaved people was rehearsed as though it were an ordinary dramatic performance staged by one of our playwrights Christopher De Riggs or Uriah Peters.

The owners of the venue, The River Antoine Rum Estate, made their plans too and the Reenactment of Slave Live on a Grenadian Plantation was ready to be staged.

What was and continues to be remarkable is that this writer alone raised a protest – and was arrested in a peaceful protest against the barbaric and inhumane restaging of what has been universally described as a crime against humanity.

One insidious power of racism is its power to deafen and render blind its victims to their own history of suffering even where they live. It is an invisible deadly disease like Covid-19 because you’re an asymptomatic victim carrying the virus of self-hate yet you don’t know it.

Our Black Lives have a tortured history after we were transported to the Atlantic World but collectively many of us have accepted that the business of legal human trafficking could be understood as a footnote of something in the past.

Across our Caribbean societies many of our governments and people don’t care that our homes are erected in places that were graveyards for poor Enslaved slaves. In Grenada we have named our only Tunnel after Governor Walter J. Sendall, a notorious racist. Our law books in Grenada still say that drumming is an offense if it is done within distance of a town and practicing African religions is also a crime.

Despite the patent fact throughout the world that victims do not recreate the crimes against them, our Black Sisters and Brothers in Grenada’s government thought it was normal, indeed innovative to relive Black genocide to improve our tourism product.

When I wrote about the insanity of the Slavery Reenactment, Prime Minister Mitchell joined in opposing the project his Cabinet had approved – to his eternal credit.

My God, which tourist would return home to America after visiting our beautiful island and tell a neighbour about the wonderful experience of attending a slave-era reenactment. This is the knee on the neck of Black Grenadians not by Whites, but by people who look just like us.

Another example of Black Life that is disregarded here in Grenada is the judicial punishment of flogging which remains in practice and is still in our law books.

Flogging is the most dogged and demeaning reminder of how little the dignity of Black Life matters.

I have a law suit that is awaiting a further hearing in the High Court of Grenada to ban the practice of stripping a Man down to expose his bare bottom so that he could be hit wickedly hard time after time with a twisted whip by a policeman or a prison officer.

Recently, Zimbabwe outlawed the practice and two months ago Saudi Arabia removed this form of barbarism from its law books. Malaysia, Brunei, Iran, Singapore, Nigeria, The Bahamas and a few other countries still condone this form of human torture which is under unrelenting attack by human rights organisations around the globe.

As a former slave colony where the practice evolved from White Supremacist ideas about Black people, Grenada ought to stop the practice immediately. There are ways to punish a wrongdoer without depriving him of his human dignity.

Flogging or whipping is reserved for offenses that can be traced back to the Enslaved and Colonial era: stealing fruit and vegetables while threatening the owner or using a weapon while stealing anything. The Law Books don’t prescribe flogging for defrauding a bank of millions or forging a cheque. The law emerged from stealing from the plantations with threat and with violence.

Plain and simple, Whipping is a punishment that the White Slave owner reserved for the Black Man. Almost 200 years after the Emancipation Declaration, our law in Grenada currently says we should strip the wrongdoer of his dignity. And some Magistrates cannot wait to give this kind of sentence although our law says flogging a convicted man must wait for 14 days. They order that forthwith, the convicted man is to be escorted straight from the courthouse to the whipping bench. Just as in the bad old days of Slavery.

The Attorney General of Grenada and the Minister of Legal Affairs have no problem with this barbaric and Slavery-era law. They are fighting us in the courthouse tooth and nail to retain it. These are Black officials who still believe that the White Slave owner’s mode of punishment is still appropriate for the Black citizens of Grenada. (As the child of a good Christian Mother I have come to believe in Redemption for all persons however difficult that proposition).

Prime Minister Mitchell on the other hand, reminds us whenever he can, about the resilience and tenacity of himself, the self-described “The Little Black Boy” that he once was; how he educated himself and persevered against huge social, economic, and discriminatory barriers right here at home because of the colour of his skin.

I meet many Black men who will never celebrate Father’s Day because their testicles were injured by the whip and they have periodic flashes of unbearable pain in the lower parts of their bodies. This is the result of our Law Books written by White Supremacists which we have retained as a form of punishment designed to humiliate as much as to injure our own Black people.

My colleagues and I will return to court to challenge this form of barbarism and we are hoping that a High Court Judge will recognise that law and society cannot be at odds. The society cannot be enlightened while the Law is immoral.

In this Moment when all races of people who’s conscience are awakened to spot racial injustice and are peacefully protesting against it, a judicial officer in Grenada should take the side of what is dignified for Black Lives and end legal torture as a form of punishment. But we cannot be sure of that outcome.

I have my own doubts because of recent experience. Two weeks ago when I informed my colleagues at the Grenada Bar Association that we would be staging a peaceful protest outside the US Embassy on June 8, the head of the lawyers association said I was “irresponsible and incendiary”. This is a Black person who could not see as clear as the top US diplomat, a White Man, that racial injustice has to be protested whether you are in Brooklyn, New York or Belmont, St. Patrick’s, the site of the slavery Reenactment.

So it is left now to the Black officials that Grenadians elected to do what is moral and humane by banning whipping from the country’s Criminal Code though we have inculcated a blind spot to our history of forced labour and genocide. Perhaps disregard has been our unconscious survival technique.

But in our own homeland, Black Life deserves something more than mere survival because we are entitled to respect and dignity in 2020.

Jerry Edwin
Attorney-at-law

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