Containment and Expropriation: Lockdowns, Public Health, and the Scrap Iron Industry in Trinidad & Tobago
Part 3 in our series on how "public health" and lockdowns are expanded beyond Covid
Beginning in July of 2022 a series of articles here and on Zero Anthropology Magazine have been examining and questioning what it means to declare crime a “public health emergency”. The case is that of Trinidad & Tobago, which is being used as a lab experiment by US agencies. This is relevant to important new research showing that in the US, the military and the national security state more broadly, drove the so-called “pandemic response” with the so-called “War on Covid”. The line between militarization and public health has been blurred beyond recognition. Drawing from this framework, in Trinidad the practice of “lockdowns” and the concept of “public health” have been weaponized and enlisted in the service of “national security”. A “war” requires combat, sacrifice, the loss/surrender of freedom and money, and authoritarian leadership, as General Stanley McChrystal explained—regimentation and confiscation in the name of security, thus fit the paradigm perfectly. Continuing the war theme, to this date the CDC continues to use telling language: “Vaccines continue to be the most important weapon in the fight against COVID-19”. Given the actual practice of lockdowns, emergency decrees, quarantines, firings, arrests, psychological operations, and censorship—the CDC is not using merely figurative expressions. In other ways the war continues with the practice of locking down being expanded, as in the US’ current ban on “unvaccinated” foreign travellers, which effectively amounts to a Black Travel Ban since those most affected constitute half or more of the Caribbean population and most of Africa.
The prime minister of Trinidad & Tobago promised to elaborate publicly on what he meant by his “public health approach” to crime—he has yet to do so formally, but has apparently put the idea into practice. That has left us with the task of describing the logic (the theory) by studying the actions taken. We now have a much more definite answer to the question, “What is a public health approach to crime?”
We have a basic outline of an answer. A “public health approach to crime” involves:
Hierarchy: white collar crimes are excluded; the focus is on crimes alleged to have been committed by members of the working class, particularly youths.
Emergency: implementing extraordinary measures, which can venture into the extra-legal domain; also, this heightens executive power. Democratic debate is neither invited nor factored into any of the decision-making.
Totalitarianism: crackdowns combined with surveillance, are an attempt to close down a social system. Police become the new instruments of “public health”.
Lockdowns: borrowing from/imitating the Chinese–originated and Chinese–promoted policy and practice implemented to “fight Covid,” which Trinidad like so many other countries imported, there is an invention of an existential crisis that requires radical containment measures.
Indiscriminate Punishment: collective punishment, on all members of a designated socioeconomic sector, without any evidence or formal charges laid, without any trials, and even without a logic that rationalized the action as fair or appropriate.
Economic intervention: the state assumes the right to intervene in an industry, by force, and cancel the exercise of the right to private property.
Confiscation: the state then places itself in charge of the occupied industry which was targeted by the lockdown.
The focus in this article, given recent events and announcements, is on the last four points above.
Before proceeding, it is important to note that when the government of Trinidad & Tobago talks about “targeting crime,” it is only the crime of a particular class that concerns the government. The much larger crimes of the rich and powerful are simply not included in the government’s “targeted” approach. This is true despite the fact of what is publicly well known. For example, in August of 2019, Trinidad’s The Guardian published this report: “THE MILLION-DOLLAR BUSINESS OF CRIME…police intelligence report names ‘big fish’”. In that article we read the following and it should be kept in mind (emphases added here, and anywhere else the reader finds them):
“Close to 40 prominent businessmen—from south, central and east Trinidad—who are linked to major drug and human traffickers, gun runners, gang leaders and murderers fuelling the multi-million dollar criminal enterprise in this country, have been named in a police intelligence report.
“These businessmen, who are being protected by some members of the T&T Police Service on their payroll, are among 100 people of interest identified in a confidential 2019 police intelligence report obtained by Guardian Media….
“These businessmen have formed symbiotic relationships with the underworld to rake in millions and are contributing to the rising homicides and increased lawlessness now pervading the country.
“The eye-opening report identifies people who have registered businesses which they are using as fronts to run lucrative human trafficking and prostitution rings.
“Guardian Media, in its special investigation on sex slavery done in May, had identified several complicit law enforcement officials who have aided and abetted these businessmen.
“The businessmen pay hitmen to execute people who interfere with their business and illicit operations, hire gang leaders in particular areas to provide security on various projects, or move contraband and assist with other activities….
“The question, however, remains: Why hasn’t the police acted on some of these ‘big fish’ if they were aware of their activities for some time?”
One rhetorical move that has become a standard part of the government’s narrative, is that of deflection. Rather than take responsibility for the police service itself not arresting known kingpins, and even collaborating with them, the prime minister accused the public of “protecting criminals”. The move is a familiar one: a downward transfer of blame to the mass of the society, and an upward extraction of capital.
Interestingly, and in a rare case where the truth is blurted out so clearly, Trinidad’s Minister of National Security, Fitzgerald Hinds, argued that his job is not to ensure the safety and protection of citizens:
“No, my duty is not to ensure that people feel safe and secure. My duty is to ensure that those organisations and agencies that are responsible for the public’s safety, border security, that they are clear about what the people through the Government’s policy is, that they are provided with the resources that they need, and that I lend encouragement and general support to them, that’s my duty”.
