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Addressing gun violence in Trinidad and Tobago

Originally posted on Trindad and Tobago's Newsday

AUTHORITIES are at their wits end, it seems, as wanton violence siphons the lifeblood of nations. Indeed, the endemic nature of violence continues to spur international debates as few nations are spared this social scourge. As we grapple with this problem many have advanced get-tough approaches to combating crime. It’s a reactive response that has led to mass incarcerations, abuse of police powers, racial profiling, and an overall sense of distrust between communities and law enforcement. Clearly, the heavy-handed approach has failed to eradicate gangs and violence. This is a view shared by Marlon Peterson, a vociferous objector to what he calls “a flawed approach to crime in the United States.” Peterson’s formative years were spent in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad.

As a teenager in Brooklyn, New York, his life took a dramatic turn for the worse. In 1999 at the age of 19, Peterson made a decision that changed his life forever. He was the lookout man in a botched robbery that resulted in the murder of the owner and manager of a popular store in downtown New York City. He served ten years in prison. His life at that point mirrored that of so many young people today. The feeling of alienation, uncertainty, and fear experienced during incarceration still lingers today. Healing, according to Peterson is an ongoing process that could take a lifetime. On his experience in prison, he talks about surviving the many challenges that are faced daily. “I had to mature pretty fast as a teenager in prison,” he says. “It was emotionally difficult having to deal with correction officers who could be abusive. Then I had to manage the daily reality that I was not going home for a long time. To survive, I had to be constructive, get an education, stay out of fights, try and get along with everyone, just be consistent, and constantly prepare for my release date. I learned to make a terrible situation meaningful,” he reveals. “More importantly, I maintained communications with the outside. This proved very supportive. I also began to help others mentally prepare for their release date. Having a support network both in and outside prison is vital to the adjustment and productivity of former inmates, many of whom have gone on to do very well. In fact there is a lot of disinformation that ex-convicts can never really be reformed.” Since his release Peterson has earned a university degree and has become visible in his community and beyond. He is an entrepreneur and activist. He is a recipient of the Soros Justice Fellowship, a well known foundation that funds organisations and individuals “to undertake projects that advance reform, spur debate, and catalyse change on a range of issues facing the U.S. criminal justice system. It challenges reliance on mass incarceration and a criminal justice system that is bias against poor communities.” His non-profit organisation, the Precedential Group founded in 2015 is situated in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York. He has been lauded for his work with Save Our Streets Crown Heights, a community-based programme that utilises the abilities of former gang members and convicts to reach out to at risk youths. Statistics have shown that the streets are safer with the implementation of this project. Peterson’s group goes a step further, specialising in improving the services and leadership capacity of organisations, agencies, schools, and individuals in underserved and undervalued communities. In the fulfillment of this mission, Peterson believes that he is tapping into the nature of community crises. A theoretician with experiential knowledge of criminal justice, Peterson is weary of using slogans to combat violence among teens. “Don’t get me wrong,” he says, “I also make general statements, for example, I tell youths to stay away from gangs or stop the violence, but this subject requires a lot more attention and detail.” Peterson believes that youth violence is rooted in trauma. “At the individual and communal level trauma is at the bottom of anti-social, violent behaviours. There are emotional issues that adversely impact our young people in their homes and in the wider community. When these traumas are not addressed they tend to erupt in violence.” Peterson also views poor education and environmental hazards, such as the lack of sound infrastructure as compounding the psycho-emotional state of young people in depressed neighbourhoods – factors that create the perfect storm. “With easy access to guns, young and disaffected people can be impetuous, resorting to violence with little thought of the consequences. We have to get to the core – the reason for the violent reaction. We have to get to the core of the problem.” Peterson speaks of the many factors that lead to potentially combustible situations. He emphasises that while incarceration is the obvious consequence of criminal activity there is an overlooked element. “There are emotional scars that stay with victims of crimes, but these wounds are also very present in many perpetrators.” Peterson has partnered with several organisations, including Brooklyn Community Foundation, Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the African American Policy Forum in reshaping the discourse on gangs and violence. Strategic planning is fundamental, he states. And it is this profound existential understanding of violence that he plans to bring to TT ’s toughest neighborhoods. He intends to observe and meet with educators and officials at a governmental level. “I am already in discussion with a few individuals. In fact, I conducted a workshop at Woodbrook Youth Facility in 2015. It is during that visit that I experienced the deplorable physical condition of Laventille, Beetham and surrounding areas.” He attributes the violent culture partly to an environment where investment is non-existent. “Violence has become a way to survive in those areas. People have become normalised to violence. Again, we have the issue of trauma rearing its head.” Peterson also assails “the pervasive culture of corruption,” that is very visible in deprived areas. “It is not uncommon for so called community leaders to be part of this problem, as some have very suspect connections. These are the perceptions and images that our young people see on an on-going basis” And on the question on the accessibility of guns, Peterson is dismayed at the high caliber weapons found in these communities. “This is a bigger subject that deserves in depth investigations. Obviously, these guns are not made or manufactured in these communities so they are being supplied and brought in with deadly consequences.”

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