Sea of Change: A New Wave of Activism in Bermuda

by | Jun 20, 2020


This article is part of our Freedom and Justice Week series – as Global Dashboard provides a platform for a diversity of voices to explore how we respond to the wave of protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. Read all the articles in the series here.

It’s been two weeks since two young black women led the largest demonstration in Bermuda’s 400 year history. Over 11% of the population marched on the streets of Hamilton, the island’s capital. Chants of “Black Lives Matter” rocketed skyward – as if the message was meant for God himself and Bermudian ancestors who faced slavery and racial injustices.

There has never been a more visible display of social unity in Bermuda. The demands – the immutable  demands – for social justice are clear. While Bermuda does not have the same racialised violence that has sparked widespread protest in the United States, even our idyllic island is not immune to the poison prejudice of racism. We have our own brand of racism – it just looks and feels different. It always has.

“We have our own brand of racism – it looks and feels different. It always has”

Before the sun set and the city streets were swept clean, dozens of young, progressive Bermudians began to unpack and share data on systemic racism. Another march was organised and social justice reform groups continued to make the case that Bermuda has a racism problem. The time is now to confront it, not conceal it. Thousands of comments, anecdotes, and accounts of mistreatment by police, corporations, and neighbours were shared. A wall of shame was being built, brick by brick, and now stands boldly facing white Bermuda’s conscience. What echoed from this wall was a common theme: Black Bermudians have – for centuries – been disproportionately left behind by the Government and disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system.

The public census report from 2016 makes this plain. Its dry, emotionless mathematics never evoked outcry – or even a captive audience when it was released. However, if we revisit this report and view the data through the lens of the Black Lives Matter movement, the systemic racism and inequity is plain to see.

Between the years of 2009 – 2011, approximately 30,725 instances of  stop and frisks were performed by police officers in Bermuda. Nearly all were black Bermudian males. This means black males between the ages of 16 and 39 were stopped and frisked by police officers repeatedly – some reportedly dozens of times – in the name of law and public safety.

“Whites have never been the target audience for law enforcement in Bermuda”

This attention – the wrong type – ensnared hundreds of young black men and recycled them through the criminal justice system. Arrests for minor drug possession, apprehension warrants, and a miscellany of summary offences skyrocketed. In contrast, their same-age Caucasian peers, who also possess drugs, warrants, and commit crimes, were – as we now know – never stopped or frisked. They were allowed free passage to live their lives. Whites have never been the target audience for law enforcement in Bermuda.  

Because of this racial profiling, many young black men are convicted of minor offences and are forever denied entry into the US, as their long-standing foreign policy allows a never-publicly-discussed ‘stop-list’ of banned travellers, most of them for minor drug possession and summary offences. Travelling beyond our 21 square miles may, very well, be the escape from the status quo that many of them need and that many white Bermudian families afford for their troubled young folk – who aren’t targeted and convicted – every day.

In 2018, there were a total of 192 inmates in Bermuda’s correctional facilities – 186 of them were black. 52% of Bermuda’s total population is black, yet 97% of its prison population is black. The average age of a person serving a life sentence was 38 years old. All of them male. All of them black. The attention from Bermuda’s criminal justice system towards the black community is grossly disproportionate. White Bermudian offenders are given chances while black Bermudian offenders are given sentences. The data is clear. We have to fix this.

“White Bermudian offenders are given chances while black Bermudian offenders are given sentences. We have to fix this”

Systemic inequality of this magnitude will require careful but sweeping reform and it warrants a bipartisan effort between Bermuda’s Government and the Opposition, along with various institutions in the private sector to address income inequality, affordable healthcare, employment opportunities – the list is long. But that’s not happening. In fact, we don’t even talk about that. Yet.

In 2016, a total of 1,843 people were unemployed in Bermuda. 70% of those people were black. Black Bermudians who are employed earn on average 25,000 dollars less than whites, despite making up over 51% of the total labour force. 92% of Bermuda’s homeless population was black. 5,341 people had no healthcare coverage. 77% of those people were black Bermudian.

The gaps are widening and there’s little room in the margins – they’re already full of black Bermudians chewed and spat out by a system that hasn’t worked for them. Since the end of slavery, the political and economic system has never sufficiently provided the means through which black Bermudians were seen as fully equal to whites. Even though the Emancipation Act in Bermuda took effect in 1834, the political climate, economic system, and social structure has never allowed for true equality between the races in Bermuda. Even primary schools on the island remained segregated until 1971 – less than 50 years ago.

The seas of resistance to the status quo and pursuit of social justice ahead for this generation of leaders will be vast and rough. Providing the space and platforms for conversation isn’t enough – it’s too passive in a moment that calls for action. Instead, let us actively confront any barriers that may present obstacles in their way.

“We need to actively call out racism when we see it, teaching our children to recognise it and use their platform to advance racial equality”

Let us use our privilege, this moment to clear a path forward to justice. For white Bermuda this means actively calling out racism when we see it, teaching our children to recognise it and use their platform to advance racial equality. Use your business, education, and political experience to advise taskforces committed to tackling systemic racism. Teach your children comprehensive history – beyond the current textbooks – because black history is Bermudian history and it should not be reduced to the month of February. Support black Bermudian-owned businesses with as much fervour as you’ve supported white Bermudian-owned businesses.

Not all Bermudians are triggered into action by the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Black Lives Matter, or even the homecooked versions of racism served to folks here daily. Some outright deny the history and the harm. But their voices and words are the death-rattle of an ideology, one that rewarded white privilege and ignored historic harms.

However, if social media is a barometer for Bermuda’s onshore tensions then we have room for hope. For four hours on a Sunday afternoon, Bermuda’s turquoise sea was juxtaposed with a sea of fists raised in the air. Black fists, white fists, young and old fists. The salty air has been energised by generations, young and old, of Bermudians who are poised to lead us. Now is the moment to right the wrongs and the tides are changing.

Author

  • Jeffrey Baron is Former Minster of National Security in Bermuda, former Senator and former Member of Parliament in Bermuda’s legislature. He is a Mason Fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.


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