Sat | Sep 23, 2017

Editorial: Security and mass rallies

Published:Tuesday | February 9, 2016 | 2:01 AM
Persons leaving the Sam Sharpe Square venue of the Jamaica Labour Party's official launch of its election campaign, which was ended abruptly after a shooting incident that resulted in the deaths of three people.

We don't know the cause of Sunday night's killing of three people at the Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP) rally in Montego Bay. But there should be no rush to judgement that aggravates tensions, leading to a self-fulfilling spiral of violence during the remainder of the campaign for the February 25 general election.

At the same time, it would be worthwhile if the incident triggers a review, by the political parties, of the value and efficacy, on balance, of these mass gatherings of supporters and the adequacy of security arrangements when they take place.

Since the bloody election year of 1980, when the ideologically fuelled campaign exacerbated the country's already high propensity for homicides - more than 800 people were murdered - things have improved, politically on Jamaica. Politics is far more civil and campaigns have become far more peaceful. Sometimes, though, emotions overspill; and there are also still some people, even if dwindling numbers, who continue to believe violence to be a worthy instrument of democratic politics. Nonetheless, we had hoped that this was the year that these weaknesses were put behind us.

Although the police have, thus far, attributed no motive for the incident, there are claims that two of the victims were known gang members and speculation of whether it might be connected to the spate of criminal violence that has hit Montego Bay and, western Jamaica, more generally, in recent years.

But whatever the reasons, it is indeed sad that such a shooting could take place at a rally where the opposition leader, Andrew Holness, was outlining his party's economic programme and that the perpetrators could behave with such impunity.

We, like Mr Holness' JLP, believe the shooting to be "a barefaced and heartless attack on the democratic process", and welcome the People's National Party's condemnation of the act and urge the parties to continue to be measured in their pronouncements on this - or other points of tension - until, or unless there is real reason, to cast blame. Even artfully implied accusations may excite retaliation and spiralling violence.

While we do not question people's right of association and that of the parties to use of mass rallies as fora for making their cases to voters, political leaders aren't ignorant of the history of violence at, or in the vicinity of, such meetings, or in circumstances attendant to them.

The occasions often involve bussing thousands of party supporters long distances to the rallies and security officials frequently complain of the indiscipline or provocative behaviour of these commuters, not infrequently to the danger of law and public order. It may worth the parties, while to use smaller, more intimate - and likely more conducive to serious communication - events at which to outline policies and argue their positions.

Further, as Sunday night's event highlighted, these mass rallies are security nightmares for the police, who, in normal times, are overstretched. They face greater demands during political campaigns.

Perhaps the police should begin to robustly exercise their authority to determine where such rallies are held, ruling out venues such as Montego Bay's Sam Sharpe Square and Kingston's Half-Way Tree, that are difficult to secure, as well as insist that the parties also have minimum professional private security arrangements for the events. A spin-off would be better security for the politicians themselves.