Gordon Robinson | Revisiting people power
I do try to reply to every reader who takes the time to send emails. One committed reader keeps complaining bitterly that I’m inconsiderate of my small readership base and in danger of losing it. His latest entreaty deserves reproduction:
On behalf of your three other readers, I’m begging you to be mindful of those of us who read your column first thing on a Tuesday. The report of the conversation between advocate Thomas (Obadiah) Ramsay and Mi Lord ‘Pumpy’ seems to me designed solely to cause choking, sputtering and howls, which have the response of those in earshot rushing over with all types of implements determined to rescue the reader. Please, I beg you ... help!
You are ‘De- Bess’.
Fan and reader for life!”
Basking in the warm glow of emails like that doesn’t leave much time to look at grumpy, disagreeable online comments telling you what a dummy you really are. But, a friend showed me an online comment two Sundays ago by a reader with the intriguing moniker ‘Diogenes of Babylon’, who asked, “In a future article, please address the issue of how we can turn ‘People Power’ into an effective political force in Jamaica?” Hands down, this is the best, most articulate and relevant request I’ve ever received. Bring your ID to the studio, Diogenes, to collect your Nothing Prize.
People Power is a complex phenomenon because every democracy is premised on the notion that power is exercised by, and on behalf of, the people. So, that Diogenes needed to ask this question justifies what I’ve been writing for 20 years, namely, that there’s NO SUCH CREATURE in Jamaica in any organised or institutional way. Jamaica’s governance system is more properly described as ‘Tyranny by Consensus’, where ‘elections’ are shams calculated to allow the JLP or PNP to usurp the people’s power and tyrants to alternate control of that power for their own benefit like a perverted game of musical chairs.
Basis of people power
People Power is based on philosophy, perspective and confluence of events. It’s a non-starter in the absence of a collective consciousness among people that personal good is best achieved by prioritising collective good. No doubt, Booklist Boyne can catalogue many dull, boring tomes that’ll ‘teach’ you, with historical examples, how people power worked elsewhere, for example, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia; expulsion of the British from India; achievement of civil rights in the USA; removal of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines; dismantling of apartheid in South Africa; and the Arab Spring.
We’ll look at some of these in due course, but it’s essential to understand that the question is asked with reference to Jamaica, not USA, Europe, Middle East, Far East or Asia. People Power can be a violent, frightening phenomenon or a non-violent, kumbaya experience depending on repressed citizens’ political focus and education. Undereducated or tribal people end up with violent revolutions as happened in Somalia, Cuba, 1917 Russia, the Arab Spring and South Africa (switched back and forth between non-violence and violence like Karl Samuda and political parties). Educated citizens with a sense of nation over tribe can grasp and implement non-violent political protest, as was led by MLK in USA and Gandhi in India.
One of the things people power protests often fail to do is plan for success. Even in our beloved South Africa, the results of a blinkered focus on gaining majority rule without a fulsome comprehension of the pitfalls of government (initially obscured by the presence of a true giant in Mandela) are only now showing their ugly warts. India’s independence, as tumultuous as any armed revolution despite Gandhi’s pleas for unity, resulted in his assassination and a country, divided on religious grounds, perpetually at war.
Winning black voting rights in USA’s Southern States resulted in a striking electoral realignment that dramatically reduced the political leverage available to civil rights forces. Instead, it brought 40 years of Republican dominance that was recently refreshed by voters’ impudence in allowing a black couple in the White House for eight years. Naughty, naughty!
So, the first rule of successful people power movements is to plan, plan, and plan again, including how to handle victory! Every successful people power revolution involved the following political factors:
- Repressive government.
When people feel abused by their own government; when they SEE an elite with the right contacts, colour, class or creed succeeding without effort, while they get shafted; when government openly threatens to abrogate citizens’ constitutional rights, seeds of people power’ revolutions are planted.
