Peter Espeut | The more things change, the more they remain the same
Tomorrow will mark my 25th anniversary as a weekly columnist with this newspaper.
It all began in 1992 when the New Beginning Movement (NBM) - of which I was a convenor - joined the Jamaica Council of Churches on a walk from the People's National Party (PNP) garrison of Matthew's Lane to the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) garrison of Tivoli Gardens to protest the creation of zones of political exclusion in the inner city.
Led by the late Archbishop Carter, we began at St John's United Church in Hannah Town, where we conversed with community members about their situation. Some of them joined us as we moved along 'Matches Lane' towards Spanish Town Road, but they would not go beyond a certain point. At the time, I noted that the residents of the PNP garrison toed an imaginary line which was mathematically straight - such was the fear of the opposing garrison dons. This was the original 'canna cross it'.
As we approached Tivoli Gardens, we got the message that we would not be allowed to enter; that enclave was off limits to outsiders, especially some of our NBM convenors, particularly Anthony Abrahams (who, at the time, was out of favour with Eddie Seaga's JLP), as well as Trevor Munroe and Ronnie Thwaites. As a result of the negotiating skills of our leaders, we eventually crossed Tivoli's threshold and spoke with some of the residents about their situation.
I noted that whereas limited pedestrian access was possible, no motor vehicles, could enter because of barricades - against police vehicles I thought, or maybe the orange militia. And there was another mathematically straight line beyond which the Tivolites would not stray. This was a higher order of discipline than I had seen elsewhere in Jamaica.
Clearly, both parties were guilty of making the inner city a living hell, and I went home that evening and wrote about my experience. I called it 'Dismantling the garrisons'. It was published in The Sunday Gleaner of March 1, 1992, next to the editorial with a banner headline.
Clearly they liked it, for the Gleaner editorial of March 5, 1992, developed on my piece. They asked for another, so I wrote 'Who will bell the cat' which was published the following Sunday on the Editorial page.
A few months later, then Gleaner editor Ken Allen asked me to write a weekly column; Carl Stone's final piece was published on February 10, 1993, and I filled his space - if not his shoes - the following week. And the rest is history.
Over the past 25 years, the number of political garrisons has increased, and may have even intensified. Although the two big dons of the day - Zekes and Dudus - are behind bars, the number of gangs and guns on the streets has increased, and Jamaica has a world-class murder rate.
My conscience will not allow me to join or find common cause with either of the two political parties which have spawned this evil garrison system, and which - until today - actively keep it in existence. Clearly, there are many others whose consciences are not so sensitive.
But, in well over 1,200 columns since then, I have maintained my distance from both major parties and their backers in the private sector, criticising and praising where necessary. When election time comes, I swallow my spit and vote against whoever. I have seen popular support for both parties decline over the last quarter century; maybe it is because some readers have followed my example.
In my first official column ('Lean and 'mawgah' government), I lamented the irrational directive to government department heads to reduce staff by 18 per cent, supposedly to make their outfits 'lean and mean', but some departments (I had the Fisheries Division in mind) were already understaffed; cutting staff would decrease the quality of service delivery.
Two and a half decades later, the Government is using a different irrational strategy to reduce the size of the civil service. When nurses and air traffic controllers take early retirement, won't they have to be replaced?
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
I am most known for my advocacy of sustainable development and environmental conservation, and was honoured to be awarded a Silver Musgrave Medal in 2008 for my efforts. I am pleased to have played a part over the years in the protection of the integrity of Hope Gardens, Salt River (from the construction of a port to export limestone), the Hellshire Hills (from Urban Development Commission housing), the Goat Islands (from a deep-water port), the Cockpit Country (from bauxite mining), among other unsustainable efforts. The only death threat I received over the years was to try to get me to back off my opposition to an environmentally degrading project. I ignored it.
But I have championed other causes, notably an end to apartheid in our education system, which perpetuates Jamaica's colour-class nexus by holding some back as it promotes others. I have tried to defend traditional Christianity against its fundamentalist and secularist detractors. Using philosophical logic, I have sought to challenge and refute those who would take us down the libertarian road.
The Gleaner has put up with me over the last quarter century - nay, has encouraged me! It would have been otherwise if you, my readers, had not indicated your support in various ways. Appreciations!
On to the next 25 years!
- Peter Espeut is a development scientist and Roman Catholic deacon. Send feeback to firstname.lastname@example.org