#blackfeminisms blog carnival submission by Joan Joy Grant Cummings, a Black Caribbean Canadian feminist activist, mother, partner, sister and sistah-friend.
BACKGROUND & CONTEXT
This article is part of my ‘writings’ tracing my own lessons in activism. It is part of a journal of short stories which I started in order to elucidate why and how I came into feminist activism. This piece recalls actions as the first Black woman President of the National Action Committee (NAC) on the Status of Women – at the time the premier Canadian feminist lobby group. It shares parts of my engaging with racism and white supremacy, and other human rights issues in solidarity with African and African descendants throughout the Diaspora, People of Colour and First Nations/Indigenous Peoples.
“Old pirates yes they rob I ….””
The opening line of Bob Marley’s song immediately overtook my mind- it seeped into every crevice of my mind – I couldn’t help it. I re-read the email’s tagline: “Militarized police attack peaceful Black communities in Colombia”. I looked at the picture; The faces of the people who were not strangers – I saw the faces of the people I ate, drank, laughed, and strategized with in Buenaventura in 1999. All of these feelings led to my immediate response to the Caribbean Feminist listserve that I manage. I shared with sisters there: : “THIS IS REALLY RACE-TERRORISM! IT IS UNHOLY, MADDENING & PLAIN WICKED!!!”
“When and where I enter…..”
In 1999, as NAC President and Board member of the Canadian Auto Workers International Solidarity Foundation, I was asked to be one of nine tribunal members, investigating one of the almost 200 massacres that took place in Colombia in 1998. I was both excited and honoured but I had no idea how this experience would impact my life forever.
“The People” versus The Colombian (and the Canadian) States
The Canadian Council of Churches had been concerned about the trail of massacres in Colombia by paramilitary forces aligned with the Colombian government. Kidnappings, disappearances and murders had become the ‘norm’. The unions in Colombia along with indigenous peoples had started to document these incidents of violence, harassment, disappearances and massacres that seemed to be ‘present’ whenever businesses and corporations wanted access to land and other resources that conflicted with the communities. However, neither the Canadian nor the Colombian governments would respond to these queries about the murders, disappearances and massacres. Even more shocking – no one was prosecuted by the Colombian justice system – Impunity reigned.
Barrancabermeja Clama La Justicia!!
In 1999, the Canadian Council of Churches in partnership with the Canadian labour movement convened a human rights tribunal of “prominent Canadians”.
The Tribunal’s job was to establish the facts and determine who bore responsibility for one of 198 documented massacres that took place in Colombia during that year.
The prosecuting attorney presented the evidence that on May 16th and 17th 1998, at least 30 heavily-armed men made an incursion to the oil-producing city of Barrancabermeja, killing up to 32 people. Though the head of the death squad had informed the police that he was responsible for conducting the massacre he was never charged.
Nibaldo Galleguillos (human rights lawyer) and myself were mandated to deliver the verdict in Colombia.
After reading the verdict, I was overwhelmed by the reaction of the people – it was as if multiple floodgates had burst their banks. It was the first anniversary of the massacre. People cried with sadness, grief, joy, vindication – “the rest of the world believed them”. This Tribunal triggered many more across the world much to the embarrassment of both Governments – Canada and Colombia.
…The Best is Yet To Come!
It was at one community meeting organized by the Church that one of the priests challenged me to return with the explicit goal of linking with the Afro-Colombian community. At that point I was unaware of the significant numbers of Afro-Colombians, the intensity of the brutality against them and their most fervent struggles. Nibaldo generously agreed to return as my interpreter and Massimo of Peace Brigades International (PBI) who provided protection, support and recognition to local human rights defenders shared that himself or a colleague would also be there .
We spent a few weeks in a community located in Buenaventura which made up part of the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Afro-Colombians. The largest number of IDPs in the world!
The journey to Buenaventura would turn out to be an 18-hour boat ride which I took accompanied by a band of young Catholic priests who worked with the community. I was never left alone – an indication of the preoccupation with safety as we made our way to Buenaventura. My Canadian colleague decided that both the roughness of the trip and the obvious deep poverty that would be at the end of the journey was more than he could endure. I suspected the tenure of the whole trip was triggering not too pleasant memories of his own experiences as a political prisoner in Chile.
