Annie Paul | Every now has its before
The #BlackLivesMatter campaign has rightfully been hogging media attention worldwide, with American police being shown up as less respectful of human rights than you would expect from a nation that regularly monitors and penalises other countries for their alleged violations of these universally agreed-on rights. Superficially, there appears to be a resemblance to the way Jamaican police behave except for a crucial difference.
Here, it's the intersection of class with race that arouses the savagery of the police and seemingly gives them the right to detain, imprison, and on far too many occasions, murder a 'suspect', whereas in the United States, the detention and deaths in question seem to be largely racially focused. In 2009, for instance, the very distinguished Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was detained and imprisoned by police after forcing open the stuck door to his own house. A neighbour, misconstruing the scene, reported a robbery in progress. The police arrived, and despite the erudite professor's explanations, he was carted off to jail.
This would never happen in Jamaica. Here, you might be black and suspect until you display your rightful ownership of certain markers of privilege - and therefore legitimacy - of which the ability to speak English fluently is one.
This is another stark example of how patois speakers are discriminated against in their own country. Many parents tell their sons that when stopped by police, they are to speak perfect English and mention that they come from somewhere - that is, an uptown community rather than a downtown or inner-city one. Almost instantaneously, this frees them from suspicion.
There is no direct way to relate the #BlackLivesMatter campaign to police abuse in Jamaica without acknowledging or starting a local "#PoorLivesMatter campaign.
Less than two weeks ago, policemen shot a schoolgirl in the head when they fired bullets at a taxi downtown. Do you think this would have happened in Liguanea or Manor Park? And then to add insult to injury, the initial response of the police was that they had no evidence to suggest that the shooters in question were police officers. What could be more alarming than a possible scenario involving five men disguised as policemen firing their weapons at taxis? Well, actually, duh, a scenario involving five policemen firing at a taxi, which is what, in the end, it turned out to be.
These are the same police the attorney general, in the wake of lotto scam-generated crime ramping up in Montego Bay, wishes to endow with more leeway to abuse citizens by insisting that "to successfully tackle the murder problem, some of the fundamental rights and freedoms which we have guaranteed to people may have to be abrogated, abridged, or infringed". In fact, she forgot to mention that this has been the state of affairs for so-called downtown people forever; the outcry now is because the warning is addressed to English-speaking, uptown-dwelling, middle-class bodies.
SOCIAL INTERVENTION NEEDED
I adapted the title of this column from Kei Miller's novel The Last Warner Woman. "Every now have its before", she warns, although few heed her. Police Commissioner Williams has rightly said that the problems in Montego Bay are not something harsher policing measures or a state of emergency can solve. They are systemic and need social intervention, for what 'gone bad a-morning, can't come good a-evening'. Imagine the scene in the US if President Obama used the current crisis to give American police even more draconian powers than they already enjoy. Wrong move. Racism in the US has a long and troubled history just as the virulent classism in Jamaica does. There's no moving forward without addressing either.
We would do well to heed the words of social commentator Nadeen Althia Spence, who, invoking the late great Jamaican writer Michelle Cliff, said:
"If I could write this with fire, I would set ablaze some ideas on this page. I would talk about the black boys in Montego Bay who no longer know the value of life. They don't know because their black always needed to be qualified for it to become fully 'smadditized'. It needed land, and money or an accent. When you grow up in communities that are built on captured land, what does it mean for the girls and boys who develop their personhood in a place where land and property and money helps to define your person?
"Capture is a legitimate philosophy, because dem nuh own nutten. When Daddy Sharpe led his rebellion, when he set Kensington ablaze, the white people in Montego Bay were angry. They punished, maimed and killed, and Daddy Sharpe gave his life in the middle of Sam Sharpe Square, downtown Montego Bay, right across from the Kerr Jarrett's Town House.
"How has Montego Bay changed? Who plans for the children of Sam Sharpe and his soldiers, the Christmas martyrs? Dem used to state of emergency, di blinking city was born in a state of emergency. What they are not used to is justice and equality and rights and development. Give them that minister, give them justice and mek it stretch back to 1831 and remember Sam Sharpe. Start with the land ... mek dem stop capture ... because all lotto scam is another capture philosophy ... ."
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @anniepaul