Colin Steer | That Tivoli shock-and-awe report
It’s been nearly two weeks since the Sir David Simmons-led commission of enquiry delivered its report into the events of May 2010 in and around Tivoli Gardens, west Kingston, associated with the attempt by security forces to capture Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke on an extradition warrant. Since the submission, the consternation has been palpable.
Judging from much of the reaction, the commissioners have created a shock-and-awe effect on sections of the body politic, but even more so on the army’s base at Up Park Camp and the Police High Command. Not only did they do the unexpected, but also the unthinkable.
In a rare occurrence of more than four decades of repeated official investigations and special probes into confrontations between residents of the community and the island’s security forces, a commission of eminent persons unreservedly repudiated extra-judicial killings and brutality carried out under the guise of, and amid, claims of enforcing the rule of law and rooting out gunmen. Then, to add insult to injury, the commissioners strongly criticised the leadership of the security forces for what they classified as “incompetence”. This is the stuff that would make one of my childhood neighbours erupt: “Mi mumma! ”
Then too, much to the disappointment of many, not only did they not find cause to blame former prime minister, Bruce Golding, for allegedly tipping off Coke in the way many had insinuated he had and were hoping they would conclude, but the commissioners did not find that all the people from Tivoli who testified at the inquiry were inveterate liars. Nor was the testimony of the security forces taken at face value to be an honest account of events.
The big issue here is not whether there were dog-hearted criminals in west Kingston barefacedly confronting the police in May of 2010. That is indisputable. Or whether police or soldiers should deal with them as though they were about to conduct Sunday school or Sabbath classes. The question is whether an appropriate response is to discharge mortars among dwellings occupied by people, including women and children, not directly involved in the conflict.
The commissioners, of course, did not whitewash the actions of criminal elements in Tivoli. As my esteemed colleague, Ian Boyne, who has been a drum major leading the parade for “strong” police action in fighting “dog-hearted criminals” was at pains to point out in his column of June 19, the commission found much to condemn in those who were opposed to the security forces.
But perhaps the biggest cause of distress to those disappointed in the report is that the commissioners pulled no punches in calling out the leadership of the security forces for what they termed “recklessness” and “incompetence” in approving the discharge of mortars in heavily populated civilian areas. There was also criticism of what they contend were credible stories of security forces shooting people, some in the back of the head, after they had been detained.
The commissioners, essentially, reminded us that although many have long come to terms with accepting the security forces’ justifications for their actions when fighting gunmen as being necessary in the fight against evil, there can be no excuse for state-approved extra-judicial killings, even of those classified as “dutty criminals”.
For many years, few among us wanted to face up to the fact that the only difference between the criminality of the armed Coke-type thugs and elements in the security forces is that the latter wear state-approved uniforms and are armed with guns officially issued to them. Same dog-heart. Same viciousness. Same bloody hands. Same code of silence.
Yet, in the bigger picture, the discharge of mortars in proximity to dwellings occupied by women and children should come as no surprise. Former head of the army, Rear Admiral Hardley Lewin, had warned five years earlier something like that would happen.
The Gleaner’s lead article of October 8, 2005 quoted Lewin as telling a press conference the previous day against the background of gunmen firing on JDF helicopters when army personnel had gone some days earlier in search of Coke and others, that any similar recurrence would be met with “overwhelming force”, particularly since that was the fourth time in five years gunmen were firing on their helicopters. Two previous firings at choppers, according to that Gleaner report, had taken place “in the People’s National Party-controlled East Kingston constituency”.
Lewin did not elaborate on the nature of the “overwhelming force” at the press conference, but May 2010 showed us an example.
The Gleaner’s editorial of the same date of that report, noting the rear admiral’s comments, suggested that a response by the army in such a manner would raise the prospect of a military solution to a civil conflict. “Such a prospect must be rejected by the civilian authorities who run things in this country,“ the editorial concluded.
Well, in May 2010, the civilian authorities had been effectively sidelined and were definitely not “running things”. Indeed, although Bruce Golding may have played a leading, misguided role initially, despite being the minister of defence, he had become a bystander as events unfolded. I am not convinced that even the then commissioner of police, Owen Ellington, fully knew what hour the clock was striking as those supposedly under his command and in tandem with soldiers went to work.
Most people of goodwill can agree that there has been too much criminality by far, in West Kingston, and that the confrontation of the gunmen had been taken to a viciously new low. But just imagine for a minute that the Gleaner report of October 8, 2005 was accurate - that gunmen in East Kingston had fired at JDF helicopters in past, unrelated incidents and it had occurred again. Do you see soldiers dropping “booms” in Dunkirk or any other densely populated area in that section of Kingston? Herein lies the significance of the commission’s blasting the incompetence of the persons in charge of the operations. Human collateral damage by our security forces must be repudiated and resisted as mere unfortunate incidents or even applauded.
Our dilemma is that Jamaica has spawned a peculiar brand of criminal viciousness that must be excised. The question is, how? Strong, firm and even-handed policing across all communities is required, yes. It will also require people of integrity at all levels of security operations, ever mindful that partisan mercenaries also wear government boots.
There remains one other curiosity for me. The public was told that more than 300 defenders descended on the community to prevent Coke’s capture. They were heavily armed. By the time of the incursion, the security forces had strategically surrounded the community, observing movements from land, sea and sky. Where did these 300 gangsters disappear to and where are the guns they were carrying?
Of course, as police and soldiers often state with smug conceit, whatever the incident and whatever the inquiries, nothing will come of them. Notwithstanding the strong criticism of the security forces - nothing will come of this one either. Can a JLP government push for punitive action against wrongdoing by the security forces in an area famously baptised “the mother of all garrisons”? That would be political suicide.
So, ironically, after all the analyses and probes, it’s just another day in paradise. Today many defend the actions of the security forces as necessary. Some day, in the not too distant future, it may be repeated elsewhere, even in as unlikely a place as Norbrook. What will we say then. How did this happen?
• Colin Steer is a communications specialist. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.