When History Comes to Meet Us

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Photograph of Marjorie Williams and her daughters from the Bearing Witness exhibition accompanying the film Four Days in May.
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Information board from the Bearing Witness exhibition accompanying the film Four Days in May.

My last column in the Gleaner was published in April this year. For the time being I’ve decided to take a break from writing a column to focus on other projects which need my attention and time. Will resume writing on Active Voice as and when time permits. Thanks for tuning in!

At a discussion after a sneak preview of the film Four Days in May, a documentary about  what survivors experienced during the blitzkrieg we refer to as the Tivoli incursion a young man said:  “We can all remember where we were when history came and met us.”

“It come like a war zone. Caw dem a drop three bomb eno. Nuff a mi fren dem dead. After di incursion mi can tell yu seh mi guh funerALS,” said another resident who can’t forget what happened to his community in 2010, when the armed forces conducted their search for Dudus, the strongman of Tivoli Gardens on whom the United States had placed a bounty.

History will record that the most senior custodians of the state lied about what took place during those 4 days. They said there were no bombs; there was no surveillance drone when men and women had seen it with their own eyes; they did not ‘recall’ any such thing;  moreover no angels had died in Tivoli. The 73 or so civilians who were killed should be seen as collateral damage they implied. What is worse is that large swathes of Jamaican society agreed with this view of things.

Nearly 8 years later the country has had to bring back limited states of emergency in different parts of the country after declaring them zones of special operations—ZOSO. While the clampdown in Montego Bay seems to have contained the spiraling violence there, it feels as if the criminals have simply scattered to different parts of the country. How else to understand the murderous turn of events in August Town as soon as 2017 ended and 2018 began?

In a remarkable article called “Teaching In The Line Of Fire” published in the Gleaner on March 5, UWI senior lecturer Saran Stewart tried her best to raise the alarm about what is going on in the country. For those of us who live and work in this corner of Kingston the last few weeks have been punctuated by gunfire, sometimes so loud it seems to be on the UWI campus itself. Wrote Saran:

It is now month three of the new year and the shots have left the dead of night and ring loudly in the peak morning time when children are still walking to school. Our educators teach in the line of fire and not only in the community of August Town, but also Denham Town, Flankers, Norwood, Cambridge and Rose Heights, just to name a few. In these communities gunmen trade bullets for the simplest necessity, such as a tin of mackerel, and barter lives for a ‘bills’ ($100). I have taught numerous students from volatile communities, whether they were born and raised there or currently boarding. Trying to centre their minds about the philosophies of education becomes futile when my students learn first-hand the ideologies of gun violence. As an educator, I have had to drift from the standard course outline and include students’ lived experiences as a mechanism to navigate their realities and consciously re-centre the course around their true learning environments. There are students who write their papers in the shell of their bathrooms by candlelight as it is the safest concrete box in the house. When the Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) suspends bus services, how do children leave those said communities to go to school? As educators, we try to find ways for students to unlearn what they perceive as standard, normal activity such as seeing mourning, orphaned children, weekly funeral gatherings, yellow ‘caution’ tape, bullet holes, blood stains, smelling gun powder, and reading WhatsApp messages stating, “Daddy dead”.

Yet this excellent article remained relatively unnoticed while the media exploded in an orgy of moral outrage about silly statements by members of one political party calling a member of the other party “black royalty”. Day after day for the entire week radio talk shows gave oxygen to this banal nonsense as if we live in Switzerland or Singapore and have nothing else to worry about.

When one of Saran Stewart’s students texted her from August Town to say that her assignment would be late as a family member had been shot dead Stewart asked her to forget the assignment and document her raw emotions instead. This is part of what she wrote:

“Over 20 years of blood shed! Has violence become my norm? Without thinking about my answer to this question, I would immediately say ‘yes’, crime and violence has become my norm. Born and raised in the community of August Town, nestled in a valley in the parish of St Andrew, surrounded by hills, the Hope River and in close proximity to two universities, this is my community.”