Thus another question that remains is: if the state does not seek to protect the population, then who or what is the state actually protecting?
Targeted Lockdowns: Expanding State Power, Deepening Dependency
Just like international sanctions that are intended to shut down a target nation’s ability to import and export, and just as indiscriminate, a new form of collective punishment has been added by the Trinidadian state to the arsenal of state repression: targeted lockdowns. The pretext of “fighting Covid-19” provided the rationale and the necessary social and political conditioning that enabled use of this indiscriminate tool. Instead of “two weeks to flatten the curve,” in this particular case what we encounter is “six months to stop the crime”. However, not only does the tactic fail to address the actual source of the crime, or even target the criminals themselves, or address the most serious crimes, it will not stop the specific problem from reappearing if or when the targeted lockdown is ended. Thus, just like Covid lockdowns, industrial lockdowns fail to address the alleged problem, while threatening to make the problem much worse. To make matters even more twisted, the crime lockdown is utilized to address the harms and losses caused by the Covid lockdowns—even if the state officially pretends that no such harms happened and instead boasts that “we spent money to save your lives”.
And this is all done knowingly and deliberately. The central message in this story is that the state can and will interfere with and even kill a local, independent industry that allows people excluded from the formal economy to find a means of subsistence. In place of earnings from their own hard work, gained from their own two hands, they are offered not even state handouts but rather the opportunity to apply for state grants. Independent self-reliance is forcefully transformed into dependency.
Rule by Emergency
This act of treating crime officially as a “public health emergency” is a supposedly novel, experimental strategy developed for Trinidad by foreign agencies, particularly USAID and the broader US federal state which itself operates in a permanent state of emergency. However, it needs to be noted, the combination of “health” and “security” is also to be found in China’s notion of fangkong, applied to combating “extremism”.
Trinidad’s approach—if one can call it Trinidad’s—bears a clear American imprimatur where rule by emergency is designed to stigmatize and then persecute local alternatives to the dominant regime, with the aim of destroying them. “Covid” and authoritarian politics thus form a closed loop. The implantation of “the pandemic” was never itself primarily a biomedical operation, rather epidemiology was used as a mask. The “pandemic” was first and foremost political, from the outset to the present. If the dominant medicine looked too much like “Bad Medicine,” it is because the politics driving bad medicine was even worse.
The Story of Scrap Iron in Trinidad
Some background for this story is needed, and here we need to go into some of the particulars of this Trinidadian case which revolves around an economic activity in the informal sector: the collection of scrap metal of any kind (“scrap iron”) and its export. Trinidadians are very familiar with trucks calling out from their mounted loudspeakers as they patrol every inch of the large island: “Buying scrap iron, old battery buying!” Collectors will pay residents in any neighbourhood for any metal items which they wish to dispose, whether old appliances or leftover building materials, or discarded sheets of metal roofing, and so on.
Long-standing accusations are that some scrap metal collectors go the extra mile: taking down power lines to extract the copper, is a legendary example. Pious letters of indignation sent to the editors of local newspapers further entrench outlandish stories of theft committed in broad daylight, thus adding to the folklore. The result is neighbourhoods left without electricity, or utility hubs unable to pump water, deliver electricity, or maintain telephone service. Even church bells have gone missing. Still, there is no actual evidence that members of the local Scrap Iron Dealers Association are actually responsible. Anybody can steal metal and then deliver it to a scrap yard for money. Does it therefore follow that the industry itself is to be indicted? The government’s answer to this question is in the affirmative.
Tensions between the industry, represented by the Scrap Iron Dealers Association (SIDA), and some members of the public, and between the industry and government, have been developing for years. Alleged theft, and attempts by the state to displace the industry, have been at the centre of public debates.
For its part, scrap iron dealers have been publicly acknowledged by the government itself for having taken various steps on their own to “regularize” the industry by formally registering and identifying metal collectors.
The Political Economy of “Scrap Iron”
“Buying scrap iron, old battery buying!” is a recorded line sung repeatedly from the loudspeakers of a truck, and one hears it in literally every neighbourhood in Trinidad. I personally heard it in 2019 and 2020. You can hear and view one such truck here. The ad is so famous in the country that it has been memorialized in at least two songs.
The industry in Trinidad, rooted in the self-directed and independent efforts of low income, working class individuals who would likely be unemployed otherwise, has witnessed strong increases in profitability. This is true not just locally, but globally.
Locally, the scrap metal industry not only generates income for collectors and processors, but also generates crucial foreign exchange at a time of limited foreign exchange reserves held by the Central Bank. There are also downstream industries supported by scrap iron workers, that supply everything that they need to live everyday, from food markets to local parlours. Even in terms of foreign trade, shipping companies would suffer painful losses in the event of the industry being locked down: the majority of shipping containers holding exports from Trinidad, are filled with scrap metal, according to SIDA.
