Violence and the state in the Caribbean: Breaking the silence, connecting the dots
By Honor Ford-Smith
Honor Ford-Smith teaches in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University in Canada. She has worked in the Caribbean women’s movement, primarily through her involvement in collaborative theatre in Jamaica.
Earlier this year, after a public outcry against police killings in Jamaica, the newly elected Minister of National Security, Peter Bunting, issued a statement assuring the public that the new Jamaican administration will be holding the Commissioner of Police, and the High Command, accountable for a reduction in the level of fatal shootings by the police. A few weeks ago, a policeman shot and killed Kayann Lamont in St Thomas. She was eight months pregnant. Her death makes clear the fact that the excessive violence of state forces, whether colonial or contemporary, is alive and at our heels. Kayann’s death reminds us of the words of the Minister of Security and the fact that it is only our actions that can hold state officials to their word.
It is now over two years since police invaded the West Kingston neighbourhood Tivoli in search of Christopher ‘Dudus‘ Coke, who was wanted by the Americans for trafficking narcotics and firearms. In spite of the fact that Coke is now in prison, the names of those killed during the invasion have not been released to the public. The official death toll in Jamaica is put at 72, but this has been widely challenged. The Jamaica Labour Party government lost the last election in part because of the way it handled the extradition, but the state has still failed to account for the killings in Tivoli or answer the questions asked about the summary executions of people who never had a chance to prove whether they were fighting the state or not. Since the Tivoli incursion was carried out by a state claiming it was acting on behalf of Jamaicans, we need to know what took place and who was killed in our name and why. For all of us, this lack of accountability indicates that citizens are considered disposable bodies.
It is not just Jamaica that faces a crisis around state violence and accountability. Just last week in Guyana, residents protested the death of Shaquille Grant, fatally shot by the police on the eve of his 18th birthday. At the end of last year, the Minister of National Security in Trinidad and Tobago issued a statement which frighteningly threatened citizens with unprecedented levels of state violence accompanied by sophisticated forms of surveillance.
Lack of accountability was at the root of the formation of Caribbean societies in colonial conquest. In spite of continued struggles to change this, the casual brutality that marked the region’s formation repeats itself again and again. More importantly it repeats itself unequally, paid for repeatedly with the blood of working class citizens – a testament to the fact that the project of our emancipation is still incomplete, as novelist Erna Brodber puts it so eloquently.
What prevents full discussion of the possibilities and pain of state violence and what allows the police to kill with impunity, is the fact that many citizens are afraid to speak out and afraid to speak out together. This silence threatens all of us because it enables violence to become a form of government. Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent, philosopher Hannah Arendt once warned. She reminds us that power is the concerted exercise of collective will, and can be an antidote to violence. While many propose that violence is the ultimate demonstration of power, violence can be a response to the loss of power or fear of weakness. Reversing this requires creating the solidarity among those who oppose violence and injustice.
Perhaps one place where this solidarity has tentatively emerged is in the vigils for the dead in Jamaica and elsewhere. On June 22, 2012 a crowd of about 500 kept a vigil in memory of Kavorne Shew, who died from a police bullet in Kingston, Jamaica on the morning of June 2, 2012. These enactments have become a way to assert community engagement and togetherness.
Wearing white T-shirts and carrying candles, the mourners comprising people from all sectors of Jamaican society, made its way slowly up the main road. Turning off into the Mountain View community, the procession stretched dramatically across several slopes, coming to a halt outside Kavorne’s home. Candles burning in the darkness, the crowd sang spirituals like Satan, gimme pass. A preacher called for calm and asked that no one seek revenge. There was no castigation of the police, only the dignified voices of mourners singing choruses and calling for divine attention to pain and loss.
Kavorne Shew, who was 25 years old, had played a role in activities leading to peace in Mountain View, where the murder rate was lowered from 40 in one year to 2 in more recent times. Similarly to the late Shaquille Grant in Guyana, who according to family members was waiting for his 18th birthday to apply to the army, and who had participated in a Citizen Security training programme, Kavorne had applied to join the police force and was to be baptized later that month. He had participated in a training initiative for inner city youth aimed at increasing their employability. The police explanation regurgitated a familiar script that nearly every Jamaican knows by heart: Police on patrol entered a community and encountered men acting suspiciously. Gunmen opened fire on them. The police were forced to return fire resulting in ‘x’ persons losing their lives.
