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Dr Ian Bethell Bennett: Gang Violence In The Bahamas

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Dr Ian Bethell-Bennett

OVER the last few months we have heard countless stories about young men from Step Street stealing, shooting, getting shot and being killed.

What is the problem? Are we really addressing the problem? This piece does not answer any questions, but asks, ‘Why are we letting this happen?’ It simply throws up more questions.

Step Street is only the latest example of a space that we have created as if it were outside of us, an outlier in the Bahamas, so far removed from our own realities that we cannot identify with it. Yet we are all a part of the cause of this. Do we ever stop to ask who is responsible for the mess?

When we think of gang violence, we tend to think of the way we see things play out in the movies. We tend to picture large organisations of white or Latino guys running a part of town from a Godfather like operation. We think that young black kids cannot organise in this way. We dismiss our own.

Today’s gangs are different, though, especially in the Bahamas. They are as organised as the Mafia from the Godfather films, they are as violent, or perhaps even more so, and they are larger and more dispersed.

One reason gangs develop is to protect turf; they work in favour of an area or neighbourhood where they have been squashed into the corners of a world.

They have been refused entry into the mainstream. They have become the underclass and strive to protect themselves, and to be seen and heard in a society that refuses to acknowledge their presence.

They can also be used for political gain, as they have been in Jamaica. It must be underscored too, though, that gangs exist to protect a group and to prevent that group from being further exploited.

In Jamaica, gangs were built around areas, but also around political affiliations. The PNP had their gangs and the JLP had theirs. The system used the gangs to protect itself.

The politicians used the gangs to empower themselves while apparently empowering the young guys in the gangs, but actually ultimately disempowering them. They created criminals who would die for their representative.

This product was exported to the United States, for example, and grew stronger. It was then later reimported to Jamaica and worsened. The Bahamas has followed this model well.

As the country sat back and pointed its finger at Jamaica laughingly, the internal situation was worsening, only we chose to ignore it.

Now we have a growing group of angry, black youth that fear nothing and have even less to lose.

Historically, the Bahamas has looked askance at Jamaica because of the level of violence there, the supposed poverty and crime, the lack of ability to move up the social ladder.

Now Jamaica has given over its position as the most violent country in the Caribbean to the Bahamas. Our murders surpass theirs, our gang violence surpasses theirs and our sexual assaults are leading the region. Where are we heading? Well, gang violence seems to be increasing rather than decreasing.

A few months ago, the Minister for National Security claimed that murder was down. Is murder still down? Are young men not dying at an alarming rate? Why are they so angry? Are we working on addressing their anger? Are we taking their frustrations seriously? Or are we simply dismissing them as a bunch of angry, young, black men who happen to be from the lower socio-economic group and so easier to dismiss and/or marginalise? We can socially exclude what we choose not to see if it is an inconvenient truth.

Gang violence and sexual violence as well as gender-based violence have been taken very lightly in the Bahamas. All administrations to date have chosen to ignore or to downplay gang violence; it really is not that serious, they are not that well organised, they are small groups of splintered, disorganised angry, young black men, according to the politicians and the law-enforcement officials – much like sexual violence, which the powers that be seem to consider as unimportant.

Gender-based violence is not a serious problem in the country where young males feel it is normal and acceptable to discipline their partners. This is what they see and learn from their families and the men in power.

Politicians argue that gender-based violence is not really that bad in the Bahamas, and often that women do not need to have equal rights under the law that would assist in lessening the inequality problem. When around 50 per cent of young men say it is OK to beat women, we know we have a problem.

Everything proves the politicians wrong. The gangs are real and they are organised. The newspapers report stories about shootings and rapes that government officials say are not what they appear to be. Zoe Pound seems to be a very active contender in the gang arena.

Have we started to take these groups seriously yet? Have we begun to work on dissolving the need for gangs?

Have we decided to really take action on sexual violence or are we still creating task forces to examine the situation? When will their findings come to light? When will the country actually create sustainable programmes that address the problems instead of putting band aids on gaping wounds? But why Step Street? It seems that Fox Hill has become a gang-protected area. So many of the drive-by mass shootings are the result of gang violence that has spilled over into the communities and the outlying areas. Fox Hill also tends to be less well off than other areas around it.

What makes these guys so ‘violent’? What does it mean to be violent? We tend to think that young men are naturally violent. Interestingly, if we choose to shift the way we look at young men, if we expect different behaviour from them, if we give them tools to behave differently, we may begin to see a change in their “naturally violent” behaviour.

What is most harmful about all of this, and this has been stated before, is our country’s borrowing of a colonial and US language for dealing with black youth; they are simply bad and dangerous. This is used most for young males. We do not stop to examine how much we create that reality. We do not stop to think about the number of public figures who get their credibility from emerging from the ghetto, while barring the same young fellows who look just like them from doing the same thing they did. We do not sufficiently challenge these same people when they boast about beating women.

However, the system throws the young guys in jail for bad behaviour but lets the murderer out on bail. The young man who acts out his teenage angst and anger at being sent to school without lunch, without a cent to his name and being forced into hard labour to support a family he did not produce, but is made responsible for is the problem. He is slapped around and belittled if he does not bring in sufficient money to help keep food on the table. He is the gang member who has nothing to lose because he sees no escape from the prison of poverty. He sees no life outside of Step Street and its drive-by shootings.

Stop! Think! How can we show them an alternative reality? Now let’s act to create this alternative reality.

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