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Tivoli doomed from Independence?

Published:Wednesday | May 26, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Supporters of Christopher 'Dudus' Coke celebrate on May 20 while protesting attempts to arrest him. His Tivoli Gardens stronghold has since fallen to the security forces. - Ian Allen/Photographer

From the outset, even before it got its name, Tivoli Gardens always seemed destined for conflict.

When Jamaicans voted for its first government for post-Independence Jamaica in 1962, the community, then known as Back-O-Wall and Ackee Walk, was the only scene of major political discord in the entire island.

Less than half a century later, despite the name change to erase stigmatisation, the West Kingston community has been unflatteringly dubbed 'wild, wild west' and the 'mother of all garrisons'.

Back in 1962, when hope oozed and nationalism reached fever pitch, Jamaicans could not have hazarded a guess that political violence would be at the core of its development.

In the Western Kingston constituency, though the ground was fallow, the seeds of discord were ready to be sown.

Even an ambitious initiative undertaken by the Church dubbed 'Operation Friendship' was not able to bring salvation to the community already torn by strife, fed by poverty and deprivation - ready and ripe for political exploitation.

On the same front page that The Gleaner reported that Sir Alexander Bustamante had prevailed in the historic polls, the newspaper brought the tragic news that two Back-O-Wall shacks had been set ablaze.

"Flames lit up the night sky over the shanty town known as Back-O-Wall in Western Kingston last night as two of the matchboard dwellings were razed in what police believe to be a political arson," The Gleaner reported.

It was as if then president of the People's National Party, Norman Washington Manley, had a premonition as he spoke about his electoral defeat and the political violence that had reared its head.

"In politics, one must always be prepared to accept the decision of the people," he declared. "Jamaica faces a stern and challenging future."

In words that have turned out to be quite pointed, Manley declared: "Jamaica has chosen the way ... . I can only pray a blessing on my country."

The Gleaner reported that the two West Kingston dwellings that were razed on election night in 1962 were a full hundred yards apart and top-ranking police officers said the fires had probably been set as a form of political protest.

It was in the same general West Kingston area that there was much celebration.

This characteristic has stayed with West Kingston - celebratory one minute, combative the next.

"To the beat of an improvised drum - a piece of stick and a tin can - JLP supporters converged last night, spilling into Duke Street ... . Crowds danced and shouted while officials worked to set up microphones and a loudspeaker to broadcast victory songs."

But even in the midst of celebrations, the signs of violence were noticeable.

A mere two chains away, police equipped with steel helmets and batons stood by.

Hints of public disobedience were also in evidence in Western Kingston, as police had said no victory marches were planned for election night.

In the midst of the celebration, the Labourites observed a "wake" described by The Gleaner as "perhaps in the noisiest in the island's history".

To the chant "Manley gone", they paraded through the streets of downtown Kingston with a miniature coffin - Manley's - borne aloft with two lit candles on top, and a cross carried before it."

The Gleaner reported that during most of election day in 1962, the only area of high tension was a section of Spanish Town Road outside the Queen's Theatre polling station in West Kingston.

"There, Edward Seaga is reported to have been slapped and another man stabbed ... . The police used tear gas to dispel a crowd and members of the riot squad stood guard in the area for the remainder of the day.

"This area was one of very few in the Corporate Area where people queued up to vote. Mr Dudley Thompson, PNP candidate in the four-cornered struggle for representation of the area, paid several visits; but Mr Seaga kept away after the early incident."

Even the well-meaning Operation Friendship, which was established a few years earlier, was not able to divert Western Kingston from its seemingly determined pathway through the course of the succeeding 48 years.

An interdenominational church organisation had seen the needs of the people of Back-O-Wall - a high brick wall dividing the cemetery from an area bordering the Ackee Walk - and had moved in to assist.

"Two years ago, bitterness against Back-O-Wall was very marked and pronounced. No one cared whether their children were taken care of," The Gleaner reported. "Houses were hovels. The bitterness seeped out."

Operation Friendship packaged its "practical salvation" with needed food, health care and other basic necessities to the people of West Kingston.

But politics came and disrupted it all.

Seeds of crime sown in politics