Janeille Zorina Matthews
Featured image: “there is something about facing the sea” by chamko rani is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
If you spend enough time in Antigua, you are bound to encounter talk about crime. And, when you do, you will likely hear claims that crime has increased significantly over the past 20 years and continues to do so largely unabated. You may hear people lamenting the way in which criminals have become so bold – daring to commit armed robbery in ‘broad daylight’ or you may hear whose dogs are about to have pups and who may be interested in taking those pups because everyone knows that dogs are the best security system, ‘Black people tend to be afraid of dogs’ Antiguans say.
You may even hear people recounting the tale of the elusive ‘serial rapist’ who once wreaked havoc in the country disappearing just as mysteriously as he arrived and discussions about how much people have had to adjust their daily routine and behaviour because of crime. In all of this crime talk, you may hear people calling for stiffer penalties including castration, or you may hear people lament that as a result of increased crime, life in Antigua is not like it was generations ago, or as Antiguans simply say, not like ‘before time’.
If you read the local newspaper, headlines like ‘2007 Crime Stats Confirm Public Opinion’ and ‘One Raped, Another Attacked,’ would confirm that all you have heard is accurate. But, when you look at official police records from 1970 to 2020, you will realise that much of what you’ve heard is not borne out by the data. For example, the rate of violent crime has remained relatively stable since 1970 and the rate of property crime is continuing to decline from its peak in 1995.
More pointedly, while it is true that the rate of rape and indecent assault nearly doubled between 2007 and 2009 when it was alleged that the serial rapist was at large, a longer view of the data shows persistently high incidence of these sexual offences with rates nearly tripling in 2000 and at times accounting for as much as 20 per cent of the country’s violent crime. Despite newspaper reports describing the serial rapist as a masked man who would break into the homes of young women living either with small children or alone to rape them at gun point, over time, professional profilers hired by the government would find that the rapes were likely committed by more than one person and not a single ‘serial rapist’. Yet, like most other inaccurate stories about crime in Antigua, the narrative of the serial rapist persists.
In a country born of state violence and structural oppression—in which high levels of sexual violence characterised the eras of slavery, colonialism and independence—it is the narrative of the serial rapist that heightened awareness and anxieties leading to a flurry of grassroots activism like “Take Back the Night” community events, more formal measures like the creation of a sexual offences unit in the police force and the creation of a high-level governmental taskforce, and promises of duty concessions and tax abatement on home security alarms.
It is this narrative that recharacterised sexual violence in Antigua as a relatively recent phenomenon spiralling out of control and perpetrated by men with individual pathologies. By framing sexual violence in this way, the normalised everyday violence against women has gone unscrutinised.
The masked stranger wielding a gun, invading homes and raping women in front of their children, became the quintessential enemy while innocent unsuspecting women, who could be anyone’s daughter, sister, aunt, wife or friend, became the quintessential victim. This narrative is an important example of how stories permeate our lived realities and why we need to be hyper vigilant about the stories that we tell ourselves and each other.
Stories have power. They engage us, they persuade us, they change us, and they move us to action. Stories affect what people are able to see as real and as possible. In more structural ways, stories help to shape how we understand and respond to problems, including matters of law and policy. As Jack Zipes explains, stories enable listeners and readers to envision possible solutions to their own problems so that they can survive and adapt to their own environments.
The alleged rapist—this bogeyman—for me, then, is a spectral figure. He is the ghost, or the jumbie as Antiguans call it, of a post-emancipation past that Natasha Lightfoot and Diana Paton describe in painstaking detail. He is the embodiment of a range of anxieties around the perceived influx of Guyanese and Jamaican nationals, a threat to middle class respectability, the fear of sex, sexuality and Black masculinity, and the justification for increased government expenditure and promises to increase the penalty for rape. He is the personification of a trend that was slowly creeping into Antiguan society long before his official arrival.
The story of Antigua’s masked serial rapist led to positive changes, but these efforts were necessarily limited because if you misdiagnose the problem, you cannot effectively solve it.
Shifting the narrative to emphasise both historical understanding and current significance can facilitate more effective interventions. If the story we told sounded more like the stories we tell of Sir Vivian Richards and the West Indies cricket team—comprehensive and contextual focused on individual events yet with statistics, trend analysis, forecasts, commentary and discussion— Antiguan criminal justice policy might be more comprehensive and less reactionary than it is currently.
Dr. Janeille Zorina Matthews is a multi-disciplinary criminal justice scholar who teaches courses in criminal law and criminology at The University of the West Indies Cave Hill campus in Barbados. Dr. Matthews most recently authored an article entitled ‘Two Different Stories: A Mixed Methods Investigation of Crime in Antigua and Barbuda’ and a book chapter entitled ‘The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Reframing the Discourse of Sexual Violence in the Anglophone Caribbean. She is currently engaged in work around decriminalizing minor offences and tracing colonial legacies in contemporary penal practices. Dr. Matthews is the Research Coordinator of The UWI Rights Advocacy Project, a collective of UWI public law scholars committed to human rights and social justice in the Caribbean.