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Tough inner-city realities

Published:Sunday | March 14, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Police detain a group of men for questioning in this 2008 photo. - File

Peta-Anne Baker, Gleaner Writer

Four years ago, the UWI and UNESCO teamed up to produce a series of public-interest videos, one of which was titled Seeing Red - The Science of Violence. In 11 short minutes, the video paints a compelling picture of how the seeds of the violent behaviour are sown in the earliest years of our lives. It demonstrates how stress and exposure to violence 'short-circuit' our brains and reduce our ability to respond rationally to events.

An interesting point made in the video is that we do not become more violent as we grow older, but rather the reverse happens, we [should] learn how to become less violent as we grow older. A great deal, however, depends, among other things, on what happens to us when we are very young. Persistent exposure to physical, social and emotional violence makes it difficult, if not impossible, for many of us to learn this lesson.

There is considerable research done both here in Jamaica and internationally, which has identified the range of factors which combine with this neurological process to increase the likelihood of persons turning to violent and ultimately criminal behaviour. These factors include the existence of even one person in the home or at school who holds the child in positive regard, the provision of opportunities to demonstrate mastery (in the classroom, on the playing field and elsewhere), and positive adult and peer role models.

The Science of Violence points out how, by putting in place a comprehensive nutrition programme for its children, the island of Madagascar reduced its violent crime rate by 35 per cent. However, it took 20 years to achieve this reduction. What about now? What about the people who are responsible for the tsunami of violence that seems to have engulfed all but the remotest parts of our island?

Community gangs and criminal gangs

A recent report from western Jamaica quotes a member of the Westmoreland Police Division as specifying the five characteristics of a gang. He said it should have three or more members and should have existed for at least three months. A gang, the deputy superintendent stated, should also have an identifiable leader and followers; have the commission of criminal acts as its common objective; and be involved in violent encounters with rival gangs. He was responding to the assertion by residents from the Twelve Street community in Savanna-la-Mar that there was no gang in their community.

I want to commend the officer for at least being clear about who he was looking for. We do not know whether his investigations yielded this data about the alleged gang in Twelve Street. Nor do we know if the members of the police team that went into the Twelve Street community and allegedly abused many citizens, in the course of their search for gang members, were armed with this knowledge. Interestingly, even as he rejected the deputy superintendent's statements, one community leader, Pastor Oniel Russell, is reported as having said that he had found no evidence that "the guys" from his community were involved in robbery and extortion. Indeed, the definition of who and what constitutes a criminal gang is a matter of some debate.

In a new book titled Killing Streets and Community Revival (excerpt from which appears on Page A6 today), Peace Manage-ment Initiative board member Horace Levy makes a distinction between a community gang and a criminal gang. Levy states that, "For many corner crew members [a term Levy previously used to describe those he now classifies as a community gang], peer solidarity and turf defense [sic] have been an assertion of community and personal identity, part of their quest for self-worth and respect, which is not generally typical of the criminal orientation."

Levy joins other researchers and activists in laying at the door of partisan politics the responsibility for the transformation of urban communities into garrisons requiring protection (and containment). "The political parties in their quest for power [have] with popular consent converted communities into garrisons and transformed instruments of unity and solidarity into war machines." (War machines which, it now appears, they no longer completely control). While the infamous 'scarce benefits and spoils' have been used to generate and maintain loyalty to one or other party, violence has become the ultimate mechanism for its maintenance.

The creation of garrison communities, and sometimes garrisons within garrisons, has multiple impacts. One of the best known is the impact on a young person seeking employment but living at the 'wrong address'. Repeated failure produces an intelligent recruit for gang membership. Another is the abandonment of these communities by providers of basic services like garbage collection.

A third is the closure of places of entertainment (who can remember the names of the cinemas that existed in downtown Kingston?) (A substantial body of research is paying attention to the 'geography' of crime and violence). I have not referenced the closure of businesses. These and other factors have combined to create a stigmatised enclave, barren of a sense of community and disregarded by all but a few.

I reproduce the quotation Levy uses to communicate the outcome of this phenomenon: "Violent gangs arise when young people face a future of limited opportunity and despair, when for military, political, social or economic reasons the life that awaits a young person has been stripped of meaning and validity." (Deborah Prothrow-Smith). This is why much of what has been written about solutions to the problem of crime and violence, not just in Jamaica but elsewhere, has focused on the importance of initiatives which help people to retrieve a sense of self-worth, dignity and respect.

Giving a voice

Levy charts the work of the Peace Management Initiative over the past seven years, and shows how in those places where they have been able to carry out sustained work which gives voice to both victim and victimiser, homicides decline dramatically and they have been able to establish a semblance of peace and begin to re-establish a sense of community.

What all of this tells me is that it is more than a truism to argue for a multidisciplinary, multi-pronged approach to the problem of crime and violence in our society. This is an arena in which our politicians cannot afford to give in to calls for a 'quick fix'. This is one of the reasons I hope that it is only my perception that there has been an increase in the number of young men killed by the police in questionable circumstances since the minister of national security announced that he was getting ready to unveil his 'anti-gang' strategy.

Peta-Anne Baker is the coordinator of the Social Work Programme at the University of the West Indies, Mona. She may be contacted at, or send feedback to