Globally, “with China’s increasingly voracious appetite for metal to feed its growth spurt,” scrap metal is prized. According to one source,
“recycling…generates more jobs than mining. Some of the most commonly recycled metals in the world and what their exports are valued at are: iron ($22.9B), copper ($12.4B), aluminum ($8.81B), stainless steel ($4.53B), nickel ($446M), lead ($444M), zinc ($412M), and tin ($90.2M)”.
Another source estimates that the global scrap metal industry is worth $500 billion. According to the Bureau of International Recycling, 45% of worldwide annual production of steel, more than 40% of copper production, and almost 35% of aluminum is produced from recycled material. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the scrap metal industry, though commonly overlooked (and looked down upon), is a crucial part of the world economy. A different source estimates that the global scrap metal market will reach $368.7 billion by 2030, but also notes that it has been growing annually by 9.7%. Another analyst expects the market to grow by $340.73 million during 2023-2027, accelerating at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8%. Similarly, one more source estimates that the global scrap metal market size was valued at US $326.6 billion in 2021, and is expected to expand at a CAGR of 9.62%, reaching US $566.8 billion by 2027.
The Trinidadian state’s interest in this industry has grown in step with the industry’s proven profitability. In 2020, we learned that: “the Ministry of Trade, since 2013, has been trying to regulate this industry, which has been growing globally, as reflected domestically. Statistics provided by the Central Statistical Office (CSO) show scrap metal exports escalated from $69 million in 2009 (another source states it was $82 million) to $96 million in 2010, an increase of 39 per cent in a year”. Profits continued to grow to $216 million in 2018, and have increased further since then, reaching a zenith of $285 million in 2021. Trinidad is the 75th largest exporter of scrap metal in the world, which may seem like a rather humble place, until one remembers that it is an island, with a population of 1.4 million. Furthermore, in 2022 the industry brought in US $43 million, at a time when foreign exchange was in short supply.
The state added a twist, however: growing profitability was tied, it alleged, to a growth in domestic theft—an argument that would create the opportunity for a state takeover under the guise of “fighting crime”. The intention was already on its way to making policy in 2021. By late 2021, unnamed advocates in the media lobbied for transforming the industry in a manner that would pave the way for an eventual state takeover: “the industry can go much further with the help of revamped government policies as well as a more serious approach from the State….it’s precisely because of the concerns about the troubling aspects of the sector that the State should involve itself and regulate more through beefed-up laws and rules”. Ordinary, self-employed people had apparently become so successful, that other interests began to lust after their success: “the service performed by scrap dealers may well be regarded as policy gold….scrap dealers might more than carry their economic weight”. It was more than one newspaper article that described the industry as a “goldmine”.
On July 8, 2022, Prime Minister Rowley publicly announced that he would seek the advice of the Attorney General on banning the marketing of scrap metal. It was in that same month that Rowley announced that crime was a “public health emergency”.
Controlled Opposition: A Collaborator in their Midst
It could be said that Allan Ferguson, the president of the Scrap Iron Dealers Association (SIDA), does not appear to be the astute, pragmatic, or even charismatic leader that his members deserve. Recently, when a church bell was stolen, he issued a public apology—thereby implicating his membership in the theft, even though no such thing had been proven. If the missing bell had been brought to one of the yards, then he ought to have known about it, and the police would have found it. Had the bell been delivered, then the guilty party would have also been known—somebody at a yard had to pay the culprits for the bell. Ferguson has not asked police to provide evidence that anyone in his association is guilty of theft. Accusations are made against scrap iron dealers for thefts from the telephone and electricity companies, without casting a suspicious eye on the employees of those companies themselves—even when government officials themselves hinted at the possibility of attacks on public utilities being an inside job. In other words, everything has been done to focus all blame on one single entity: scrap iron dealers.
There is no shortage of evidence that the police have in fact been able to tackle the vast majority of alleged scrap metal crimes, with an unusually high success rate. Police data revealed that, “in 2020 there were 58 reports of scrap-iron theft and they arrested 30 people. In 2021, police responded to 87 reports and 52 people were brought before the court. Between January and August this year , a total of 162 reports were made and police arrested 136 people”. In other words, police arrested people in 84% of all reported cases of theft. This does not sound like there is a crisis in policing the industry, requiring special, additional measures. Indeed, local politicians have made the point that the police should simply be left to continue doing their job.
As if to underscore his role as the state’s intermediary, it was Ferguson who made himself complicit in demanding strong action by the state, against his own industry. In a report on July 4, 2022, Ferguson pleaded for the government to take action to stop copper theft: “trust me, the longer you take to stop the theft and crime from taking place, the stronger you will make the criminals”. Indeed, as president of the scrap iron association, Ferguson had himself urged the government to halt the export of copper. He did all this even as “he expressed suspicion that a case is being made out against scrap iron dealers as the perpetrators, to justify the handing over of the industry to a foreign conglomerate”. He then complained, “Anything poor people have, they [the wealthy] take it”. Why Ferguson would then facilitate the state, given the feared outcome, is something he would need to explain.
