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Columns : The New Bahamian - Joseph Gaskins Last Updated: Feb 6, 2017 - 2:32:04 PM

Exuma Bears Strange Fruit (Dispatches from Exuma Part 3)
By Joseph Gaskins
Dec 28, 2011 - 10:18:20 PM

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[ This is the final piece in a series entitled "Dispatches from Exuma." The series, which had its start in Exuma, is an attempt to more clearly set out a "new politics”  to which this column is dedicated. This new politics is characterized by critical thought, inclusion and a particular concern for the value of life. What a critical politics and a politics of inclusion entail are elaborated in the previous articles in this series, and this final piece will articulate what I call a "politics of life."]  

On December 10th, 2011 the Nassau Guardian reported the discovery of a partially decomposed body hanging from a tree outside of Moss Town, Exuma. We would later learn that the body was that of Garrison Pyfrom, a suspect in the murder of 17 year old Kortney McKinney. Whether Pyfrom committed suicide or was lynched, to reference Billie Holiday's moving Jim Crow classic, Exuma seems to bear strange fruit.   

I want to suggest that amidst the murky circumstances of Pyfrom's death and his possible involvement in an unsolved murder, inscribed even on his decomposing body, there is a deeper commentary about Bahamian politics and culture that tells of a people with an ambivalent relationship to the value of life. I want to suggest further that the Bahamian obsession with capital punishment is inextricably connected to the wave of brutality that we are experiencing and that to curb this trend, Bahamians must adopt a “politics of life.”  

While addressing the Atlantic Caribbean Union of Seventh Day Adventists , Prime Minister Ingraham called for a "culture of peace." For the Prime Minister, it is now important for us to encourage "mutual well-being and fellowship, (and) a culture of life and respect for the Giver of Life." The Prime Minister asserted that the desire for material wealth is to blame for the rise of violence in our culture, distracting Bahamians from the "true purpose of our lives, to love God and our neighbors as ourselves."  

I think that it is important that the Prime Minister has acknowledged the role culture has played in increased rates of murder and other crimes, but to stress the need for a "culture of peace" is inadequate.  

Culture is a product of the political and by the political I am not simply referring to the functions of the state or what happens in Parliament. For me (and coming from a Gramscian tradition), I conceive of politics as more of space than thing or an action. As such, the political space is a contested landscape on which the moral, ethical, intellectual and cultural character of a people is decided. Through this political struggle, state functionaries, politicians vying for votes, as well as the various members of civil society (churches, schools, media, nongovernmental organizations etc.), all with their own (sometimes similar) ideas of what The Bahamas should  be like, compete for ideological primacy and material resources. It is from contests across the political landscape, that culture is constructed, authored primarily by political winners. Contrary to the belief that culture is the originary, ontological, natural or essential spirit of a people it can be situated historically and deconstructed politically.   

Furthermore, while "peace" is always an admirable goal, I would argue that, as a concept, it has been drained of much of its significance. These days the best reason to go to war is peace. It was under the guise of peace America deployed its military to Iraq, incurring an untold cost in human life. Also, it would not be inaccurate to suggest that the constant call for the return of the death penalty is a call to “bring peace to The Bahamas.” Unfortunately, to advocate for peace does not inherently mean one is concerned with the preservation of life.   

With this in mind, if the Prime Minister believes we are in need of a "culture of peace," it means (at least in his opinion) we are likely practicing a culture that is the opposite of that. As I have previously argued, if our culture seems to be the opposite of peaceful, it is the product of a particular kind politics. Moreover, if we can agree that "peace" is an inadequate goal to strive toward and that our situation in the Bahamas requires something more than just an appeal to peace, what should that be? What does our culture say about our politics and the winners of the Bahamian political contest? And, what does a body hanging from a tree in Exuma have to do with any of this?   

In the Bahamas, two contenders in the political game have risen to primacy: elected politicians and religious authority. Beyond the authoring of legislation and despite being limited by appeals to the voting population, politicians in The Bahamas have a vast and loyal party base. For many, the word of their political leaders is gospel. The paternalism that defines the relationship between a large portion of voters and the leaders of their party gives politicians an influence over voters that, in actuality, voters should have over politicians. The lack of an ideological backbone displayed by Bahamian political parties leaves an opportunity for other members of the political contest to set the cultural agenda. And, when it comes to capital punishment, most politicians are openly in support of the death penalty.   

