Tue | Dec 12, 2017

Mark Wignall | Storm and stress in Rockfort

Published:Sunday | August 13, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Residents of Oliver Road in Rockfort say they are under siege from gunmen.
A pockmarked wall on Oliver Road, east Kingston, where thugs have been exchanging gunfire.
Residents have blocked Oliver Road, complaining that criminal factions in Rockfort, east Kingston, are at war.
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The drive upwards along Oliver Road is slow and laboured. Residents have long installed on the asphalted roadway 'sleeping policemen' about every 30 or so feet. There are many young men and boys hanging about, and some among a nest of bicycles are very animated but quite watchful of the car.

I drive all the way to the top, taking my direction cues from the lady beside me. After a few turns, I drop her off and wonder if I will be able to retrace my steps correctly. Once I am back on Windward Road, I breathe a sigh of relief.

It's the release of a thick tension that is more trepidation than raw fear. But one senses that the social space and whatever peace is holding operate on a knife edge.

Two weeks ago when I drove into a section of violence-plagued Rockfort, it was a far cry from the gentle air of tranquillity that residents took for granted in the community where I was born more than 60 years ago.

"It start over scamming. Some boy mek some mad money and dem buy guns. Di guy dem from Jarrett Lane seh a dem control tings pon Oliver Road. We pon Oliver Road haffi block di road from police and di gunman dem from Jarrett Lane side," a young man told me.

"But aren't the police your protectors? Why block dem?"

"One time, the police come inna di area and wi haffi a defend wiself from gunman and police at di same time. Di police a come from di south, and di gunman dem from west out by Jarrett Lane side. And some odder gang join up wid Jarrett Lane man dem.

"Di police come wid tractor and pull di roadblock dem, but as dem leave, wi pack it back tighter. Is only we can protect wiself," he said.

He added: "Another war a fight between Barnes Road and Corner Lane over turf. Me hear seh dat involve fighting fi extortion turf." He provides me the name of a well-known dancehall DJ who, he says, some suspect is involved. "One a di man dem from Barnes Road just turn himself in to the police because him name did a call."

Journalist Desmond Richards draws a bead on the economic realities facing the area. "The overriding duty of government is to provide security for the citizenry. Think of it. When things are peaceful, dances are held. The soup man makes money. The vendor roasting chicken back, the bars, the little girl selling juice, they all make money. Then the war comes, and all of that disappears. It is tragic in many ways, but, of course, the worst of it is in the shootings and loss of lives."

 

PHILLIP PAULWELL'S HEADACHE

 

Member of Parliament Phillip Paulwell keeps exciting and well-attended parties, and he is a great dancer. At his parties and on the political podium.

He now needs to replicate that fancy footwork in solving the violence in Rockfort. His constituency stretches all the way to Port Royal, that well-known, historically rich but developmentally starved village located at the tip of a finger-thin stretch of land beyond the Palisadoes road.

"Wi not into di gun ting in Port Royal. Every now an den two man fight, but fist to fist," said a resident, who I have known for more than 30 years. "And, of course, di usual domestic tiffs. But we don't have a violence problem in Port Royal."

In the 1950s and 1960s, Rockfort was growing as a lower-middle-class enclave. Without trying to define what brought the violence to the fearful level it is in 2017, the fact is that the community has regressed into an inner-city powder keg but without the zinc fences. Property values there are not worth spit even though there are still some quite attractive houses in many parts of the community.

"Paulwell come up here di odder day. I tink there was some talk bout a police post. Mi not so sure if dat can work out how Paulwell want it to," said the young man. "Di best move would be to solve di gang war. A dat wi want."

According to Richards, "Jamaicans, as you know, are natural at business. They do not need anyone to tell them how to make money. Once the government, any government, solves the security problem, the people will take care of their economic matters. We are resilient and hardly ever take no for an answer."

It does appear that Rockfort may have a lower unemployment rate than, say, a bona fide garrison like South West St Andrew, where 60 per cent unemployment among young people is the tragedy we take for granted.

 

BURNING DOWN HER OWN HOUSE

 

"During school time when shot a lick, di kids dem can't come out early fi go school. Most who get caught up in a section of the war go school late every day, and some people who have relatives move out temporarily until di war die down," said the young man.

The problem with that is, "Once di people move out, some a di gang boy dem bruk inna dem empty house and tek out dem fan, dem TV, dem stove. If yuh tek too long fi come back, by di time yu reach, people a live inna yu house weh di gunman tek over and rent out."

Then this: "Di police help a family move out during war. Two weeks later, man tek over dem house, and when dem come back, gunman pull gun pon dem a run dem from dem own house.

"A woman who live nearby decide seh she can't tek di stress anymore so she gwine move. But yu know weh shi do before she move? She bun dung har own house just so di gunman dem can't get it."

It is not so much the choice of route travelled to define how Rockfort moved from sleepy, peaceful community to war zone, but the times are impatient of minds, skills, and action to render the violence null and void.

 

BAD HISTORY NEEDS GOOD FUTURE

 

In the turbulent and horrifically violent months leading up to the October 1980 general election, I had a friend living in one of the lanes that stretched from Mountain View Avenue to Rockfort. One day, a few gunmen approached him as he parked his taxi in his yard.

They gave him a 'long gun' and taught him to fire it. "Anytime yu hear we fire up so, you buss it down ya so."

In fear, he took the gun, and at about eight in the evenings, he climbed a bushy mango tree and waited on the sound of gunfire. "One day me hear shot a buss and me let off some up inna di air. A pure mango leaf a fly inna di night sky."

The day after the election, the gunmen returned for their weapon of death.

The reality of those days was defined as pitting JLP guns against PNP guns. Now that we have 'grown' in knowledge and wisdom and the gunfights are so disparate and senseless, the solution this time around cannot simply be the ending of an election campaign.

The word 'intractable' is a scary one when applied to gang warfare. It implies a stubbornness of the system to accept community solutions. For sure, we know that if this country is to claim that it harbours aspirations of becoming the place to live, work, and raise families by 2030, we have to immediately reverse the negatives of violence taking place in too many communities across this country.

The zones of special operations initiative is beginning to invite much cynicism because we have tried so many things in the past. What is there about it this time that will bring about the much-needed solutions?

- Mark Wignall is a political and public-affairs commentator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and observemark@gmail.com.