Dependency on the state, and specifically the ruling party, would seem to run counter to the independent ethos of scrap iron collectors. However, Ferguson established precedents that exposed his association to the danger of dependency. In the recent past, he cried out to the prime minister to assist his association in obtaining the scrap metal from a shuttered refinery, and the language is unmistakably that of an almost child-like supplicant: “Mr Prime Minister, you are a man that I watch, and I don’t lie: I admire you as a prime minister. Please, I know you are busy, but please hear our cries. I am not fighting for me, I am fighting for my organisation”. This a pattern that repeats all too often in Trinidad: members of the public identify a problem; they cry out for the government to “do something”; then the government takes action that is either a blunder which makes the problem worse, or is brutally heavy-handed; and, then the complaint is about what the government has done. Especially after the past three years, the last thing any Trinidadian should want is more government intervention in their affairs.
Further eroding the industry’s independent position as part of the unregulated informal economy, Ferguson called out to the government to “regularize” the scrap iron industry, and make it part of the established, institutional, regulated economy. He demanded “recognition” of the industry as a “viable employer” and “foreign-exchange earner”. Why his members would need such recognition was not explained. Also, surely the self-employed scrap iron collectors/vendors already know that they are viable employers—the actual association itself is not their employer. Having the state regulate their earnings also suggests the likelihood of losing income to pay taxes. One has to wonder for which side Ferguson is batting. Members of his own organization openly denounced him to the press. Scrap iron workers faulted the association’s executive for not coming to their aid once the lockdown was imposed:
“Another worker Keevon Perry said the association was not helping them. ‘They have not reached [come] here. So who is helping out us, the people?’ Perry said he was the breadwinner in his house. ‘Without this job, there is nothing for us. No one is hiring us’. He claimed the association was only seeing about itself and not its workers”.
Under Ferguson, measures were introduced to self-regulate against metal theft, just as the state indicated its growing interest in the industry. The state’s growing interest exactly matched the growing profitability of the scrap metal industry.
Ferguson, as president of the TT Scrap Iron Dealers Association (TTSIDA, or just SIDA), is on record for explicitly supporting state intervention in the industry whose independence he was charged with protecting. The language he used was that of abject dependency: “The only way we can improve ourselves is by working with the government to do what we have to do”. Government, according to Ferguson, exists to “improve” people. He then blamed the scrap iron dealers: “We, as dealers, cause most of our problems”. As a collaborator, and one who has turned against the majority of SIDA’s members, one wonders how Ferguson has kept his position, or whether the position retains any significance. The apparent betrayal may remind us of the leaders of Canadian faculty unions demanding policies of mandatory vaccination, knowing full well it would lead to some of their own members getting fired.
Support from independent media and social media activists fell far short of anything resembling solidarity—though the media published some expressions of sympathy from members of the public for the scrap iron workers. Instead stances of even anti-government activists was, by and large, patronizing and distant. The concern expressed was that scrap iron collectors, locked out of their jobs, might engage in disruptive protests that could inconvenience commuters. “You don’t want to turn the population against you,” cautioned Stephan Reis (host of “Breaking Dawn” and member of the Progressive Empowerment Party). Yet, the population on the whole has never been perceptibly for the scrap iron collectors, and has generally done nothing to support them since they have been locked out.
The policy announced by the Trinidadian government in 2021 involved sweeping regulation that would pry the scrap metal industry away from the informal economy. This was the very same “recognition” for which Ferguson, the president of the scrap iron dealers, had been praying. In particular, the government announced that,
“the policy seeks to provide the framework that will ensure compliance with health and environmental requirements, an improved licensing and monitoring system for the industry, reduction in the incidence of scrap metal theft, an increased accountability and transparency for tax administration”.
Ferguson endorsed this, even as the country’s leading industrial relations expert voiced strong concerns. This, according to former Senator Diana Mahabir-Wyatt, was a reprise of old colonial legislation designed to stamp out small entrepreneurs. The government’s policy would impose hefty new fines for failing to provide proof of written receipts for metal purchased from citizens, demanding a degree of literacy that would sometimes be problematic, and licensing requirements discriminated against ex-prisoners. Ferguson has been on board with the government, and Mahabir-Wyatt did not fail to suggest that.
One immediate consequence of the licensing system—endorsed by Ferguson himself—was the immediate halt or prolonged delay by the state in issuing licenses. Ferguson complained: “we are constantly denied licences to work”. But that was the apparent intention. Speaking out of the other side of his mouth, Ferguson returned to criticizing: Trinidad’s scrap iron, he said, has a huge export market which generates handsome revenue for dealers and “this is why I believe those in authority are targeting this industry,” he said.
At first, the state wanted its “cut”; then it wanted the whole pie.
Locking Down an Industry
On August 12, 2022, the government of Trinidad & Tobago decreed that all exports of scrap metal would be halted for a period of six months, thereby locking down the industry in the country. Anyone caught violating the ban, “will be liable to a $15,000 fine under the 1904 Metal and Marine Stores Act or a $1000 fine and/or imprisonment of 12 months under the Trade Ordinance”. By November, the government was to introduce new legislation governing the industry, and by February 23, 2023, the lockdown was set to end, unless government decided to renew it for a further three months. By January of 2023, the $15,000 fine was raised to a $100,000 fine.