As for the other top contender in the political contest, we know their position when it comes to capital punishment. For example, Bahamas Christian Council has continuously privileged an "eye for an eye" theology over a "ye without sin" theology. I critiqued this perspective here for The Bahamas Weekly . As I said, “ Far be it from me to challenge the infallibility of the Holy Word, but given that Christ saved Mary Magdalene from a makeshift jury of her peers with stones in hand, ready and willing…” this seems strange to me. Their open and explicit justification of state-sanctioned violence and their influence make it near impossible for a politician (that intends to keep his job) to come out against capital punishment.   

That politicians, religious leaders, and more importantly the Bahamian people, are unable to see how the gospel of justified killing is connected to violence outside of the authority of the state is evidence of the lack of critical thought. Politically, we've let loose a Pandora's Box that has necessarily affected Bahamian culture. The minute we believe we can legitimize the taking of a life for the purpose of exacting some sort of righteous justice through the machinery of the state, we implicitly open the door to other justifications by people with their own ideas about what justifies taking a life. And as far as the state is concerned, as I’ve previously argued, “ …  Her Majesty’s Royal Bahamas Police Force has a tendency to question suspects…vigorously.” Furthermore, “…evidence tampering, cronyism, political maneuvering and a myriad of issues concerning corruption and collusion, all call into question the integrity of our justice system for me...[and the] courts are in shambles.” We are dealing with a slippery slope here.   

There will always be reasons that people justify the taking of a life. These reasons may come in a moment of passion—during a lovers’ quarrel or the discovery of infidelity. Sometimes these reasons are the product of extra-legal codes of honor governing how a man maintains or reclaims his masculinity, or the way business on the street is handled. Capital punishment, a politics of violence justified, is the "gateway drug" for a culture with an uncertain relationship to the value of life. And, in a culture where life is not explicitly and unquestionably affirmed, death and brutality will not be far behind.   

If Bahamians are intent on changing what has become a culture of violence—a culture where violence is justified for the purposes of entertainment, honor and the so called maintenance of peace—then Bahamians must demand a politics of life. Those who have historically had the power to direct the Bahamian cultural agenda through their political influence must make it clear that there is nothing more valuable than a human life and that life of a living, breathing human being should a never be taken under any circumstance.

A politics of life is not limited to the question of capital punishment. Today, we measure the success of a government by the gross domestic product, income per capita, levels of inflation, and government debt. While these indicators are important they fail to speak to the quality of life in the country they are meant to describe. For a politics of life, life holds primacy and a government’s economic, educational, health, social and even immigration policy should reflect this.

What do Bahamians believe is a “good life”? Beyond ensuring employment, how does our economic policy promote a better quality of life for the Bahamian people? In what way should education contribute to our lives and does education in The Bahamas exemplify this? What part does encouraging a healthy life play in our politics and culture? What is more important to Bahamians, the life of an immigrant or their nationalism? And, after answering these questions, what can we say about the way Bahamians have organized Bahamian society in relation to the preservation of human life?

We can now return to the body of Garrison Pyfrom found in Exuma. Aside from the sorrow that Pyfrom’s family must feel, and the closure that McKinney’s family may never have, Pyfrom’s body has symbolic importance. This strange fruit, left hanging in the heat and Trade Winds, was borne from the political seed of justified violence and nourished by a culture with ambivalence to the value of human life. Whether Pyfrom died at the hands of lynch-men seeking justice or committed suicide is not the point, in either case life is given no value. That Pyfrom himself was suspected of taking a life complicates things further but, if true, one thing remains constant—life is to be taken not preserved. Pyfrom’s body becomes a symbolic figure for a politics, and thus a culture, in which death and violence is central and there is little space left for life. And, any culture that can be summed up by a decomposing body hanging from a tree is not worth keeping.

All of We is One Family ... Except for Dem (Dispatches from Exuma Part 2)

In the Absence of Critical Thought (Dispatches from Exuma Part 1)

Joey Gaskins is a graduate of Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY with a BA in Politics. He was born in Grand Bahama Island and is currently studying at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) where he has attained his MSc in Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies and has begun a Doctoral Degree in Sociology. Joey also writes for  the Nassau  Liberal  
www. nassauliberal. webs.com  . You can reach him at  j.gaskins@lse.ac.uk


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