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Danielle Roper and Garnett Roper | Has Malahoo Forte lost her humanity?

Published:Sunday | June 19, 2016 | 12:44 AMDanielle Roper, Garnett Roper
Garnett Roper
Danielle Roper
Mourners gather during a visitation for Pulse nightclub shooting victim Javier Jorge-Reyes in Orlando, Florida, on June 15.
Marlene Malahoo Forte sparked anger and support from conflicting sides of a debate about the propriety of the US Embassy raising the Pride flag in support of gay victims in the Orlando mass shooting a week ago.

During a previous Jamaica Labour Party administration, Jamaica was made to pay a heavy price for its misfeasance in foreign policy with the United States. The foreign policy faux pas then cost Jamaica a hiatus in relations with Washington, as the US refused to name an ambassador to Jamaica for a protracted period.

While there was no open hostility from the USA during that time, bilateral opportunities may have been missed. The dispute was triggered because the Golding administration believed that it was in the interest of his party and the underlying popular base to oppose the extradition of Christopher 'Dudus' Coke to face drug and racketeering charges in the US. Coke later pleaded guilty to racketeering charges and was appropriately sentenced.

It was in that context that Bruce Golding declared, in attempt to sock it to the USA, that constitutional rights did not begin at Liguanea (the location of the US Embassy in Jamaica). The pretext then was that Golding was making a stand for Jamaica’s sovereignty, in opposing the extradition of Coke. But it was nothing more than an attempt to use populism to trump the rule of law.

It is certainly remarkable to me that so soon into the life of the Holness administration, they have stumbled on another attempt to create a hiatus in US-Jamaica relations. It is clear that the Obama administration, through its Kingston embassy, is being quite mature, measured and temperate in its response to Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte who, in a tweet on the attorney general's official handle, suggested that by flying the rainbow flag over the US Embassy building in Kingston, the embassy was disrespecting Jamaican law.

What the US Embassy in Kingston did was nothing less than what thinking people the world over would have expected. They flew at half-mast the American flag, as President Obama instructed in the wake of the massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, and also hoisted the LGBT rainbow flag at half mast in act of solidarity. The Pulse nightclub mass shooting was one of the most horrendous tragedies of US history and one of the most heinous acts of violence against a minority group in recent memory. This is a time for members of the international community to affirm the value of human life, regardless of race, gender, and sexual orientation.

Inconvenient truth

Marlene Malahoo Forte’s decision to critique the US Embassy’s public expression of solidarity with the victims in a time of mourning is, therefore, ill-timed, insensitive, and an embarrassment to all of us. Jamaica simply has no jurisdiction over foreign embassies, nor is flying a rainbow flag a violation of, or an affront to, any local laws.

As a former judge, Malahoo Forte ought to know that while one may violate or uphold a law, there simply is no such thing as “disrespecting” a law. Her invocation of Jamaican law to lambaste a nation in mourning via social media rings hollow.

More to the point, however, as Jamaica’s attorney general, she is the legal guardian of the constitutional rights of all Jamaicans. She may find it an inconvenient truth to believe that Jamaican members of the LGBT community have no fewer constitutional rights than other Jamaicans. Should there be a tragedy or a crime perpetrated against gay Jamaicans, would the attorney general demur against acts of solidarity with them in their grief, and would she be prepared to defend their cause?

Instead of offering an expression of solidarity to one of our major trading partners, Malahoo Forte has used this opportunity to instead spark an international incident on social media. As attorney general, her public account on social media functions as a site of representation of the Jamaican people. It is not the place for mindless attacks on those who publicly grieve, nor is it the arena for public jousting with our international allies.  Irresponsible statements such as this one squander Jamaica’s social capital, damage our brand, and will only alienate us from our international partners.

Like Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump, Malahoo Forte has used the massacre of 49 LGBT citizens to appeal to the base tendencies of our populace and to whip up local anti-gay animus. 

One wonders if the populist instinct of this politician is not also buttressed by our social numbness about the loss of human life in Jamaica. Some see in the worst act of terrorism perpetrated on US soil since 9/11 and one of the most heinous hate crimes (in terms of the total numbers of life lost) an opportunity to play to the homophobic gallery rather than to recover our humanity and human decency by some act of solidarity with the victims of this hate and terror.

We have got so accustomed to murder and even to state-sponsored violence that we do not understand that our failure to act in the name of the victims diminishes all of us. It does matter whether 49 are killed in the name of ISIS or four young men slaughtered in Clarendon by state-sponsored violence. We have a duty to the innocent dead. 
We congratulate the US Embassy in Kingston for the show of solidarity and we mourn with the American people in this and too many other similar instances recently. And we say Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte, not in our name.

The Rev Dr Garnett Roper is president of Jamaica Theological Seminary and Dr Danielle Roper is fellow at the University of Chicago Illinois, USA. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com, glroper@hotmail.com and roper.danielle@gmail.com.