Editorial | A new dispensation for dons?
Prime Minister Andrew Holness must quickly bring clarity to the roles his Government expects dons and so-called community leaders to play in the rejuvenation of downtown Kingston - a project that is the direct remit of the prime minister. Offering definitions of the various terms would be in order, given that in Jamaica, the term 'don' is often interchangeable with crime boss and community enforcer.
Background and context are critical to this issue. Downtown Kingston, at least the central business district, represents a Jamaican paradox. It is perhaps the island's single most vibrant commercial environment, blending teeming agricultural markets and haberdasheries with tens of thousands of people. Some estimates suggest that the value of commerce in the area is equivalent to between five and 10 per cent of Jamaica's annual gross domestic product.
Yet the physical environment - despite the pockets of refurbished buildings and a handful of new and reasonably well-maintained establishments - hardly reflects the area's importance to the national economy. In large swathes of downtown, buildings are either run-down or abandoned, and in residential communities, people mainly live in dilapidated tenements. Their physical and social infrastructure is mostly creaking. Unemployment and crime are high.
In an atmosphere of fear, most downtown businesses close at dark. Night shifts are rare.
Downtown Kingston's degeneration is partly because of the middle class' trek northwards over the past 60 years or so, exacerbated by the tug on corporate enterprises to new business districts like New Kingston, as well as the emergence, with its acceleration in the 1970s, of the style of politics that demarcated communities by party allegiance. In these communities, the dons, or community leaders, kept a kind of muscular order and corralled votes for politicians, their initial sponsors, who they have now largely transcended. Some are now semi-legitimate businessmen, but still have interests in criminal enterprises that include extortion.
Perhaps the most notorious and successful of these crime bosses was the downtown-based, politically aligned Christopher Coke, whose attempted arrest in 2010 for extradition incited the Tivoli Gardens battles between the security forces and his private militia.
Revitalisation plans have been on and off for decades. It is now on, spearheaded by Dr Gladstone Hutchinson, an economist who works from the Ministry of Job Creation and Economic Growth, of which Prime Minister Holness is the substantive minister, supported by a bevy of Cabinet colleagues.
Last week, in telling civic and business leaders about the project, Dr Hutchinson revealed his interaction with the downtown dons about their possible participation. He said: "... Thirty-five area leaders or dons requested a meeting to talk about how they, with their enlightened self-interest, can participate in this project ... . They said, 'We want to talk about how we can come aboard and participate ... '."
According to Dr Hutchinson, the dons were receptive to an environment in which downtown business are "open until 10, 11 and 12 o'clock" at night.
There are several issues of potential concern that must be addressed. It is part of Jamaica's political history that portions of funds from government contracts are siphoned to dons, some to pay for a community's fragile peace and as kickbacks to the politically favoured. Further, there must be clarity on what will be the modus operandi of the dons/community leaders post-redevelopment.
It is claimed that crime in some sections of downtown Kingston was relatively low during Christopher Coke's reign, in part because Coke kept tight control of his foot soldiers while running a lucrative protection racket. Night shifts could be good for a don's business.