Editorial: Should the Gov’t say sorry to Rastas?
Arlene Harrison Henry has attended her job as public defender with commendable energy and a willingness to jump, without prompting, into matters in which citizens are in danger of compromise. Her intervention in the St Hilda's High School debacle in defence of head girl Jade Bascoe against religious bigotry was especially refreshing. That is part of her mandate.
But we suspect that with the sheer number of incidents in which people's constitutionally protected rights are being impinged on by institutions of the State and the limited resources of her office, Mrs Harrison Henry is hard-pressed to determine on which matters she should expend her time, and the manpower and money of her office.
Which is why - its historic and social relevance, notwithstanding - we are surprised she chose to take up the more than half-century-old Coral Gardens case of violence between Rastafarians and the Jamaican State.
But having done it, the public defender may have provided an opportunity for the Government to reflect on the post-Independence misadventures by the State and determine for which of those closure demands at least an official apology, as Mrs Harrison-Henry has recommended be given to the Coral Gardens Rastafarians, their descendants and, by extension, the wider Rastafarian community. We expect, though, the Government to be circumspect about her call for compensation for surviving victims, for fear it be subjected to moral hazard.
Coral Gardens is in Montego Bay and was the scene of a 1963 incident when what, by most accounts, was a dispute between a land owner and a Rastafarian erupted into a mini riot that was forcefully put down by the Jamaican authorities with the deaths of eight Rastafarians and two policemen. More than 150 other Rastafarians were arrested, many of them beaten. Some shaved their locks and beards to avoid retribution, it has been reported.
It was not the first incident of violence between the Jamaican State and Rastafarians, then a relatively new Afrocentric, religious, countercultural movement of marginalised poor people who were viewed with suspicion. Three years earlier, at a Rastafarian compound in St Catherine, two members of the movement were killed and two soldiers wounded during an attempt to move the group from their settlement.
SOCIALLY SIGNIFICANT EVENT
With regard to Coral Gardens, which has been the subject of significant scholarly discourse, Mrs Harrison Henry told Coral Gardens residents that "our investigations" discovered abuse, which underpinned her recommendation for the State's "apology to those Rastafarians who were imprisoned, assaulted, taken into custody and were not themselves ... involved in any unlawful activities".
Academics will certainly look forward to the broader publication of Mrs Harrison Henry's findings, hoping that it offers new insights and a deeper understanding of this socially significant event in Jamaica's modern history. Indeed, we look forward to theirs, as well as the contribution of others, on the public defender's call for government financing and technical support for the "preservation of Rastafari culture" and other economic activity.
Rastafarians have had a significant impact on Jamaica's modern identity. The issue that is likely to arise is whether theirs ought to receive special acknowledgement and how the Jamaican State should redress the wrongs it has done to too many of its citizens.