Doing Time in the SoE

This is the dark time, my love,
All round the land brown beetles crawl about
The shining sun is hidden in the sky
Red flowers bend their heads in awful sorrow
This is the dark time, my love,
It is the season of oppression, dark metal, and tears.
It is the festival of guns, the carnival of misery
Everywhere the faces of men are strained and anxious
Who comes walking in the dark night time?
Whose boot of steel tramps down the slender grass
It is the man of death, my love, the stranger invader
Watching you sleep and aiming at your dream.

—This is the Dark Time, My Love Martin Carter

There’s something about going to prison that cures you of all desire to know what it’s like to not have your freedom. I spend the few hours on the inside fantasising about the hour of my escape. But I’ve chosen to be here, volunteering my time in a women’s prison in north London, working with hardened criminals whose smiles are sweet and light, who tell jokes and hug their children like there might not be a tomorrow. Oh but for them there is no tomorrow and this is a rare moment for them to spend time with their loved ones. I am struck again by how normal these women seem. How regular their needs, their names, their pet peeves.

They are not the most disagreeable people I have ever met. And I have a hard time seeing them as anything else but just like me. It always surprises me the women that I meet in these prisons, the ones who are the best behaved and so they get to come to the gym and play with their children and us the volunteers get to work with them on creating toys and tools and mementoes that have special significance to them and their families. This day it’s a woman from Barbados, who drops her English accent when she hears my unapolo- getic singing Trini-ness. My voice reminds her of home, she says. Her smile is wistful and I am dying to ask her how she ended up in this place of high walls and not very much light. But it’s not the time and it’s not my place.

We are in outer space today, and I help the mothers and children make fantastic spaceships to take them to outer galaxies in a sky we cannot see from this room. But the imagination is a hell of a thing and I am astounded by what they manage to do, without blades, without scissors. They construct magnificent vessels of escape out of paper plates and straws. To take them and their children away from this place of walls and mistakes and punishment for sins they may or may not have committed. The time drags for me. The doors locked. I have to get a guard’s permission for the toilet. I find it unbearable. The minutes  go so slowly and I fear that three o’clock will never come. Or the guards will forget us here. Locked up in this gymnasium where I cannot see the sky.

Perhaps they love their children more. Perhaps they will love freedom more now that they have a chance to reflect on it. I am thinking of spaceships and prisons on the flight back to Trini-dad. It is sunset and we are circling the Caroni Swamp and the sight of a flock of Scarlet Ibis flying like a red arrow below us makes me smile. From up here  everything looks so green, so beautiful in the light of a golden hour. There are no walls here. No walls that I can see from up here.

Later I listen to the silence descend at 11 pm. By 11.11 I am weary of it. It closes in like the walls of the prison’s gymnasium. I wonder what the rest of the people in the neighbourhood are doing. I cannot hear a television or a thought. Even the dogs have fallen silent as if they too are fearful that some boots will come trampling through the night and deal them a blow of silence like their scared masters. I remember one of the women in the prison in Babylondon telling me that for some people, prison is a far easier choice. Freedom comes with too much responsibility and so they prefer to be in a place where their meals are prepared, where their time is managed, where someone else has the keys and someone else makes the decisions.

Other people to manage your freedom so that you don’t have to take responsibility for your mistakes, for your shortcomings, for the fact that you’ve made a mess of your life, your children, your community, your country. It is a terrifying statement that haunts me well into the hours of the morning. And I want to believe that it’s jetlag that has me awake and watching the road, hoping for a sign of life, something, anything that has the freedom to move, freedom to own its body enough to not care who says not to go where.

But the silence is all that I can see or hear. Silence like a gate that I do not have the keys to. It is terrible and deafening. I wait for the dawn. For the time when the gate of silence opens. When I can own my body again and do with it what I must. I find that I am not rushing to run through the streets proclaiming freedom. I am trying to think of ways to make it through another night in this prison.

