Tue | Jul 16, 2019

Diane Austin-Broos | Don’t rewrite history of Wills Isaacs

Published:Sunday | June 30, 2019 | 12:18 AMDiane Austin-Broos - Guest Columnist

I write in response to the article by Orville Brown (9/05/19) regarding Edward Seaga, Wills O. Isaacs and garrison political violence in Kingston. My prime concern is to set the record straight regarding Wills Isaacs. He was not the instigator of garrison violence, nor did he sustain it for the period 1947-1980.

Below, I condense some key elements of Mr Brown’s argument and provide the relevant facts. Mr Brown argues:

1There have been two peaks of political violence in Jamaica: in 1947-1949 and 1976-1980. Each involved garrison politics instigated by Wills Isaacs who “turned the Corporate Area constituencies into PNP garrisons”.

Garrison politics, as defined in the public record, developed in the 1960s. Its two central components are partisan control of housing schemes and widespread use of firearms.

The 1996 Government-commissioned Report of the National Committee on Political Tribalism provides a clear account: “(1) The development of large-scale housing schemes by the State and the location of the houses therein to supporters of the party in power; (2) homogenisation by the dominant party activists pushing out the minority from within and guarding against invasion from outside; and (3) the expelled setting up a squatter community.” The control of populations and built environments on this scale requires widespread use of firearms along with the ability to forcibly level residential sites.

Nothing of this ilk occurred in the period 1947-1949, and certainly not across the entire Corporate Area. What was the order of violence at the time? More properly dated from 1946, the violence was situational, not territorial. Mainly, it involved pitched battles with sticks, stones and pipes at industrial sites and campaign meetings. Here are some examples:

In 1946, a TUC affiliate led by Florizel Glasspole struck at the mental asylum. JLP supporters numbering over a thousand attacked the pickets. Three people were killed. Alexander Bustamante and Frank Pixley, who led the assailants, were charged with manslaughter, but acquitted.

In 1947, there were clashes between PNP and JLP supporters in May and October. The former involved pitched fights between the two sets of supporters outside Headquarters House. The latter was the ‘Battle of Rose Town’, in which JLP supporters attacked a PNP meeting for Ken Hill. The PNP supporters who retaliated may have included members of Group 69.

BUS DRIVERS STRIKE

In January 1948, bus drivers in Ken Hill’s Tramways Union went out on strike against Jamaica Utilities. In the course of the strike action, three bombs were exploded. There is some suggestion that unionists were involved, but not Wills Isaacs.

In early 1949, Wills Isaacs was tried and acquitted on a charge of sedition for a speech in response to attacks on Ken Hill and Iris King in TrenchTown. The speech did not occasion a major clash.

The GordonTown riot occurred in July 1949, prior to a Kingston and St Andrew Corporation by-election. The one-man Hearne Commission Report found Wills Isaacs not responsible for all the violence but for the “organised” violence on polling day. This involved truckloads of supporters brought in to combat like groups of JLP supporters.

Not one of these examples compares with the violence that unfolded in the 1960s and 1970s.

2 “Isaacs thereafter maintained a dominance by violence that was not broken until 1980.”

Wills Isaacs was elected to the House of Representatives in 1949 and to Government in 1955 in the seat of Central Kingston. He became Jamaica’s minister of trade and industry, a portfolio he prosecuted with great vigour until the PNP were voted out of power in 1962.

The portfolio entailed extensive travel to and from the United States. In the 1967 general election, he stood for and won the rural seat of North Eastern St Ann, which he retained until his retirement from Parliament in 1973. Thereafter, he became high commissioner for Canada, retiring in 1975. At the age of 79, Wills Isaacs passed away on January 3, 1981. He had been seriously ill for some time. Mr Brown’s statement above is false.

3 In 1947, Isaacs organised “paramilitary forces”, just one of which was Group 69.

There is no consistent evidence of Isaacs’ direction, or even sustained close association, with multiple groups of armed supporters. In terms of common usage, “paramilitary” is misleading hyperbole.

4 Consequent upon Isaacs’ action at GordonTown in 1949, JLP supporters were rendered “defenceless” and Justice Hearn found them “blameless” in the riot.

The events of Gordon Town extended over at least four days, July 3-6, and involved meetings in various villages in the vicinity – Dallas, Mission House, and Tamarind Town. In Dallas, JLP supporters disrupted a PNP meeting. Next day in GordonTown, PNP supporters heckled JLP supporters. The following day party supporters held meetings in separate locales.

On July 6, a JLP man was beaten to death at Tamarind Town as a PNP truck passed through. Later, the husband of Rose Leon (JLP), riding with her, brandished “a loaded weapon” from their car at the Gordon Town crowd. The pair was accompanied by Eustace Cox (Gungoo), a criminal convicted three times of grievous bodily harm. Aston Nelson (Jarman) of Group 69, guilty of bicycle theft and rioting, was also present in the square.

The riot was precipitated by an altercation involving Bustamante, Isaacs and Norman Manley. The nature of that altercation – what was said and what actions and gestures ensued – remained contested in the evidence of eyewitnesses, including the police. JLP supporters at GordonTown were neither blameless nor defenceless.

Orville Brown entirely fails to consider the developments let loose by the forcible clearing of Back-O-Wall in 1963. Nor does he seem to draw on a number of careful analyses of how gang violence of the garrison type evolved.

Undoubtedly, both parties were involved in the patronage and clientelism caused by scarce resources – be it relief work or public housing – that has underpinned Jamaica’s political violence. Over time, however, both the magnitude and cost have escalated. For this reason, it does not serve history, Jamaican society, or those personally involved to blame this phenomenon on a single individual. Besmirching Wills Isaacs in this fashion does no service either to Edward Seaga.

 

- Diane Austin-Broos is professor emerita at the University of Sydney. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.