Minister of National Security, Fitzgerald Hinds, even invoked the spectre of “terrorism”. Calling crime a “public health emergency” was not enough for this government. Hinds “saw the attacks [on public utilities] as a ‘larger plot’ which may need the Anti-Terrorism Act to prosecute and alluded to ‘political purposes’ at play”. This was a thinly veiled reference to the opposition United National Congress. The government in fact declared the issue of scrap metal theft, a “national security issue”. Thus 9/11 met Covid met January 6: national security, public health, and criminalization of opposition.
The ban effectively shut down the entire industry, since it is export-oriented. The ban directly impacted at least 20,000 workers in the scrap metal industry (others put the number at 25,000). Workers immediately organized and protested by shutting down some roads. Prime Minister Keith Rowley, never a light touch when addressing opposition, referred to all the protesting workers as, “marauding gangs of metal thieves”.
This is not the first time that a Trinidadian government has locked down the scrap iron industry. In 2011, under a state of emergency that was declared to fight crime, the government closed down the industry. In 2011 there was no declaration of a “pandemic,” and the opportunity to cast crime as a “public health” issue had not yet ripened.
On July 7, 2022, the prime minister, Dr Keith Rowley declared: “As a matter of national security, I have asked the Attorney General whether we should prevent, for a restricted time, the marketing of used metals in Trinidad and Tobago….Manhole covers, they selling that. They cut the cable. Now they cutting the water lines”. Suddenly, it was now a matter of national security, and as is the norm when things are cast in that manner, draconian actions thus become thinkable.
Out of work scrap metal collectors were told by the Trinidadian government that they could apply for food grants to support them during the lockdown—just as the government did with its Covid lockdowns. The response of the Minister for Social Development and Family Services, Donna Cox, was cold, distant, and bureaucratic. There was no sense of urgency in her public statements that suggested an awareness of a need to rush to the aid of families that the government itself had thrown into even deeper poverty. Opposition MPs condemned the government on that very basis:
“…it was clear that this rushed decision by the government, without any proper consultation of the industry, would have brutal consequences on citizens who will now struggle to put meals on the table, send children to school, and even repay loans.
“Having listened to the executive of the (association), it is clear that the government has acted totally recklessly by ignoring the fact that not only will tens of thousands be thrown onto the breadline, with this ban but it was done at a time when many of these workers were depending on this income to send their children back to school”.
Scrap iron workers who temporarily blocked roads in protest declared, “If we can’t eat, none of all you can eat”. However, by the end of August (2022), those protests had ceased. Some of the workers did note that crime—the very thing that the government purported to be targeting—would necessarily result: “The devil finds work for idle hands….Hungry people is angry people”.
SIDA’s president, Allan Ferguson, pleaded with the government numerous times to schedule a meeting with his association, in the days leading to the announcement of the ban. He was ignored. Ferguson even proposed limiting the ban to copper alone, since that was the metal at the centre of all the thefts from public utilities plants, rather than shut down the whole industry. He even threatened to sue the government if it imposed a six-month ban. When the government did just that, no lawsuit ensued. At the very least, it cannot be said that SIDA remained passive in the face of government threats: at every step it has proposed meetings, held press conferences, and offered reasonable alternatives as solutions. It was all for naught. Ferguson even tried appealing to the World Trade Organization, in what appeared to be a futile effort.
Trinidad is not alone in imposing a six-month ban. At almost the exact same time, South Africa also imposed a six-month ban, using the same pretext of “crime”. The Trinidad Plan seems to be international in scope, and it thus appears to be a planned menu that is being followed by others. The UK, though not engaged in locking down its industry, nonetheless passed the Scrap Metals Dealers Act in 2013 which “stipulates that all dealers must be licensed and prohibits cash trade, presumably to create a paper trail for transactions”. Sellers of scrap metal are identified in the UK. Interestingly, also in 2013, Trinidad adopted a similar law (apparently not enforced), which once again suggests international coordination.
“The shutdown of the industry for six months feels like a scorched-earth response,” wrote Paolo Kernahan, a prominent Trinidadian journalist. He also argued that it reflected a a “brainless” and “rudderless” policy on the part of the government. However, I argue that it is instead “rudderful,” and here Kernahan seems to have overlooked the bigger plan. Too often citizens assume that any harm done by government is unintentional, accidental, and simply the product of stupidity. This gives all of the benefit of the doubt to the state, signing a blank cheque of assumedly benign intentions. Such an assumption does not square with the history of the modern state, rooted in organized violence, extraction, and racketeering. For some local opposition politicians, the lockdown was seen as deliberate overkill, a form of collective punishment carried out because of a handful of thieves (who may or may not have even been regular scrap iron workers).
“Something big is coming. We have to get organised,” said SIDA President Ferguson, after the lockdown had been announced. This reflects an awareness that the lockdown itself was only Phase 1 of the government’s bigger plan, which went well beyond the pretext of fighting crime. Ferguson personally distanced himself from the street protests by members of his own body.
