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Young blacks feel like ‘pariahs’

Young black people who found themselves in court often implied they felt like voiceless “pariahs”, the island's senior magistrate said yesterday.

Juan Wolffe added that, based on his observations of people who appeared in civil, criminal and family courts, many said that racism and disenfranchisement were the source of their actions.

Mr Wolffe emphasised: “I wish to preface my comments by saying that they are not my personal opinions, but are derived from what I observe and hear in the Magistrates' Court on a frequent basis.”

He said: “Whether or not the above concerns are legitimate or genuine, actual or perceived, self-imposed or imposed by others, the bottom line is that many young black men — and increasingly young black women — who come before the courts appear with varying emotional states of discouragement, hopelessness, and powerlessness.

“They also articulate their deep-seated frustration that, financially, Bermuda is not designed, and nor does it operate, for black people.

“Many young black men and women feel that they are pariahs in Bermuda and that they have no say in her political, financial and cultural direction. In essence, they feel disregarded, left behind and victimised.”

Mr Wolffe was speaking only days before a protest planned for Sunday, when crowds are expected to gather on Front Street at noon in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The march is one of a string of demonstrations in the United States and around the world to be held in the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of police officers in Minnesota on May 25.

Mr Wolffe said people of “all backgrounds and ethnic origins” should join forces against inequality in Bermuda and that a united front could help to reduce the number of people who ended up in court.

He added: “Police brutality or racial profiling are not prevalent features in most of the cases that come before the Magistrates' Court.

“One should not, of course, conclude from this that unreasonable force by police officers does not occur or that racial stereotyping or biases do not shape some policing decisions, but, for the most part, such conduct is not sustained evidentially during court proceedings.

“Most certainly, the Bermuda criminal justice system does not experience the apparent wanton trampling of constitutional rights, which some postulate is reaching epidemic proportions in some sectors of the US criminal justice system.”

Mr Wolffe said: “Having said this and strictly speaking from what I routinely see and hear in the courtroom, many persons who interface with the criminal, civil and family courts of Bermuda express concerns about how systemic and institutionalised racism and disenfranchisement lies at the root of why they may have committed a criminal offence or engaged in unsociable behaviour, or why they were unable to meet their financial responsibilities, or why they were unable to properly and fully care for their children.

“It is common for black persons, when mitigating — not excusing — the predicament in which they find themselves embroiled, to explain that it was purely because of the colour of their skin that:

• They were not given employment despite being eminently qualified

• They were not granted a construction or service contract which their company was more than able to carry out

• They were not awarded promotions or pay increases although they have outperformed their white colleagues

• Their children were not granted educational scholarships even though they achieved stellar academic results from a public school

• Their neighbourhoods are disproportionately patrolled by the Bermuda Police Service, but more affluent neighbourhoods did not attract any police attention

• They were arrested and prosecuted for minor criminal offences, but white-collar criminals were not arrested and rarely saw the inside of a courtroom

• The criminal justice system, in terms of investigations, arrest, prosecution and sentencing, treated people of colour more harshly than white offenders

• Politicians were more interested in assuaging the interests of Front Street than Court Street”

The senior magistrate pointed out that regardless of whether or not the concerns were legitimate, many young black people showed a level of despair in the courts.

Mr Wolffe added: “The young black men and women who come before the courts are astute and so, if anything is achieved by the upcoming protest on Sunday, it is imperative that it goes well beyond lip service and actually transforms into legislative and societal reform which is tangible and sustainable.

“To the extent that they may exist, addressing any inequalities in educational and career opportunities, along with implementing well-resourced programmes, which will effectively resolve any social ills which may have resulted from historic and systemic racism, stereotyping or biases, may go a long way in giving our young black men and women solace that they do not need to resort to criminal activity and that, with hard work and dedication, they, too, can take advantage of all that Bermuda has to offer.”

Mr Wolffe said: “May I say in conclusion, and this is my personal and judicial opinion, many individuals who for whatever reason find themselves before any of the Magistrates' Courts are inherently good people.

“But for their circumstances, some of which may be rooted in racism, they would be upstanding citizens who we all can be proud of.

“Therefore, it is crucial that everyone from all backgrounds and ethnic origins join together to confront any inequities which may exist.

“In doing so, there is no doubt in my mind that we will see less and less of our people coming before the courts.”

Court verdict: senior magistrate Juan Wolffe (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

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Published June 05, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated June 05, 2020 at 7:24 am)

Young blacks feel like ‘pariahs’

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