Orville Taylor | Wackos and Leahy
It is as vivid as if it were yesterday. Years later, the footage of the flames, thick smoke, security forces armed to the braces and dentures in full battle gear and ready for World War IV. As scary as it looked, law enforcement was not in a joking mood. Bedecked in body armour and with high-power weapons, nothing was going to deter the government troops.
A moderately sized community had become an enclave and its leader was taking a status and power that the de jure president could only dream of. He was a demi-god, and his followers held him in awe, and many were prepared to die with him and some for him.
But on that fateful day at the beginning of the week in spring, the Feds had had enough. After waiting for more than a month to enter, it was time to act. This was not an illegal operation. A judge had issued a long-awaited warrant and the cops were going for their man. Everyone knew that it was going to be a difficult extraction because according to police intelligence, the combatants were well armed. One report indicated that they had M16 rifles that had been illegally retrofitted to fully automatic specifications. Nonetheless, intelligence to the cops was that they had caches of ammunition and were prepared to defend their turf.
There is much dispute about how the operation began, and despite an inquiry, lots of questions were left hanging. What is indisputable, though, is that more than 70 people lay dead when the fires went out. A set of combatants barricaded themselves in their community and engaged the security forces for more than a month in fierce gun battles. Women and children, as well as fighting-age men, were either unwilling or unable to leave.
The assault on the impregnable compound was fierce. Incendiary devices were lit; gunfire was traded between gunmen and the lawmen. Members of the armed forces were killed as well. And, indeed, guns were found. But it was a bitter aftermath. Among the dead were at least 20 children and more than 40 women. A report from a law-enforcement investigator concluded "that many of the occupants were either denied escape from within or refused to leave until escape was not an option".
By now you might have guessed that this was not Tivoli Gardens in 2010. This was 1993 in a Texas town called Waco, pronounced 'Wayko' and not wacko like the orange-faced presidential candidate. The Branch Davidians, headed by charismatic religious cult figure David Koresh, led a month-plus-long standoff with federal agents, where their enclosure was under siege like an old medieval castle. For the record, four agents were also killed, but the similarities to the incidents in our own Tivoli Gardens are macabre.
Many controversies abound. For example, the agents were specifically instructed by Attorney General Janet Reno not to use any incendiary devices. Agents claimed under oath that they did not. However, evidence later revealed that they did use grenades and a gas-dispensing device. It was also found by a special counsel that some agents of the State had intentionally withheld information and obstructed investigation.
TRYING TO DO RIGHT
Former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who represented several of the survivors and 'victims' of the Branch Davidian incident, expressed disappointment that serious punitive action was not taken against the State, and in his own words, "History will clearly record, I believe, that these assaults ... remain the greatest domestic law-enforcement tragedy in the history of the United States."
Of course, that is the nature of law, and absolute truth is unreachable since there will always be two sides of the same facts in advocacy. However, nothing indicates to me that any action has been taken since to limit the power or operations of the tactical units who were involved in the Waco operation. But you see, the Texan agents are Americans and are not the subject of the Leahy Act, which militates against armed governmental units that violate human rights with impunity. It only looks outwards, even when black lives are taken by their cops.
The Davidians were a community of wackos, if you wish. However, there is no evidence that they were a threat to external society, and there was no basis for the initial allegations that there was child-abuse and rape being perpetrated there. Tivoli, on the other hand, was a community from whence credible threats came to the Jamaican armed forces' members, and men acted on them. Indeed, prior to the operation, police stations were burned and service vehicles commandeered and torched.
More interestingly, the warrant that was to have been served was for crimes committed in the US, not in Jamaica. Our Jamaican police and military were risking life and limb to carry out the behest of the US government, and they knew that the only way to have gone in was to have used overwhelming force. That was what was to have been expected, and don't let the Halloween granny disguise fool you. Uncle Sam sent for him and was not relenting, cause it what it may. It is indeed ironic that the Americans have triggered the withdrawal of assistance and tactical support sanction.
Now tell me: When the Government spends millions on a commission of enquiry to investigate if any human rights were violated and to recommend action, what do you say the government is doing? Condoning wrong? And if there is a process in law for persons to be investigated for possible prosecution, can we say that the Jamaican government and legal system are failing to act and are trying to protect their agents or block investigations?
Somehow, the recent news that the US has again given us a red card is disappointing. It has supported, and continues to support, many countries that are doing less to guarantee human rights. At a time when we are trying to do right, it feels like we are being punished because we are the skinny kid in the playground. When we are playing a fair hand at poker, Leahy is like a Trump card.
- Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI, a radio talk-show host, and author of 'Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets'. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.