There’s more but is anyone listening? Is this really how we want our youngsters to meet history? Brutalized, shattered and traumatized, with no one even willing to pay attention when they write or talk about it?

PRESSURE…

PressureRoland

The submission window for the second issue of PREE is now open. Submissions may be sent to preeliteditors@gmail.com during the period July 1 to August 15. Our note on the theme is below:

PRESSURE

The second issue of PREE focuses on the theme ‘Pressure’.  Pressure buss pipe, yes. But, pressure also creates diamonds. What does pressure do for us tethered to the Caribbean? Is there a pressure to be ‘Caribbean’, to perform Caribbeanness, to act St. Lucian, Grenadian, Trini or Jamaican for instance; a demand that we rigidly embody our culture(s)?

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Leasho Johnson. No. 5 afflicted from the “playing the field” series. Mixed media on paper. By kind permission of the artist.

There is the financial pressure to turn coins into dollars and deflated dollars into meals and school fees. There is the cultural pressure to persist and the global pressure to give in. Economic pressure to expand tourism and environmental pressure to protect. The desire for freedom and pressure to remain ‘authentic’. There is social pressure, atmospheric pressure, population pressure, the pressure to achieve the impossible. Also, and sometimes fatally, for too many of us in the region and the diaspora, pressure builds in our blood. Pressure takes root in our hearts and manifests clinically as hypertension and the dangerous possibilities of stroke, heart attack, pulmonary embolism. Pressure underlies any number of presentations of mental illness. Pressure is not just a soul-killing thing, but a thing from which we can actually die. Whichever way you cut it, pressure exists as a powerful invisible force. These are just some of the possible launching points that we are hoping to wrestle with in this sophomore issue. PREE invites submissions of prose, poetry, essays, memoirs, videos, and artwork exploring the possibilities that exist for pressure.

If you have any comments and want to get in touch, let us know via preeliteditors@gmail.com

SUBMITTING TO PREE

Pree will only accept works during our Submission window, and this will be in response to a call for submissions. As a general guide, take a look at the following criteria and keep an eye out for the next Call For Submission.

If you are a publisher or agent who wants information about submitting writers you publish or represent please email preeliteditors@gmail.com 

Thanks to Leasho Johnson for allowing us to use this image which seems to perfectly express the theme.

If you have any comments and want to get in touch, let us know via preeliteditors@gmail.com

For more information please look here. Also read the first issue of PREE here.

‘Uptown’ Crimes: “Messado–weh mi money deh?”

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Real Estate Attorney Jennifer Messado

If you were to go by the social status of criminals languishing in Jamaica’s jails you’d have to conclude that crime here is an occupation exclusively reserved for the have-nots. At least 95% of those convicted by Jamaican courts fall neatly into the lowest social classes in this society.

For the first time however, things appear to be changing. In the last few days news broke that prominent uptown real estate lawyer Jennifer Messado and an accomplice, had been arrested and charged with fraud among other things. In Messado’s case the charges ranged from property deals to forgery and money laundering.

In a separate case another prominent uptown lawyer Patrick Bailey was again questioned about the September 30, 2016 death of Jermaine Junior, a 51-year-old construction worker whose body was found with several stab wounds in Bailey’s living room. Rumour has it that Junior was a returning resident who had paid the attorney to buy property for him with nothing to show for it in the end. In June 2017 in another case Bailey was accused of defrauding St. Catherine businessman and land developer Stafford Dixon in a land deal.

It seems land theft and property fraud is rife amongst the legal fraternity in Jamaica although you wouldn’t know it judging by the cases brought to court and convictions. What is finally causing the police to take action in these new cases? While we ponder that question let’s look at some interesting tidbits from Jennifer Messado’s background.

Born Jennifer FitzRitsen, Messado went to a prominent high school in Kingston but was suspended in third form and sent to finish her studies in England, according to a classmate who claimed to have taught Messado her first bad word. The classmate couldn’t remember the reason for the suspension but recalled that Messado’s brother, also a lawyer, was murdered in a high profile case in the 70s.

