When I was a child, one of the worst punishments my mother could inflict on me was to order me to go “sit in a corner.” Life would go on around you as per normal, while you were immobilized, imprisoned in space in broad daylight. After a while, you would wonder if your mom had forgotten about you and your punishment. Remember now, there was no time limit: theoretically, you could have remained in that corner forever, so that as time went along your mind would begin to play tricks on you. When would this end, when would this end ….
Around 8:30 on Sunday morning, Father’s Day, an over-enthusiastic young police constable essentially ordered me to go sit in a corner. This humiliation came out of the blue, as we would say. The police had set up a checkpoint at the corner of Vernon and Mayflower Streets. Personally, I hate checkpoints in the city, especially during working hours. This was not working hours, but it was a Sunday morning, God forbid.
It had been quite some time that I had not been stopped and asked for my driver’s licence. In the first instance, I’ve had a driver for some months now; he handles most of the driving on weekdays. Secondly, in almost all the cases when I’ve been stopped recently, traffic personnel or police officers were looking for vehicle licence and insurance updates. To make my situation worse, insofar as being caught off guard, I’d been licensed to drive for three years on my April 30 birthday in 2014. Whereas I will check vehicle licence and insurance from time to time to avoid harassment by the authorities, I’d ignored driver’s licence for a long time.
From the time this young cop insisted on stopping me, I became angry. My immediate sense was that he was reveling in his status and authority. Then, he asks for my driver’s licence. As I began fumbling in the compartment between seats for it, a premonition began to come over me. This was 2017. Could it be that my driver’s licence had expired? I searched the packet in which I keep the licence, slowly, so much so that the cop exulted: “Yu no sure yu renew, true?” His glee made me angrier. And yes, the licence had expired.
I handed it over, and he said, “Go park over there.” At the left hand side of Vernon Street, at the corner with Mayflower, another policeman, older and presumably senior, was checking a vehicle. I was seething, partly because I was driving to pick up my wife to take her to church. I actually took more than a while before I obeyed the order. Go sit in a corner.
Looking back, I think I made a mistake to shut down my engine and get out of the vehicle. I stood there in limbo for minutes. This senior cop was taking a long time with the vehicle ahead of me. On my right, maybe forty feet away, the gung-ho cop continued to check vehicles and drivers. He had kept my licence in his possession. People were passing on foot and in vehicles, and and asking me what was the matter.
After some while, I began to lose it and began to shout at the young cop. Du weh yu wanh do: put mi da jail if you want. In the twinkling of an eye, I had been returned to the powerlessness of childhood, not to mention the targeted years of young adulthood when I was considered an enemy of the state. Boy oh boy. And what made it worse, I was guilty, though I consoled myself that I had been tripped up by a technicality. Why me? Why now? Why here?
Finally, the younger policeman brought my driver’s license over to the older policeman. He examined the laminated document, in a deliberate manner. Eventually, he asked me what kind of work I did. I replied that he must not be from Belize City, that I ran Amandala. His response was that he was from Orange Walk, and told me where he had been stationed. By the time he told me where he had been stationed, I wasn’t listening, to be truthful. Things seemed surreal.
The older cop asked me when I could renew the licence. Of course I replied, “Tomorrow.”
So it was that I went on my way, still seething. It had been a weird combination of circumstances, beginning with the fact that I had seriously thought of going through the Swing Bridge before deciding to go Belcan, which is to say, through Vernon.
I knew that I had overreacted, and concluded that I needed a rest. I realized, I was reminded, how potentially dangerous almost every encounter is between the law and the citizenry. There are young men being harassed like this, and much worse than this, every day and sometimes several times a day. These are dangerous encounters, because young policemen often taunt these young civilians. Young policemen often become exhilarated by their new-found power.
Yes, I had been caught off guard. I had no intention to deceive or defraud the system. But I was guilty: my licence to drive had expired. The policemen were only doing their job. Still, I thought, bitterly, of Citizen Kim. I thought of Lord Michael Ashcroft. The system was not fair, but the system was real.
In Belize, I had become somewhat respectable. A few months ago, Master Pen Cayetano held a public tribute for me in Dangriga. In April, I had turned 70, which is an age of seniority and respect. I hardly expected to be harassed Sunday morning. I had been harassed in my youth – several arrests, dozens of Magistrate’s Court appearances, two Supreme Court trials. On Sunday morning, June 18, quietly cruising through the Southside streets of Belize City, however, I may actually have begun to feel entitled. I was awakened out of that reverie. Rudely and for sure.