It’s just hair

Guiltiness rest on their conscience, oh yeah
These are the big fish
Who always try to eat down the small fish
They would do anything to materialise
Their every wish
Woe to the downpressors
They eat the bread of sorrow
Woe to the downpressors
They eat the bread of sad tomorrow

—Guiltiness, Bob Marley

It’s just hair. Tell yourself that so you can make sense of this story in the newspapers. The one where the soldiers rob a man of his locks. Well it’s not a robbery. It’s more of a rape, come to think of it. A deliberately dehumanising, socially acceptable form of torture. It’s just hair. Tell yourself that so you can make it through to the end of the story without throwing up. Without wanting to go out and mash up things. Because your hair is still on your head and you can feel the locks tingling to their very ends. With absolute, uncontrollable rage. It’s just hair. This shouldn’t be the story that gets you the most vexed out of the whole state of emergency farce where the politicians finally get the chance to play the role of badjohn and they put their all into it.

It’s just hair. You should be more upset that people are saying that we should bring back the PNM, as if they ever had any interest in improving the fortunes of anybody other than their cronies. It’s just hair. Take a deep breath and consider that soldiers are just doing their jobs, stamping out troublemakers of all kinds. It’s just hair. That is why Samson was destroyed when Delilah cut his. It’s just hair. That’s why soldiers think they have a right to cut it. It’s just freedom. That’s why somebody else has a right to say who can be free and who can’t. It’s just hair. That’s why you can’t escape the irony of a Christian neo-colonial notion of decency being endorsed by a Hindu who must have grown up in a house with a picture of Lord Shiva, watching the Ganges spring from his jata wrapped like a crown around his head.

It’s just hair. And Selassie wasn’t a Rastaman. But Lord Shiva was. And so too, perhaps, was their Christ with his lambs wool hair. And so too the Shaivite saddhus who introduced their sacred ganja and ascetic life to the rural Jamaicans who gave the world Rastafari. It’s just hair. There is no power there that strikes terror into the hearts of Babylon, and the worst kind of Babylon is the one who looks like you, and talks like you but hates you as much as he hates his own blackness. Black like sin. Black like the devil. Black like power that he will never have except to take away your hair and make you feel less than human.

It’s not a thing of beauty. It is a thing of defiance. To wear your hair long. To refuse to deny your hair its right to grow. To reject their notions of beauty and manhood and decency. It’s just hair. And the State has a right to your body. Because the State is a corporation and you are its asset. But your dutty stinking Rasta head is a liability. Cut it out. Your offensive hair that flies in the face of authority. That says you will not be who they want you to be. Cut it out. And straighten it up so that you can look like a decent member of society. Because you can’t possibly be a good person with hair like that. Oh no. You have to be doing something illegal. You have to be a weed-smoking or selling pariah.

So if you have white skin and you grow your ganja hydroponically in your daddy’s nice Westmoorings backyard, that’s okay. If you have a few letters after your name and you’re a successful academic you can do a few lines of cocaine with your friends. There’s nothing wrong with that. But for those of you for whom your hair is your crown, a soldier could come and take it away. Who are you to think yourself royal anyway? It’s just hair, dread. It’s just hair. It could grow back.  It could grow back like the murder rate. It could grow back like the feeling of unsafety.

It could grow back like your contempt for people in authority. It could grow back like your disgust for citizens who are willing to accept that a lack of freedom is okay, once they’re not the ones who have to be disturbed. Certain things for me may never grow back. Like the cojones of certain people who have remained suspiciously silent during this state of emergency. Like your faith that any politician currently serving in the Parliament of this be-loved nation has any interest in building a functional state, a progressive nation. It’s just hair. And in Trinidad, in 2011, it is a symbol of all that is bad and dangerous. Because hair could unseat the power of those who want to turn us all into slaves of capitalism. Again.

