Sat | Nov 18, 2017

Martin Henry | Fresh uprising in St Thomas

Published:Sunday | November 12, 2017 | 12:00 AM
A policeman kicks away debris during last Tuesday's protest in Knightsville, St Thomas. Residents said they were fed up with road conditions.

The people of neglected St Thomas are again in a rebellious mood. They have had many good reasons, because of state neglect, to have rebelled again since 1865.

For days, last week, they "put their shoulders to the wheel", as National Hero Paul Bogle had famously advised the governor, and were busy blocking their roads across the parish. Mostly blocking themselves in as the parish has little traffic flow through to anywhere else, a result of geography and historical neglect. There were earlier sustained protests over the condition of the Morant Bay to Cedar Valley road.

Unless someone is in the parish already, the preferred route, even to the neighbouring parish of Portland, is via the Junction road in St Mary. A colleague of mine who lives in eastern Portland routinely goes Junction on his weekend treks home and back. And as we now know, from the squabbles of the by-election, the Junction road cutting through South East St Mary is slated for massive improvement to highway status ahead of the promised scaled-down South Coast Highway through St Thomas.

The people have good reason to wish for the death of their two members of parliament so that by-elections could be held, like the one in SE St Mary. Benefits flow just before ballots just like the Yallahs and Morant and Plantain Garden rivers in the rainy season.

While the general secretary of the Jamaica Labour Party, Dr Horace Chang, was blaming political operatives for the uprising in St Thomas (so what?), the people were demanding that their two long-term MPs, James Robertson of the JLP in the West and Fenton Ferguson of the PNP in the East, deliver or depart.

 

Silly allegations

 

From long experience of organising protests while in Opposition, the JLP, through its gen sec, said it would hold the PNP responsible for the damage to public property, loss of income and school time, as well as injuries to innocent Jamaicans caught up in protest. The PNP has dismissed this assignment of blame as "silly and quite laughable", claiming that it had nothing to do with it.

The moment belonged to trusted community activists and mobilisers, whatever their political colours. Ferres Dailey and Orane McNeish in the West, Omar Ryan and Andrew Turner across the parish, and others. Ryan and Turner were arrested.

Peaceful, unobstructive protest is perfectly lawful. Blocking roads is not. The people have, in effect, embarked upon civil disobedience, a course of action sanctioned in many political discourses on freedom, democracy, the rights of citizens, and oppressive and non-responsive government. When is civil disobedience warranted and how far to take it is always a judgement call. And there is a price to pay for breaking the law.

Martin Luther King Jr clearly understood and 'accepted' this in his non-violent resistance to racism and advocacy of civil rights in the 1960s United States. Paul Bogle and his followers broke oppressive and unjust laws in the uprising of 1865. The response of the State was manifestly excessive and cruel even by the laws of the time.

It is not unknown for security forces to join forces with the just protests of fellow citizens by turning a blind eye, tolerating, and holding back on the exercise of force. There was large expectation among protesters of accommodation by the security forces. Residents in one community, Lloyds Pen, blasted police officers who cleared their roadblocks and kept up a strong presence, telling them to leave because the parishwide protests were warranted. "The people have reached the stage where enough is enough. It is not going to stop. It gwine continue until we get them to come and tell the people what they [the members of parliament] are for," community elder Ferres Dailey insisted.

Anger reached boiling point as news of the arrest of Omar Ryan and Andrew Turner spread across the parish. Battle-ready police swarmed the parish. Citizens should be wary of a Government, and I mean generic Government, not this particular JLP administration, which can quicker mobilise its police and army to suppress and enforce rather than to listen and respond to the legitimate cries of the people for attention and help. The Mobile Reserve, active in St Thomas last week, and the Flying Squad are specially created formations for rapid response to civil disturbance.

A just and humane Government should invest in mechanisms to listen and respond. Often, the people are not demanding much and only rebel when neglect and unresponsiveness drive them to breaking point. While they await the promised South Coast Highway, the people of St Thomas want a passable road from Cedar Valley to Morant Bay for school, for hospital, for work, and the modest repair of other similar roads across the parish.

It is unconscionable and totally unacceptable for the Government to have allowed such a deterioration of these previously good roads while highways are built around the rest of the country and road repairs take place in other places. And to add insult to injury, with a massive amount of road-construction material hauled out of St Thomas.

We may have forgotten, but the Government has a Road Maintenance Fund into which 20 per cent of the petrol tax should be paid. Dishonest administrations just haven't bothered.

 

Unfortunate accident

 

Out in Arcadia in the east, where a tree cut for the roadblock had a delayed fall and crushed a car, hurting the occupants, a woman protester explained her condition of frustration and anger: "Mi only sarry dat di tree go dung on di cyar an' dat dem haffi en' up a hospital. But mi supportin' the blockage a di road because wi in St Thomas, dem don't remember wi unless wi do certain tings. A bet dem remember wi now!"

Experience is on her side. The Government of Jamaica responds to fiery protests that block up and mash up things more than to petitions. It is energised for action by the smell of burning tyres. The people have been taught a noxious lesson, and they have learned it well. It is time to teach them something better by better behaviour by their political masters.

Last week's protests were better organised than Bogle's in 1865 and should yield better short-term results. Roadblocks were mounted and sustained for at least two days in Grants Pen, Llandewey, Woodbourne, Knightsville, Seaforth, Morant Bay, Leith Hall, Port Morant, and Arcadia, and elsewhere across the parish. The cell phone is a powerful tool for coordinating civic action.

On June 1, Prime Minister Holness announced from distant Montego Bay a plan to build a new town centre for Morant Bay, the St Thomas parish capital. The plan is to establish a new town centre on the 25-acre property occupied by the long-closed, decayed, and vandalised Goodyear tyre factory now occupied by goats and other vagrants. Mr Holness won't be the first to announce big plans for the Goodyear factory lands. It's five months on. What's happening?

Like the South Coast Highway that Horace Chang says will start next year without a date, there is no urgency to deliver some development to the most neglected parish in the country. St Thomas has rich development potential, as I outlined in this space in a June 18 column, 'Is St Thomas time now?', which followed the prime minister's announcement. It certainly is St Thomas's time now to rise up.

Road protests have been breaking out across the country. The constituency of West Central St James (Marlene Malahoo Forte, JLP) also had protests in recent days, for example, and as is to be expected, they were blamed upon the Opposition party. But I can't recall in my time a similar parishwide protest like this St Thomas one, so this may be unique.

Organised leadership outside of the political Establishment, always in short supply, is going to be necessary to sustain the St Thomas drive for better roads and for delayed and denied development, generally. The community heroes of last week's action may yet rise to the occasion.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com..