With COVID-19 dominating the news, the Virgin Islands, once again, has an excuse to ignore one of the Virgin Islands most notorious achievements: Having one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the world.
This year it’s likely the USVI will hit 60 murders, reminding me of the early 2010s when two of my friends were shot and killed, and another friend robbed, beaten and tied-up in his home, and one last friend shot in the head. (He lived, praise God.)
Sadly, it’s become a right of passage for “becoming” a Virgin Islander or “bahn here” to experience unpreventable “Acts of God” like hurricanes Irma and Maria, while also experiencing the preventable gun violence deaths of family, friends and colleagues by “acts of man.” The violence on the ground level in the lives of normal Virgin Islanders is beyond a crisis-level, it truly is at a State of Emergency that has simply become the elephant in the background.
In contrast, Aruba, where my mother is from, is an island of a comparable 100,000 population to the Virgin Islands, but has only one to five murders a year. How is it that the Virgin Islands murder rate is 10 times that of Aruba, a Caribbean neighbor?
Action is the only way to solve this murder crisis, which has gone on way too long. At present, the Virgin Islands Daily News runs a daily “COVID-19 statistic” box summary. I would propose “V.I. Violent Crime” box summary right below the COVID-19 box. To date, murders have killed more Virgin Islanders than COVID. And likely, when COVID subsides, murders will continue. My statistic box proposal would include, — by the numbers — shooting incidents, gun shots fired, deaths and those injured among others.
I am a collector of V.I. history. I have a collection of books and magazines which go back to 1764. In 1981, National Geographic profiled the Virgin Islands and when asked about the greatest problem facing the Virgin Islands, Gov. Juan F. Luis replied: “Gun Violence.” In 1995, 15 years of continuing violence later, the Virgin Islands Daily News won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the same topic in its “Virgin Islands Crime, Who’s to Blame?” series. Today, one of our greatest problems and tragedies is still gun violence. Thus, for 40 years, it has been much of the same. Senseless killings, hearing gunshots, reading in the newspaper that another individual has been murdered, knowing friends and family killed, marches against gun violence, and letters to the newspaper, like mine. Just more of the same.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Bold and innovative action is necessary. That bold action could be offering $100,000 rewards on every murder. Declare a State of Emergency, use some of the IrMaria hurricane funding or COVID funding. With a reward of $100,000 for the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator, finally a cycle of silence can be broken. It won’t take too long … once a couple of $100,000 payments have been made, there will be a marked decrease in murders as the perpetrators know they cannot act with lawless abandon with the eyes of the whole community upon them. By spending, perhaps just $1 million to $3 million in rewards, the Virgin Islands may stop a number of gun violence related problems, such as further collapse of tourism as occurred following the 1972 Fountain Valley massacre and the massive brain-drain because young smart men unreasonably risk their lives by staying in the USVI.
Corporal Specialist Aquil Abdullah was shot and killed after having a late-night ice cream at Wendy’s on St. Thomas. His mom said he was safer staying in Iraq and Afghanistan, than returning home to the Virgin Islands. At present, the United States has about 25,000 troops stationed and rotating throughout the Middle East. That’s comparable to the young male population in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In all of 2019 the American military had 32 soldiers died in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have surpassed that death rate for our young males and we are just 75% of the way through 2020. The Virgin Islands must face the fact, that young black men face a greater risk of death here than in joining the military and being sent to the Middle East.
Further, regarding brain-drain of our best and brightest, what promising young man wants to return with his education and degree to be shot? No amount of money can replace safety. What mother and father wants to raise a promising young man here? Why not send him to someplace in the States, to an aunt or uncle where he will be safer? The USVI has a brain drain problem not just due to lack of jobs, but due to actual physical safety, which is greater than any salary or bonus that can be offered by a local business … as what good does extra money do for a young man if he is six feet under.
And not too far in the future, soon come, if unabated, the Virgin Islands will have another Fountain Valley. Tourism will move totally to other safer islands. We had a close call in 2011 when a 15-year-old girl celebrating her birthday quinceanera with her parents was killed by a stray-bullet from a gun fight in Smith Bay. The saving grace for tourism in the territory was that the girl’s family spoke only Spanish and the news story did not gain traction in the United States.
What’s most interesting about the Fountain Valley murders is that a reward of $25,000 was offered for the “capture and conviction” of the perpetrators. $25,000 in 1972 adjusted for inflation is about $150,000 in 2020 dollars. If that type of reward could be offered in 1972, why not in 2020?
COVID-19 is a global problem. And at some point, COVID-19 will subside either through distancing, immunity or a vaccine. However, the violent crime problem in the USVI will remain. One thing is for certain. It is time for innovative bold action. Declare a State of Emergency and raise all rewards for murder to $100,000. A few million dollars may seem like a lot of money now, but weigh that cost over 20 years versus the deaths of 1,000 future young men, the collapse of the tourist economy and another Virgin Islander diaspora.
— J. Russell B. Pate is an attorney on St. Croix.