Class Shaming in Jamaica: The West Kingston Commission of Enquiry

This post is offered in the spirit of a tweet i saw the other day by @jeremyweate:

“Towards a Phenomenology of Complicity: the subtle ways in which we nourish the status quo”

#westkingstoncoe Inexperienced consul should shadow senior consul. Time wasting and a tad embarrassing.
#westkingstoncoe Maj Gen Saunders is exhibiting great patience & constraint. Then again that’s the training.
@FaeEllington I’m being patient with that apparent aitch problem
@FaeEllington cyaan send young chicken fi go fight ole hawks. Unfair.
@micharie_thomas silent…no ‘booming’ sounds
@BigBlackBarry But is WHO sen him. He has good spunk but manner will cause ‘defeat’.
Poor Tivoli people. They have gotten the wusserest lawyers for this enquiry.
The new lawyer ave ha hayches problem to. Which is sad. No matter how smart or dumb he may be, he already is judged as weak.
If you can’t manage the English language as a lawyer in an English speaking country, you better stay out of court.


There is still much debate about whether the West Kingston Commission of Enquiry is worth the billions being spent on it or not. Constituted to publicly examine what happened during a security intervention by the state in Tivoli Gardens in May 2010 that left 70 plus citizens dead, the Commission gobbles millions of taxpayer dollars in legal hours on a daily basis. Many think this is an extravagant charade and time-waste; it’s true that it seems hard to justify such expenditure at a time when IMF-related belt-tightening has become the demand du jour if not du jure.

While there is some basis for such views I think a Commission of Enquiry becomes a necessary national exercise in the absence of any state agency stepping forward of its own volition to account for such lavish ‘collateral damage’ as the death of 73 civilians in the process of an ‘internal security operation’. It’s also valuable from the point of view of being one of those rare instances where high and mighty public officials, from Prime Ministers to army generals, normally closeted from public scrutiny in Jamaican society, are obliged to sit down like ordinary citizens and answer questions about their roles leading up to and in the Tivoli carnage. The proceedings are carried live on public television and then replayed in the evenings for those who missed it during work hours. Occasionally there is an in-camera session which is not open to the public.

An unintentional but even more valuable corollary or spinoff of this daily spectacle is that the Commission has made visible the hidden codes that operate beneath the surface of official activities and affairs of governance in Jamaica, a highly stratified society, in which a narrow and rigid politics of language is deployed to nurture and maintain privilege in ways that most democratic countries have moved beyond in the 21st century. I suggest that the behaviour and language used by the ‘learned counsel’ representing Jamaica’s armed forces and police at the Commission can and must be read for clues into the deadly series of events that unfolded at Tivoli Gardens on May 24, 2010.

On that day a joint operation between the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) and the Jamaica Defence Force (army) was mounted to enter the community of Tivoli Gardens, in Western Kingston, in search of ‘Dudus’ or Christopher Coke, nicknamed Prezi or President. Coke, the most influential don or unelected leader figure in Jamaica at the time, was wanted by the US government for heading the Shower Posse, a gang accused of engaging in drug-running and arms-smuggling in cities along the east Coast of the USA among other things.

In Jamaica however despite a few minor skirmishes with the law Coke had remained a free man, not least because of influential ties to the ruling party at the time, the Jamaica Labour Party or JLP as it is popularly known. However the People’s National Party, the PNP, in power for much of the time since Independence in 1962, didn’t seem to have a problem with Coke either and had never challenged his power or influence enough to keep him behind bars. This imbrication of Jamaican party politics with internationally-connected criminal interests revealed a state whose legitimacy was severely compromised and vulnerable. Not surprisingly the Jamaican government turned down the US’s request for the extradition of Dudus, claiming that the method of evidence collection used by the US, wiretapping, was illegal under Jamaican law.

After grandstanding for a good 9 months after the initial request for extradition to the US was received in August 2009, the Golding government buckled to US and local pressure and reluctantly signed the extradition request in May 2010. In retrospect, with that signature, the Attorney-General at the time effectively signed a death warrant for at least 73 civilians in Tivoli Gardens, the community led by Dudus, where he took refuge as soon as he got word that the extradition request had finally been signed.

Much has been made of the fact that then Police Commissioner Admiral Hardley Lewin, had advised the media that within minutes of his meeting with Prime Minister Golding, where he and then head of the JDF Maj-Gen Saunders were informed about the signing of the extradition request, Christopher Coke–Dudus–had fled his uptown St. Andrew home for the barricaded confines of Tivoli Gardens, his powerbase in downtown Kingston. This of course suggests close, virtually immediate cooperation and communication between the highest levels of government in Jamaica and the topmost informal powerbroker in the country, someone Interpol and the US were calling a criminal mastermind.

