Taking it to the streets II: Commemorating victims of violence in Jamaica

(This is one of a series of weekly columns from Guyanese in the diaspora and others with an interest in issues related to Guyana and the Caribbean)

By Honor Ford-Smith and Alissa Trotz

Honor Ford-Smith teaches in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, Canada. Alissa Trotz is editor of the ‘In the Diaspora’ column.

A few months ago, on June 3, hundreds of women, men and children from  communities around Kingston participated in ‘Letters from the Dead’ in Jamaica. A moving/walking commemoration for victims of inner city violence, ‘Letters’ combined visual art, performance and ritual. Moving across downtown Kingston, the walk intentionally crossed barriers between communities at war with each other, publicly mourning everyone whose lives have been destroyed by violence. These were not communities that would normally come together. But then these are abnormal times.

Sistren Theatre Collective and a network of community based organizations that included the Peace Management Initiative (PMI) undertook this performance in collaboration with a participatory research project being undertaken by Jamaican researcher Honor Ford-Smith, from the Faculty of Environmental studies at York University in Canada. ‘Letters from the Dead’ was originally created in 2006 to mark the violent deaths of youths in Toronto, and was adapted for Jamaica. The PMI undertakes intervention in community wars in Jamaica and works to mediate negotiations between parties in conflict. It also carries out public education and supports victims of violence through counselling and other activities. Sistren Theatre Collective is a women’s organization working through the arts and other educational activities to advocate for grassroots communities in Jamaica. The event built on this ongoing work, bringing cultural workers from Toronto and Jamaica to work with participating communities.

Weeks before the march took place, workshops with women from different communities explored the ways in which people remember and forget urban violence. Women discussed the different circumstances that result in the shooting and death of diverse victims and the enormous pain and waste that it has caused.  For several, forgetting was an attempt to cope with the pain of loss, but it was also to avoid the desire for revenge that was triggered by remembering, raising the important question of how to link memory with reconciliation as one constructive response to violence. Participants found it difficult to share their stories publicly and in a collective setting. One woman who had lost all of her children to violence spoke of her complete isolation, of shutting herself in her house, of leaving her yard and being completely disoriented on a street that she had inhabited for years. Her story is deeply symbolic of how the violence both produces and continues to be produced by alienation from neighbourhood and community, spaces that we so often associate with nurturing and bonds of solidarity.

The performance on June 3 vividly dramatized elements of the workshops.  Women, men and children gathered in the yard outside a church in Hannah Town. Dressed primarily in black, heads tied with red cloth, each person bore witness to the devastating effects of violence on families and communities. During the workshops, participants had selected images of those they had lost. As we took to the streets that afternoon, we were surrounded by faces of the dead mounted on placards, pinned to shirts, hung on a cord around the neck. On a poster held up by one elderly woman, an infant lost to gun violence stared out solemnly at those gathered in the churchyard.

 As the procession began its trek through downtown Kingston, participants formed a long line, bearing 35 yards of red cloth that rippled like water, symbolizing the blood of the thousands killed in community wars over the last decades. Two young women dressed in white – cultural workers from Toronto – performed the part of ghosts or spirits, urging the marchers on to the final destination. Women led the marchers in church hymns punctuated by clapping. Some bore a coffin that had been made locally – it is tragic how many funeral parlours one can find in inner city Kingston – and that linked urban wars in Canada to those in Kingston through the use of repeating images of the black youth murdered in Toronto. Onlookers – asking questions or greeting familiar faces – were urged to join the march. Scholars who are members of the Caribbean Studies Association from around the world and who were holding their annual conference in Kingston, also joined the walk which was part of the performance programme of the conference.

The ‘walk’ culminated outside the office of the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation, at the site of the Secret Garden and Monument to the Children, dedicated in late 2008 to remember those killed under violent and tragic circumstances since 2000. The bronze sculpture depicts the face of a weeping child, with names of the dead inscribed around its perimeter; almost three sides of the monument had been filled with hundreds of names, children ranging in age from a few months to 17 years. As a young woman sang a tribute to the dead children, the red cloth was laid down on the pavement and placards and mementos laid along its length. Before a large gathering that had collected on the street, Sistren member Afolashade explained the purpose of the moving commemoration, and invited workshop participants to the microphones to share the letters they had written to their dead and to ‘post’ them in a specially designed letterbox. Audience members were also asked to read a few letters aloud. Others read fictional responses from victims of violence; in one particularly telling letter, a young man imagined his dead friend urging him not to link memory to retribution because that would only continue the cycle of violence. Music by reggae musicians including Ibo Cooper – from Third World – and others accompanied the readings. After the last letter was read, witnesses were invited to walk around the cloth. People pointed out faces they knew. A woman exclaimed in shock when she realized that a male friend of hers was among the dead. There was silence as people circled the monument to read the names of children. One woman who had been leading us in song along the march collapsed on the sidewalk in grief, surrounded by other women trying to comfort her.

It was by no means a perfect affair; in at least one community, women were too terrified of the consequences of being seen to cross community lines to participate. And the work – some of which continues under the PMI and Sistren – must go on, for it is in these everyday, difficult and less spectacular ways that real change is made possible. But for those who witnessed that afternoon, ‘Letters from the Dead’ was a cathartic moment that deliberately moved across hard lines of political and ideological affiliation, offering lessons to the Caribbean beyond Jamaica. Inner-city violence in Kingston has a long history, one that many would date to the internecine fighting between the two main political parties in Jamaica during the late 1970s, a period that some refer to as a civil war. Jamaican social activist Joan French has spoken of the need to consider the more recent violence – and in particular the increasing numbers of women and children among the dead and wounded in the last four or five years – in relation to the current economic context and against the backdrop of the neglect and in some cases wholesale destruction of the usual social safety nets. The Monument to the Children is a stark reminder of the destruction of our future, and of a society’s collective responsibility as guardians of its young, custodians of hope.  In a growing climate of individualization amidst deepening social and economic exclusion and alienation from traditional politics across much of the Caribbean, something that economist Michael Witter argued more than a decade ago was leading to increasing social implosion, people took to the streets for a few hours in June to show that collective strategies and responses were not only necessary but still possible. ‘Letters to the Dead’ knit together the Jamaican city space in public mourning, commemorating those whose lives have been shattered by violence as belonging to all, and as deserving of empathy across all hardened and deadly divisions.

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