Thu | Feb 2, 2023

Evolution of garrison politics

Published:Sunday | March 21, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Sir Alexander Bustamante - File

Ian Boyne, Gleaner Writer

Many Jamaicans are aware of the many peace agreements, peace accords, codes of conduct and lofty statesman-like pronouncements which have been made denouncing political violence and garrison politics. But only a tiny few know how far back these promises go - and how long Jamaica has been battling political violence.

A book has just been published by Ian Randle Publishers which puts all this documentation nicely into one place. It is University of Liverpool Politics lecturer Amanda Sives' Elections, Violence and the Democratic Process in Jamaica: 1944-2007, which stemmed from her doctoral thesis. In this work we read of the first of the many peace pledges published on the front page of The Gleaner of May 18, 1949.

In this pledge, the parties agreed to "not use force in political campaigning and to remember that regardless of their political views, it is in the interest of everyone to comply with this appeal so as to secure the preservation of law and order, the right of free speech and the right of everyone to exercise his privileges as a voter ..." Yeah, right.

Sixty-two years after, what do we have? A country whose good name and image have been tarnished by garrison politics and where clientelism (as described by political scientist Professor Carl Stone) still suffuses the political culture, where criminals associated with the political parties still hold considerable power and sway.

It was eye-opening to read documents and statements from the two political parties going all the way back to the 1940s, ostensibly pleading with followers to renounce violence. Both Alexander Bustamante and Norman Washington Manley released this appeal on May 16, subsequently published in The Gleaner: "It is wrong for anyone to throw stones or other missiles at a political meeting and this must stop. It is wrong to attack or insult anyone peacefully and properly attending a political meeting merely because he is know or thought to be a member or sympathiser of a different political party." Says Dr Sives: "The pledge was successful in keeping the peace for three weeks".

We have graduated from stones and other missiles to M16s and AK-47s, but politically motivated violence has a long and nasty history in Jamaica. Christopher Charles of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York has a highly informative literature-review paper titled, The Violent Garrison Communities in Jamaica: A Review of the Literature, which records the scholarly work which has been done on garrisonisation.

Political violence

This latest work by Sives complements Professor Obika Gray's major work, Demeaned but Empowered: The Social Power of the Urban Poor in Jamaica, which also highlights the history of political violence and the development of garrisons in Jamaica. Sives work is very useful, as it contains a number of advertisements from the 1940s, through to the very violent 1970s-1980 as well as newspaper reports. Sives shows that it was not just the political parties, but the unions which were also involved in violent clashes.

Bustamante's own toughness was burnished during his union days. Says Professor Gray in his Demeaned but Empowered: "Bustamante unabashedly identified himself with the use of force. Full of bravado and seasoned by his experiences in shepherding his fledgling union, Bustamante was accustomed to these violent skirmishes and was a practitioner of the disruptive uses of violence to turn back political challenges". The People's National Party (PNP) had its equivalent, however, in the person of the redoubtable street fighter (literally) Wills O. Isaacs.

The history of politicians associating with known criminals is not new. Elections, Violence and the Democratic Process in Jamaica: 1944-2007 quotes The Gleaner of November 9, 1949 : "Men who should be considered to be of high dignity too often appear in the company of persons known to be of evil reputation. The election is being conducted in some quarters as if it cannot be won without the support of criminals." When was this? Yes, 1949. We have been long at this game and down this road!

It was interesting for me to see a full-page Gleaner ad from Bustamante in July, 1959, with the bold headline "JLP is for Non-Violence". Such was the import of the issue of political violence in the 1950s - the "good old days". In this JLP ad, people were reminded that Busta did not retaliate when violence was used against him in 1938 "he opened his shirt, bared his chest and told them to shoot!" because, as the ad goes, "the JLP believes that nothing can be achieved by shooting, by intimidation, by threats of violence; that violent methods produce violent ends", and then it goes on to even quote the Bible about loving enemies, etc. The political parties have always been long on short talk and short on walk.

PNP's early role

The PNP's early role in political violence has been de-emphasised by some persons who have focused on Edward Seaga's entrance into West Kingston politics in the 1960s. But Kingston was controlled by the PNP and every attempt was made, including non-legal ones, to keep out the JLP. It is a fact, however, that the 1960s represented a turning point in political violence.

