Recently I’ve seen two different commentators I follow mention revolution in Jamaica. Mark Wignall and Longbench, were each talking about the widespread desire for change in Jamaica and the impact that a Jamaican revolution could have (or according to Wignall, is having).
As a Jamerican, one of the things that terrifies me the most, is the idea that we could have a revolution in Jamaica. Revolutions are sexy when you’re watching them on TV, but when you’re witnessing the country you love being systematically destroyed, due to a “revolution”, there is nothing sexy about it.
So I wanted to discuss what a revolution in Jamaica would look like.
We should begin by noting that when there is political instability in a majority-black country, the western news media normally do not describe it as a “revolution”, but largely “rioting,” “domestic unrest,” “civil war,” “mass protests,” or simply “violence.” Ms. Louise Bennett, once pointed out that whenever a white country takes a word from another language it is said they “derived” that word; however when a black country takes a word from another language it is a “corruption” of the first language. In the same way, the Ukrainians are capable of an Orange Revolution when they protest a suspect election, but the Kenyans are only capable of rioting when they protest a similarly troubled election. Notwithstanding Raila Odinga’s best efforts to make his enterprise as synonymous as possible with the Orange Revolution. (He actually named his party the Orange Democratic Movement.)
Jamaicans would suffer the same fate, no matter how good or noble the intentions behind violence in Jamaica, it would never be seen as a “revolution”, just a “riot”.
And what would we gain as a result of our riot:
- a badly damaged economy
- even more division and tribalism in the population
- a badly damaged civilian infrastructure
- a real brain drain wherein our best and brightest minds would easily gain visas to remain in their refuge countries, and
- 10 to 20 years of retarded growth as we attempted to rebuild with our right eye gouged out and our left hand hacked off.
We would never be the same again, it would not have been worth it.
Let me use a rather vivid imagination then to script the way a revolution in Jamaica is likely to go. It’s fiction, but I’d love to know if there is any part you can point to that is particularly inconceivable or impossible.
Stage 1: Kingston On the Edge
This is not an urban arts festival, this is a time in the not too distant future when Kingston is brimming with new daily news of atrocities by criminals. Children, the old, the infirm, and a pregnant woman have been among the most recent murder victims deliberately targeted in the ongoing civil war conducted by gangs in the streets of our capital. Externals factors and internal negligence is about to blow up, the metaphoric bottom is about to drop out of the proverbial bucket. Oil is at $215 a barrel, Jamaica is on track for a 2,000 person annual murder rate, and there are more shortages of major food items (cornmeal, flour, Enfamil) while widespread accusations of hoarding by merchants fans the flames of popular resentment. Rice, like cornmeal before it, has become a luxury item. Inflation is eroding the buying power of the poorest and most vulnerable, with items like milk approaching a 30% inflation rate, and milk-substitutes pushing past a 40% inflation rate. The poor increasingly blame the perfidy of the rich for their problems, daily there are interjections of “dem waan kill we out,” or “dem a ramp wid we life fi fun” as large throngs of the unemployed and underemployed ‘reason’ mongst themselves.
There is an air of tension and political instability that is unparalleled in Jamaican history. The Dabdoub v. Vaz case is heading to the UK Privy Council after Judge McCalla’s ruling was reversed on an earlier appeal. Now it appears that PM Golding will be taken up on his ill-advised proclamation that he will call a general election “rather than allow someone unelected by the people to serve in Parliament.” Commentators begin to question the prudence of this assertion, Dabdoub has served in Parliament before, without being elected by the people. Was it all that bad? Where was Bruce’s commitment to this principle when Dabdoub belonged to his party and was an unelected MP? If Bruce loses the case and doesn’t call a general election, isn’t it proof he’s just a flip-flopper? Wouldn’t the money for a new general election be better spent subsidizing food for the poor? Can the JLP win given their low performance in the face of external shocks? Is the acceleration of murder and theft taking place in the country motivated by the Opposition in anticipation of an early general election or only by the stark external factors?