Tivoli Gardens, once referred to as the mother of all garrisons, locked down and barricaded itself to protect Dudus. Gunmen from all over the island were reputed to have made a beeline for West Kingston and were reportedly offering their services to an informal army formed to repel any attempt to extract the don from his fortress. The official security forces in Jamaica saw this as an open affront to their authority. They had long been plotting and planning the dismantling of the barricades and the restoration of ‘law and order’ there. On May 24, 2010, therefore, a day considered suitable because it was Labour Day and a public holiday when the bustling streets of downtown Kingston would be much less busy, the JCF with support from the JDF marched on Tivoli Gardens and unleashed a blitzkrieg of no mean proportions on that community.

At the end of the virtual Armagiddeon 73 civilians lay dead but neither Dudus nor any of the hundreds of gunmen who mobilized to protect him were apprehended. They had all mysteriously escaped or otherwise vanished.  The JCF called the Tivoli incursion Operation Key West and the JDF called it Operation Garden Parish. They had clearly had fun with those names, playing on Tivoli’s location in West Kingston. Despite their inability to capture Dudus and the extremely high cost in citizens’ lives that resulted, under questioning from Mr  Williams, counsel for the Tivoli Committee, a representation of Tivoli Garden inhabitants, army chief Maj-Gen Saunders dubbed the operation a success. “The operation was successful, but the patient died,” muttered Commission Chairman David Simmons under his breath, pinpointing the absurdity of the Army’s claim.

It also emerged in the course of the Enquiry that the JDF used, by their own admission,  psychological and sonic warfare against the community. The loud explosions many Tivoli Gardens inhabitants had reported hearing during the incursion was from mortar fire used according to Maj-Gen. Saunders to disorient residents of Tivoli and keep them inside while the security forces conducted their operation. The use of mortars had been strenuously denied by the Minister of Security and other officials up to that point.

It is in the interaction between counsel for the security forces and the people of Tivoli appearing as witnesses and some of the counsel representing them, that the contempt and lack of empathy for Tivoli residents becomes apparent, giving a sense of the magnitude of the problem facing us. I wasn’t here in December 2014 and thus missed the sessions in which Tivoli witnesses were subjected to a barrage of questioning, their dignity as human beings assaulted with the same ferocity with which the security forces had executed their mission in Tivoli Gardens, but I heard about it from others and saw the agitated tweets it generated.

By the time I started watching the proceedings again last week, a new lawyer was representing the Tivoli Committee, and I was privy to the supercilious, boorish class-shaming he was subjected to by Counsels Linton Gordon and Peter Champagnie on behalf of the JDF. Mr. Williams unapologetically drops his aitches, an unforgivable breach of etiquette according to the gatekeepers of approved speech patterns in Jamaica, even though this didn’t in the least diminish his ability to get under the skin of the high-ranking individuals he quite expertly questioned, forcing them to admit information they were reluctant to make public. So egregious were the persistent efforts to destabilize Mr. Williams by mocking his diction and sartorial style (both irrepressibly and admirably impervious to tremendous peer pressure to conform to banal norms of respectability, middle class speech and decorum) that Chairman of the Commissions, Sir Simmonds, was moved to issue a reprimand: “We are West Indians, not Australian cricketers so there will be no sledging of Mr. Williams.”

According to an internet source about the origins of this cricketing term, “‘Sledging or “Mental Disintegration” as it is also known, is the tactic of talking to players on the opposition side (particularily batsmen…) with the objective of destroying either their concentration or their confidence/self esteem.”

The attempts to destroy Mr. Williams’ confidence and self-esteem focused in great part on mocking his diction and pronunciation, an act of shaming that is frequently used by racists–white Americans, for example–to mock black speech. When the Tivoli Committee representative asked about the ‘booming’ sounds of the mortars Champagnie and others literally collapsed with derisive laughter, Oh my God what a butu, he couldn’t even say ‘bombing’ properly, how to take someone like this seriously–surely the Commission and Jamaica couldn’t possibly regard Williams as a credible spokesperson was the unspoken corollary to the scornful laughter and comments. Yet this is the same usage Bob Marley deployed in Talking Blues when he sang “I feel like booming (bombing) a church.”

On cue some journalists picked up the speech shaming and ran with it. The tweets compiled above clearly indicate the unreflexive investment in the idea that only ‘proper’ speech, that is to say ‘standard English’, is worthy of our attention and concern. While I can understand if not condone the need for opposing counsel in the theatre of the Commission to level derogatory comments and laughter at Tivoli Counsel in an attempt to disable and silence him I’m puzzled by the media’s kneejerk support of such tactics.

