On the Upholding of the Law

This week, I want to write about the upholding of the law.

Now, given the fact that we recently suffered a breakout and riot at Fox Hill Prison, you will be forgiven for thinking that this article is about that affair. And I hope you’ll forgive me when I tell you it isn’t. In fact, what I focus on in this article may strike you as a little trivial, given the magnitude of the recent lawlessness we’ve witnessed.

But I don’t think it is.

What seeded this topic in my mind, you see, wasn’t the riot, or the general indifference to petty crime all around us, or even the fact that even before January’s over we’ve had several murders to keep our police from growing too bored.

What seeded it was the fact that one day recently my father-in-law came to me and said, “I see they took the right house down.”

He was talking, of course, about the house that was supposed to have been demolished that day last February that my grandmother’s house was bulldozed. I found that very interesting, because to take that house down — even though it was the so-called “right” house — was in complete contravention of the law.

Of several laws, in fact.

The first one is a law relating to antiquities. A number of houses in Nassau have been listed as being of specific historic importance to the national and cultural patrimony of The Bahamas. Most of them are in the downtown area, and most of them were owned by the great and the good of bygone days, but not all of them fall into that category. In fact, several of the houses along East Bay Street and Dowdeswell Street are the houses of simpler people, made out of wood, a good example of how more ordinary people lived. Many of them were built by their owners, not by forced or hired labour, and they provide us with all we have to tell us about the people who were here before us. Houses that are listed are prohibited by law from being demolished.

The second is a law relating to demolition in general. In order for a building to be demolished, application has to have been made to the Ministry of Works for a demolition order, and the order must be publicly displayed before the demolition takes place. This allows people to know that at some point this building will be coming down, and limits the chance that any human being who has taken to using the building as a shelter is accidentally injured or killed in the process. It also allows for people’s homes not to be removed while they are at work, and it theoretically prohibits horrible mistakes — like the one that happened to my grandmother’s house — being made.

I can hear you now: “So what? People do that all the time.”

And people do it all the time. In fact, there’s a culture of taking down buildings secretly. I know as well as you do that Sundays are the preferred days for taking down buildings secretly, because most of the world is in church, and the chances of getting caught are slim.

You know what we say. A crime is only a crime if you get caught. If you don’t, it’s smart action.

The problem is, in this case, it wouldn’t really matter if you did get caught. This crime is the kind of crime that a wealthy person can afford to commit. There are laws on the books against taking down historic buildings, but there aren’t any real penalties for contravening the laws. If you’re caught (and no one seems to be caught) you can be fined. You can also be fined for doing what most people do, and what some are forced to do by the high cost of building in this town – leaving the building there to rot on its own. But there’s no other penalty but that.

Sometimes it’s a better business proposition to take the risk and pay the price.

So Cascadilla on East Street, a building that once defined much of what is excellent about indigenous Bahamian architecture, is rotting where it stands. It can’t be torn down (except by decree of the government, which as we all well know is above the law), and it’s expensive to fix up. And so it’s dropping down.

And so the house on East Bay Street in which Miss Ivy Stuart-Kamler taught piano lessons to many of the people who later became piano teachers themselves was pulled down on a Sunday while nobody was looking.

And so my grandmother’s house, which was one of the last standing examples of middle class black families’ homes, was bulldozed last February.

And so on and on, despite the fact that there are laws against it. And nobody says a word.

And that brings me to the recent prison break and riot, at the risk of indulging in emotional fallacies. Because there are parallels that exist. I’m told (and this tale could be wrong) that the break-out could have been avoided, because at least one civilian knew about it before it happened. But because our culture has made it our business to turn a blind eye to activities that break the law until they affect us personally, those civilians kept their information to themselves.

The thing is, there’s a connection between white-collar crime and crime of collars of many colours. The connection isn’t in the magnitude of the action. There isn’t any real correlation, after all, between the murder of a prison officer and the demolition of a house. The connection lies within us. Every time we turn a blind eye to white-collar crimes which are committed in full knowledge of the law, it makes it much easier for us to ignore all the rest.

One thought on “On the Upholding of the Law

  1. O Nico I so sorry you have lost that lovely old house. My grandparents East Bay home was destroyed in the 1990s. We build fantasy lands for tourists across the harbour and raze our own historic neighbourhoods to the ground. I stand with you, crying shame.

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