Wednesday, September 7, 2011

"Whose Blood is This? Mourning the Death of Gregory Fernandes" - O Heraldo (Goa - 12 April 2009)

Gregory Fernandes
 Our community has long had its share of travelers, migrants, and a storied diasporic existence, with Goans employed in so many different capacities the world over. We readily remember such prominent figures as Abbe Faria who, literally, entranced nineteenth century France with his work in hypnosis; Pio Gama Pinto who in 1965 became independent Kenya’s first martyr; and Vimla Devi whose writing in Portuguese spans several decades. But in remembering these great and illustrious Goans, what room is left for such unsung heroes as the rig-workers, cabin boys, sailors, nannies, and cooks? Often separated from their kin in Goa, they have offered their families opportunity and financial security. Like so many Goans before him and, certainly, many to follow, Gregory Fernandes traveled outside his native Goa to make a living. On October 20, 2007, the 32 year old Goan sailor and his Tamilian colleague Pithilnaviram Vinod were set upon by 20 English teenagers at Fawley port, Southampton, just outside their hotel, in a racist attack. They were both severely injured and, shortly thereafter, Fernandes died. Gregory Fernandes was murdered because he was Goan. His killers received sentence in March 2009, but the Goan sailor’s slaying still leaves a lot to consider.

Reporting on the incident, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) states in headlines: “Sailor Attacked ‘Because of Race’” (October 23, 2007; online) and “Seven Held Over ‘Racist’ Killing” (October 26, 2007; online). Perhaps the impression the BBC wishes to give by placing the reason for the attack in quotes is that a sense of neutrality is required; that one’s opinion should not be clouded by such incendiary terms as “race” and “racist” until the true course of justice has been followed. Perhaps the English sometimes have a way with words, using their own language to successfully allay the real issues at hand – “Race” and “racist,” physically sectioned off in these headlines imply that attacks of this nature are random and solitary, detached from regular English society and aberrant to it. But, truly, can it ever be the case that twenty English youth wake up one day and decide to attack a couple of unwitting people of color and kill one of them, or are their actions indicative of a more prevalent but covert racism? The Daily Mail reports that the gang of drunk teenagers was heard to have said they wanted to “beat up a Paki” (February 29, 2009; online). This premeditation instantiates a current of xenophobic hatred that made these youth believe they could perpetrate the kind of crime they had planned because they thought so little of the lives of their intended victims. Moreover, they thought they could get away with it because they considered their beliefs to be widely held.

Memorial at Stockwell Tube Station
One incident alone might not sufficiently support this view. Sadly, Gregory Fernandes is not the only one whose life was taken in a race-related incident in England in recent times. Following the 7/7 bombings and the failed July 21, 2005 bombing in London, police shot and killed Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell tube station on July 22, mistaking him for suspect Hussain Osman, a Briton of Ethiopian descent. The victim was a 27 year old Brazilian national who had a few years prior come to the United Kingdom to work. He was unarmed and shot at point blank range seven times. The bereaved de Menezes family, much like the Fernandes family, found themselves having to pressure the authorities to follow up on the case. Neither the mainstream English media nor the inquest into de Menezes’ death clearly stated that race was a factor in the Brazilian man’s killing. To do so would be to acknowledge that race is a tangible factor in how the English police system addresses and deals with issues of terrorism. The use of racial profiling is an obviously deeply flawed and arbitrary method of apprehending a suspect as evidenced in that a light-skinned Brazilian Latino could be mistaken for a Black African British suspect. At the close of the legal inquiry, the de Menezes family stated their discontent with the proceedings, raising several queries about police procedures.

On the contrary, Merseyside police were particularly careful in their investigation into the death of eighteen year old Anthony Walker, who like Gregory Fernandes was assailed by a group of youth. The young man was with his girlfriend and a cousin when attacked; he died from a blow to the head with an ice axe. Walker was Black and his girlfriend White. The group of White youth responsible for the crime was earlier heard being racially abusive to Walker. Incidentally, they had all grown up in the same neighborhood as their victim. This fact is in sharp contrast with the statement delivered by the Justice who presided over the case who stated that Walker’s death was the result of a “racist attack of a type poisonous to any civilised society” (December 1, 2005; The Justice’s declaration while deservedly strong still marks the racist victimization of Walker as being extraneous to a society where civility is equated with Englishness and Whiteness. It thereby refuses to recognize that they might emerge from the process of racialization and the anxiety of maintaining the centrality of Whiteness to the British state. The violent desire for a racialized hierarchy of difference reveals itself in the brutal stop put to the inter-racial romance between Walker and his girlfriend.

The attention given this case by Merseyside police was principally driven by the events of twelve years prior: the April 22, 1993 murder of Black teenager, Stephen Lawrence in southeast London. Lawrence died following a racialized encounter, just as Fernandes, de Menezes, and Walker had. Like Walker, he had been waiting at a bus-stop when he was surrounded by White youth, racially abused, and stabbed to death. Doreen Lawrence said that in the aftermath of her son’s murder, the Metropolitan Police demeaned her family as would “white masters during slavery” (February 25, 1999; None of the youth responsible for her son’s killing were prosecuted. The perseverance of the family and the initiation of the landmark 1999 MacPherson review of the Metropolitan Police which deemed the organization to be institutionally racist, changed the face of British criminal justice.