The effects of the lockdown were felt regionally. We learned that traders from other parts of the Caribbean had been travelling to Trinidad to sell scrap metal. The closure of the industry would thus impact the incomes of economically marginalized persons beyond Trinidad’s shores.
Some in Trinidad saw a pattern, but did not quite explain it. One attorney wrote to the media reminding them that the same government had also shut down Petrotrin (the national oil refinery), Caroni Ltd. (all sugar production), and the Seafood Industry Development Company. The case of scrap iron differs, however: the industry is not being closed down for good, but rather as temporary move to facilitate much bigger moves.
Having realized the profitability of this homegrown industry, the Trinidadian government immediately set out to do a feasibility study to examine the sector’s “value chain”. “We want to see what the industry holds in terms of the entire value chain,” said the Minister of Trade and Industry in October of 2022.
Capturing an Industry: Locking Out Citizens
When it comes to culture, very little is invented out of whole cloth, and thus a great deal is repeated with only some variation. Here we find the “terra nullius” principle coming back to life. Whether the speakers are government officials, opposition politicians, or the local mass media, all of them have spoken at one point or another of the scrap metal industry as an opportunity to be maximized, as wealth to be realized, as an industry to be explored. They all seem to forget that 25,000 people have already been doing that, and that the business has existed in Trinidad for over a century (in fact British colonial authorities imposed an Act to govern the industry in 1904). Instead, the authorities pretend as if the industry were a clean slate—which speaks volumes about their intentions: tabula rasa. Lockdown was Phase 1. Phase 2 is expropriation.
Prime Minister Rowley announced plans to “regularize” the scrap metal industry. This meant imposing state regulations, state surveillance, and control over the entire industry. The industry would thus cease to operate as an independent one, part of the informal economy. While National Security Minister Hinds, “dismissed the notion that the plan is a roundabout way of taking the industry away from the average citizen and putting it in the hands of his party’s financiers,” this turned out very quickly to be mere gainsaying. The industry has been taken away from the hands of average citizens.
On December 16, 2022, the Senate passed a Scrap Metal Bill (“An Act to create measures to regulate the business of dealing in scrap metals and for other related matters”), that would submerge the industry under state regulation and continued surveillance. Scrap iron workers would now be forced to waive any rights that defended them against search and seizure, with police being allowed entry to their premises at any time. Note that for roughly 90% of scrap iron workers, their homes are their work premises. Public Utilities Minister Marvin Gonzales actually expressed bewilderment that any scrap metal worker would oppose police intrusions into their homes, unannounced and without a warrant: “I cannot understand why someone who is interested in operating in a legal, regulated manner…would have a problem with a law enforcement officer coming into their premises”. Anyone who felt their rights had been violated, he said, had recourse to the courts (and presumably an endless supply of cash to pay for lawyers’ fees).
Thus, with the stroke of a pen, scrap metal workers have lost effective, real possession of their own homes. The state has not just nationalized their personal living space, it directly threatens to eliminate their workspace: those who are squatters, and have no formalized and documented “town and country approval,” cannot receive a license to continue their work. Thus scrap metal workers either lose actual possession of their homes, or they lose the ability to work. This is an open assault; it is an act of aggression; and, it clearly will result in diminishing the life chances of those who are being targeted. This is itself commission of a crime, done in the name of combating crime.
The violation of citizens’ homes has now been normalized, in large part thanks to the ground being laid under the pretext of an alleged “Covid pandemic”. The expansion of bureaucracy into the business of everyday life is another key feature. One needs to remember that scrap iron workers in particular, are in many cases working in the informal sector because the state itself laid them off from industries shut down by the state—the same state that now wants to control them where they were forced to flee.
In addition, the registration of dealers threatened to collect all sorts of personal data, including characteristics usually described as “racial”. Even persons selling metal to scrap iron collectors would be required to furnish personal information, such as copies of their passport or national ID: “I can’t see people wanting to hand over that information to a man driving around saying, ‘Buying old iron, Old battery buying’,” said opposition Senator Jayanti Lutchmedial.
Almost immediately after the passage of the new Act, scrap iron dealers found that they were required to pay $200 for a registration sticker. Many could no longer afford to pay that amount. Without the sticker on their vehicles, they would be barred entry into collectors’ yards. Much worse is that the money they receive for the metal they deliver has been abruptly and inexplicably cut: “dealers are now paying them $500 per tonne rather than $1,000”.
Not failing in his role as double-talking collaborator, SIDA’s Ferguson called on the state to ensure that it would enforce the new Act. He echoed the government’s threats. SIDA would now be self-policing, alongside the state’s policing: “the association will have its own team of people who will inspect and monitor the industry to weed out any wrongdoers”. Ferguson even vowed to directly participate in enforcement: “If you send containers to operators without licenses, I will send the police to your house personally”. By February, 2023, Ferguson repeatedly called on the President of the Republic to sign the bill into law, so that it could be immediately enforced. He appeared to dismiss the concerns of the majority of SIDA’s members who store scrap metal in their household yards, simply reminding them that under the new law that will be an offence thus they should hurry to get rid of it (i.e., go out of business). Ferguson even called on the national population to rally in support of the proclamation of this law.
