The Rastafarian community in Montserrat earned a historic concession last Friday when it was issued an apology following recent incidents that they deemed blatant examples of police profiling, harassment and excess.
Armed with placards and uttering chants of protest, about a dozen Rastas marched a half-mile from Carr’s Bay to The Governor’s Office in Brades. They were granted a meeting with Governor Andrew Pearce and Police Commissioner Steve Foster. And although it remains to be seen whether the gesture will spark actual reform, it was a pivotal victory for a group that has felt subjugated for decades.
Karen “Lioness” Allen has been a spokesperson for the Rasta community. An aspiring politician, she is one of more than 30 declared candidates contesting the upcoming national elections. She attended the meeting with the governor and commissioner.
“We asked the police to respect us like we respect them,” Allen says. “The police culture in Montserrat is very aggressive toward Rastafarians. We’ve had to face armed raids. Who else in Montserrat can attest to that?”
In the 1970s when the Rasta movement began to expand in Montserrat, the Rastas were considered uncouth and ungodly by many on the Christian-dominant island. The “Raska” were the men that mothers would warn their daughters about. They were openly discriminated against. In the 1980s a popular night club in Plymouth even had a sign outside stating Rastas were not allowed.
And when it came to law enforcement, the treatment was even harsher. Rastas are not a monolithic group, as some members are more orthodox than others. But there is one commonality: the use of cannabis. That makes Rastas an easy target for profiling, police raids and general harassment.
And sadly, the Rastas feel not much has changed in Montserrat society. Two recent incidents have brought the issue to the forefront:
▪ On August 11, reigning Montserrat calypso monarch Garnett “Sylk” Thompson, who is a Rasta, was searched by police at Little Bay despite being cleared by customs after returning from Anguilla, where he competed in the Leeward Islands Calypso Monarch competition. Police, ostensibly acting on a tip, found nothing illegal.
▪ On September 14, Lloyd “Bimsha” Francis, another local musician, says he was detained and searched by four policemen wearing masks near Carr’s Bay. Francis says the men never identified themselves as officers. He was roughed up, and officers tried to confiscate his cellphone when they saw him taking photos at the scene. Police searched his vehicle and found nothing illegal.
Allen says Commissioner Foster confirmed during the meeting that the mask-wearing officers have been identified and the matter is being investigated.
“We would like [the officers] to be fired and face criminal charges,” Allen says. “Are we supposed to be comfortable with not only the fact that police are doing what they’re doing without repercussion, but that our fellow citizens are watching this and it doesn’t bother them? That’s also a sore point for the Rasta community.”
Allen says she cited the Montserrat Constitution during the meeting, particularly Section 2B, which states that every person is entitled to: “Freedom of conscience and of religion, of expression, and of assembly and association.” She says Foster explained that he was acting under the authority granted to him by the Police Act. However, he conceded that Constitutional rights should take precedence.
This presents a quandary for police: Cannabis is illegal in Montserrat (there is not even a provision for medicinal marijuana). So should police abdicate their duty for fear of violating someone’s freedom of religion?
The best solution going forward is for the government to adopt new legislation. That is one reason Allen is vying for a seat in the Montserrat Parliament. Legalization of marijuana is one issue in her manifesto. She feels Montserrat should follow the lead of places such as Colorado and Canada, where marijuana has been legalized and regulated.
“I can see legalizing marijuana having a direct economic effect on Montserrat,” Allen says. “Why can’t we utilize natural resources? Also, what’s the worse that’s going to happen if we say tomorrow by 11 o’clock that marijuana is legal in Montserrat?”
“The police culture in Montserrat is very aggressive toward Rastafarians. We’ve had to face armed raids. Who else in Montserrat can attest to that?”Karen “Lioness” Allen
During the protest last Friday, Allen pointed out that police have been enforcing laws inconsistently. She says while Rastas have been jailed for marijuana possession, police seem to ignore prostitution. However she was optimistic after the meeting, especially with the response by Pearce, who gave a public statement.
“The Rastafarian community should feel valued and respected,” Pearce said. “The police do not just act on a whim. There was certain information that prompted police activity that night [September 14]. But Commissioner Foster and his colleagues do recognize that in some respects the handling of those searches wasn’t of the professional standing that we would have expected.
“Lessons will be learned for the future in how to handle those activities.”
After gaining the unprecedented audience with the governor and commissioner, the Rastas assembled at Carr’s Bay for a celebration. They hope it will indeed be a watershed moment.