Finding freedom

I been thinking what is it I can do
All these feelings got me staring back at you
I been talking but you don’t hear me
Can I make it through somehow

—Take Me Away, Medics

Notting Hill is sunny in that innocuous way that sun shines in Babylondon, without the kick and sting that makes you imagine that the melanin in your shoulders is stretching little arms up to the sky and saying yes, yes. But it’s enough to make you smile and the familiar throb of soca reminds you that your heart is still beating, that you are living. That it is jouvay and thank Jah for Trinidad because then how would repressed white people get an opportunity to randomly wine on the streets? You watch the unbaptised, the unfamiliar with the rituals of the Carnival burn out a few streets down. They know nothing of chipping, that clever dance of energy conservation that helps you make it across the miles.

But they keep going because Carnival feels so good. Even though it’s only 13 degrees and the sun is doing a dollar wine with the clouds, coming in and out and in and out and then the rain comes down and it is not the warm sweet rain of home but an icy distant cousin that you’d rather not know. This is cleaner than oil, less smelly than natural gas. This Carnival that we have given the world. This claiming of the streets. And even the several thousand police officers that they put to line the streets, even they have to smile and look away from the sight of boomsies suddenly discovering the defiant joy of going down low, so low that the cold Babylondon asphalt is just centimetres away.

Even the police cannot escape the beat. And you catch those Bobbies trying to bop their funny round hats, that look like a mas themselves, to the beat. The sun comes out, properly. And gives you a little kick and sting and you think it can’t get better than this, then you hear a faint dudups coming up behind you and you turn around and four men are pulling a trailer of a riddim section, with the irons cleverly mounted on an ironing board. This Carnival we have given the world is sweeter than the fake mangoes you buy in Tesco, that have no smell of home.

This Carnival, if only we knew how much it meant, we would market it properly. And there isn’t a feather in sight and there are Sikhs jumping up in the band and a woman shouting to her children in Tagalog and your pardner the Wild Indian from Aranguez get so excited to see a riddim section that he play like if he want them to hear it home and so he buss the Guyanese man djembe. But it’s Carnival so they forgive him. And the rum is flowing and the love is flowing and I am thankful that Babylon’s powers that be didn’t ban the Carnival for fear of the restless natives.

The natives, you see, need the spiritual, emotional release. They need to be wutless and witless and raising their hands above their heads is just them doing yoga to increase the flow of blood to the heart, so that they remember that love is something that we all need sometimes. And you think about home, where the curfew is. Where the guns are. Where the anger is. You dread having to go home to restrictions. You dread having to control yourself. You wonder how come the people aren’t running amok on the streets during the day. You wonder if you can bear someone telling you where you can and can’t go and when.

From your position of watched freedom you wonder at why the only thing that’s being organised is curfew limes, why your friends report that Frankie’s on the Avenue is ram at 5 pm. From your position of freedom, you are thankful that you ran away when you did. So that you can walk the streets freely. With thousands of police. With CCTV cameras watching your every step. They are searching youths. Section 60 they call it. Criminal Justice and Public Order to tackle anti-social behaviour. And doesn’t mean they will charge you for not wanting to wine. The ropes are closing in. You can’t go that way. Your smartphone is suddenly stupid, the conspiracy theorists say the networks are being jammed so that youths can’t organise bacchanal.

It sours your Carnival experience. Reminds you that freedom comes with a high price, when you let somebody else define it for you. At the end of Carnival you walk the streets with your friends. And it’s like some post-Apocalyptic scene. The police blocking your way. The young people bleary-eyed from all the drugs they’ve taken for the past two days. The helicopters circle like mechanic cobos in a slate grey sky. The Carnival is over and the freedom you felt, like the warmth, is gone.

What replaces it is a kind of terror. That someone has allowed you to enjoy yourself. That this was not a joy of your own making. This is an undeclared cur-few. This is monitoring for the sake of it. Big Brother is watch-ing your every move. Like Big Tanty is now watching your news feed waiting for you to say something seditious, like Anand Ramlogan really desperately needs a hug. But the State, whether British or “Trinbagonian,” cannot control the desire for freedom. With fear or guns or cameras. The desire for freedom will win out ultimately. But it’s time to stop waiting for the next Carnival to be free.