Friday, April 20, 2012

The Hunt is Off ... Again

Courtesy of "The Eternal Pantomime"

This morning's Special Early Edition blog post has been hijacked by Ian Alleyne.

Locals: bear with me here.

For non-Trinbagonians out there: Ian Alleyne is the local version of Batman. Or, if you prefer, Captain America

I'm only being half-facetious here. In a country which was only able to arrest the spiraling crime rate with a sudden (and poorly reasoned) State of Emergency, in which corruption is so endemic as to become an actual part of the way the society functions, and in which the police service is widely viewed as ineffective and corrupt itself, he and his TV show have become the only hope for justice for crime victims without enough influence to galvanize their neighborhood police force:

Yep. That guy right there.

His show is a nightly reality TV program in the style of foreign cable-access television that highlights violent crime and - where possible - aims to encourage police action. From time to time, he also acts as a liaison between individuals in need and the relevant government ministries. Sounds good, right? We'll come back to that. 

On October 26, 2011, Crime Watch aired actual footage of a 13-year-old being beaten and raped in which her face and the faces of her attackers were visible. Though not explicitly graphic, the footage was deeply disturbing and was aired twice on the 26th (the show runs live at 6pm and re-runs at 11pm) and once on the 27th before the outcry began and it was pulled. By November 7th, the show had been suspended amid rumors of a criminal investigation into whether Ian and his show had breached Sexual Offenses Act by airing the video. Fans lamented the loss of their hero while critics applauded the response, many hoping that the suspension would become a cancellation. 

For his part, Ian was only mildly apologetic, and was back on the air by November 15. Two men were arrested for the crime (ostensibly as a result of the airing of the footage) and the typical Trinbagonian "10 days mentality" ensued. Most of us had all but forgotten about the drama until December 30th, when the police stormed the network's building and demanded the tape of the footage for use in the ongoing investigation into whether Ian had violated the Sexual Offenses Act. This action was confusing to many because 18 armed officers seemed like a lot to pick up a DVD, especially since the network claimed to have provided them with a copy already. Whoops.

At any rate, the glacial T&T criminal justice system resumed and things went quiet again. Ian went back to masquerading as T&T's only hope for justice and most of those who don't idolize him went back to ignoring him. Until last night, when much of the nation found themselves glued to the dramatic footage of his arrest on the evening news:

Apparently, the TTPS has decided to charge him.  And they figured the best way to accomplish this would be to surround the building as his live show came to an end (giving his lawyer ample opportunity to announce the situation to the audience) and then attempt to escort him through the large agitated crowd that had gathered in his support. This, in spite of the fact that Ian and his attorney had offered to present themselves at the police station. Though Ian had initially vowed to cooperate, he'd changed his mind by the time he arrived downstairs and the situation became tense (to say the least). The police had quite a time attempting to subdue him without further riling the crowd who then attempted to block the vehicle as it left. 

The latest updates as of this writing are that Ian fell ill and spent the night at Port of Spain General Hospital.

Now that we're all caught up, I'd like to make a few points:

First: I understand the appeal of Ian Alleyne. I can see why his fans love him. These are people who feel powerless and who are acutely aware that those in power in this country care very little for them outside of election time. After years of watching the politicians and other national leaders turn a blind eye to their suffering, Ian - a man who seems dedicated to addressing their plight - truly does seem like a hero. If you get robbed, call Ian Alleyne. Raped? Call Ian Alleyne. The police treating you unfairly? Call Ian Alleyne. Even alleged criminals who are wanted by the police prefer to turn themselves into Ian first in an effort to protect themselves from the possibility of police brutality. It's gotten to the point that people in trouble go to him first - before the police - because they feel sure that he will look out for them. And, in a sense, he does. It's not unusual to see him help someone retrieve their stolen car or to see the police arrest a suspect after Crime Watch aired surveillance footage of a robbery, which is, of course, a good thing. 

