Tue | Jan 17, 2017

Mission misplaced! Chaos in Kingston - Part 1

Published:Monday | January 26, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Sociologist Horace Levy solves the mystery surrounding the issues of politics, West Kingston, violence and underdevelopment in Jamaica in an intriguing three-part series. This is Part One.

Horace Levy, Contributor

HISTORICALLY, THE last 75 years had two climactic points: the 1980 'civil war' and election and the May 2010 'incursion'. Their huge death tolls sum up and shed light on preceding and future years and closed two periods, except that the '70s decade belongs to both: It climaxes the first in its partisan violence; its socio-cultural output opens the second.

National Hero Norman Manley had it that the mission of his, the first generation, was to end colonial rule, securing 'political independence'; the mission of post-independence leadership was to "reconstruct the social and economic … life of Jamaica". His sketch of the landscape appears well drawn. Could it be, though, that contours then faint could later sharpen and depict his generation's charge and achievement differently?

Hindsight will help us judge. But we will not have it when we come, as we must, to identify the task and assess the achievement of our own generation, now drawing to a close. And can we guide the generation that is about to start with a forecast insightful of incipient trends? These are the questions I tackle here with history's help.

The First Period

Violence: from small beginnings to first climax

Even as Manley senior spoke in the 1960s, the first of two contours of the landscape, which takes in his but stretches beyond it, was moving to a new level - the garrison - and pointing back to its beginnings. The partisan use of violence that garrisons embodied started right after the December election of 1944. Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) workers took to harassing street corner meetings of the People's National Party (PNP), and the latter retaliated in Kingston with Group 69, the number of a Matthews Lane address (Sives, 2010).

Other clashes ensued. Then there was a peace treaty between Chief Minister Alexander Bustamante and Opposition Leader Manley, fractured seven weeks later by the slaying of a Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) supporter in a Gordon town by-election. After that, there was the 'Battle of Rose Town' as the PNP wrested control of the streets of Kingston from the JLP, gained dominance of the West Kingston constituency, and forced Busta to seek a safe seat in Clarendon. Trade union conflict was the other more major front as BITU superiority was challenged in industry, hotel, and cane field by the PNP's strengthened Trade Union Congress. Confrontation brought deaths in a Bellevue strike and got Bustamante charged with manslaughter, of which he was, however, acquitted.

backing of thugs

All this might be set down to political party and trade union teething pains. Even so, it would have to be noticed that party leaders were well aware of the use of thugs (truckloads intimidating voters at polling stations), gave it their approval, and had the backing of all classes.

Also to be noticed was that other dimension of the 1940-'50s package to which leaders and followers subscribed, which was the partisan division of jobs and housing.

The 'upgrading' of this pattern in the 1960s was, however, sharp, and though it was there in its infancy for him to see, could hardly in its impact have been foreseen or appreciated by the ageing Manley. The Tivoli Gardens garrison model - housing units (free light, water, and tenancy), guns and dons, copied extensively by the PNP in the 1970s - lifted party rivalry to an entirely new level.

Taking off in the '70s from the harsh measures imposed by an IMF agreement and whipped to a frenzy by divisive socialist/ capitalist ideologies, politics became god, and the use of violence was legitimised. The impact by 1980 was ghastly - war that left 889 dead, 600 of them in a political rampage of gunfire, arson and deep inner-city people-wounds, among them violence a core value of partisan identities.

It must be carefully noted that violence in the service of politics is the essence of the garrison. As the Report of the National Committee on Political Tribalism (1997) points out, "Political garrisons were not a natural outgrowth of a political process, but rather, they were nurtured and nourished as strategic initiatives to secure or retain political power." So political power is at the heart of the garrison, and this is secured by the violence employed by the party. For as the report continues, "A garrison, as the name suggests, is a political stronghold, a veritable fortress completely controlled by a party." In effect, a culture of violence - written with the blood of inner-city people - was launched.

Coda I: the lesson not learned

October 1980 brought other things with its change in party control of Jamaica House and the violence-future. For a moment it sobered party rivalry and cut murders to the 400s. But in forcing (by police pursuit, Seaga-instructed) many militants to flee the country, it also set the stage for the 1980s rise in US cities of their brutal posses and their guns, drugs, and methods remittances to Jamaica. Thus began in the 1990s a rising curve in Jamaica of homicide attributable to both community defence crews and organised criminal gangs. The crucial fact is that the lesson of the poison in the veins of garrison violence as tool (not the only one) for putting party power over national policy was not learned (Manley never speaks of it, Seaga defends his Tivoli creation). Result? Jamaica was on the road to the next climax.

See Part 2 tomorrow.