Stage 2: Ground Zero
On and on it spins, when one mid-morning a throng of unemployed and underemployed men and women reasoning ‘mongst themselves downtown decide they’re tired of just talking. They should do something. A anonymous and charismatic Rastafarian man, with long graying dreads, suggests they should march to a group of businesses downtown and let “di chiney and coolie man dem know sey we naw go tek it nuh more, if dem caan gi black people a wuk dem caan tan ya. Either wi eat a food or wi nam dem lunch.” Later, when the UWI scholars would write their textbooks on the Uprising, (as it would come to be called,) this would be identified as the pivotal moment. This man, who no fewer than 16 dreads would later claim to be, would be known as the “Catalyst Rasta.”
But no-one sees the history they live at the moment they are living it, and he spoke so powerfully and convincingly that about a dozen of 25 people agreed with him. The businesses they had in mind were within view, and they couldn’t imagine what they really had to lose.
So Catalyst Rasta and crew march over to confront the ‘greedy’ merchants. No one would remember if they’d stopped at Singh’s Surplus Savings or Wong More, the story changed depending on who was claiming to be Catalyst Rasta. What is consistent is the story of a confrontation with the owner, his summary rebuff of their protest with what would later be characterized as ‘racial undertones.’ What would remain consistent is the account of a fist fight between Catalyst Rasta and the owner after push became shove. Gunshots rang out, and a sweaty, stocky, dark woman in an orange wig screamed “Dem kill him, dem kill him, dem kill Missa Chin! (or was it Singh)”
There would be disputes about whether there was looting as the crowd dispersed in the wake of the gunshots, it would never be discovered who had fired them. No-one would ever dispute that the fire seemed to break out almost immediately, that as the fire grew and moved from store to store the growing crowd of onlookers would raid stores in the path of the fire and rush out with arm-fulls of merchandise. No-one would ever dispute that at some point people began to loot and set fire to those stores that were never in the path of the original fire.
Alternate theories of Jamaican history would spring up, some scholars would later argue that the original rioting and looting in downtown Kingston served as a “psychic dam breaking.” And that like spontaneous slave revolts the people just rose up to create mayhem in frustration at their plight and the perceived apathy of the political directorate regarding their condition. Other scholars would insist that the historical record shows how young men used cell-phones and text-messages to organize themselves into bands of looters with specific target businesses in mind.
What no scholars would dispute is that a “protest” beginning with Catalyst Rasta just past 11:00 A.M. would morph into a full scale riot, which by the time of the evening news the first day, saw the sacking, shuttering, looting and arson of businesses in downtown Kingston, Cross Roads, Half-Way-Tree, and along Spanish Town Rd.
That night, government buildings and schools along North St and South Camp Rd. would be vandalized and burned, some to the ground. Even the Gleaner’s headquarters and Gordon House would not escape damage from vandals and arsonists.
As is to be imagined, both the Prime Minister and the Governor General address the nation the next morning, announcing a mandatory curfew and calling for calm. The US State Department and British Foreign Affairs Ministry both issue travel advisories. The reports are grim, trillions of Jamaican dollars worth of property and merchandise have been damaged or stolen. Business centers remain closed, even the metal grills on businesses and government buildings have been welded off, it is believed, by people trading in scrap iron.