Here's the problem: Ian Alleyne is not a hero. He is not selflessly battling crime in T&T with the aim of effecting real change and making the country a better place. Not really. What he's doing - by assisting the police in arresting a petty crook here and finding a cache of guns there - is (at best) mainly more of the same stop-gap measures of which many people are understandably critical. 

Take, for example, the State of Emergency: much fuss was made (by everyone except the government) about using the complete lock-down of the country to finally catch the major players in the local crime industry. Not the petty crooks with guns shooting each other over drugs, but the "Big Fish" who were importing the guns and drugs. Though certain areas were agreed to be crime hotspots, no one was under the impression that the contraband was being imported in these land-locked areas and many were eager to see the shadowy (and obviously wealthy) characters behind the ongoing crime wave apprehended. Ian Alleyne led the charge calling for "Big Fish" arrests ... at first. Somewhere along the way, he changed his tone and joined the police in unearthing caches of rusty weapons and quantities of drugs. With very few arrests. Many remarked upon the strange and sudden criminal practice of burying their drugs and guns and leaving them unattended for the police (and Ian Alleyne) to find. This is an ongoing pattern with him in which he assists the police (sometimes joining them during actual arrests and investigations) in solving a relatively small crimes but does very little to address the overarching situation behind it. This obviously plays very well with the audience, which enjoys watching him help people with whom they can easily identify and relishes the thought that he would help them as well, but it does nothing to help the crime situation in a meaningful way.

Of course, none of that is an issue for Ian because what he's really doing, which is so easy to miss, is exploiting the pain and suffering of crime victims for the benefit of the audience. When Ian's broadcasting video of a young girl being raped while asking her mother (who is sitting next to him in tears) how it feels to watch men brutalize her daughter, or examining the body of a shooting victim (as if he were a forensic pathologist), or inviting his cameraman to get a close-up of the severed leg of a woman who was completely dismembered in a car accident, he is taking advantage of someone's misfortune to garner ratings. I'm not saying that this doesn't benefit the victims (they're often very grateful and his accomplishments often put the TTPS to shame) but I'm saying that what he is doing is crass and exploitative. If you believe that the ends justify the means, then this will not be a problem for you. Ian definitely thinks so, which is why continues to insist that he is not at all sorry that he aired the controversial rape video in the first place. As far as he's concerned, if it got the perpetrators arrested, who cares if a young girl was exposed on national television or the nation was exposed to such graphic footage with absolutely no warning or regard for the consequences? What journalistic ethics? He's not a journalist. It's reality TV.

Which brings me to my final point. Ian Alleyne is not a journalist. Nor is he a police officer. I recognize that T&T is in a desperate state. Corruption permeates the country at every level, crime is out of control and those with the power to do something about it seem more interested in finding innovative ways to spend public funds and bickering about nothing. The police don't seem to have the sense to know how to handle relatively minor criminal situations, let alone a high-profile one such as this. I can see why he'd seem like a solution to the problem, even if he's only a temporary solution. But here's the thing: Ian Alleyne is a vigilante. Yes, he works with the police, but he is not a police officer. His only value to them is the information that's provided to him by his fans. He is not trained in law enforcement and he has absolutely no business joining them on police exercises.  None. At all. He also has no business calling names in connection with crimes without a proper police investigation beforehand. I want to believe that if things weren't so bad people would be able to see the absurdity of a dentist donning a bulletproof vest and joining the police as they move in on a suspect. I want to believe that people would be able to see how dangerous and prejudicial it is to give a civilian the authority to name people as criminal suspects on national television. Even as things are, we have to take a hard look at what it says about society that we would even need someone like him. What does it say about the police service? Have we accepted that they are simply sub-par and decided to out-source their work to spotlight-seeking civilians?

I think we all need to be honest with ourselves about what's going on here. At best, he's a crutch that allows us to ignore the status quo while feeling better about our position in within it. So long as he keeps pleasing the audience, few will realize the need to demand this kind of efficacy (and better) from the people whose job it is to fight crime. At worst, he's not much more than a (well-intentioned?) parasite feeding on the lifeblood of the masses. Now's the time to do this appraisal, before the show comes back and we all return to our cocoons of false security.  

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