Iconoclasm in Babylon: Jamaican Police vs the Murals

Jamaican Police’s war against murals and memorials exemplified by the destruction of the Glenford ‘Early Bird’ Phipps murals at his brother, Zeke’s bar in Matthews Lane.

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A policeman paints out the mural of Glenford ‘Early Bird’ Phipps which was on a building at the intersection of Beeston Street and Matthews Lane in west Kingston in February.-Norman Grindley/Chief Photographer, The Gleaner
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The mural of Glenford ‘Early Bird’ Phipps, seen being painted out above, photographed in 2004

In a bizarre twist on community policing lawmen in Jamaica have embraced iconoclasm–the erasure of painted memorials in this case–as a strategy. The photograph accompanying Honor Ford-Smith’s article in the Gleaner today (see above) pleading for the Police to be more sensitive to the social role images play in the communities that produce them is a case in point. What its caption doesn’t tell you is WHO Glenford ‘Early Bird’ Phipps was, or his relationship to Western Kingston and Matthews Lane in particular. It’s just another example of how Jamaican media occludes rather than reveals information.

“For some years now, the Jamaican police have been painting out murals in working-class communities in a symbolic battle with residents,” begins Honor’s article, a longer version of which she had sent me a week ago:

Judging by the public silence, many agree that destroying the murals will somehow help to obliterate donmanship. Perhaps this is understandable, given the fact that we’re all tired of living in fear and we’re tired of the global media marketing the idea that all Jamaicans are pathologically violent. It is hard then to ask what other meanings the police ‘clean-up operation’ might carry, or to suggest that we have much to learn from the murals themselves.

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The destruction of the murals is an act of violent censorship of a popular street-art movement in Kingston in the guise of law enforcement. It is a violation of the right to freedom of expression that is guaranteed in the Jamaican Constitution. We may not like the murals. We don’t have to. That is not the point. Not liking them is not the same as denying the right of self-representation.

Just how much history is packed into murals and images produced by street artists can be seen by looking at the history of the very image the policeman is painting out in the Gleaner photograph  above.

It happens to be a mural that I photographed a bit in 2004 during a close encounter with Zekes, the notorious Don of Matthews Lane, who brought Kingston to a standstill in 1997 when the police briefly arrested him. Glenford ‘Early Bird’ Phipps was Zekes’s beloved brother, brutally murdered in 1990 and memorialized by Zekes in an extensive series of murals on the walls outside and inside his bar (see below).

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In this photo you can dimly see Zekes behind his bar. He actually tended the bar himself and poured me a portion of John Crow Batty, a powerful white rum the likes of which i’ve never encountered since.
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Inside the bar there were more images of Early Bird, flanked by humming birds. You can also get a better look at Zekes with one of his lieutenants. On the left behind his camera is Julian Henriques, film-maker and lecturer at Goldsmith College in London.
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Zekes was initially hostile, incensed at my taking photographs without his permission, though he soon became very friendly, even posing for photos and sending his lieutenant, who had previously ripped the film from my camera, to accompany me while i took photos outside.

But even better than this, Early Bird was memorialized by none other than the famous poet Kamau Brathwaite in his long poem Trenchtown Rock. I’ve taken the liberty of photographing and reproducing below relevant portions from that poem so that you get a better sense of who Glenford Phipps was (“was a young Dreadlocks, [later I was to learn that he was known as “Early Bird”/catching his first too early worm of death that early All Souls Morning] his beautiful long hair like curled around his body making snakes like dance“), his sensational slaying outside the very building Brathwaite lived in, in which Phipps had also been resident, and his importance to the community he came from, to whom those murals would have been of great significance.

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This magnificent painting of Early Bird was on the outer wall of the bar.IMG_8969

Many will say the murals are merely ‘a glorification of criminals’ and should be defaced for fear of their ‘grave effects’ on ‘poor Jamaicans’ etc. I quote from a Facebook response to my posting of Honor’s article. Frankly I’m always amazed at how many Jamaicans talk as if everything is black or white, easily distinguishable, devoid of ambiguity or nuance. Many of Jamaica’s national heroes were on the most wanted list of the colonial government in power at the time. How does a profoundly corrupt state determine criminality? If/When so many police personnel behave like criminals and in effect ARE criminals how do they determine whom to punish? And should the public support them in this? These are hypothetical questions but ones worth pondering. One of the interesting things brought out in Honor’s article on censorship is the fact that also memorialized in many of these communities are the fallen policemen belonging to them:

Some of the murals can be read as covert statements against police impunity and against police methods. But this doesn’t mean communities are against the police per se. If this were true, police from inner-city communities would not be memorialised. But they are. They, too, are mourned and remembered. Nevertheless, it is well known that Jamaica has a high rate of police violence that undermines public confidence in law enforcement.

Do we really have a right to erase the social history of communities in the name of hard policing? Really? What next?

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The Police Gang

Jamaican police beat and kill Ian Lloyd, a citizen records this on video, providing evidence that Lloyd was unarmed and not dangerous when killed. This also contradicted the police force’s own statement that the shooting was an act of self-defence on the part of the police.

The police in Jamaica are once again at the centre of a maelstrom of criticism after a video surfaced showing some of them beating up and shooting a man in cold blood. TVJ (Television Jamaica), having learnt its lesson in May after deciding not to air its exclusive footage of masked men in Tivoli Gardens getting ready to defend Dudus (later beamed to the world by the BBC which had no such qualms) sent shock waves through the nation by airing the graphic video of the police killing, shot by an onlooker who sent it to them. The Constabulary Communication Network (CCN) had earlier reported that the man, Ian Lloyd, was shot dead after he attacked members of a police party. The video footage, captured by cellphone, however contradicted this story, clearly showing an unarmed and subdued man lying on the ground.