I did not know a word of Spanish and I researched as much as I could, with the help of willing and excited union activists who had hoped for this outcome, given my known interest in activism and creating solidarity links among African and African descendants globally. Essentially over the last 2 years they shared, Afro-Colombians had gone through intense displacement within Colombia. They had been subjected to all kinds of violations -kidnappings, murders, massacres, and ultimately driven off their land by paramilitary forces. Even though Law 70 which had been passed, was ostensibly to guarantee their protection and that of their land. According to a number of Afro-Colombian activists in the community, it may be the closest to self-determination they would achieve.
What we need to know_- educating ourselves about ‘Us’
Afro-Colombians and Caribbean scholars at the University of the West Indies (UWI) I, such as Dr. Paulette Ramsay believe that over 25% of the Colombian population are African descendants despite the Colombian Census which puts the number at about 10%. They contend that due to racism and stigmatization, their real presence is under-estimated. – As Paulette Ramsay has noted in her research and documentation, this is a common story across the South and Central American regions!
The majority of Afro-Colombians live on the Pacific Coast of Colombia, close to Panama. There are communities of Jamaican descendants who migrated to work on the Panama Canal on small islands along the Coast. The region they explained, was very fertile and full of resources. Furthermore, at Emancipation, hardly any indigenous people lived in this region. One of the priests shared that the community had been displaced more than 10 times from this egion. Again the pattern – the pillaging of resources, raping of lands, women, and girls – the holocaust of enslavement, imperialism, capitalism-colonialism, now globalization and neo-colonialism.
Yet, nothing could have prepared me for the abject poverty I encountered in Buenaventura – no running water, or potable water of any kind, using the toilet over the ocean, drinking beer for water, showering in the rain, sharing bunk beds with priests, eating withhope – hope that you had cooked to death every virus and/or bacteria. Yet the women and their families exuded an air of happiness even though many were part of a struggle that could cost them their lives.
Where the children play- sewage flooded coastline ‘beach’?
The sense of accomplishment they felt in terms of my agreeing to work with them to organize and start a women’s group to specifically address the issues in their “community” was cause for great celebration. Having been trained as a Reproductive Health Promoter and Counsellor, together we stumbled through the use of pictures and “charades”. As usual, the issue of sexual rights and reproductive health,teenage pregnancy and sexual violence were priority concerns.
The politics of the struggle
Throughout the 2 weeks I was there, I participated in community meetings about the struggle, nearly every sentence mentioned Law 70. Here was the law that should protect the rights of Afro-Colombians. Yet the government that passed the law was violating it directly and indirectly by facilitating groups that ignored the law!
There were different streams in the ‘struggle” – from armed resistance to calls for negotiation for self-government. It was all understandable to me. Many felt the international human rights NGOs did not understand racism and would only focus on economic rights or land rights. After much heated debate, we found consensus around the opportunity that in 2001 in South Africa, there was to be a global conference, convened by the UN, the World Conference Against Racism allies could be identified and strategies developed.
In the meantime many argued that they needed to focus on Law 70. It was also a time when HIV and AIDS were attacking the community. LBGT Champions in and out of the church were born.
Over a decade later it was revealed that 22 businessmen and Chiquita Bananas had taken ‘illegal’ possession of their land for business. Chiquita Bananas admitted, that between 1997-2004, it had paid USD 2M to paramilitary forces to remove Afro-Colombians. By accounts (El Tiempo) the 22 were prosecuted by the Colombian Government in 2010.
Yet, here we are in 2016, back to herding the community off its land – again!
Living actvism – the college of ubuntu
As Black feminists we know that there really is only one feminist imperative –the struggle for the equality rights of all which includes the destruction of patriarchy, racism, white supremacy, heterosexism, capitalism etc towards a “beloved community” as bell hooks notes.
Buenaventura was one of the best courses of UBUNTU, the essence of activism, resistance and victory among South African communities – I am because we are- UBUNTU! All of our struggles are bound up together.
Only the BLACK WOMAN can say “when and where I enter, in the quiet undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole…race enters with me”– Anna Julia Cooper, 1892