Indian feminist scholar and literary theorist Gaytri Spivak provocatively poses the question: ‘can the subaltern speak?’ in her ‘ovulal’ (seminal) essay of the same name. Using a primarily Marxist lens through which to see, she questions colonial structures of power which are reworked in the present through the thesis of Capitalism. These often oppress members of the underclass in societies like India and others. Spivak’s aim is to undermine the deception of inclusion of those on the periphery who are routinely promised justice but who are consistently denied same by society’s power brokers.
Her agenda though is less about asking a question for its own sake as much as interrogating how Power is constituted in society, who profits from it and how it is discharged and against whom. Spivak, in effect, aims to dismantle conventional ideas about the poor and the marginalised as voiceless. She eloquently queries the paradoxes and contradictions of societies (like ours) which claim democratic futures while all the time operating like archaic, colonial, plantation systems.
Speaking from the Margins
In Spivak’s view the periphery cannot speak, not because they are unable to necessarily, but because Power, through its continued refusal to hear, actively denies them the wherewithal to do so. Fast forward to the Khajeel Mais Murder Trial and the unfortunate but expected outcome and again we are forced to reflect on how colonial structures of domination serve to silence and subsequently distort the voices, faces and stories of subalterns in Jamaica.
‘Justice’ in Jamaica
Indeed we need not look very far to see that ‘justice’ – such as it is, is really the purview of the rich and powerful. And that the majority of those so endowed often look and act nothing like the people on the margins.The intersection of class privilege and gender is a routine part of living in Jamaica. The former enables those in power – and very often certain kinds of men, to profit from a system aimed primarily at keeping, poor (mostly black) people in their place; that is, under the heels of the ruling class elite.
Colonial Agenda/ Guilt?
Jamaica operates pretty much in the vein of how the colonial structures, which sought to destroy black lives, intended. No surprises there. Our justice system has not caught up with the modern age. It has yet to see value in use of video recorded statements of witnesses in trials for instance. Though, going by what happens elsewhere in places like the United States where video footage of various killings still do not result in a guilty verdict, our approach is consistent with the colonial agenda of canabalising poor (black) people.
Video Witness Statements
Likely, the use of video recorded statements might have prevented the Prosecution’s main witness – taxi driver Wayne Wright, from going back on his word and in the process upending their case.
This continued denial of justice to certain sectors of the society – regardless of reasons or the modes in which it occurs, only serves to further unravel the pretensions of living in a democratic society.
Among others, it undermines hope and inspires retaliatory violence often in instances where the state either fails to act or is unable to offer meaningful redress in the face of egregious abuses of power and excesses in the exercise of authority.
Recall that it took approximately five years for Mais’ Case to come to trial.
Recall also that in that time little no evidence was collected to substantiate the Prosecution’s case. Patrick Powell – the main suspect refused to hand over his firearm, the key piece of evidence.
Recall as well that much of the violence in certain communities stem from contexts in which the reach and influence of the state have been curtailed or deliberately undermined by the actions of those who have no regard for law and order. They often do so for various reasons. Already invocations of portentous omens have begun, straining against the thinly veiled rhetoric of ‘Divine Justice’.
This, even as ‘news’ comes that the Prosecution in the case may be aiming to charge their star witness for apparently going back on his word. None of this augurs well for our democracy.
We can ill afford to have a further erosion of the authority of the state especially where people are convicted about the morality of their cause(s). The Khajeel Mais Murder Trial is but one of many such experiences, albeit the most prominent at the moment. And the one which has inspired the loudest dissension so far. Where does it stop?
Laws and Governance
How do we amend both the laws and the systems of governance in such a way as to inspire faith, hope and confidence amongst the mostly poor and disenfranchised masses – the majority of whom are the sons of daughters of the formerly enslaved? How do we get them to believe that justice is indeed possible and achievable even on their meagre budgets and limited means?
Justice vs Peace?
‘Firebrand’, Reggae philosopher and activist, the late Peter Tosh, poignantly asks: ‘how can there ever be peace if there is no justice?’ That question resonates even now, decades after it was first posed, interrogating the roots of an imperialist, classist, Capitalist society bent on trampling down the poor by insisting that their speech is both indiscernible and indecipherable. Not only can they not speak but when they do no sense is to be made of what is said according to this logic.
Still that view only betrays the clear awareness that denying one the opportunity to speak only further serves to deligitimise the authority of those who do. Critique in effect is the lifeblood of a democracy. It is what fuels it and forces it to change even where it does not wish to do so willingly. Thereby creating spaces for new possibilities and crevices in which pressures built up in the system are able to escape.
…So, who will speak for Khajeel Mais?