The Attorney General, in introducing the new bill, essentially criminalized the existing industry by engaging in hyperbole: “Significant also, in the scourge of illegality associated with this industry, is the proliferation of illegal scrapyards, money laundering and concealment of illegal firearms”. He made the average scrap iron worker sound like a gangster. Copper was to be banned for much longer than the lockdown: copper exports from Trinidad were also criminalized, under the bill which bans its export for at least a full year, to begin with. What is important to note is that, to date, not a single person has been prosecuted for metal theft, despite the numerous reported arrests.
Along with criminalizing scrap iron workers, the Attorney General could barely disguise the lust of interested parties that back him: “In 2020, the global trade of scrap metal was valued at approximately US$128 billion”.
President of SIDA, Allan Ferguson, “thanked the government” for the new Bill. He then noted the destruction it would bring to people’s lives. First, “people who worked in the landfill collecting scrap iron would no longer be able to do so”. Second,
“many dealers in the industry have houses behind their scrapyards, and some of them are squatting. So when the government is telling them they have to get Town and Country and EMA planning approval, it means they have to close their yards. The association was lobbying government to get lands for them, but they didn’t find it fit to grant them the lands, so 90 per cent of the dealers will not be able to operate, as the government doesn’t want anyone to have their house in a scrapyard”.
Third, anyone with a criminal conviction would not be allowed to acquire a license, thus further marginalizing many workers and driving them to the abyss of extreme poverty (and no doubt, increasing the crime rate).
The intention seems to be not only to control the industry from the top of political power, but to also vacate the industry of much of its current labour force. For whose benefit? Referring to the new bill, Opposition Senator Wade Mark accused the government of snatching the industry from “the small man” in order to hand it over to privileged friends:
“We have been advised that a high public official, a high government official, through family connections, has made an application for a major recycling plant whose basis for existence and operation will be scrap metal. We want to know if the Government is aware of this individual. I know the name of the individual. I know the parties involved in it. I want to challenge the Government to tell us if this bill is designed to promote the interest of a financier who will eventually take control of the scrap-metal industry”.
Conclusion: Covidian Fetishes and the Grab for Power
The outgoing figurehead President of Trinidad & Tobago, Paula-Mae Weekes, recently described citizens as becoming “a savage people”. For years she had been openly mocked and criticized by many Trinidadians, especially online, given her snooty manners, her silence on traumatic events besieging the nation, her absenteeism, and her ridiculous Covidian affectation (banning any member from her security detail who was not “vaccinated”). She acted as an absentee president, hidden away in her palace. Weekes was also accused of illegally covering up for the prime minister, in a scandal involving the selection of a new commissioner of police. Widely suspected of being a lesbian, this did not play in her favour in a society that is predominantly unwelcoming to “LGBTQ” ideology. Her final speech was her parting shot at the country which rejected her, and that apparently repulsed her. Weekes ended her speech with a revealing line: “The more things change, the more things stay the same”.
What is instructive about Weekes lambasting fellow citizens as “savages,” is that it openly reveals the attitudes of the elites in the country: contempt and conquest. After all, for the past three years Trinidadians have been berated almost daily by the authoritarian Rowley, who spoke down to them as if he were a colonial master of the Big House. Rowley was the Pandemicist commandant who mocked the people for wanting to see the safety data for the mRNA “vaccines,” but not asking for such data when it came to Horny Goat Weed, a name he uttered with a derisive tone. (Never mind that this is a widely used natural, herbal product, with a long history—perhaps that was the real problem Rowley had with it.) Revamped colonialism—the more things change, the more things stay the same, indeed.
Other members of the elite class pray for a return of “the pandemic”. They rejoiced in all the restrictions, because where there are many difficulties one finds many “graces”. So said Roman Catholic Archbishop Charles Jason Gordon is his New Year sermon for 2023. God himself had given Trinidad & Tobago a gift in 2022—with the relentless lockdowns, the curfews, the state of emergency, mandatory “vaccination,” “vaccine” passports to enter bars and restaurants, people banned from going to beaches, and families fined for not wearing masks while in their own cars. These were all graces, and the passing of the lockdown pains Archbishop Gordon: “It was a year of incredible grace if you had eyes to see it. Times of difficulty are where God is growing us up, although we may not like the medicine. We need to look at what is around us, what happened to us, and see what was God’s grace in our lives”.
Prime Minister Rowley also had a New Year’s speech, in which he renewed his emphasis on “the public health consideration of criminal conduct in our society”. In the same speech, Rowley also reactivated his “vaccine” campaign, under the rubric of patriotism and civic duty. The new campaign would again target “the unvaccinated”. Also in a replay of 2020, Carnival was again set up as a likely source of mass infection.