That case was written up in the Jamaica Observer in 2013 (“Paul FitzRitson knew that he was marked for death” by Sybil E Hibbert) and the details are fascinating. On March 16, 1974 Paul FitzRitson, then executive chairman of National Sports Ltd  (now INSPORT the Jamaica institute of Sports ) and a popular Kingston lawyer, was killed by two armed robbers in the Norwood area of Montego Bay, St James.

FitzRitson’s murder followed other prominent killings in an unprecedented crime wave in 1974 that resulted in then Prime Minister Michael Manley instituting the infamous Gun Court. According to the Observer:

“The nation during this period was in turmoil. Especially after it was reported that the hard-working and dedicated FitzRitson — who resided at the time in Copacabana near Bull Bay, St Andrew, a quiet, middle-class community overlooking the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea — had reportedly left Kingston for Montego Bay the previous Friday in order to finalise plans for the telecast of the March 26 heavyweight fight between George Foreman and Ken Norton. This was scheduled to take place at the Palladium Theatre in the western city.

“And that very afternoon, prior to the fatal shooting, FitzRitson was reported to have dined at Ironshore with his good friend, the then Minister of Industry, Commerce and Tourism P J Patterson (later prime minister of Jamaica); the late executive chairman of the JIDC, Wesley Wainwright and Hopeton Caven, his colleague of the TUC, of which he (FitzRitson) was the legal advisor.”

But why was FitzRitsen killed? The case remains unsolved. According to the Observer:

“Speculation turned to the fact that quite two years prior, Paul FitzRitson had been the person — along with well-known producer Buddy Pouyatt and Beverley Anderson — who had proposed to then Opposition Leader Michael Manley that a Bandwagon show of Jamaican entertainers including the late Bob Marley and Peter Tosh; Alton Ellis, Judy Mowatt, Clancy Eccles, Delroy Morgan, Hopeton Lewis and Max Romeo, be used by campaign manager, Patterson, in mounting the programme for the 1972 general election on behalf of the PNP.

“By the following year, FitzRitson had been active in bringing to Jamaica, the still talked-about championship bout between boxing legend George Foreman and Joe Fraser o/c “Smoking Joe.” He was indeed a community organiser, with a particular interest in music and sports promotion, heavy accent on boxing.”

To return to the present it would be interesting to find out what has led to Messado’s arrest. Nationwide News’s Abka Fitz-Henley who was present in court when charges were pressed tweeted that ‘when #JenniferMessado was handcuffed & was being led out of the dock, an Attorney, Tamika Harris, said to her – “Messado a want mi money – weh mi money deh!?”. Messado had a wry smile but didn’t comment. She was then led away by Police to await bail processing.’

Apparently Harris was told to join the line, as the number of people with similar claims is growing by the minute. The charges against Messado appear to have been carefully constructed, down to a video released on social media less than a month ago showing the lawyer turned bailiff gleefully turfing tenants off their property.

The video below, capturing a situation rarely associated with uptown or with light-skinned people in Jamaica, already had tongues wagging. But Messado’s arrest a mere few weeks later has created a sensation that has Jamaicans agog. What can we expect next?

Letter from the Editor

It gives me such pleasure to make PREE’s first issue ‘Crossroads’ available for feedback and reactions in advance of its official launch in June…

Pree

ANNIE PAUL

annieAs the note on our theme says, the Caribbean has always existed at a crossroads of one kind or another, and nearly a quarter of the way into the 21st century, the Caribbean remains at a crossroads. The artist Christopher Cozier once said, after a residency in Johannesburg, that he often felt like someone standing at an intersection with a sign, rewriting and reorganizing its message, wondering if it was being understood or engaged.

There’s a similar feeling as we put out the first issue of PREE, an online portal to relay high-grade writing from, on or about the Caribbean. Will PREE be read as widely as we hope? Who will PREE’s audience be and how will they engage us? Will this kind of writing appeal to the younger generations growing up in an era when books have virtually become an endangered species? Will youngsters still yearn…

View original post 2,582 more words

“Colour and the Tourist Trade”

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Gleaner column 21/4/18

In an interesting postscript to my last column “Modern Day Plantations”, I was sent a response from tourism mogul John Issa saying that my account of Evon Blake’s plunge into the Myrtle Bank Hotel’s pool was “not quite accurate”.

