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Why the Vybz Kartel trial matters

Published:Wednesday | February 19, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Keiran King, Online Columnist

Keiran King, Online Columnist
Here's   what you need to know: Dancehall artiste Vybz Kartel, born Adidja   Palmer, is on trial for murder. Arrested at the height of his lucrative   international career, he has been legally incarcerated for 30 months   awaiting the decision now before the court. While 11 souls determine his   innocence or guilt, in the court of public opinion, a larger trial is   simultaneously taking place. The defendant? The justice system itself,   charged again and again with inefficiency, corruption, and prejudice.   Call it a labouring class-action suit, on the books forever, with two   million plaintiffs.

For   our disenfranchised majority, who may lack the income, literacy or   leisure time to read opinion columns, social commentary arrives via   dancehall music, which speaks just as eloquently, in our dominant   language, and for free. Super Cat, Shabba Ranks, Bounty Killer, Ninja   Man, Buju Banton, Beenie Man, Elephant Man, Sizzla, Busy Signal, Mavado,   Vybz Kartel - a long line of lyrical preachers for whom, as often as   not, prison is just a way station on the road to immortality and a house   in the hills. They speak - powerfully, poetically, presciently - for   and about the people they leave behind without leaving them behind.
To   arrest an artiste is thus to martyr him, to muzzle a voice validated by   millions. Hundreds storm the Supreme Court Bastille each day,   clamouring for the release of their self-appointed 'World Boss'. On the   cover of his book, 'The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto: Incarcerated but not Silenced', Mr Palmer poses as civil-rights icon Malcolm X. And his Twitter account channels   anti-Establishment sentiment to 76,000 followers: “This is a classic   case of the system vs ghetto, [the] poor [and] dancehall” and "The war   [between us and] Babylon is over 400 yrs old [and] we still a [fight]".
This   gnawing sense of injustice is responsible for our current hydra, where   corruption and criminality snake from the almshouse to Gordon House, and   threaten to choke our society. A failed government, according to   landmark sociologist Max Weber, is one unable to maintain “a monopoly on   the legitimate use of physical violence”. Let’s review the state of our   state.
Swathes   of Kingston are run by area dons through equal parts fear and   benevolence, leaving members of parliament a choice between collusion   and impotence. Removing these garrison leaders instigates civil war, as   in the bloody extraction of Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke in 2010, when   uniformed officers faced armed opposition from the people they were   sworn to protect.
For their part, our police force continues to be more force than police, killing 255 men, women and children last year. The comparable number for all of Britain? Zero.   British ex-cop Hamish Campbell, now assistant commissioner of the   Independent Commission of Investigations, says, “There is a widespread   belief that the [Jamaican] police are killing people who can’t otherwise   get to the courts.”
Why? Because our courts are impossibly backlogged,   with more than 400,000 cases in the queue, some describing acts so   barbaric, judges deny bail even though a potentially innocent person   will live for years in an inhumane constabulary jail. To put that   jaw-dropping (and officially disputed) number in perspective, if we   never added another lawsuit, and cleared 10 a day, the last holographic   docket would wrap up somewhere in the year 2123.
Yes,   our institutions fail, badly and regularly, so most of us have lost   faith over time. But when everyone is watching, as we are now with Mr   Palmer's trial, it's a rare opportunity to restore that faith in a   single deposit. All of us - rich and poor, defence and prosecution,   Babylon and badman alike - are better off when the system works. When   everyone does their job, from janitor to judge, that simple but powerful   display of competence has an outsize impact. It reinforces the social   contract binding us in this experiment called Jamaica, and reminds us   that we are, imperfectly, out of many, one people striving towards   common goals. It makes us a nation.
As   Vybz Kartel offers, echoing Buju Banton and a long line of musical   forebears: “The life we live, it hard and poor/ that’s why them fight   ghetto yute more and more/ but ‘memba, we go on and on and on”.
Keiran King is a playwright and producer. His column appears every Wednesday. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and yell@keiranking.com.