Ewart Walters | Start with the little things
In the late 1960s, there was banter about a 16-storey building near the corner of Oxford Road and Half-Way Tree Road that had a first floor and a 16th floor - and nothing in between! It was the wry humorist's gibe about an architect's attempted scam.
Memory of that event came back to me as I contemplated 2017 Jamaica and the furore over two recent attempts to bring the wandering chickens back into the Jamaican coop, the door of which was flung wide ajar on August 6, 1962.
The first event is to enforce public discipline through the campaign to render all glass on motor vehicles, especially taxis, transparent. The second, of course, is the call initiated by MP Lisa Hanna to enforce the discipline that is supposed to be present in our penal institutions. The fact that she did it in relation to the public activities of an incarcerated murderer has drawn a flood of comments, including death threats. (There is very little honest endeavour that can be attempted in Jamaica today, it seems, that does not result in a death threat. And there are many who will take up the offer to carry them out).
Driven by year after year of neglect and privation, the national temperature has been at fever pitch for decades, and the resultant short tempers continue to provide energy for the bellows of conflagration.
Proposed remedies for this blazing feverish condition range from new prisons, diving intervention, a female police commissioner, and a new crime plan to the employment of an obeah man uncle. Indeed, it was the Mighty Sparrow many years ago who scoffed at his girlfriend Melda's wedding plans for him by reposing in the secure knowledge that the island's biggest obeah man was his grandfather! (Obeah Wedding).
Bob Marley, in Them Belly Full, came a bit closer to the truth:
Them belly full but we hungry
A hungry mob is a angry mob
A rain a fall but the dutty tough;
A pot a cook but the food no 'nuff
The truth is that there are really two things at the bottom of the crime crisis: housing and employment.
The only time that Jamaicans had 100 per cent employment was during slavery. Nobody was without work. They were without pay, but not without work. They were also fully housed. Everyone had lodgings, somewhere to sleep, and many people were able to get houses and eke out an existence on the small plots around their houses. Add to that, the people who ran away from slavery into the hills also had to make do as best they could.
So, for some 300 years, the people of Jamaica had been housed and employed and fed by the slavery-supporting powers. But they were housed. They were employed. They were fed. While all this ended at the time of Emancipation, the stark brutality was not fully laid bare until Britain left and we took over running our own government at Independence.
It was the late great journalist John Maxwell who spelled out the stark facts.
He said that after making enormous profits out of Jamaica for more than 300 years, the British had given us Up Park Camp, the defence force headquarters - which they couldn't take with them anyway - as well as enough money to run the country for 11 days!
(I have tried to research and track down exactly how much money that was but have not yet been successful).
But, 11 days! And now they want to give us a prison! Sorry, less than half of a prison. But I digress.
Anyway, the point is made. No government of Jamaica has been able to provide housing for all its people. No government of Jamaica has been able to employ all its people. And when in the 1980s, following the imprimatur of Washington, it was made clear to them that they were on their own, it seemed that things went from bad to worse. Everybody start to do a thing. Everybody tek dem han tun fashion. And when that didn't work through legal means, they turned to the extralegal.
The ganja trade flourished. And when with the aid of Uncle Sam some major ganja fields were destroyed (but not before the helpers took back with them hundreds of our best ganja plants, as I have it from one of the highest authorities), it opened the door for the cocaine traders and for mules and sparrows to transport the product to the welcoming foreign markets.
Conflict of interest
Some policemen, burdened by continuous, pathetically low salaries (despite a one-time 300 per cent raise), supplemented their income by putting taxis on the road, thereby creating at least an instant conflict of interest. Others would allow you to purchase a bly when they stopped you for a traffic offence on the highway. Island Traffic examiners became notorious for failing driver's licence applicants unless they got a let-off. In many little ways, Jamaica slid from the Jamaica it was to what we used to hear about places like Nigeria.
As things continued to slide, drivers ignored stop signs by day and traffic lights at night. Nobody seemed to know that there was a Road Code, and that it was meant not only for passing the driving test. People began putting up buildings anywhere they wanted, and without permission from the KSAC or parish councils. People littering the streets. Someone stole a beach. No problem, man. No reprisals. Nobody cared. It was laissez-faire gone mad.
As the decades went by, the culture of the country also suffered change.
Crime analyst Dudley Allen noted in the 1980s that the country's violent crime rates doubled during the first 12 years following Independence. From 1962 to 1974, manslaughter rates increased by 167 per cent, robbery by 771 per cent, rape by 160 per cent, felonious wounding by 137 per cent, and shooting with intent by 1,350 per cent.
At the same time, the music changed and has reflected the society in a most transparent way. It is instructive to follow the music and its social commentary lyrics in order to take the real temperature of the nation. Bright, fun-loving and laced with laughter and new dance moves for nearly two decades from the time of Independence, the music lost its lightness. Especially after Bob Marley's death in Miami in 1981, it took on a heaviness and crassness that saw a move away from reggae to the slackness of the '80s and the hardcore dancehall of the early 21st century.
In very real terms, the change in popular music reflects a dearth of societal mores occasioned by the mass migration in the late 1970s and early 1980s of a strong and vibrant middle class that fled a depreciating dollar, political gun terror, the imposed structural adjustments that ravaged health and education, security forces weakened and corrupted by politicians, and the extended failure of successive administrations to do much about the situation.
It should not be forgotten that the late 1970s and early 1980s were momentous for a large exodus of the populace to the US and Canada. This differed from the earlier pre-Independence wave of emigration to England in that the UK-bound emigrants were drawn heavily from the salt-of-the-earth farming communities - the rural working class, and this later exodus was more urban middle-class, including doctors, teachers, dentists, professors, technologists, midshipmen and captains of industry and commerce - the very people who, as one politician put it, set examples and create living standards. It was a virtual handing over of the society by the middle classes to others who were quite ready to create their own standards, sometimes with the help of criminals.
In such a vacuum, a new urban ethic emerged, an ethos that paid little attention if any to the constituted authority of laws and the court system, an ethos of overturned values in which blatant gaudy displays of bling and a dancehall culture replaced the mores that had been so carefully nourished in social-development efforts such as Jamaica Welfare. Into this vacuum rushed extensive tentacles of gun and drug traffic presided over by dons and some singers and singjays.
So we come back to that 16-storey building. Needless to say, it never came to fruition. You can't build a superstructure without a foundation. And that foundation is composed of several small parts. If you are building or rebuilding a nation, you must begin with the little things, the small parts. And they are all bound together by discipline. The discipline that was evident in Senior Superintendent of Police Radcliffe Lewis' campaign to clean up traffic. The discipline of detinting taxi windows. The discipline of following the rules by all, at all times.
Start with the little things like discipline. And if having imposed financial discipline means you still need the IMF, get them to help you build societal discipline. It will pay big dividends!
- Ewart Walters, veteran journalist of Public Opinion, The Daily Gleaner, the Daily News, and The Spectrum, is author of 'To Follow Right - A Journalist's Journey', and 'We Come From Jamaica: The National Movement 1937-1962'. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.