Violence, Loyalty and Silence: Jamaica’s tragic Caribbean example

Alissa Trotz is editor of the
In the Diaspora Column

(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)

Jamaica has made international headlines, with Prime Minister Bruce Golding battling for his political life and the opposition People’s National Party (PNP) demanding his resignation. The Government of Jamaica had challenged the legality of a US extradition order seeking the removal of Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke to stand trial on charges related to drug trafficking. After weeks of prevarication, PM Golding admitted in parliament that he had authorized that the services of a US lobbying firm be contracted to engage the US administration, presumably to get them to modify their position. Dudus hails from a West Kingston constituency that is an historic stronghold of the ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), lending a particular and rather obvious partisan spin to this intervention. Golding’s defence was that he had not misled the Jamaican people, and that he had authorized this request in his role as leader of the JLP. After a weekend holed up in his official residence, Golding emerged to declare that he deeply regretted his actions, that he would be staying put as Prime Minister, and that the government would in fact sign the extradition order. Last week the opposition walked out of parliament after an attempt to raise the issue there was rejected. As commentators have noted, he is after all the Prime Minister, and it would be difficult to think of a clearer conflict of interest. Moreover, some are wondering what grounds Golding has for remaining in office, when a Senator and state minister in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade has already resigned over the affair, citing the extradition as one of the factors behind his decision to step down.

The reversal of the government’s position on the extradition order has created a tense standoff between the security forces who must now find him, and the communities determined to protect him at any cost.  Last week the Jamaica Gleaner carried a story, ‘Diehards defend Dudus’, in which hundreds of residents of Tivoli Gardens – where Dudus is from – and neighbouring communities took to the streets to demand that the extradition hearings be scrapped. One protestor carried a placard that read ‘Dudus is a better security officer: give him his props’.

There is something eerily familiar about this for Guyanese in relation to Roger Khan’s extradition to and trial in the United States, and the allegations of a relationship between the government of Guyana and the Phantom Squad.  For some sections of the Guyanese community, Roger Khan was held up as the one who effectively intervened in the crime wave that hit the country after the infamous Mash Day jailbreak.  And around the time that the United States began to call for his extradition, there were ads in the papers and on tv whose message was that Roger Khan was being demonized when in fact he was the one who should be thanked for helping the government at a time when criminal elements were seriously threatening its ability to maintain law and order.

Colleagues in Jamaica have described barricades erected in the West Kingston constituency where Dudus is reportedly holed up, to prevent the police and army from coming in: ‘They started showing pictures in the news of the barricades with cylinders of gas inserted in them, and with piles of old stoves and fridges with live electrical wires attached to them (as reported by the police)’. Another commented despairingly, ‘the standoff looks likely to last for a while as barricades are very strong. It’s looking like it’s going to be brutal’.

But who were these Dudus diehards who took to the streets? The newspaper reported that the protestors were mainly women and children, all dressed in white, coming out in support of the embattled strongman. It is a paradoxical and deeply disturbing image. It is for me a tragic comment on where we are in the Caribbean, for it speaks to the deep divisions cultivated among a populace as a result of intense and narrow politicization and partisanship (something that resonates with the Guyanese experience as well).

Last year, with a Jamaican colleague, Honor Ford-Smith, I wrote a diaspora column on another march, Letters from the Dead, also involving women and young people from Kingston, but one that actively took aim at all forms of violence and that made a deliberate attempt to unite people across communities. Even the design of the walk mirrored this effort, deliberately crossing unspoken lines in the sand in its movement across the downtown city core to the Children’s Monument. It was an afternoon filled with hope, one I struggle to remember now, confronted by this competing and haunting image of women and children in white on the streets to support Dudus.  I also wonder at the role of the media in all of this, because this last story makes Jamaican headlines, but the organisers struggled to get any media interest at all in the women last year, despite the fact that it was historic in so many ways and not least because it refused the division of people and communities into JLP and PNP, if even only for a few hours (again, echoes of Guyana).

In that column, we noted that inner-city violence in Kingston has a direct connection to the two main political parties’ cultivation of loyalties in various constituencies, and the internecine fighting that marked national elections at the end of the 1970s.  For some observers, the opposition may make much noise now about this affair, but their hands are not clean either. With the implementation of structural adjustment policies, political clientelism has become less possible, and certainly less tied to the dispensation of material support to loyal communities.  With general cutbacks in the provision of social infrastructure and in the absence of employment and other opportunities for the urban poor, the informal sector is how people catch their hand. Drugs and small arms are also part of the picture, bringing in their wake new leaders, increasing violence as turf wars break out, and drastically heightening the stakes for residents.

It is all so very complicated.  That the women on the street last week wore white for peace suggests that whatever the allegations against him, the loyalty to Dudus symbolizes the enormous hole in communities that is filled alternatively (security, protection, favours, even jobs).  The placard calling for Dudus to be given ‘props’ says it all – he has given us what you cannot or will not. That this is where we are now is an ominous commentary on the failure of generations of post-independence political leaders to deliver a decent and sustainable quality of living to people. Loyalty also demands its own silences; as Martin Carter reminds us, the mouth is always muzzled by the food it eats to live. In order to support Dudus one must be silent on any of the forms of violence, within and across communities, which are linked to the defence of his own interests. It is a no win situation.  Women are the persons whose every-day, unrecognized caring work is essential to the maintenance of families. And here they are taking to the streets to defend their communities in ways that uphold a status quo that will ultimately work against the interests of all. Those on the street become tragic conscripts in a war that will only benefit a few, and where women and children also pay a high price, for in this latest manifestation of violence they have increasingly become the targets. As I read one newspaper article that police intelligence was reporting that children might possibly be used as human shields if the security forces tried to enter the communities to extricate Dudus, I thought of the Monument to the Children in downtown Kingston where Letters from the Dead ended its own procession last year. It is a huge bronze sculpture of a child’s head, with a solitary tear rolling down her/his face, and the names of children lost to violence inscribed at the base of the monument.

What would a broad and non-partisan anti-violence movement look like and what would it take to get there? How would it genuinely reckon with the insecurities, economic and psychic, that lead to such divisions within communities and these contradictory and tragic allegiances and alliances?

As I followed the Jamaica saga, I kept thinking of what a Caribbean story it was. The parallels with our own history of political partisanship in Guyana are so clear. Last week I learned – following the story of the Guyana government’s defence of its position before the UN Human Rights Council  – that the Women and Gender Equality Commission, one of the constitutional commissions, had been set up. With dismay, I read the names of the Gender Commission’s Chair (Indranie Chandarpal, of the Women’s Progressive Organisation, women’s arm of the PPP) and Deputy (Cheryl Sampson, of the National Commission of Women, women’s arm of the PNC). How can we ever break loose of this albatross, where the two main political parties monopolise space, demanding loyalty and the silence loyalty requires, making it virtually impossible to conceive of a civil society free of these divisions? How on earth can a Gender Commission that calls itself independent begin by rehearsing the partisan moves that continue to wreak havoc on Guyana and how do we imagine this is supposed to inspire Guyanese at home and abroad? The tragedy unfolding on Jamaica’s streets takes a particular form, but as a Guyanese it is disturbingly familiar on so many levels. Before we stop to dismiss it out of hand as something happening ‘over there’, we should stop to reflect on our own divided country, and the lessons to be learned.


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