I’ve included @BigBlackBarry’s tweets because they represent elite beliefs about the role of English in Jamaica. “If you can’t manage the English language as a lawyer in an English speaking country, you better stay out of court,” he tweets. There are several problems here. Is Jamaica really an English-speaking country? If competence in written and spoken English was a requirement how many citizens would pass the test? Are young children who don’t have English in the ‘English-speaking country’ given the means to acquire it before being disqualified for not knowing it? What is noteworthy is the assumption of all concerned, Fae Ellington included, that Williams’ strategically long pauses and imperfect pronunciation of English were somehow a sign of inexperience and therefore ‘a tad embarrassing.’ Please note that some of these tweets have been removed by the individuals concerned although I present them as tweeted at the time.

If ever there was a poster girl for what Jamaicans call ‘speaky-spokey’ (that is painstakingly clearly articulated diction) it’s senior journalist Fae Ellington. She is so celebrated that almost every week she’s invited to a school to give a speech, to inspire students to excel, she’s the ultimate institutional role model and an unswerving champion of the establishment. During the Commission Fae registered her approval of former Police Commissioner Owen Ellington in glowing terms. “Former Comm of Police, Owen Ellington’s handling of Terrence Williams’ questioning makes Mr. Ellington look the lawyer,” she tweeted and subsequently “My respect for Owen Ellington keeps growing. What a calm, patient and steady man. Unflappable. Can’t be twisted.”

Yet this eminently well-spoken, respectable, affable police commissioner was suddenly removed from his position a year or so ago, in a move that raises serious questions about his integrity.  It seems the US-UK axis as someone called it, widely seen as the parties who demanded Ellington’s removal, weren’t as favourably impressed by his flawless, articulate handling of the English language. Similarly Police Superintendent James Forbes, described by the Gleaner as the poster boy of what a clean police force should be, was convicted of corruption last year and forced to resign. He is the senior-most member of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) to have been convicted on corruption charges.

James Forbes, an exceptionally well-spoken, presentable man, is also held in high esteem by Fae Ellington. I distinctly remember her protesting in a TV interview that Forbes was a close friend of hers as if that fact alone should acquit him of any wrongdoing. I’m not suggesting that Fae’s defence of her friend was calculated or conscious. We have been socialized to believe that the better you speak English the more upright, honest and respectable you are and as a corollary we are taught to think that the less competently you handle the language as dictated by purely superficial signs such as pronunciation and aspiration of vowels (for make no mistake Mr. Williams’ English in terms of syntax, noun-verb agreement and grammar generally speaking is superior to that of many a journalist in Jamaica), the more likely it is that you’re less than respectable.

We need to break this inflexible association between standard English and legitimacy and Patwa and other non-standard languages and illegitimacy. There is no simple correlation between these categories of behaviour and speech. We also need to ask ourselves hard questions about those who act and speak in the name of the establishment in a situation where there has been a working collaboration between the state and criminal forces.

What if the society you live in has been completely subverted by decades of moral equivocating on matters of right and wrong? Can the establishment still then be held up as an ipso facto exemplar of good conduct, governance and legitimacy? Can and should the language of the establishment, stilted and unproductive as it has been, be the sole medium of approved communication in the postcolony? What about the language of the people in the transition to democracy from the profoundly undemocratic state of an ex-slave colony or plantation society? Is the devaluing and disapprobation of Jamaican Patwa, the constant mocking and derision of its speakers, not a direct reflection of the low value placed on the lives of what Buju referred to as ‘low-budget people’?

Are we not in as much need of a #lowbudgetlivesmattertoo campaign as the US needs a #Blacklivesmatter one? Did this widely prevalent and prejudicial attitude to a certain class of people not enable the ferocious invasion and concomitant lack of respect for the lives and limbs of Tivoli residents? As Scottish editor Kevin McKenna, writing about class problems he had faced in the UK says, “When we (that is, society at large) deem people from working class backgrounds as somehow less-than because of the way that they use English, we’re being classist – plain and simple.”

And that holds true of Jamaica as well. Classism is no less despicable than racism or gender-based discrimination, something it would behoove the JDF’s lawyers to remember. The JLP used the same tactics against Portia Simpson-Miller in the last election and it backfired spectacularly against them because when you assume that we all agree with such prejudices you’re overlooking those who identify with the aitch-droppers and who know very well that the fact that they say ‘igh-rise’ instead of ‘high-rise’ and ‘booming’ instead of ‘bombing’ is no indication of character whatsoever.

Tivoli and what happened there on May 24, 2010 must not be translated into the perfectly articulated but overdetermined and exhausted language of what is known as ‘standard English’ in Jamaica, it must remain indigestible and provocative, demanding answers, in Patwa-inflected English if necessary, from those who would govern us. For there is no crime in this…on the other hand there is much crookedness, corruption, class snobbery and more inscribed in the discourse of standard English in Jamaica, and this is what we need to dismantle if the status quo is to change for the better. After all what has any zealous aitch-pronouncer and proud speaker of standard English done to elevate this country that compares to even one hundredth of the world-class exploits of the aitch-droppers who put Jamaica on the map?

%d bloggers like this: