Annie Paul | Jamaica, violence-free land we love
On Monday, May 9, I decided to catch up with the local news on CVM TV. The top story of the newscast was headlined ‘Peter Bunting hits back at JLP’s criticism of his crime management’. This story was followed by news of a third cop, District Constable Lewis Robinson, killed here in recent weeks.
Shortly thereafter, the screen was filled with images of a burly man punching and manhandling a teenage schoolboy, while other schoolchildren stood around watching. If you didn’t know better, you might think the couple were dancing, as they whirled round and round the school space kicking, punching and gouging each other’s faces.
The story? The schoolboy was being physically assaulted by a teacher attempting to discipline him for using a ‘curse word’. Instead of initiating a discussion with the boy about his reasons for using invective, the teacher resorted to brute force to overpower him. What is disconcerting is how many parents across Jamaica would agree with the teacher’s tactics rather than find anything wrong with it.
Taken together, these stories depict an average national newscast on any weekday in Jamaica. Crime and violence dominate the news here as it did in the weeks preceding the murder of two American missionaries, Harold Nichols and Randy Hentzel. Then, Corporal Judith Williams, from the police commissioner’s office, had been drilled with bullets on her way to work and subsequently died. A couple of days after that, a three-year-old girl was found dead on a beach, killed by her own father, who subsequently also succumbed, seemingly to vigilante justice, after escaping from police custody.
The murder of the missionaries, white, male and American, made the international news, with one news anchor referring to Jamaica as an “extraordinarily violent” country. Jamaican cultural nationalists reared up hissing and spitting. One of them addressed a tweet to CNN: “Jamaica has pockets of violence. We are not generally known to get up with machine guns & walk into schools & theatres & shoot up people.”
Another claimed that he didn’t walk around Jamaica fearing he would become a victim of violence, unlike the US where he was wary of walking around malls and public spaces for fear of the random shooters who apparently stalk the land of the free and the brave.
Come now, I thought. Surely the lack of fear you feel in Jamaica is connected to the fact that you belong to a class of people rarely troubled by police or murderers. As Cultural Nationalist #1 had observed, there are “pockets” of violence here, and, it’s necessary to add, the literati and glitterati are insulated from it. But ask anyone living in those pockets whether they agreed with the American anchor’s statement, and what do you think they’d say?
These are people here who live, as UWI scholar Norval Edwards pointed out in the 1990s, in a permanent state of emergency. The rest of us tolerate this, some even demanding it. Not surprisingly, when the violence then spills across the boundaries and news of it escapes into the international news circuits, some of us start squealing about bias and exaggeration when actually what is being reported is the truth.
But, of course, the truth is dispensable. We prefer to think of ourselves as highly cultured, civilised, law-abiding, English-speaking citizens who do not curse or act violent. This is the image we want to project; let no foreign anchor tell you otherwise. The level of denial and self-delusion is all-pervasive. I spoke to a couple of individuals who don’t live in middle-class enclaves and they, too, insisted that Jamaica could not be called a violent society.
“See how the man who killed his daughter was swiftly dealt with,” said one woman, seemingly unaware of the irony of offering a man’s violent death as a testament against violence. Others justify using violence to stem the supposed incivility of using bad language. Wasn’t it just a few years ago that a policeman shot and killed an eight-month pregnant woman for using a ‘bad word’?
The level of denial is so profound that one good friend actually argued that it was unfair to use a per-capita metric to judge Jamaica’s murder rate because then Jamaica would always appear more violent than large countries like the US and Canada!
I tell you, the state of denial and negation of the truth here makes me want to curse. But then I might become victim number who-knows-what for 2016. I do wish, though, that the cultural nationalists were as zealous about eradicating the conditions that provoke violence in Jamaica as they are about protecting its image.
- Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice (anniepaul.net). Email feedback to email@example.com or tweet @anniepaul.