Apparently the story as told to John Issa by Evon Blake himself, went as follows.

“After my grandfather, father and uncle purchased the Myrtle Bank hotel in 1943, Evan (sic) Blake wanted to test if it still discouraged black guests, which it had done when it was owned by the United Fruit Co, now that it was owned by Jamaicans. He went to the front desk to buy a pool ticket and it was sold to him, he then proceeded to the swimming pool and was given a changing room and towel. He then proceeded to dive into the pool. He told me at all times he was welcomed.

“He however added, with a smile on his face, that when he dived into the pool it was like watching a movie in reverse as all the foreign guests who were in the pool came out.”

Issa went on to say that he was proud that his family had “removed racism” from the Myrtle Bank. He had also personally appointed the first black General Manager of a major Jamaican resort hotel when he appointed Willard Samms as General Manager of the Tower Isle Hotel in the early 1960s.

These details are interesting and also a perfect illustration of how deceiving appearances can be when they are decontextualized. On the face of it we might be inclined to buy this narrative of benign racial inclusiveness yet the incident involving Blake occurred in 1948, when Jamaica was still a colonial society and racism was even more pronounced than it is today. Thus you could very well have no explicit colour or race bar and still control the entry of Black people to your property. Heck, their entry is still being discouraged today, which was the point of my column.

Issa himself says that Blake told him as soon as he plunged into the pool all the foreign guests jumped out, a clear indication that it was NOT the norm, stated policy or not, for Blacks to swim in the Myrtle Bank’s famous pool. Likewise we might note that the appointment of a black general manager in the 60s while admirable, likely made no difference to the treatment of black guests, as indeed continues to be the case, more than 60 years later when it is the norm for hotels to have black managers.

Despite being managed and staffed by Blacks in 2018 too many Jamaicans who attempt to sample their country’s world-renowned hospitality find that it doesn’t necessarily extend to them. That was the gravamen of my column last week. So the fact that Evon Blake bought a ticket to the Myrtle Bank pool without hindrance is neither here nor there. The list of black guests I quoted complaining about their treatment had also paid for their stays at the hotels in question, yet it didn’t insulate them from the racial profiling they suffered. I’m sure those hotels have no explicit policy barring the entry of dark-skinned folk either. They don’t have to. Centuries of racial ‘grooming’ so to speak, cannot be undone overnight; the racism is internalized and practised by Blacks against Blacks.

Add to this the potent poison of class prejudice, something we all systematically practice in this day and age and you realize how complex the situation is. If you’re black and poor there are hardly any pools or beaches available for you in Jamaica.

As art historian Krista Thompson notes in “An Eye for the Tropics” Evon Blake was very concerned also about how Jamaicans were portrayed in tourism campaigns. He deplored the fact that in these representations black Jamaicans always appeared in menial positions, or as boys climbing coconut palms or diving into the sea to retrieve coins. Middle class Blacks were rarely featured. Blake pointed out that in contrast, neighbouring Haiti emphasized the fact that tourists would be visiting a ‘Black Republic’ where you would be expected to fraternize with ‘Negroes’.

According to Blake the unwritten message in Haitian tourist publicity went something like this: “If you object to associating with Negroes go somewhere else.” Americans who went to Haiti forgot the colour prejudice practised back home:

“They chin and chum with Negroes, and they appear to love it. They sit next to Negroes in swank hotels and clubs, bathe in swimming pools with Negroes, dance with Negro men and women, and consider themselves privileged when offered the opportunity to pay their respects to officials of the ‘Black Republic.’”

And while this was going on in Haiti, in Jamaica tourism interests were assiduously keeping tourists from meeting locals, on the grounds that they wouldn’t like to hobnob with black folk, a belief apparently alive and well today. Clearly a sea change is needed in how tourism is practised in this Black country.

