Gun with the wind
TODAY IS Republic Day in Trinidad and Tobago. When I think of the past, ‘Police and Thief’ was the game of my boyhood. Life and concepts were simple then. The police were supposed to catch the thieves. When I went to school in Portof-Spain, the game was ‘Rescue’ and you had to free your captive colleagues.
Like the western and gangster or ‘mob’ movies of the time, our universe was twodimensional, a duality of opposites, black or white, good or evil, hot or cold, Coke or Pepsi. In a western, a bandanna and a black hat denoted a bad guy, essentially a back-shooting, thieving crook and low-down varmint; a white hat was the good guy, and with a badge, the Sheriff, who came to clean up Dodge, not the truck, but the city. The really good guys left town when they had completed their clean-up and went on to help others.
The Jack Reacher novels today are like the Lone Ranger without Tonto and no silver horse to ride out of town with a “Hi yo, Silver, away!” We also played Stick ‘Em Up and had our ‘cap’ guns and Winchester 73 toy rifles, but the line between the bandits and the Sheriff’s men was clearly marked. Basically, it was Police and Thief with guns. Good versus evil all the way through.
One of our other favourite games was the ‘Knife Fight’, a staple and high point of every cowboy movie made in those days. The good cowboy would be attacked by the savage, knife-wielding Indian, and unless the producers wanted a death to be avenged later by the star, the cowboy won. We loved it.
DUELS IN THE SUN
During school breaks, rulers in hand, we had our own duels in the sun. My opponent and I circled, knives held in front of us, then we attacked each other. He would grab my wrist and I his, then we rolled on the ground seeing who would get in the first stab. Violent? Yes. But there was a code, not just of the West, but of the society. Face to face, man to man.
It is true that men went home drunk, especially on a Friday evening. Some beat their wives, some left their wives for other women, some women left their husbands for other men. There were fights with broken bottles, cutlasses and the occasional knives. Some even killed, but the guns were generally silent, except in the forest, where people like my grandfather went hunting.
The police would charge you for ‘towing’ (having someone on the handlebar of your bike) or riding without lights. Most times, they eased you up for a small fee, or if you were a shopkeeper, they came in, took their bribes in cash, kind, or both, and went about their usual pursuits, but not necessarily of criminals.
We knew where to find them, both police and thieves, the lawmen and the mob or gangs. They were in the cinemas – Edgar G. Robinson and James Cagney, Scarface and Al Capone – but the bad guys were also in the hills surrounding Port-of-Spain and had names like Desperadoes, Marabuntas and Renegades. They were in Laventille and La Cou Harpe, or in Brickfield in Waterloo, on the Coffee (Street) or Embacadere (pronounced ‘Backaday’) in San Fernando, or even where I lived in my teens, Peyton Place in Siparia.
Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados all had these crime cupboards and zones where the police and thieves had a good relationship going while keeping a mutually respectful distance. They were all recruited from among the same people, mainly young men who had not gone to, or remained, in secondary school and had school-leaving certificates or friends and family in the ‘force’.
Initially, Barbadians formed the core of the service. They were English before the other countries, so that when any particular skill was needed in any other Caribbean country, it was recruited from Barbados. Anglican priests, police, teachers and sugar boilers all came initially from there. They were supposed to set the example and high moral tone for their local successors.
THIEFING BAJAN POLICEMAN
When a Bajan policeman was caught stealing in a Frederick Street Store in the 1950s, it was the subject of a popular calypso, “It was the thiefing Bajan policeman that they find in Bonanza store.” I suppose it was in Bonanza that East met West and we lost our innocence. The police had crossed and scrambled the line.
Historian Dr. Joyce Toney (The Contemporary Caribbean) says that the 1970s and 1980s witnessed many changes in the region and the period could be considered the beginning of contemporary Caribbean politics. In Trinidad and Tobago, some people believe that the arming of the police to combat the Black Power threat of 1970 and the oil boom soon after were causes and simultaneous catalysts, definitely not coincidental, for the escalation of crime and the increasing importation of guns, drugs and prostitutes. When the foreign banks were all localised, there was a rapid increase in white-collar crime.
The presence of the American bases during the Second World War, the ‘Yankee Dollar’ syndrome that was said to infect everyone, the lifestyle reflected in signs like ‘Seamen and Seawomen Welcome’, and even its own Gaza Strip, combined to create a sturdy and willing platform in Port-ofSpain for the new wave of crime and criminals.
What has emerged is a society in which there are too many nuances, traps and uncertainty for a simple game of Police and Thief. Increasingly, it is robbery with violence and not the childish Stick ’Em Up. What is even worse, after 54 years of Independence and 40 years of being a republic, there is absolutely no hope of ‘Rescue’.