Desperately Seeking Dudus…Letters from the Dead

“They seek him here,
they seek him there,
those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven or is he in hell?
That damned elusive Pimpernel.”

Dudus is far from being the Scarlet Pimpernel but the Jamaican armed forces are certainly busy seeking the mild-mannered Christopher Coke in every nook and cranny of the country. Even the Mayor of Kingston’s house wasn’t spared in the security forces’ hunt for Jamaica’s Pimpernel.

It now appears the armed forces executed a well-planned and stealthy assault on Dudus’s citadel, Tivoli Gardens, on May 23rd. The scenario didn’t play out quite as feared back in March when Police expressed concern that the country’s 268 gangs might act in concert to create incidents throughout the country to distract lawmen in the event of an offensive on Tivoli.

National Security Minister Dwight Nelson went on record then saying that “Government was focusing on preparing strong anti-gang legislation that would target, infiltrate and dismantle criminal gangs.

“The legislation, Nelson said, would also identify and arrest members of criminal gangs; ensure long sentences for gang members; conduct a thorough historical and proactive investigation into the activities of gang members; and develop intelligence as to each member’s association with and participation in gangs.”

With the speed at which Dons and gang members have been turning themselves in, one fervently hopes that the said legislation is in place to put them away for a long time. Meanwhile the security forces must be congratulated for keeping deaths down to under a hundred although the various charges of wrongful detention, wounding and killings by the armed forces must also be fully investigated with those responsible for the wanton taking of life duly punished. The New York Times had an article today about extrajudicial killings by Jamaican police, something that’s a problem even when there’s no state of emergency.

Life has more or less returned to normal on the rock except for those who lost family members in the clash and for those who remain on the run. The tragedy is that the parts of the city where gangsters unleashed violence are the same areas which have long been the killing fields of Kingston.

At the Caribbean Studies’ Association’s 35th annual conference in Barbados, May 24-28, eerily titled “The Everyday Occurrence of Violence in the Cultural Life of the Caribbean,” many of us recalled the previous CSA conference in Kingston last June which included a commemorative walk for victims of violence organized by Sistren and the Peace Management Initiative. The walk started outside the Hannah Town Police Station (the first building to be burnt down by the gunmen protesting Dudus’s arrest last week) and proceeded along Hannah Street, Slipe Pen Road, past the Kingston Public Hospital culminating in a ceremony at the Monument to Children killed in Violence outside the KSAC offices on Church Street.

As the pictures above from the Letters from the Dead walk show, it was mainly women who marched, each one holding an image of a slain family member. An article in Guyana’s Stabroek News documented the process preceding the performance as recorded by Honor Ford-Smith and Alissa Trotz:

Weeks before the march took place, workshops with women from different communities explored the ways in which people remember and forget urban violence. Women discussed the different circumstances that result in the shooting and death of diverse victims and the enormous pain and waste that it has caused. For several, forgetting was an attempt to cope with the pain of loss, but it was also to avoid the desire for revenge that was triggered by remembering, raising the important question of how to link memory with reconciliation as one constructive response to violence. Participants found it difficult to share their stories publicly and in a collective setting. One woman who had lost all of her children to violence spoke of her complete isolation, of shutting herself in her house, of leaving her yard and being completely disoriented on a street that she had inhabited for years. Her story is deeply symbolic of how the violence both produces and continues to be produced by alienation from neighbourhood and community, spaces that we so often associate with nurturing and bonds of solidarity.

The performance on June 3 vividly dramatized elements of the workshops. Women, men and children gathered in the yard outside a church in Hannah Town. Dressed primarily in black, heads tied with red cloth, each person bore witness to the devastating effects of violence on families and communities. During the workshops, participants had selected images of those they had lost. As we took to the streets that afternoon, we were surrounded by faces of the dead mounted on placards, pinned to shirts, hung on a cord around the neck. On a poster held up by one elderly woman, an infant lost to gun violence stared out solemnly at those gathered in the churchyard.

As the procession began its trek through downtown Kingston, participants formed a long line, bearing 35 yards of red cloth that rippled like water, symbolizing the blood of the thousands killed in community wars over the last decades. Two young women dressed in white – cultural workers from Toronto – performed the part of ghosts or spirits, urging the marchers on to the final destination. Women led the marchers in church hymns punctuated by clapping. Some bore a coffin that had been made locally – it is tragic how many funeral parlours one can find in inner city Kingston – and that linked urban wars in Canada to those in Kingston through the use of repeating images of the black youth murdered in Toronto. Onlookers – asking questions or greeting familiar faces – were urged to join the march. Scholars who are members of the Caribbean Studies Association from around the world and who were holding their annual conference in Kingston, also joined the walk which was part of the performance programme of the conference.

The ‘walk’ culminated outside the office of the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation, at the site of the Secret Garden and Monument to the Children, dedicated in late 2008 to remember those killed under violent and tragic circumstances since 2000. The bronze sculpture depicts the face of a weeping child, with names of the dead inscribed around its perimeter; almost three sides of the monument had been filled with hundreds of names, children ranging in age from a few months to 17 years. As a young woman sang a tribute to the dead children, the red cloth was laid down on the pavement and placards and mementos laid along its length. Before a large gathering that had collected on the street, Sistren member Afolashade explained the purpose of the moving commemoration, and invited workshop participants to the microphones to share the letters they had written to their dead and to ‘post’ them in a specially designed letterbox. Audience members were also asked to read a few letters aloud. Others read fictional responses from victims of violence; in one particularly telling letter, a young man imagined his dead friend urging him not to link memory to retribution because that would only continue the cycle of violence. Music by reggae musicians including Ibo Cooper – from Third World – and others accompanied the readings. After the last letter was read, witnesses were invited to walk around the cloth. People pointed out faces they knew. A woman exclaimed in shock when she realized that a male friend of hers was among the dead. There was silence as people circled the monument to read the names of children. One woman who had been leading us in song along the march collapsed on the sidewalk in grief, surrounded by other women trying to comfort her.

The question is what sort of ritual will we need to hold now for the inhabitants of Tivoli Gardens and others who were victims of Operation Desperately Seeking Dudus?

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