Columns

Police and bad words

MICHAEL BURKE

Thursday, September 06, 2012    

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The job of the Jamaican police is most stressful. The information coming out is that there were no previous reports of bad behaviour from the policeman in Yallahs who allegedly shot dead Kayann Lamont. The reports further state that he showed no signs of reaching breaking point. But police should be sent for counselling at certain intervals to prevent any surprise behaviour.

More than 10 years ago on February 7, 2002, my column printed in the Jamaica Observer was headlined "Black dignity". In that article, I opined that the law forbidding citizens from using so-called indecent language should be abolished. Had my advice been heeded 10 1/2 years ago, Kayann Lamont would be alive today, her child would have been born in due course and her sister Novia would not have been shot and wounded.

And this is what I wrote: "With regard to another obstacle to black dignity is the 'anti-bad word' law. It is used mainly to harass the poor. Whether you like it or not, the sound of so-called indecent words has nothing to do with the point I am making. We can still keep the law that says that such words should not be uttered on any public platform, be it a political meeting, a stage show or whatever.

"We can still keep the law that says that such words must not be printed or uttered over any form of electronic medium. And we can still train our children not to use them. But a policeman should not have the right to arrest or charge anyone using such words outside of the above limitations. What this has done is to make one law for the police (many of whom utter them openly) and another law for the public which reinforces class privilege.

"The problem is though, very few politicians, many of whom utter such words more than the public, will be brave enough to repeal the bad word law. Even if you take the view as a Christian that bad words are sinful, it is not everything that is sinful should be against the law. After all, how do you legislate morality? And making sure that no bad words are mixed with the lyrics at stage shows while keeping the very suggestive music is counter-productive."

Kayann Lamont may indeed be a martyr for this cause. The politicians can now find the courage to repeal the anti-bad word law. Which minister of religion can intelligently object when the choice is between coarse talk and being killed by police? Indeed, it has become a pro-life issue. I have always opposed lewd lyrics in pop music. But I do not advocate a law against it because it might only lead to more police excesses.

By the way, a policeman told me that police when caught using expletives are charged greater fines than the public and are usually docked a few days' pay. But they are not caught often. The anti-bad word law, which goes back to 1834, was made by the colonial governments because they thought it unsafe to them for the African ex-slaves to be using African words that the English planter class did not understand.

Many times these words are used in social conversations, even at sports meets like football or athletics and in such instances they are not really bad words at all, even if you are offended by the sound of such words. Yes, St Paul wrote in one of his epistles that we are to avoid obscenities. But who determines what is obscene and what is not?

Every nation needs a police force. But Jamaica's police force came about after the Morant Bay Rebellion in October 1865 to ensure that black people would never again rise up against the aristocracy. So the largely black constable population that took orders from white English police officers up to independence in 1962 were to see to it that their own black people did not offend the white aristocracy. And the police training to this day has been really geared toward the original police mission statement (although it was not called that then) when the force was established after the Morant Bay Rebellion.

It is a strange irony that this incident of a policeman killing a pregnant woman after arresting her for using bad words should take place in Yallahs, St Thomas, which is 12 miles from its parish capital, Morant Bay, and the scene of the 1865 rebellion nearly 147 years ago. A consequence of that rebellion was the establishment of the very police force that shot to death Kayann Lamont. But this is not to underscore the positives that came from the Morant Bay Rebellion. Indeed, it was the start of the journey to political independence that came in 1962.

And there are other police problems. I have been told that the rank-and-file police personnel are instructed to take in a certain number of criminals each week. So if no one commits a crime, then the police are obliged to bring in innocent people. Taxi drivers are perhaps the most victimised people by this practice. We must stop praising the police for the number of people they arrest and instead reward them for keeping the peace if they have done so.

ekrubm765@yahoo.com

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