Amid pain, Coke loyalty lingers
The ear-splitting sounds of mortars and the haunting memories of blood-soaked bodies are fresh in the mind of long-time Tivoli Gardens resident Jacqueline Brown.
Playback from the real-life horror movie flashes painful images: the pungent smell of decomposed flesh. And what sounded like bombs raining down.
Now a Christian, Brown admits to being more than a passing acquaintance of thugs who barricaded Coke’s redoubt, recruiting gunmen from as far away as St James.
Around noon on May 24, 2010, the security forces, comprising 800 soldiers and 370 police, stormed Tivoli in an operation to apprehend Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke, the gang lord commonly called ‘The President’.
Coke was facing extradition to the US for drug-trafficking and gunrunning charges.
Brown recounted to our news team her recollection of the nightmare.
“The first thing is when dem lock off the light dem. Mi say, ‘Jesus! Mi dead now.’ As me see the soldier dem, it come in like me heart a hurt me ... ,” Brown said of the events of a decade ago.
A commission of enquiry confirmed that at least 69 persons, including one soldier, were killed. However, Brown, like critics, among them the now-deceased Member of Parliament Edward Seaga, believes that many more were killed.
“Dem nuh find two youth all now weh come from round da part deh ... . A man weh use to push di big cart and sell roots, dem shoot up him in a market and bomb him. Only the cart alone stand.”
She vividly remembers attending funerals for some of the deceased. She shrunk back from the unbearable odour seeping from the caskets.
Brown likened the atmosphere in Tivoli Gardens to the circumstances of the war-torn Middle East.
“It did really wicked. Mi and mi daughter haffi deh head way suh (hiding) and all we a bawl, ‘The blood of Jesus!’ When house a bomb round deh suh, and di house dem a shake suh, mi never know say mi did deh a Iraq,” Brown told The Gleaner.
Ten years later, Brown believes little has changed.
She confesses to being sympathetic to the cause of Tivoli gangsters back then.
“Me was a girl weh give trouble inna the street. When mi see police and soldier, me and dem at it. Dem buss all shot off a me down there so and mi run pass all mi gate and gone suh,” Brown said.
“Me usually inna the street wid the bad man dem – nuh likkle idiot, some bad people ... .”
But despite her religious about-face, her loyalty - reverence even – to Coke lingers to this day.
Coke was convicted in a United States federal court and is serving a 23-year sentence due to end in 2033. Brown is eagerly awaiting his return.
“Tings ago really turn around because everybody a go look up to him now. Him was the real big man weh a keep the peace and a keep everything,” Brown said.
But the folklore of Coke as merely a redistributor of wealth to the poor dovetails into a darker narrative of a strongman whose empire was built on a sprawling extortion racket, drugs, and guns.
However, the west Kingston don was never prosecuted by the Jamaican State for any of those crimes.
Brown’s nostalgia of Coke’s supremacy is grounded in the perceived absolute power he appeared to wield – as judge and jury. And maybe more.
Now, Tivoli Gardens and nearby Denham Town are a mishmash of splintered gangs.
“Nuff people come back and a carry on. If dem did deh ya during incursion, dem wouldn’t a carry on like that,” Brown said.
She also recalls happier memories in the aftermath of the bloody firefights. When residents started to re-emerge, there was a joyful reunion for some who had been rumoured to have been killed.
“When everybody start meet up back, everybody hug and bawl. Everybody come out, and you see people weh dem did say dead,” Brown said.