Fri | Jun 23, 2017

Book Review - A journalist's diary bleeds corruption, violence and desperation

Published:Sunday | November 17, 2013 | 11:00 AM
  • Title: The Gangs of Jamaica: Babylonian Wars
  • Author: Thibault Ehrengardt
  • Publisher: Dread Editions 2013
  • Reviewer: Glenville Ashby

Thibault Ehrengardt pens a provocative work that transcends the violence and mayhem that bleed through its every page. This is clinical journalism. It is insightful, investigative and written with sheer brilliance. It is how a story should be told. It is raw and cutting, dragging the reader into the trenches of an urban battlefield.

Gangs of Jamaica: Babylonian Wars reads like Ehrengardt's intimate diary. Given rare access to the gangs that litter Jamaica's urban landscape, he is mindful of not overplaying his hand with sensationalism. He is measured, deftly detailing the cesspool of wanton viciousness that weighs heavily on the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF), an agency that is mandated to hit back at urban warlords. But when they do, we are reminded of Friedrich Nietzsche's famous quote: "Be careful when you fight with monsters, lest you become one."

The dramatic capture and extradition of Christopher 'Dudus' Coke that resulted in damning political repercussions for the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) does not escape the writer's radar. It is a defining moment. It is also the underbelly of Jamaica's violence - a sacrilegious marriage between career politicians and hoodlums.

Here, crime is the offspring of corrupt politicians who carve out garrisons or fiefdoms, doling out cash, contracts and even guns for enduring political support. It is an internecine quid pro quo that germinated in the 1970s and grew to incorrigible proportions in the 1980s and 1990s. The 'dons' collected taxes and supposedly maintained law and order. With crime on the decline over the last two years and concerted efforts made to weed out crooked cops, we must ask if civility will return to Jamaica, especially with the downfall of the island's biggest 'Don' and the return of the People's National Party (PNP)? This is the $64,000 question. The writer is not overly hopeful. Jamaica is a violent society and crime is systemic and institutionalised, he argues. In the 1980s, it had spread like a deadly virus, destabilising the inner cities of the United States with the proliferation of drugs and guns courtesy of the Gulleymen, the Yardies, and Vivian Blake's Shower Posse

The Gangs of Jamaica
chronicles a society turned on its head. Poverty, despair, greed, drugs,
prostitution and murder create a social catacomb. Crooked cops and
politicians add to an asphyxiating crisis - one that will take years to
remedy. Not that law enforcement isn't trying. The Major Organised Crime
and Anti-Corruption unit has nabbed scores of 'dirty' cops and the
PNP's political brass has vowed to clean house. But scepticism persists.


The JCF is hamstrung by a shortage of advanced technology in
intelligence gathering, logistical problems, corrupt personnel and
officers who have psychologically unravelled under the pressures of an
unforgiving profession. But there are officers who are worth their salt.
The reader is introduced to hard-working officers such as, Sasha and
Sergeants Adams and McKenzie of the Mobile Reserve.

And the legend of
Trinity and Reneto Adams - the "Schwarzeneggers" of law enforcement in
earlier years are juxtaposed with Rico, Ricardo Hilton, Duane Waxteen
and Dudus, some of the most notorious gangsters. And in a twisted way,
in this business of gangstarism, "until you are known as a monster you
are not a star". In this battle of wills, we hear all sides including
the views of National Security Minister Peter Bunting and those of
Commissioner Owen Ellington.

After decades of strife,
the Jamaican is psychologically scarred. When law-enforcement personnel
and 'dons' collide, M16s, Glocks, MP 5s and AK 47 blaze ammo with
abandon. The outcome is predictable. Blood.

Urban
Jamaica has become a laboratory for the criminal psychologist, the child
psychologist and the sociologist.

Uncontrollable
monsters

Ehrengardt wrestles with the burgeoning of
Jamaica's violence. Political power, greed and nepotism have led to the
creation of uncontrollable monsters, but "when you create a monster, you
don't whine when it stumps on a few buildings". As politicians lose
control of their garrisons, the pitched battles among gangs shed their
political carapace and violence is now fuelled by pure greed. Guns, drug
trafficking, and extortion are rife. Even rabid homophobia propelled by
pop culture is embraced by supposedly enlightened politicians who must
dance to the hooliganism of the streets. It is a sickening, revolting
degradation of office.

The author is clearly bent on
exploring the root of this deadly social malaise. His qualitative
research pays dividends. He is told of Trench Town's fabled past, the
Machiavellian politics of Edward Seaga whose purported dance with the
occult conjures flashes of Haiti's Papa Doc.

The
famous truce and peace concert, the attempted assassination of Bob
Marley, and the defiance of Peter Tosh who described any peace overtures
as "hypocrisy", are detailed. In many ways, the latter Wailer proved to
be a visionary.

Interestingly, violence cannot be
divorced from the island's musical
culture.

"Bob Marley himself beat up his
manager while a friend was holding his victim at gunpoint
,"
and "the late musical don, Gregory Isaacs, who went to prison
several times for possession of coke and guns and who was feared by the
bravest ..., was a close friend of Lester 'Jim Brown' Coke, Dudus'
father
".

The reader peels through the
emergence of reggae, a musical gem that was twisted and layered with a
violent streak, against a backdrop of a counter-cultural Rastafarian
movement that lost its messianic and apocalyptic
appeal.

Unfortunately, dancehall music has added a
markedly perverse element to the mix.

Throughout, the
dehumanisation and hopelessness of Jamaica's youth glare at you. You are
troubled, your soul perturbed, but you are helpless. Children are
swooped up in a perpetual cycle of violence and preyed upon by gang
leaders who were themselves errant and intrepid youths ripe for
plucking.

Crime may have been smothered in Tivoli
Gardens, but Spanish Town, the home of One Order and the Clansmen, still
poses a threat to peace. And Montego Bay is now the nerve centre of
professional scam artists.

Gangs of
Jamaica
is a literary juggernaut. It is riveting, grabbing and
holding the attention of the reader. Alas, it leaves a trail of
uncertainty and trepidation. If only Ehrengardt's social prognosis was
more
hopeful.

Rating:
Essential

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