The vigil for Kavorne Shew’s death is far from unique. A few weeks ago, 1500 people turned out for a vigil for Kayann Lamont, the most recent victim of police violence. Since the 1990s Rastafari have kept a vigil to commemorate the Coral Gardens Massacre, one of the landmark acts of violence of the newly independent state against its citizens. In 1963, less than a year after the British flag was lowered, the state let loose on the Rastafari community of Coral Gardens in northwestern Jamaica in retaliation for the actions of 5 people involved in a land dispute. More than 150 people were arrested, tortured and jailed and an unknown number of Rastafari were killed. At the annual vigil elders testify, there is drumming and poetry. Through these performed memories the community calls on the state to issue a formal apology and to offer reparations as an act of restitution to the families scarred by the event.
At vigils for the murdered, communities enact their own memories of loved ones, and over dead bodies, assert the solidarity needed to generate the life giving bonds of love and support. Folks gather around images of the dead pasted on cardboard, tied onto people or mounted on fences surrounded by candles in plastic bottle tops. They wear special colours or T-shirts adorned with the faces of the dead. The performance is captured in photographs and videos, to be replayed again and again.
Since 2002 Monica Williams has kept a vigil for her son Jason Smith, shot to death by police in Spanish Town. Jason was 15. According to Yvonne Sobers from Families against State Terrorism, an activist group that supports grieving families, Williams is one of several Jamaican parents who live with the memory of an innocent family member shot to death by the very forces responsible for guarding his safety. Williams, supported by Jamaicans for Justice, has pursued her quest for justice in the death of her son even after a Home Circuit Court jury returned a not guilty verdict in 2005. She has bravely spoken out publicly about what happened remarking to the country’s major newspaper The Daily Gleaner:
“The only thing they found on my son was two packs of banana chips and a bottle of spring water. None o’ dem (police) can’t say them find any gun on him. I cannot see how all o’ this can gwaan and them get off free and still working in the force.”
Williams filed a suit in the Supreme Court against the attorney general and the three policemen involved in the incident and the courts ruled in her favour. She is awaiting the settlement. In memory of her son Jason, she drives a blue car with his image on it, painted by an artist from the community.
Public attitudes to police violence are complicated by rising rates of gun violence and other forms of sexual and domestic community violence. A frightened public caught between gunmen and police violence remains silent and often condones police actions. “Dem should just drop a bomb on di whole a dem place deh,” one man remarked to me. “Mi no have no sympathy fi none a dem man deh.” When I ask why, he describes how his daughter accidentally drove into a shoot out between gunmen. “Dem mash up her life,” he concludes, evoking the powerlessness he feels as a father who was unable to protect his child. Stories like this abound as do tales of police excess and corruption.
In 2010 police shot and killed 385 people in Jamaica. This year’s victims include Diane Gordon, a 45 year old office attendant shot by police in Cassava Piece, a small working class community in the middle of affluent Kingston. Vanessa Kirkland was 16 years old, one of 9 children, the only one to attend one of Kingston’s top ranking Catholic girls schools. In March she was with friends, heading for a birthday party for friends when police stopped the car she was in, shot her dead and injured three others.
About 111 police killings were reported for the first 6 months of 2012, taxing the energies of peace and human rights organizations in the island. According to Susan Goffe, spokesperson for Jamaicans for Justice, a citizen’s action group that advances the claims of victims of police killings, “We have a serious problem with extra judicial killings. It is our contention that police are able to commit murder with impunity. They are able to do so because of the tacit approval of the wider society who fear the violence in the society and who do not want to undermine the police. We accept that police may be justified in using lethal force in certain situations. But we also maintain that our systems for determining what is justified and what is not are deeply problematic. We do not accept that the police act with impunity. We hold them accountable for all such uses.”
The litigation and the formal protests, the statements which are issued again and again by the Jamaican Coalition for Civil Society and organizations like Jamaicans for Justice are the formal face of the constant pressure for accountability. The vigils are informal statements that the community is watching. Their significance is not just that they support the families and mourners. They are enactments that transform the pain of violence from an isolated individual trauma to a shared experience. They make vivid the fact that bodies of Caribbean people are not disposable like waste. They are one way to speak back to fear and isolation. And speak back we must from local sites to national, regional, diasporic places and beyond.