Normally we don’t post obnoxious comments, especially anonymous ones, but I’ve been waiting for someone to ask this question and it only finally came up. Perhaps some other people were thinking the question but couldn’t think of a polite way to phrase it. Here it is:
“You’re under arrest, and you can come with us peacefully or we can beat you first and you can come with us anyway.” Michel said something, I don’t remember what, and I hit him.”
What’s this cheap talk all about? Chris sounds like a thug. Why was it necessary for Chris to threaten Michel with a beating? Why was it necessary for Chris to hit Michel?
The question I want to answer here is why I hit Michel. I don’t think there’s a question of cheap talk because I meant every word I said and then took action on it. I do get the point that Anonymous has strong feelings about this though.
For the readers who don’t live in Haiti or who haven’t lived in a third world country I need to give some background information. There are police in Haiti. Our local police are stationed about 15 minutes away and they have no vehicle and no telephone. All the policemen have cell phones, but they may or may not be charged on a particular day because there is rarely electricity. On Tuesday night, if I had woken up the police to ask them to arrest Michel, they probably would have deferred it to the morning and everyone present agreed that Michel would be gone by the morning.
In Pierre Payen, the locals are likely to deal with thieves on their own. Two occasions in particular will always stay in my mind. The first was in 2004. A local vagabond brought some of his vagabond friends to Pierre Payen to do a night time robbery. Our housekeeper, Yonese’s daughter was getting married and the wedding money was in safekeeping in her house, and the vagabonds knew this. They came to the house, fired some shots, and told Yonese they would kill the children in the house if she didn’t give them the money. They left with the money, but the noise woke everybody up, and the young men in the community started to hunt the thieves. They came on taptap, so they had to taptap home too, which proved to be difficult. They caught one of the thieves, although the others got away. A mob of over 100 people dragged the man to the side of the road, put tires over him, filled the tires with gasoline, and lit him on fire. I’m pretty sure they beat him severely first.
The police never came. The charred remains stayed there for about a day.
The second incident was less than a year later. I think some sort of blood lust had been awakened in Pierre Payen. A “brigade” had formed, a sort of self-appointed community patrol. They came by from time to time to ask for money so the brigaders could be provided with food. I told them that thieves should go to prison, and I would never support a brigade that killed people. I told them to come get me when they caught a thief so I could drive them all together to the police station. Anyway, less than a year later the community caught someone who had stolen and sold 3 cows. I’m not sure if he was burned to death or if they killed him first and then piled burning tires on top of him. It was market day, and the fire burned for most of the day across the road from the market as the residents of Pierre Payen bought and sold as usual.
At the time, it wasn’t just Pierre Payen that had burnt corpses. They could be found all over Haiti. I saw my first one a week after I moved to Haiti, but I haven’t seen one since 2006. The UN mission to Haiti has really helped to diminish the vigilante justice. A group of men killed another man in Pierre Payen in 2008, but at least they didn’t burn him to death and they at least felt the necessity of hiding the corpse.
I think I can come back now to the issue of how I handled Michel’s arrest. Coming from a 1st world country as I do, the vigilante justice has always disturbed me. I’ve had many conversations with the locals about how bad vigilante justice is, but I understand why they feel they have to take matters into their own hands. They don’t feel justice is available to themselves or to the majority of the Haitian people, and unfortunately, it’s true. My response is that even though it’s hard to find justice in a civilized way, using the police and legal system, we have to try.
When it came time to arrest Michel, I was anticipating that I might have to discourage the others from beating him. It became apparent that instead, they were leaving the matter up to me to see my reaction. It knew it was a decisive moment for Clean Water for Haiti. Michel was the second theif we had at the mission in less than the year, the first being Luxon, who we knew was stealing gasoline but we had insufficient evidence to have arrested. In the past, we have even been robbed at gunpoint. For the local vagabonds to get the idea to leave us alone, I had to take decisive action. I suppose there was a danger I could go too far the other way too, and jeapordize our role as a Christian influence in the community, but knowing myself (I hadn’t hit anyone since I was a teenager) I knew the danger lie in being too soft. In hindsight, I’m very happy with the way it turned out. Michel didn’t get beaten, although I would have had to follow through if Michel hadn’t come with us after that first punch. The locals are all now talking about how we arrested Michel and took him to the police. It would have been better if he hadn’t escaped, of course, and I’m kind of upset about that, but the message got out, and I suspect our theft problems are going to be diminished from now on.
As an aside, I’m pretty sure I hit like a girl. I figure if I actually hit hard, my hand would have hurt afterwards. Nobody else needs to know that though, except for me and Michel. I hope I’m not put in a similar position anytime soon!