Thu | Feb 22, 2018

A ticking time bomb (Part I)

Published:Sunday | April 17, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Arnold Bertram
In this 1968 Gleaner photo, a beat policeman views the smashed showcase of Van-Dels store on King Street. This was one of the buildings damaged during a wave of violence triggered by the Walter Rodney protests.

The 2014 Economic and Social Survey Jamaica (ESSJ) estimated Jamaica's population at 2.8 million and the country's labour force at 1,305,100. These are "persons 14 years and over who were employed in any form of economic activity for one hour or more during the survey week, and persons who were unemployed, i.e., ... were looking for work ... during the reference week".

The labour force included 543,800 persons in the 14-24 age group, of whom 179,700 were listed as unemployed. These are persons "without work and currently available for work". However, in addition to the unemployed, there were another 388,800 in this age group who were "neither working nor looking for work" and were not enrolled in any educational or training institution.

This cohort lives off the huge underground economy based on drugs, crime, lawlessness and illegality, and creates major problems for the security forces, and frustrates all efforts to regulate public behaviour. In 2014, they were, in the main, responsible for 237 murders, 344 shootings, 898 robberies, 364 break-ins and 190 cases of aggravated assault. (ESSJ) The data also suggest that they are both the perpetrators and the victims of our high homicide rate.

They clearly represent a time bomb that is armed and ticking. How did we get here?




Until independence in 1962, the pattern of ownership in Jamaica had hardly changed. African-Jamaicans - who constituted 78 per cent of the population - continued to make a precarious living off less than 15 per cent of the total farm acreage, while less than a thousand owners of farms over 500 acres in size accounted for nearly half of the total farm acreage.

Faced with dire poverty, the rural labour force responded by migrating in increasing numbers to the capital city and sections of urban St Andrew in search of work. The population of these areas increased from 203,000 in 1943 to 376,000 in 1960. These migrants were forced to accept what shelter could be found in substantial zones of urban blight and informal squatter settlements that did not have light, sanitation or pipe-borne water.

Even in this challenging environment, the industrious poor sought and found legitimate employment, and at great sacrifice, furthered their training and education to succeed against the odds. The national hero, Marcus Garvey, who migrated from St Ann's Bay to Kingston at age 16, is the best known exemplar of self-made Jamaicans.

An increasing number of the urban unemployed chose to use their talents to scuffle and hustle outside the framework of the law, and over time degenerated into a lumpenproletariat, a stratum described by the eminent Jamaican social scientist, Carl Stone, as "the bearer of a culture which espouses unbridled sexuality and violence, mastery of the gun, hostility to all symbols and figures of authority, class and racial militancy, unrestrained individualism, egocentric behaviour and a disdain for work, particularly manual work".







The lumpenproletariat first came to public attention during the first decade of independence when they accepted recruitment as 'foot soldiers' in either of the two major political parties. Both the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People's National Party (PNP) had had a history of violent confrontations, but it was with the establishment of the political garrison that partisan political violence assumed a new dimension. The political garrison was the brainchild of the Harvard-trained sociologist, Edward Seaga, and his mentor Clem Tavares, the JLP minister of housing. In the 1962 election, both were elected to Parliament in the adjoining constituencies of Western Kingston and South Western St Andrew.

Western Kingston was chosen to establish the prototype, and between 1963 and 1966 thousands of poor Jamaicans were forcibly evacuated from their shanties to make way for the new high-rise apartments of Tivoli Gardens in which only JLP supporters were accommodated. A distinctive feature of the garrison at Tivoli Gardens was the recruitment and organisation of a paramilitary strike force supervised by a don to intimidate and/or eliminate any political opposition.

The don also supervised the distribution of the largesse to the community which took the form of contracts and welfare grants. The Tivoli model inspired a succession of politically ambitious ministers of housing to replicate the "mother of all garrisons" in their respective constituencies. Wilton Hill (SW St Andrew, Tony Spaulding (South St Andrew) and Bruce Golding (South St Catherine) come readily to mind.

In this period, guns became the weapon of choice for both political warfare and criminal enterprises. Whereas in 1960, nineteen casualties were caused by firearms, by 1968, the number had increased to 206. The intensification of political warfare resulted in the 1966 state of emergency which was called after a number of PNP and JLP supporters were shot, a cinema bombed, power to Western Kingston cut off, and the police and military were put under pressure.







As political warfare intensified, so did social protests and riots against the racial discrimination and the increasing concentration of wealth among foreign-owned businesses, elite families and racial minorities. The Coral Gardens uprising of 1963 was followed by the anti-Chinese riots of 1965 and the Rodney rebellion of 1968.

While the more politically conscious among the urban unemployed protested, the lumpenproletariat seized the opportunities to enrich itself by looting and theft. In the process, they stretched the security forces to the limit.

It was against this background of racial strife and social instability that Michael Manley emerged as the political personality to whom both the wealthy and the poor looked for the restoration of hope and stability in a nation on the verge of implosion. His courageous attempts to build a more equitable society quickly came up against the global economic crisis of 1973 and the politics of the Cold War. Manley's programme of democratic socialism alienated the wealthy and weakened middle-class support, while his militant anti-imperialism stance alienated the United States of America.

The 1980 election campaign became a virtual civil war, as both political parties enlisted the services of a willing lumpenproletariat. The PNP's minister of housing, Anthony Spaulding, had by then established the political garrison at Arnett Gardens from where the rule of the don extended to the surrounding communities.

Perhaps the most critical development in this period from the standpoint of the lumpenproletariat was the use of Jamaica as a trans-shipment point for the growing trade in cocaine between Colombia and the United States. A major player in the trade was the Jamaican, Vivian Blake, of Tivoli Gardens, who migrated to Brooklyn in 1973 and became leader of the Shower Posse in North America.

In 1979, Blake's protÈgÈ, Jim Brown, became the don of Tivoli Gardens. The trade in hard drugs provided the criminal elite with an independent source of income, amounting to millions of dollars, which was used to expand the network for criminal terrorism and to carry out the functions of community benefactors and protectors far more effectively than any politician could. It is against this background that the lumpenproletariat redefined their relationship with the politicians. The implications of this new relationship that unfolded will be the focus of Part II.

- Arnold Bertram is a historian and former Cabinet minister. His most recent book is 'Norman Manley and The Making of Modern Jamaica', to be launched in May 2016. Email feedback to and