Says Sives: "It has been recognised in a number of studies of political violence in Jamaica that the 1960s witnessed a definitive change in the level and impact of partisan violence on the electoral process. This was manifested most obviously in the use of guns and bombs in the western section of the Corporate Area." By the time of the 1962 elections, the PNP, which was in power, had exhausted its appeal and had failed to properly address Kingston's slum problems.

For all of Norman Manley's fascination with Fabian socialism, it was interesting to read a quotation from a 1961 colonial paper on Jamaica which said, "there is no doubt that the PNP has lost contact with the poorer members of the population. Their policy has been to promote investment as quickly as possible and to encourage outside investment ... in the hope that the general rise in the economy would automatically raise the standard of living for all. They have, therefore, devoted much attention to wooing the capitalist ... at the expense of the underprivileged."

Comments Sives: "It was within this context of high unemployment and urban deprivation that the growth in rude boys, criminality and trade in marijuana occurred. These developments ... were to have an important impact on the political culture within specific urban constituencies."

Edward Seaga indelibly imprinted himself on the consciousness of the Jamaican people and its chattering classes by his profound Legislative Council "haves and have-nots" speech of 1961. The Gleaner's leading political writer, Ulric Simmonds, subsequently named him Political Man of the Year. Seaga's appeal was massive, as eloquently told by Gray in his book. He had to be good to beat Dudley Thompson, the 'Burning Spear' an impressive Pan-Africanist.

No match for Seaga

But he was no match for Seaga who captured the peoples' hearts by living among them and authenticating their folk religion and ways. I have long been bothered by the Tivoli phenomenon, and when I got to know Seaga well, I expressed my serious concerns about that aspect of his legacy. He was very blunt with me and his narrative has been consistent, as reported by Gray and Sives. Had Tivoli not developed means of self-defence, Labourites would have been obliterated from the West. Tivoli developed in a particular way, Seaga likes to tell it, because of the physical force the PNP had all around West Kingston.

Gray explains in his book: "PNP organisers and their thuggish enforcers sought to disrupt Seaga's campaign and hoped to eventually drive him out of the constituency altogether. After all, they had earlier succeeded in routing the indomitable Bustamante and imagined Seaga be a political interloper who could easily be intimidated, fleeing in the face of threats, beatings, knife-wielding, gunplay and other disruptive acts. These acts of violence were carried out not only by rank and file activists but by criminal gangs."

Gray goes on to say that "though he (Seaga) was subjected to brutish assaults, nasty epithets ... Seaga survived these violent attacks because JLP counter-violence held the PNP thugs at bay."

Sives quotes Seaga as telling him in an interview: "Matthews Lane in West Kingston was the first garrison. This was when the PNP founded the first gang in the history of Jamaica and that was Group 69, organised for disrupting campaigns, intimidating and terrorising."

Maintained dominance

It has been the JLP's narrative that between 1949 and the construction of Tivoli Gardens, the PNP maintained its dominance in the Corporate Area through violence. In 1962 the PNP had eight of the ten corporate area constituencies.

Says Sives: "in weighing up the argument, it is evident the JLP raised the level of violence between 1963 (with the construction of the housing estate) and the 1967 election. There is no doubt that the JLP faced violence from sections of PNP supporters, but to argue that constructing a partisan space was a viable option for protecting supporters and minimising conflict fails to recognise the levels of antagonism which had been reached by the 1960s."

There is a striking anecdote in Seaga's autobiography, which has been exercising my mind as a reader of Malcolm Gladwell's work. Clem Tavares was devastated psychologically by his loss of the party leadership to Shearer. His health was ruined, eventually leading to his early death. His death, Seaga opines, "was, in my view, one of the turning points in modern Jamaican history. While Clem Tavares was alive, his South West St. Andrew seat and my West Kingston seat were able to resist political pressures. His loss opened the door for the onset of partisan political violence aimed at overthrowing West Kingston in order to control the capital city.

"If Tavares had not succumbed to his illness, that seat which formed the JLP bulwark, and the neighbouring seats which were the PNP militant offence, would have had to coexist in a non-violent state of mutual deterrence".

And Jamaica's history of political violence might have been different.

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist who may be reached at and