Modern Day Plantations

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Gleaner column 14/2/18

The story is told in hushed tones of well-known journalist Evon Blake who jumped into the pool at Myrtle Bank Hotel, a whites-only facility in downtown Kingston.

“One summer day in 1948, as tourists and elites casually colonized the poolside deckchairs of Jamaica’s premier hotel, the Myrtle Bank, a black Jamaican journalist, Evon Blake, suddenly burst onto the brochure-promised scene. He hastily disrobed and plunged into the waters of the hotel’s unofficially racially segregated pool. The staff quickly congregated at its edges, hurling threats at the intruder. Taking advantage of the protection of the water, which prohibited security from entering the pool, Blake defiantly challenged,”Call the police. Call the army. Call the owner. Call God. And let’s have one helluva big story.”

The quote above is from a chapter titled “Diving into the Racial Waters of Beach Space in Jamaica” in Bahamian art historian Krista Thompson’s groundbreaking book

You might think that the Myrtle Bank’s covert racism in Jamaica was symptomatic of colonial times, it was 1948 after all. But I have news for you. Racial profiling is alive and well in Jamaica today, and raised its ugly head in Port Antonio recently. A video making the rounds on social media features a woman who has been visiting Jamaica for many years talking about a distressing experience. The caption below the video sums up what happened.

“CAUCASIAN tourist vacationing/visiting ERROL FLYNN MARINA IN PORT ANTONIO JAMAICA, claims her BLACK JAMAICAN FRIEND WAS discriminated against !!! Her local black Jamaican friend was warned not to swim with the TOURISTS!!! Classism.”

In my opinion the incident is a toxic mix of classism and racism. The video attracted a slew of responses many of them retailing similar stories of racism suffered by black, Jamaican visitors and tourists returning to their beloved country for vacations. I quote some of them below:

Venus Jack I can relate. While checking into the resort in Montego Bay the young lady serving drinks to the arriving guests excluded us and didn’t offer us anything to drink. She just ignored us like we did not belong there. What a welcome home! Previously at another resort we had guests and the security guards were rude to them because they were locals. Wouldn’t let them visit us in peace… they were under constant scrutiny and treated them like thieves even though they had to stay in the lobby area only. It was very upsetting.

Donna Rose Omg Venus Jack I experienced the very same thing at RIU in Ocho Rios. That hotel chain would never ever get another penny from me. When I arrived at the hotel to check in, they asked us, whey uno a go? They would not allow my local friends to park on the property. Jamaicans I tell you.

Steve Shers I’m used to being treated as a second class tourist/visitor when I visit the Caribbean although I’m from there.

Beverley Ranglin This happened to me and my family at the holiday inn in montego bay 2 years ago.

Tanya Weise That’s happened to us at Ibero Stars too.

They just pass and offered all white guest the cocktails and we were among everyone else waiting to be checked in.

Amanda Scott Venus Jack that very same thing happened to me at Grand Bahia in Ochi with the guests. I was so ready to leave by the 3rd day. Never again.

Almarie Davis She is so right. I wanted to rent a beach chair at a particular beach in Portland and was told I can’t. They are saving them for the cruise shippers.

Christine Creary-taylor My family and I went to an all inclusive resort in Montego Bay and they were serving drinks to all the new arrivals that just walked pass us. Colour not light enough I guess.

Clearly blatant racial discrimination is still being practiced in Jamaica’s world-renowned tourism enclaves. Yet in November last year when  Secretary General of the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), Taleb Rifai, “strongly urged Caribbean tourism stakeholders to stop promoting modern-day plantations called exclusive resorts” at a Montego Bay conference on jobs and inclusive growth he was raked over the coals by tourism interests.

Rifai went on to  warn against the practice of building five-star resorts in three-star communities, where the citizens were not part of the transformation. The backlash he suffered from Jamaica’s tourist industry forced him to tone down his statements the next day.