From the supposed high points of Trinidadian society, it is not surprising to hear articulations of contempt and desires for conquest. The people are framed as unruly savages—criminals. Crime is inevitably over played. However, one aspect that I have been forced to amend concerns perceptions of a growing crime rate in Trinidad & Tobago. While I would still maintain that it is sensationalized, fear having been promoted by politicians and activists, and sold by the media, still data exist to support the claim that the country has broken all of its records in terms of its annual murder rate in 2022. This still does not address the selective, self-serving manner in which the “crime” label is deployed, nor does it tell us anything about causes.
The government of Trinidad & Tobago is clearly not done with implementing its “public health” approach to crime. Recently, the Social Development and Family Services Minister, Donna Cox, spoke of a “parenting crisis” as being a driver of crime—clearly laying the blame for crime entirely at the feet of ordinary, struggling citizens. Many of those citizens, along with scrap iron collectors, have faced greater economic adversity thanks entirely to the actions taken by the government, which has shown little regard for their welfare.
Just like international sanctions imposed by imperial powers, lockdowns are an equally indiscriminate enactment of collective punishment. Like sanctions, lockdowns never succeed in achieving their purported objectives. Locking down an industry, under the pretext of fighting crime, will neither stop the problem from reappearing, nor will it prevent it from getting even worse. Government officials will defend their actions using the language common to political leaders today: the measures were “targeted” and “temporary”. The effects of the measures, as we see, are by no means temporary. As for targeting, given the absence of prosecutions, and with no information about the identities of alleged perpetrators of metal theft, we cannot even know that the government is targeting the right people. Treating theft like Covid, the state cannot shut down either. In both cases, the state is hammering the wrong source of the alleged problem.
What is particularly instructive about this case study is how Covidian pandemicism (the intersection of catastrophism and authoritarianism) has served to lay the foundations for “new” instruments of governance. By “new” I mean recently acquired or implemented—otherwise, rule by a permanent state of emergency is now well established, particularly since 9/11. “Disease” (at the root of any concept of a “public health emergency”) has been instrumentalized and weaponized, and the meaning of disease will inevitably be expanded into an amorphous term whose only utility is that it serves to signal a state’s intention to intervene further in people’s lives.
While we still do not know the identities of the persons who can stand to benefit from their relationships with the ruling party, and who allegedly will profit from taking over the scrap metal industry in Trinidad & Tobago, this still calls into question the meaning of “the state” and the real nature of “regulation”. Too many who self-identify as “progressives” seem to take for granted that a heightened role for the state, and increased regulation, are by default “good things” that preclude harm. At best, this is a naïve position, and it is not warranted by either historical or anthropological evidence or analysis. British anthropologist A.R Radcliffe-Brown several decades ago advised in his preface to African Political Systems (1940) that we should remember that “the state” is an abstraction: it consists of nested ties between living actors, i.e., real people. The state in Trinidad, like anywhere else, is a product of groups of interested actors who have captured its tools. The state’s enforcers are not called a “gang,” they are an “army”—an army is a gang that is commanded by a state. To rule is to “regulate”. More “regulation” means more rule by the gang that proclaims the rules. And while the state may rule to protect capital, or to defend the interests of particular capitalist factions, it can also rule for itself when it has been folded in with interests that exist outside of the strict legal confines of state agencies.
When dealing with a government that is a façade for the shadow government behind it, often the inverse of what appears on the surface is what is true. The largest criminal organization is the state itself, which presumes to usurp people’s homes and abolish their livelihoods—no other criminal organization in the country has either sought or has been able to achieve that. As a criminal organization, the state is guilty of racketeering and extortion, of inventing the problem that requires “protection,” and to support the costs of protection, the people must pay. This also describes a neo-feudal regime, and it is interesting to see how quickly and easily Trinidad & Tobago can fold itself into current international trends. We have thus not seen the end to lockdowns, not while a “public health” approach is allowed to expand without opposition.
As for the so-called “savages,” some seem to have taken to mocking the elites by turning this label into a badge of honour, relishing and revelling in it. As Carnival 2023 approached, a Soca tune titled “Outside Like Garbage” hit the airwaves and social media. Playing on the same “garbage” theme that is implied by the term “scrap iron,” the singer (Raw Nitro) exclaims: “I outside like garbage! I causin’ real damage! I gettin’ on savage!”. It was Lord Palmerston who in 1852 said that “dirt” is “nothing but a thing in a wrong place”; anthropologists have become familiar with the idea of dirt being “matter out of place” since Mary Douglas published Purity and Danger in 1966. Scrap-iron workers are thus treated exactly like garbage, as being out of place, savages, guilty of criminality. The state has thus locked them down (contained as if in a garbage can), and locked them out—outside like garbage. In the New Trinidad & Tobago, there is no place for the independent and the self-reliant, unless and until they fight to reclaim their own territory.
“In other ways the war continues with the practice of locking down being expanded, as in the US’ current ban on “unvaccinated” foreign travellers, which effectively amounts to a Black Travel Ban since those most affected constitute half or more of the Caribbean population and most of Africa.”
That’s a powerful point I’d neither thought of nor heard anyone else articulate: todays “progressives” have effectively recreated the Progressive Era racial immigration quotas they (conceptually, performatively, not actually) abhor.