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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The priest here refers to Fr Clyde Harvey, the country’s most high-profile robbery victim. But before I get to him, a detour into Barry Jenkins’ film, Moonlight, which won the Best Picture Academy Award in 2016.

Moonlight is the story of Chiron, a gay black man at different stages in his life. From childhood, he’s bullied mercilessly at school, his mother is a drug addict, and he has one friend, who is made to betray him. Chiron’s protector turns out to be Juan, a drug dealer.

Juan not only saves Chiron from bullies he gives him sanctuary away from his neglectful mother’s home, and he genuinely cares for the boy. Like most people, I imagine, I sat waiting with a clenched jaw as Juan took Chiron to the beach to teach him how to swim, and then to his house, and had his girlfriend prepare the guest bed for him.

A clenched jaw because I was waiting for Chiron to be molested by Juan. But he wasn’t, because Juan is a decent man. Who happens to be a drug dealer. This isn’t glossed over. In one scene, when Chiron’s mother is in a car with a stranger, earning her next hit, and Juan pulls her out, she asks him: “Are you going to stop selling me crack?”

The story doesn’t have a conventionally happy ending. Chiron goes to jail, and ends up as a drug dealer. But there’s much more to it; it’s also a story of love, compassion, even salvation without recourse to trite, formulaic morality. Once the viewer disengages the received view of the world—where drugs are the very embodiment of evil—from the inner reality of individual lives, where human beings in terrible situations are capable of super-human compassion, a new vista comes into focus.

If Juan were a tax collector who had to repossess Chiron’s house, a policeman who had to arrest his mother, or a social worker who had to place him in an abusive foster system, he would have been morally acceptable, but evil. To put it another way, people in evil situations need not be evil themselves.

This is one of the movie’s many conclusions relevant to Trinidad here and now: we live in an evil place, and often the only recourse we have is to not become the evil we live in. This seems very close to the Christian ideal. Which leads to Fr Clyde Harvey.

When interviewed in the wake of his ordeal, Fr Harvey’s initial response was a conflation of forgiveness and the “little black boy” defense, shifting the blame to the rich. His robbers were not responsible for their actions, apparently. They’re the real victims. This response is irritatingly familiar.

Looked at without reflexive sympathy and emotionalism, a different interpretation emerges. It starts with the mangling of “forgiveness”. The good priest preaches forgiveness for the bandits and almost-murderers, but not for the rich, whatever their transgressions. Is this forgiveness or transference of the desire for revenge? (That’s putting it kindly.) If Fr Harvey does wish to forgive his robbers, is he also saying the rich aren’t entitled to forgiveness? Or, as is popularly believed, that all rich people have come by their wealth illicitly?

These are familiar responses if you listen to trash talk radio, Dimanche Gras calypsoes, or the Black Caucus Movement. They are not worthy of a rational or compassionate person, far less a representative of Christianity, which preaches universal love and forgiveness. And I’m sure I don’t need to remind the good priest that the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t have an arm’s-length attitude to wealth.

I’m not rich, and am not an apologist for the rich. My sympathies are with the poor, but not when they rob me, or anyone else. I’m also aware that the arrangement of T&T’s political economy is conducive to inequality/poverty, from its historical roots to its unthinking present alignments to US predator capitalism. But even knowing this, to divert the responsibility for what’s going on now in Laventille, and other depressed areas in which the good priest works, to the rich, isn’t just wrong, it’s ignorant.

These sentiments and reasoning (to repeat) have more in common with the Nation of Islam and other quacks and professional racists than Christianity. It unthinkingly assumes that poor people (in black areas) are incapable of reasoning, self-control, or morality.

But away from purely “moral” concerns, this line of reasoning is also familiar because it evades placing the blame where blame belongs: at the PNM’s feet. Laventille has always been two things: a crime hotspot, and a PNM garrison. Neither of those facts prevented people from the area from achievement in academia, sport, and the professions. What turned Laventille into the horror we know today was Patrick Manning, and his post-2002 strategy of handing out state contracts to criminals. The number of criminal gangs (country-wide) went from about two to 100. Who is to blame for that?

That aside, Fr Harvey’s response to his ordeal also leads me to wonder what, exactly, is the nature of his (and many others’) much-praised “work in poor communities”. Is it spreading this attitude that people are not responsible for their actions? Is it perpetuating an attitude of inevitability to crime and victimhood? Is it blaming everyone who doesn’t live there?
Perhaps the good priest’s energy would be better spent in advocating change in the justice system. This, more than anything, is responsible for hundreds of innocent young black men being in remand for years for trifles or nothing at all. But this work, taking on an apathetic government to change unjust laws, or correcting a malignant justice system, requires more than patronizing populist slogans. It requires something the good priest and his coadjutors apparently lack.


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