In his heyday, George Odlum and I argued a lot about a lot of things. But our hottest debates centered on his apparent penchant for resorting to Shakespeare’s plays or to Bertrand Russell philosophy whenever he needed to underscore an important point. I recall asking him on several occasions why he never cited the works of James Baldwin that dealt largely with the black man’s plight in America and elsewhere, or the inspiring words of Frederick Douglass, the noted American social reformer, orator, writer and statesman; another black hero.
After escaping from slavery Douglass had become a leader of the abolitionist movement, quickly become legendary for his dazzling speeches and incisive anti-slavery writing. To quote someone else referring to Douglass: “He stood as a living counter-example to the slaveholders’ arguments that slaves did not have the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens.”
Our famously partisan nation might be interested to know it was Douglass who also had said: “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong!”
Indeed I’ve often wondered whether Frederick Douglass had inspired Dr Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’—wherein he asks of his cowardly see-no-evil fellow church leaders the following: “How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral.”
To strengthen his position, King leaned on Thomas Aquinas: “A law that uplifts human personality is just. A law that degrades human personality is unjust.” Could anything be simpler?
Still my favorite Douglass quote remains: “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe!”
The last quoted gem (sounds like a threat, if not a promise!) came to mind this week as I listened with increasing horror to the cries of desperate fellow Saint Lucians via the electronic media: wall-to-wall unemployment, ever rising food prices, VAT-rated medicine, helpless families of citizens long incarcerated yet untried, the relatives of citizens unaccountably shot dead by the police, a seemingly defunct DPP’s office, and so on.
As if all of that were not already bad enough, there was also the news this week that the OECS court of appeal had determined, based on a perceived typographical error in our Constitution soon to be conveniently rectified, that the government will soon authorize itself, without one word from the protesting people themselves, to dump the Privy Council as our court of last resort in favor of the CCJ—for the longest while Kenny Anthony’s favorite wet dream!
Like his fellow prime minister Ralph Gonsalves of St Vincent, Kenny Anthony had long advocated the change. Not because the Privy Council that has always had the trust of most of the Caribbean people had been unworthy, but because somehow it had seemed to the mentioned government leaders that the move would be indicative at long last of the black man’s maturity. It may be mere coincidence that Kenny Anthony is an energetic advocate of the death penalty, while the Privy Council frowns on state-sanctioned killings.
Those who have always supported the Saint Lucian prime minister’s position on the CCJ (you may rest assured they are largely fellow lawyers and their party faithful!) have nearly all tended to be racist in their arguments, as if indeed the laws that fill our statute books and which feed their obesity were written by de black man!
Frederick Douglass came to mind as I considered the coincidence that those who make the most noise on behalf of the CCJ were altogether silent on what passes in their own respective jurisdictions for justice. In Saint Lucia, for instance, justice is denied most citizens simply because the majority cannot afford lawyers’ services in this no-legal-aid, politics-bedeviled den of iniquity: the hardly shocking word is that there are more citizens on custodial remand at Bordelais than there are who have been convicted.
In our country, with its Constitution that supposedly guarantees citizens speedy trials, the average case, before it can be heard by a judge and jury, takes at least five years: a man charged with the death and rape of Verlinda Joseph (according to one attorney general the system had “let her down!”) has been sitting at Bordelais for close to seven years without a trial date.
Meanwhile, the popular view suggests the government simply does not have the evidence to sustain its allegations. That particular citizen is not alone in his miserable circumstances. There are several others like him whose cases have been predictably adjourned over and over for lack of witnesses or because of other state shortcomings!
Unaccountably, we spend millions on hospitals to which the average citizen will have next to no access because of endemic poverty. Children die here because their unemployed single parents cannot afford a lousy $50 for medical attention. Meanwhile, the government pays for its chosen people medical fees totaling thousands of dollars from the Consolidated Fund.
Thanks to dozens of tax-funded “consultants” and other persistent disseminators of government information, not to mention a press that seems to exist for the sole purpose of issuing uninvestigated party communiqués, the people grow more and more ignorant, and consequently incapable of making decisions in their own best interests. The people have become little more than blood banks for insatiable political ticks and vampires.
Alas, with life in these islands growing progressively worse and without the smallest hint of better days to come, it seems Frederick Douglass’ prediction may be upon us. More and more people are publicly expressing their suspicions about an organized conspiracy of politicians and benefitting lawyers hell-bent on oppressing them with unjust laws, unjust taxes, arrogant nepotism, delayed (if not totally denied) justice, and so on.
Still more are coming to understand that democracy can only be just another useless word without appropriate underpinnings. It’s like passing laws without sanctions for lawbreakers. Speaking of which, who will say, judging by
what we hear from their own mouths, that our elected lawmakers are not themselves also our nation’s worst lawbreakers?
How much longer before “neither persons nor property will be safe?”