There is a sense of panic gripping the ruling classes, schools remain closed in the corporate area. Due to damage sustained during the rioting, the Jamaica Gleaner is unable to publish. People through-out the country remain glued to their radios, gripped by the chaos that is taking place. As Jamaicans in America, Canada, and Britain try to get in touch with their relatives in Jamaica, they increasingly get messages that say “all circuits are busy now, please try your call again later.” This contributes to a sense of panic in the diaspora. The rioting is being classified as a food riot by major western media. CNN is reporting that the rioting remains mostly a series of property crimes, and indeed there are very few reports of violence. That is most decidedly about to change; anxieties and the prospect of businesses gutted by fire is causing the ruling class to call for stern action on the part of the government. Every MP, party leader, and even local Kingston and St. Andrew Corp councilor is fielding calls and complaints from the well-to-do and connected. Even the PM, his hands full of trouble as he puts out literal and figurative fires, is fielding his share of angry, anxious callers: some asking that police or soldiers be sent to their neighborhood; and others demanding to know what the official response would be to restore law and order. Or at least the unwritten laws and unequal order that prevailed previously. Many of them cataloged their reports of lost merchandise for the PM, including one prominent businessman from a storied family who noted that he had lost some $2mil USD in new luxury automobiles which were stolen from his dealership. He noted reports he received that police had been complicit in some of the looting and told the PM “they didn’t put the cars on their head top and run wey with them, someone must know where they are.”
Stage 3: Babylon, yu kingdom is falling
In a so-called first world country, there are emergency communications systems set up in times of peace and calm, and meticulously tested to ensure they will be viable in an emergency. Predictably, the government of Jamaica had no such system or plan, it would later be said that no group spoke the same language as another during the crisis. Later, PNP functionaries would allege to have drafted such a plan while they had formed the government, and JLP functionaries would rebut such claims with allegations that if such a plan existed it was shredded or stolen by the outgoing administration during the change of power. Such would be the course of the Uprising, a comedy of errors exacerbated by close to 25 years of malfeasance and mismanagement.
Some 30% of soldiers and policemen do not report for work on this second morning after the initial day of rioting. Many had been called into duty on the previous day but were in many cases impotent in any effort against rioting and looting, and instead focused their energies on assisting fire-fighters and tending to those wounded in the stampeding walls of rioters who were making their presence felt. Having gone home, in some cases to check on their own families, many police had simply not returned to work. Office workers in the public and private sector stayed home, many doing so in light of their inability to get in touch with their managers. Buses and their crews idled in bus parks outside Kingston, while streets in the corporate area were blocked by burning debris and littered with fragments of merchandise and fixtures stolen during the previous day. People traded cellphone pictures and videos of looting and fires from the prior day.
At about noon, a helicopter carrying an American news crew discovered a street in Tivoli Gardens that had between one to two dozen BMWs in assorted colors parked alongside a wall, surrounded by throngs of barefoot children who seemed to be playing in and around the cars. This was the footage that captured the imagination of the American news media – which looped the footage repeatedly throughout the afternoon as U.S. government officials denied that American food and energy policies had any culpability in the unrest taking place worldwide. In afternoon meetings the Jamaican political directorate met to discuss how to enforce the curfew, and whether to declare a State of Emergency. Those government officials imprisoned during Michael Manley’s State of Emergency in the 1970s expressed grave concern and outright opposition about such a declaration. Others clamored for the government to take forceful steps to re-establish order in the capital. A decision was taken to assert authority in the capital by recovering some of the goods and fixtures from the private and public sector that had been looted. The Tivoli BMWs were seen as sufficiently symbolic to merit action, and as a JLP stronghold it couldn’t be interpreted to be motivated by a partisan vendetta. A plan to raid the area and recover the cars along with other goods was formulated and decided on. She would later deny it, but the Opposition Leader was briefed on and consented to the proposed plan of action.
Around 5:00 P.M., the golden sun still shining in the sky and black smoke drifting above the city in the distance, a column of 400 police and soldiers headed by tanks and trucks with loudspeakers rendezvoused at the Denham Town Police Station. By 5:30pm, they began moving slowly and steadily into the heart of the ghetto. Seeing as they were spotted by community lookouts, the column was greeted by gunfire and Molotov cocktails. As the fire of both kinds rained down upon their ranks, the soldiers and policemen broke formation and began to engage real and perceived enemy targets. Deafened by their pounding hearts and recoiling rifles, others fired wildly towards the houses, and shacks, as ricocheting bullets on zinc fences gave the appearance of their fire being returned by criminals. Shots were fired, doors were kicked off, and homes invaded, some people got shot, some while running away. Even a few soldiers and police officers were killed. But goods were recovered, maybe even billions of dollars worth. At least 14 BMWs were retrieved. And about 80 men from Tivoli were detained and brought away to South Camp Rd.
