In the short-attention span that supposedly defines our contemporary lives, a news story will flash its bright light, capture our attention, but only for a while. We are children – easily distracted – we move on, chasing the other bright lights. In this so-called 9 minute life span of news, one story from last week twisted and bent itself into so many strange places that its full tragedy was only revealed in the 10th minute, or even the 11th minute, after we had already moved on.
This was the story: a video in which a young girl-child is being forced to perform fellatio on a grown man makes its rounds on social media. There is a massive public outcry. If people aren’t posting the video, they are posting instructions to not post or share the video with them, and sometime wishing condemnation and retribution on those who do. Things are getting decidedly hot! The Jamaican police step in and remind the public that circulating the tape is illegal. Even if one’s intention was noble and not sensational – even if one was simply trying to bring attention to a heinous crime, in circulating the video they were committing another crime themselves – distributing child pornography. The police assured the public that they were fully aware of the matter and it was being investigated.
For a news story to live its full nine minutes it must twist and turn and introduce new villains, and this story did just that. When The Star reported on the incident, it penned what will probably go down in its history as its most careless, unethical and self-damaging headline.
It was as if some incompetent editor felt that a 2 year old girl could have had some say in the matter– could have had some form of agency – as if she was a willing participant in the sexual abuse that had been forced upon her.
But by now, the story had already lived for 8 minutes. Its twilight was on the horizon, but it was not done with its twisting. It was now discovered that the video did not originate in Jamaica after all. The police in Trinidad and Tobago were now investigating the matter. Investigations there must happen much faster than they do here, for no sooner had it started than we heard the story that an angry crowd had set upon the alleged perpetrator. They beat him. They beat him quite badly, though somehow he managed to escape. This picture began to be circulated.
You can see by the caption that there is still some confusion as to where all of this is taking place. Jamaica or Trinidad? It was in fact Trinidad, but a common sentiment seemed to stretch itself across the Caribbean Sea: what a pity that this reprobate should have gotten away! But oh when we catch him again! Oh we will fix his business then! They were a crowd intent on completing the lynching that they had begun.
Some stories carry within them their own echoes. They repeat things from the past and it’s hard to know what is the story, and what is the echo. I am not sure what happened next. One report says that the life of the news story and the life of the man were soon to come to their mutual ends – that running from the crowd he had found refuge in a cemetery – and how that cemetery must have spoken to him, the profound silence, the peace – the dead who just lie there, not worrying about mobs and about being beaten. He hung himself. Was that in 2018, or 2016, or is it just the story of another dead slave?
One day passed, and then another, and other news stories were now flashing their own bright lights, living for their own nine minutes. By the time the news came out that the video had not originated in the Caribbean at all, we were no longer paying attention.
Wait. What’s that? The video did not originate in the Caribbean?
No. It did not. Not in Trinidad, not in Jamaica, not in St Lucia, Not in Cuba. But see, no one was paying attention. The video had originated further up North in the Grand old US of A. It had happened in Alabama – the American South where black bodies, unfairly and unjustly vilified, are often imagined hanging from trees like strange fruits. But the lynching had not happened in Alabama. The only black body swinging from a tree was swinging from a tree in a Cemetery in Trinidad. But we did not care. The story had already lived its short life. The Star had already apologized; a crowd had already beaten a man; it was the wrong man but it no longer mattered; he must have been guilty of something – anything. He was a man upon whose body, for that small moment of time, we could express all of our frustration. In any case, a man had already hung himself and we had moved on. It was not our fault. Surely, it was not. We could not be blamed for anything. We no longer cared, and yet this lack of care seemed more desperate than it was apathetic.
In Alabama the accused man was not lynched. It was the police rather than a baying mob that arrived at his door. His body is not now hanging from an immortelle tree. The police went in, no fuss, and arrested him. He is charged for a crime. The case will be tried. In all likelihood he will be convicted and serve time. His body will not hang from any tree in the Caribbean.
It seems to me that though the news story died, the crowd has not dispersed. It is the sort of time we are living in now. We have become a baying crowd, more thirsty for blood than for justice. There is no rational discussion to be had, especially not about crime and solutions that might actually work. A man talking about crime in Jamaica told me recently, when a boat is sinking, there is no time for a rational discussion! You have to plug the leak fast! But the statistics on crime in Jamaica tell us, despite popular belief and widespread panic, crime hasn’t suddenly spiralled out of control. It is very much the same now as it has been for the past twenty years or so. If water is leaking from the boat it is leaking at exactly the same rate as it has been doing for two decades.
The sudden panic must not be dismissed – that very real feeling that people have of being the most unsafe they’ve ever been must be reckoned with. But when that feeling causes us to become a baying crowd, causes us to shout down sensible solutions that might have real and long lasting effect, causes us to dismiss voices like Anthony Harriot’s or Herbert Gayle’s – people who have been studying crime and gang formations in Trinidad and in Jamaica for decades and who have real insight and ideas about how to tame the monster – when their years of research is dismissed and we propose exactly the same wrong-headed solutions that haven’t worked for twenty years (a new tough cop as bad as the baddest bad man! A vigilante police force not afraid to kill and strike terror in the hearts of criminals! more States of Emergency!) then we are in trouble.
Today I can only think of that body hanging from a tree in Trinidad in 2018? 2016? 1818? I think of all the bodies that have hung from trees in these islands. I remember Dennis Scott’s poem epitaph, and suddenly it feels that Scott wasn’t talking about a distant history at all, but talking about today – about what could happen in just 9 minutes in the Caribbean.
They hanged him on a clement morning, swung
between the falling sunlight and the women’s
breathing, like a black apostrophe to pain.
All morning while the children hushed
their hopscotch joy and the cane kept growing
he hung there sweet and low.
At least that’s how
they tell it. It was long ago
and what can we recall of a dead slave or two
except that when we punctuate our island tale
they swing like sighs across the brutal
sentences, and anger pauses
till they pass away.