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Divide and conquer

Published:Monday | March 15, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Divide and conquer
Horace Levy, member of the mediation group Peace Management Initiative.
Gem Road, seen here as a portrait of protest, has a history of violent divisiveness, as rivals have split support along this very street. - File

Community implosion sparks explosion of violence

The following is the second excerpt from the recently published book 'Killing Streets and Community Revival', authored by Horace Levy, member of the mediation group Peace Management Initiative. See Excerpt Three in Tuesday's Gleaner.

It was the experience of growing up in politically polarised communities that initially and later pulled many youth into community defence and its main agent, the community gangs [corner crews] ... Two types of garrisons have actually emerged, one highly centralised ... the other much more common type, more loosely organised ... Increased weaponry and fragmentation in garrisons ... brought renewed conflict and outbursts of violence.

At first, out of traditional allegiance rather than from passionate commitment, although under a veneer of politics, these conflicts were between communities on different sides of the political fence. Then they moved to inside communities affiliated with a single party, between different sections, separate blocks of housing erected at different times and divided by only a street (e.g. Arnett Gardens), or even in instances between the top and bottom of the same street (e.g. Gem Road off Maxfield Avenue).

With this transition over the past decade came another - the more brutal expressions of homicidal practice taking place across Jamaica. It is evident in the increased numbers of young children and women being abducted, raped, killed, others ruthlessly burnt alive in their torched houses.

Increase in criminality

The point here is of a general increase in criminality, by which I mean not just a numerical increase in homicides but their greater callousness, more gruesome nature, more calculated defiance. As Anthony Harriott pointed out in his early 2008 professorial lecture at the University of the West Indies, new thresholds are constantly being crossed. ... These latter features connect to the intra-community warring that we have been focusing on. This kind of fighting between close neighbours existed earliest (from the mid-1990s, at least) in Southside, Jones Town and Bennett Land (off Waltham Park Avenue). However, with its growing spread - and weakened party political sentiment - have come other harsher elements, not just more violence but an indiscriminateness of target that can only be described as criminal and is so regarded by community people.

By its very divisive-ness, this level of internal conflict has brought tremendous pressure on communities, attacked their cohesion in randomly taking the lives of innocent relatives, friends or fellow community members of those who the attackers sought to vent reprisal on but could not find. "If you cyaan ketch Quaco," the local saying goes, "you ketch 'im shut." [if you cannot catch your man, you catch his shirt, i.e. anyone connected].

Fear has been palpable in these situations, every relationship coming under strain, people keeping close to their yards; venturing out after the approach of nightfall is out of the question. Some people, out of desperation, simply pack up and flee, a very difficult step for the poor who generally have no alternative but to descend on relatives in their own already overcrowded quarters. Clearly, no community organisation can survive such a climate, and community ability to cope as a community, i.e. with some form of organised community effort, entirely vanishes.

Take, for example, the Jones Town Area Council (JTAC), an outstanding community organisation that came about in 1991 and flourished in the late 1990s, and up to 2003, with the help of the Jamaica Social Investment Fund (JSIF), Kingston Restoration Company and Jamaica Chamber of Commerce. One of the achievements of the JTAC, to which JSIF made considerable input, was the production of a small booklet containing a Police Code of Conduct and of a video illustrating good and bad police conduct. Youth from Cockburn Gardens and Waterhouse in the west of the city, nearby Rema and Fletcher's Land and elsewhere, were drawn into making these productions and into their distribution. Along with Rockfort in the east, they were impressed and influenced by JTAC's leadership and organisation.

... Another achievement of JTAC ... was the erection of an amphi-theatre to be used for cultural performances and to become, with attached kiosks rented to small business enterprises, a source of income. All this was brought to an end, however, once the war triggered by a deep split in the ruling Bibow posse erupted in Jones Town on Good Friday, 2004. ... The sequence of events in adjoining Craig Town was very similar.

... This climate of fear and sense of a loss of community reached unprecedented levels. From the early 1990s, as the study [They Cry 'Respect'] done in 1995 revealed, signs of stress were already beginning to show up. The lists that residents drew up of the different kinds of conflict and abuse, verbal and physical, much of it interpersonal, much sectional and group related, described violence as an everyday affair. They Cry 'Respect' (p 64-65) commented that the effect of the fractures on the people of Zinc City [Tawes Pen] and on those in the upper section of Mango Pen [Canterbury] is a sense of bafflement and confusion ... . They are at a loss how to understand, how to explain, their experience and ... they appear to be paralysed and unable to cope with it in order to restore the 'community'.

What people most regretted was not so much the material deprivations to which the violence had led, but the loss of those times when "people lived good", that is with kindness and mutual help, enabling anyone to walk to any part of the city at any hour to link with friends and relatives (p 9-10). People were very clear on this decline in what was most precious in their communities, their togetherness and mutual help, their social capital.

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