- A grass-roots buildup of consensus/collective consciousness, especially among communities with political differences.
As long as Jamaican politicians are allowed to create and maintain garrison constituencies, people power movements won’t be effective political forces. Only hard, committed work by community organisers to explain how Jamaica’s essentially dysfunctional governance systems depend on maintaining tribal factions can counteract this stranglehold on politics by the two parties. Organisers must find a way to explain the benefits of unity across party lines to achieve a greater goal, namely, a new Constitution. A way must be found to make Jamaicans, generally excluded from global education, understand that a properly structured nation is like a properly built home. Its foundation is its Constitution.
- External governments either sympathetic to the cause or dependent on a governable country.
This usually coincides with the repressive government’s weakness or vulnerability. In Jamaica, Government’s razor-thin majority in Parliament is the weakness which makes a people power movement extremely viable. Unemotional analysts, looking at the Gandhi movement, have noted his success wasn’t that he made India ungovernable (he didn’t) but because of Britain’s weakness at the end of a debilitating World War AND the anti-imperialist sentiments of Britain’s allies at the time. This combination forced the Brits to beat a hasty retreat when Gandhi’s “thorn-in-your-side” movement gained traction.
This last concept is why I’ve advocated a no-vote campaign for years. One way to force government to your way is to discover what it wants you to do and do the opposite. Government needs your vote to prove to external debtors that Jamaica is governable. When international creditors see only party activists on election day, whoever 'wins' will come under intense pressure to do the right thing.
But no true people power movement can succeed without intense grass-roots education by selfless community organisers. Two examples of this are;
- Philippines popular revolution
After Marcos's most vocal opponent, Benigno Aquino, was assassinated, his widow, Corazon Aquino, became the Opposition's presidential candidate. She had no access to mass media and so ran an almost exclusive grass-roots campaign, travelling the full length of the archipelago, while Marcos campaigned on radio and TV. Even after Marcos manipulated election results in his favour, Filipinos identified with Cory Aquino, who wasn't a career politician. Then, the Catholic Church issued a powerful statement describing the elections as "unparalleled in the fraudulence of their conduct" and Government as having "no moral basis". This was all the Aquino-led protest needed to sweep Marcos from power.
- Voice of Indi
In Australia, like Jamaica, two powerful political parties monopolise politics and exchange stints in government. During the 2013 election campaign, an independent grass-roots movement spontaneously formed in a Northern Victorian electorate called Indi. The independent movement became known as 'The Voice of Indi'. In a very close race, the movement's candidate, Cathy McGowan, brought down influential Liberal Party frontbencher Sophia Mirabella, who held the seat for 12 years disregarding any challenge by the Labour Party.
People power surprised both major parties who took voters for granted and stopped listening to them. Aussie political parties, had forever demarcated the country into "safe" and "marginal" seats. Indi was "Labour safe", and constituents never saw their MP, who was content to shelter under the party umbrella. As an independent MP, Cathy McGowan achieved much, including membership of three parliamentary committees. She was re-elected in 2016.
So, Diogenes, it's possible. Gather together as many like-minded citizens as you can. Prepare a list of demands for fundamental change. Most importantly, in a country like Jamaica, enlist the Church's involvement from Day One. When your platform is set, get out of your homes and spread the word in your various communities and at church gatherings. Present your movement's demands to Government as loudly as you can to ensure that they're heard by the international community. You'll be shocked how that initial gathering of like minds mushrooms into something not even you recognise.
The winning strategy is thought (plan); then word (consult); then deed (organise). Complaining alone is useless. Like everything else, people power only works if you work at making it work.
Peace and love.
P.S. Apologies to @NardaGraham, who suffered at the hands of the online printer's devil omitting the words "@Yawd_Man replying to@NardaGraham@TheTerribleTout", which were in my original copy between her tweet and the next, "It nuh matter. Get sumting and wave", so it appeared that she was the offending tweeter.
- Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to email@example.com.