The operation lasted for 3 hours, and as the sun set the column retreated so they could be finished by nightfall. At the end, the air was thick with the smell of blood, gun smoke, and kerosene. All over the ghetto, there was the shrieking of children and the wailing of women.
The police had ringed the neighborhood with personnel to enforce the curfew as they retreated to the Denham Town Police Station. The operation had been a success, the force had only sustained 8 casualties; a policewoman, 4 policemen, and 3 soldiers. At the station, piles and piles of goods were brought in from cars and trucks to a sorting room. Carlene Davis had famously asked Santa Claus if he ever came to the ghetto, to these squaddies and soldiers it would be obvious that at least one time, he had.
Yet the chatter in the ghetto was not about Santa Claus, but rather the Grim Reaper. All over the many inner city areas spread throughout Kingston, the dispossessed were waking up in a curfew. Phones vibrated with wild text-message accounts of police cruelty and abuse. A baby had been fatally flung against a wall and stomped on by a soldier, a pregnant woman had been shoved to the ground on her stomach while a policeman knelt in her back. Pictures of blood soaked bedrooms dominated the visual offerings.
It was about 3:00 A.M. when the rumors began that the police were regrouping to begin an operation in an adjoining neighborhood to Tivoli Gardens, but a PNP stronghold this time to establish a balance. There was no truth to the rumor, and scant evidence to support it; but the sleep-deprived brains of the masses were in no mood to entertain critical thoughts that weren’t directed at the police. It would never be established if it was a single gang, or a group of gangs acting in unison, that began to strafe the Denham Town Police Station with a volley of bullets from high-powered rifles. This was not a worry, it had happened before, the bullet-riddled walls of the Station stood witness to that fact. What was different tonight was the fervor in the eyes of the shooters. That, and the man with the former pesticide sprayer converted into an improvised flame thrower. Molotov cocktails rained down on the Station to reinforce his efforts. Intermittently there were shouts of blood lust from the gathering crowd, as people would yell “Fire pon babylon!” and “Do dem how dem do wi!”
Of the 60 police and soldiers in the Station at the time the shooting started, over 20 were killed as they sought to escape being burned alive. The iconic video of the Uprising, would be from this scene as in one grainy 15-second scene a man stood over a burning police officer, squirming away from the flame-engulfed police station, and fired from a Tec 9 directly into the officer’s head.
At 9:00 A.M the American Embassy issued a warning, the US State Department and UK Ministry of Foreign Affairs instructed all their citizens and non-essential personnel to leave the country. European nations and most Caricom and Latin-American countries followed suit.
I could go on to describe all 8 weeks of chaos and carnage in detail. Of the scenes unfolding in uptown neighborhoods as SUVs packed with heavily armed shottas pulled into drive-ways and upper caste families fled generations of accumulated property and privilege. Of how the ill-conceived Palisadoes Rd, with its one-way-in and one-way-out, was blocked by extortionists with kerchief-covered faces that raped and robbed at will when the exodus began. Of the violence that broke out between competing gangs as they despoiled well-to-do neighborhoods. Of the looting of hotels and stores in North Coast tourist areas by residents from adjoining squatter communities which had been allowed to spring up. Of the few video-taped summary executions of low-level politicos by partisans on the other side who blamed their rivals for the bedlam erupting in the country.
But I will spare you the other unseemly details of the “revolution.” It would be 6 months before the first cruise ship would return, a year before the nightly curfew could be lifted, and a lifetime for people to contemplate just how things could ever have been allowed to get to this point.
Update: some typos corrected per comment