Stephen Lawrence
Lawrence’s murder revealed the comparable racism in society and state systems, such as law enforcement, and became the measure by which all future race-related murder crimes were to be gauged. As reported by the BBC, following delays in the investigation of Fernandes’ murder, Flavio Gracias of the United Kingdom’s Goan Association was prompted to draw parallels to the Lawrence investigation, when he said, “We hope that history will not repeat itself” (January 18, 2008; online). The cases recounted here reveal that history has repeated itself. These are the more famous of the examples that disclose the underlying race tensions that continue in multiracial Western societies today.

The anxiety and grief of a family based in Goa, represented by the victim’s priest uncle Father Diogo Fernandes who lives in the United States, while seeking answers in the United Kingdom indicates the complexities underlying Gregory Fernandes’ case. The transnational nature of the Fernandes family’s tribulations is matched in the struggle for justice instigated by a British mother whose daughter was murdered in Goa. White teenager Scarlett Keeling’s body was found on Anjuna beach on February 19, 2008. The efforts of Fiona MacKeown, the deceased’s mother who had left her fifteen year old in Goa while visiting another part of India, led to a second post-mortem which revealed that homicide was involved. Keeling had also been raped. Consequently, the media circus that ensued in India and the United Kingdom, and the efforts of Goa’s police to cover up their mishandling of the case, led to various deliberately disingenuous stories about the personal lives of the dead young woman and her mother, focusing on their lifestyles, class background, and sexuality. These stories maligned the two women and undermined the grief of a parent over the loss of her child in highly suspicions circumstances. It must be stated that the rape and murder of Scarlett Keeling in Goa and by Goans is completely indefensible, as is the obstruction of justice following it. Of issue, instead, is the idea that no one dies in “paradise” – the impression that Goa as a holiday destination allows for a different set of rules and values than one would have apply to themselves in their countries of origin. The racialized nature of Keeling’s murder may also seem to imply that an instance of reverse racism had occurred. Yet, such an allegation is not only specious, but also attempts to reduce critiques of extant racism in the West by misleadingly claiming the universality of racialized discrimination as common practice the world over. It is ironic that while the British media readily spoke of a Goa where Westerners like Keeling were vicitimized (as in the March 9, 2008 The Independent: “British Families Still Happy to Live Hippie Dream as Goa’s Lustre Dims”), it refused to consider its own nation racist in light of the aforementioned crimes that had occurred in England. Surely, it would be more worthwhile for concerns over the safety of women, frank and open discussions surrounding sexuality, and the exposure of the corrupt workings of state agencies to be equally applicable to the wellbeing of foreigners and locals. Goa is after all not just a holiday destination. It is also the home of Goans who continue to live here long after the foreigners are gone.

The murder of Scarlett Keeling in Goa and that of Gregory Fernandes in England connect questions of justice and the rights of victims in an increasingly globalized world. Furthermore, linking the murders of Fernandes, de Menezes, Walker, and Lawrence, in England, highlights the conditions wherein people of color, be they Goan, Brazilian, or Black; visitors, guest workers, immigrant, or Briton, are connected. In an editorial headline, the Goan newspaper O Heraldo inquires, “Gregory Fernandes Murder: Anyone Cares?” and reminds the Goan government of how this young man’s income “[contributed] to the welfare of the state” and exhorts the state government to advocate for the rights of overseas workers; it similarly inquires what “Goan organizations both locally and internationally [are] doing about this” (November 6, 2007; online). The subtle point this editorial makes that should not be lost is that Indian workers abroad come in different income brackets and from different class backgrounds, poignantly reflecting classist bias in government practice. In her article “Growing up Goan-British,” author Selma Carvalho begins by surveying Goan immigrant identity in Britain in the recent past and arrives at the conclusion that “Goan immigrants today seem to be more firmly rooted in their sense of being Goan than ever before;” nonetheless, she does not discount that “racism is still very present in British society [even if] … the days of ‘nigger-hunting’ have passed away…” (March 8, 2009; O Heraldo). While Carvalho suggests a current British racial formation that departs from the blatant racism of the 1970s and 80s, she too readily subsumes the specter of institutionalized racism in her reading of Goan-British identity as hybridity or even assimilatory practice, predicated upon middle classness. Additionally, her foregrounding of Goan middle class identity as Britishness, though not dismissive of discrimination, excuses it in lieu of less visibly violent forms of racism in prescribing class ascendancy as a preventative. For instance, upon interviewing a charity Fundraising/Marketing Assistant and a History teacher, both of whom “contend that they have not felt discriminated against [at] … work,” Carvalho decides, “It is largely upto the individual to make an effort and go the extra mile…” Being Goan and successful, however, is no deterrent to race crime in England, no matter one’s class background, as borne out by Gregory Fernandes’ murder. Finally, both the O Heraldo editorial and Carvalho’s analysis fail to adequately connect racism against Goans with racist violence against other groups of color. While Gregory Fernandes died because he was Goan, he also died because he was a person of color. Efforts against racism that concern themselves solely with issues of national or ethnic origin define themselves too narrowly and any exhortation of Goan institutional advocacy, in Goa or the diaspora, would be more fully served with a recognition of diversity in terms of class and the commonalities of racism.

On March 20, 2009, Gregory Fernandes’ killers received their sentences having plead guilty to manslaughter rather than murder. But judicial sentences alone do not alter society. The legacy of race related violent crime in England is a stark reminder of educational, social, legislative, and legal changes yet to come. Each time a murder of this nature occurs, it must be considered contextually and historically in relation to the society in which it occurs rather than as a singular event in the contemporary moment.

May Gregory Fernandes’ soul rest in peace.

A version of this article appeared in O Heraldo (Goa).

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