I was tried in the Supreme Court twice – in July of 1970 for seditious conspiracy and in January of 1971 for housebreaking and stealing. I was also tried in Magistrate’s Court in 1972 on two separate occasions. I was first tried early in 1972 for possession of dynamite and an unlicensed gun and ammunition, and then later in 1972 for resisting arrest, assaulting police officers, and indecent language.
When you are tried in Supreme Court, it is after you have been arrested, bailed, and have to attend Magistrate’s Court hearings for months. There are usually several adjournments before the preliminary inquiry begins in order to establish a prima facie case to be sent to the higher court.
For example, in the matter of seditious conspiracy, I was arrested in February 1970, but the case was not heard in Supreme Court until July of that year. Between February and July I was up and down at the Magistrate’s Court, which was at Riverside Hall at the time. In the matter of housebreaking and stealing, I was arrested around April or May of 1970, if I remember correctly, and the case wasn’t tried in Supreme Court until January of 1971. In addition, in the matters of the two Magistrate’s Court cases, there were, as usual, several adjournments. (The dynamite case was tried when a Magistrate’s Court was on Church Street, and the resisting arrest and assault business was tried when the Magistrate’s Court was in the old Paslow Building.)
I’m saying that for more than two years I was going to the Magistrate’s Courts and the Supreme Court so often that I got to know most of the Belizeans who were being processed by the judicial system. At times it was sad to see these brothers being brought from prison over and over for court hearings. You could see that some of them had been beaten down by the system.
If you come from a certain socio-economic section of Belizean society, what we sometimes call the “base of the pyramid,” you can become a victim of the system and have your whole life ruined. At the base of the pyramid, the chances are you will not go to high school. In the good old days, when everybody in Belize was “faamly,” you might be apprenticed out to a tailor or a mechanic. But, if you were high-spirited and began running with the wrong crowd, you could end up running afoul of the law. If you were a tough guy, they would send you to Listowel reform school in the Cayo District. (The most famous Listowel “graduate” was probably the late Odinga Lumumba, previously Wilhelm Buller.) This was the colonial days.
The Princess Royal Youth Hostel (PRYH) was supposed to be more humane than Listowel, one reason being, I suppose, that it was located in Belize City itself. The PRYH was established in the later 1950s, I would say.
We’ve lost a greater percentage of our youth to petty crime in this post-independence era, as opposed to colonial days. Petty crime can lead to jail sentences, and in jail our youth are educated by experienced criminals. The thing is that there is a certain point in life where a young male, under societal stress, can begin to develop an anti-social attitude. You become hostile to respectable society.
In modern, post-colonial Belize, we often see this process begin with the weed bust, when the boy is 13 or 14 years old, say. The system nowadays does not send you to jail immediately: you get fined. In most cases, the fine is just there on the books, so you start socializing again with your friends. Bang, you get busted again, fined again. No big deal. The fines mount up, until one day maybe you get into a fight, or a girl takes you to court for maintenance. At court, the computer shows you owe a lot of money in weed fines. You can’t pay, so you do the time.
So now you have a prison record. It was already very, very difficult to get any kind of decent job. Now, with the jail brand, it is almost impossible. So, you start to sell weed for somebody, to get on your feet, you say. The next bust is for trafficking. That’s big fine, long sentence. Now you think of killing somebody, because you are really angry, frustrated. This is how the slippery slope works once you come from the base of the pyramid.
It’s not that you were born evil, or criminal. You were born into a situation where the odds were against you, and you were not one of the brilliant ones, or the lucky ones. I met many young Belizeans like these where I was trapped inside the court system between 1970 and 1972. In fact, I too began to develop a real chip on my shoulder.
Wesley College gave me a break after I’d beaten my two Supreme Court cases, and they stuck with me during the two Magistrate’s Court trials. At that time, the People’s United Party (PUP) had never been beaten in a national election, and I guess the board of Wesley was hostile to the PUP. The thing is, I had a first degree from an American Ivy League university. Back then, there was nobody else being repeatedly processed by the court system who had gone this far educationally, so I was an exception. I was lucky.
In the 1960s, some educated people in the Third World did not believe they should just get rich, live big, and ignore the sufferings of their brothers and sisters. Nelson Mandela was a lawyer. He went to jail for 27 years. Fidel Castro was a lawyer. He spent two years in jail in Cuba before he went to Mexico to train for his revolution. Che Guevara was a doctor. He was murdered in Bolivia for his socio-political beliefs. These were heroes for university students like myself.
Times have changed. Except that on Saturday morning we saw a few educated Belizeans display the courage of their nationalistic convictions on Coney Drive. Do you think they were foolish? I do not. I admire Ya Ya Marin Coleman, Geovanni Brackett, Wil Maheia, Patrick Rogers, and Rosalie Staines, and I give them my respect.
Power to the people. Remember Danny Conorquie. Fight for Belize.