Thu | Dec 14, 2017

‘That's my husband...!'

Published:Monday | December 29, 2014 | 12:00 AMCorey Robinson
Oberlene Smith-Whyte
Dr. Herbert Gayle,
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It has been more than 34 years, but Superintendent Oberlene Smith-Whyte still reaches for a hand towel to wipe her tears when speaking about the death of her husband, Special Corporal Errol Whyte.

He was one of the victims of the civil unrest which marked Jamaica's bloody 1980 general election campaign.

The years have passed and Smith-Whyte has hardened having served the police force for more than 30 years, raised her two children - one just a toddler and the other on the way when her husband was killed - but still the pain lingers.

The superintendent says it is even more painful every time someone speaks ill of her husband, who was just 24 years-old at the time he was killed during a reported shoot-out in Gordon Town, St Andrew, while serving in the Protective Services Branch of the Jamaica Constabulary Force.

Whyte was a member of the security detail for Roy McGann, who had served as Member of Parliament for east rural St Andrew, and was seeking re-election on a People's National Party ticket in the 1980 general election.

McGann was also killed in the shooting, and with the circumstances surrounding the shooting still murky, Smith-Whyte said persons, mainly fellow cops, have been making defamatory comments about her late husband.

"Not everybody know is my husband, and I remember one day a group of policemen was talking and one said 'all da policeman deh weh work dung a protective services and dead uppa Gordon Town, dem deh fi dead; dem a politician police," recounted Smith-Whyte, with pain evident is her voice.

"I remember I looked up and said, 'that's my husband', and he said in shock 'Simmo, a yuh husband?' and then he later told somebody that he never knew.

"I have heard that right through my years in the force," she said.

"Another time I was at a meeting, and the commanding officer said, 'unnuh memba di policeman weh did dead uppa Gordon Town? The same one weh go over Spanish Town go shot up police, who carry a whole heap of gunman wid him?'," she said, mimicking the condescending tone of her superior.

"I simply said, 'that's my husband', and walked out of the room," she said.

"My husband was only 24 years old when he died. My husband was at St Andrew Central, and he had applied to go to Special Branch. At the time they formed the new division, the Protective Services Division, and he was sent to this new division. He did not apply to go to Protective Services."

"Protective Services at the time was set up to guard dignitaries, but the election came and so they started using the police at this new section to attach to politicians. It was just an assignment like any other; my husband didn't even know McGann before and I doubt if McGann knew him before that incident."

Smith-Whyte noted that her husband had joined the force only four years before his death. "But not knowing, people just believed that he was assigned to a politician and, therefore, he must be a serious gunman. So people talk things about him and they don't know him."

This sort of hostility involving members of the police force is common within the Caribbean and Dr Herbert Gayle, social anthropologist at the University of the West Indies, argues that it can be rooted in the plantation era.

"It's almost like a house slave/field slave kind of problem where policemen working with politicians are seen to be privileged," said Gayle.

"And it is not a situation where every policeman who is connected to a politician is getting favours but there has been some amount of antagonism in every country that I have studied.

ENVY

"Any police officer who gets a privileged position the others see that police officer with some amount of envy. They just know that that policeman is not out there in the field like everybody else and that causes the antagonism," said Gayle.

He argued that based on his studies, the links between politicians, policemen and gunmen are on the decline because of changes and the focus of the media in recent years.

Smith-Whyte agreed that there have been changes over the years but still she would not like her children, a son and a daughter, to join the force.

"I don't want them to have experiences that I have had in the force. I want them to see the world differently."

Smith-Whyte's son now works as a project manager with a computer company, while her daughter, works with the United Nations.

Both are graduates of the University of Technology and the fact that their father has not watched them grow is painful.

"I think this is what affects me more. When I look at his children and their achievements, I wish their father was here," she said, reminiscing on the tough years after her husband was killed leaving her, a rookie cop, to take care of two young children.

To this day, Smith-Whyte still shies away from the death columns in newspaper, because she still has "a phobia when it comes on to it," even though she is adamant that she is better able to cope today.

With retirement fast approaching, and only two years left to serve in the force, Smith-Whyte is writing a book in which she chronicles the financial challenges she faced with the death of her husband, the public disrespect heaped on him after his death, and the challenges she faced as a 23-year-old widow raising two children.

The book will also highlight her challenges in securing her husband's death benefits, recovering from a fire which destroyed all the belongings of her two children and herself and completing her MBA years after leaving primary school at grade three.

"My book is to empower everyone. I cry but when I get up and dry my tears, that's it. I know there are things to do and I have to do it. I am an up-in-your-face person, that's who I am," said Smith-Whyte.

"My book is what I can use to help my Jamaican people in my own little way. It is for everyone who said they can't. I don't like that word."