The case of the Errol Flynn Marina places the subject raised by Mr. Rifai on the table once again. Let’s not sweep this ugly intersection of racism and classism under the carpet yet again. Racism in a black country should simply not be tolerated in this day and age. Neither should classism. Do we have to send for Evon Blake’s duppy to finish the job?

The Politics of Crime Control

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Photo Credit: RJR News

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Gleaner column 7/2/18

Late last year I had occasion to read Tony Harriott’s Police and Crime Control in Jamaica: Problems of Reforming Ex-Colonial Constabularies, a fascinating study of police culture and the Jamaica Constabulary Force, of extreme relevance right now. Published in the year 2000 and written a couple of years before that I wondered if I could safely quote it in a document on crime I was then writing . Surely by now some of the excellent suggestions made in the book must have been implemented?

Accordingly I emailed Tony to find out and had to laugh at his wry reply. “Regarding the books, it is very frustrating for me to revisit them and to learn that they are still relevant.  I wrote the police reform book in the hope that it would assist the reform process at the time and thus be outdated very quickly.  Actually I wrote it in 1996-98.”

Well, twenty years later it seems the political will has finally been found to force the Force to reform. After a series of revolving door Police Commissioners, with no one in sight to fill the current vacancy and crime spiraling out of control, the political directorate seems to be ready to take on the task of cleaning the Aegean stables.

According to Harriott the JCF is more than 150 years old, a colonial institution the primary function of which was to maintain order and control using paramilitary tactics. Despite its stated motto, “To serve and protect” it does not function as an organization geared toward servicing or serving the public. The force is highly centralized, overwhelmingly male-dominated, profoundly authoritarian and values seniority over performance and experience over education and training. Dismissal from the force is rare and requires commitment of the most egregious criminal breaches. Avoidance of work is a chronic feature of the police force with the discouragement of reports or complaints from victims who are often treated as nuisances. People coming to report on domestic disputes were often chased away as were women complaining of rape especially if they were considered ‘disreputable’.

The rank structure of the JCF is pyramidal with 11 levels of rank. Even by ex-colonial standards the JCF is extreme, says Harriott, with more ranks and levels than India. The JCF practices differential policing against the poor, especially the urban poor who are stereotyped as being irrational and incapable of deferring self-gratification or of acting in their own self-interest —in short their view is at one with the way European colonizers viewed ‘natives’.

With the departure of Police Commissioner Quallo Jamaica may be entering territory familiar to citizens of Trinidad and Tobago, another crime-ridden Caribbean island. That country’s acting commissioner, Stephen Williams, has had his term extended 12 times since his appointment in 2012.  Even if appointed Commissioner, were Williams to take the 27 months’ leave he has accumulated, by the time he came back it would be time for him to retire.

The situation regarding the police in both Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago suggests a deep malaise that we haven’t even begun to address yet.

“Why, then, have we not taken steps we know would have some effect? The answers are complicated, but chief among them is that for every proposal that might be made to reduce crime, there is a powerful, organized interest that opposes it. These obstructive groups often include the most influential force of all, the middle-class interests that so frequently complain about the threat of crime.”

Further:

“Every effort at improvement in the criminal justice system will seem either helpful or threatening, depending on the perspective of some political-interest group. Thus an increase in the number of policemen means more protection to some, more bullying to others. If, for example, the staffs of prosecuting attorneys are increased so that they can diligently prosecute armed robbers, murderers, and dope peddlers, they will also be available to ferret out consumer fraud, anti-trust violations, and political corruption.”

And of course the latter would be a threat to the middle and upper classes here who then have little incentive to improve the justice system or the Police force. The problems we’re facing in the Caribbean in regard to crime control are not new or unique to us. The two quotes above are taken from an article titled “The Politics of Crime: Why governments don’t do what they could to reduce violent crime” by Richard Neely. It was published in The Atlantic in August 1982 and pertains to the situation at the time in New York City.

It’s high time we adopt solutions from countries that have overcome similar problems as  ours as well as the recommendations of our own criminologists.