Lloyd was reportedly a drug addict who had just killed his female partner and was generally considered a nuisance to the community, members of which were seen on video cheering the police on as they circled the man beating him and then shooting him. Still, at the end of the day the question remains: is this what the police are paid to do?

This is not the first time i’ve had occasion to write about the excesses and corruption in the police force. The very first blogpost i ever wrote, in January 2008 when i started this blog, was about Detective Constable Cary Lyn-Sue who confessed in the Montego Bay Resident Magistrate’s Court that he had fabricated witness testimony in the trial of 22-year old Jason James, allegedly a member of the Killer Bee gang.

Lyn-Sue openly admitted that it was frustration that had driven him to invent a crown witness complete with incriminating testimony when fear prevented any actual witnesses from testifying. He was aware of various crimes committed by the accused, he said, and thought that getting James off the streets even for a day would be doing society a favour.

In September that year I had occasion to publish a piece called “Pronounced Dead” in which i was discussing the distortions of the English language one frequently hears and reads in local media reports starting with the much abused phrase “pronounced dead”. This term often appears in radio newscasts recounting police shoot outs where “shots were fired”, “the fire was returned” and then “the injured men” (rarely members of the police force) are taken to hospital, where “upon arrival” they are invariably “pronounced dead”.

In December last year I wrote about the police killing of  Robert ‘Kentucky Kid’ Hill, a musician who had predicted his death and actually named the cops who would be responsible. According  to the Sunday Herald, Hill, virtually in tears, said he was convinced that cops were stalking him and he felt intimidated. Within a few weeks Hill was killed during a shootout with a police party on Wednesday, December 9, 2009 causing leading journalist Cliff Hughes to declare on Nationwide radio that this wasn’t the Jamaica Constabulary Force, it was the Jamaica Criminal Force. Virtually nine months later nothing has come of the investigation into Kentucky Kid’s killing by the Police.

My focus on police excesses has not been restricted to the Jamaican police. In January i published a piece called Police states, anthropology and human rights by an Indian anthropologist named Nandini Sundar who had suffered abuse and harrassment at the hands of police in India. At the time I wrote:

Just in case we thought that the Jamaican police were unique in their brand of brutality we are reminded that police forces anywhere can be equal opportunity purveyors of brutality and state terror. This is a depressing way to start the new decade for true. Are police forces merely gangs licensed to torture, bully and kill by the state? Packs of wolves hired to keep rebellious sheep in line?

In the United States many counties do not permit citizens to videotape police in public. I sincerely hope this will not be the recommendation of the committee investigating the killing of Ian Lloyd. If it is i hope they will also recommend that the Jamaican police follow the example of certain police departments in the US which are equipping their members with video cameras so that in case of accusations being made of abuse and excessive force they can provide their own footage to corroborate their stories of killing in self-defence.

More details on this can be found in this pithily titled story: Police turning to self-mounted video cameras to protect themselves from us.

Police states, anthropology and human rights

Note: The account below was sent to me by email from India with a message to circulate it as widely as possible. I couldn’t think of a better way to do that than to post it here. Just in case we thought that the Jamaican police were unique in their brand of brutality we are reminded that police forces anywhere can be equal opportunity purveyors of brutality and state terror. This is a depressing way to start the new decade for true. Are police forces merely gangs licensed to torture, bully and kill by the state?Packs of wolves hired to keep rebellious sheep in line? And who knew that anthropology could be a life-threatening occupation? Happy MMX (2010) everybody!

Police states, anthropology and human rights

by Nandini Sundar

3rd January 2010

Ujjwal Kumar Singh, Professor of Political Science, Delhi University and I have just returned (January 1st) from a visit to the police state of Chhattisgarh. Ujjwal had gone for research and I had gone for a combination of research and verification purposes to assess the livelihood situation of villagers for our case before the SC, both entirely legitimate activities. In Dantewada, we had checked into Hotel Madhuban on the 29th of December around 2 pm without any problems, only to be told later that night that the management required the entire hotel to be instantly emptied out because they were doing some puja to mark the death anniversary of the hotel owner. We refused to leave at night, and were told we would have to leave at 6 am instead because the rooms had to be cleaned. As expected, other guests checked in the next morning, puja notwithstanding.

At Sukma, we were detained by the police and SPOs at the entrance to the town from about 7.30 till 10 pm, with no explanation for why they had stopped us, and no questions as to why we were there or what our plans were. We were denied lodging – all the hotel owners had been told to claim they were full and refuse us rooms, and the forest and PWD departments had been advised not to make their guesthouses available, since ‘Naxalites’ were coming to stay. Indeed, the police told us that these days Naxalites had become so confident that they roamed around in jeeps on the highways. Since everything was mysteriously full in a small town like Sukma, the police advised us to leave that very night for Jagdalpur, some 100 km away. We decided instead to spend the night in the jeep, since we did not want to jeopardize friends by staying in their homes. Later, we contacted friends and they arranged for us to stay in the college boys hostel, since students were away on vacation.

At midnight on the 30th, 6-7 armed SPOs burst into our room at the college hostel, guns cocked, and then spent the night patrolling the grounds. Evidently, the SPOs have seen many films and know precisely how to achieve dramatic effect. They were also trying to open our jeep, presumably to plant something. The next morning we were followed by seven armed SPOs with AK 47s from Sukma in an unmarked white car, and this was replaced at Tongpal by twelve SPOs, in two jeeps. None of them had any name plates. Given that we could have had no normal conversation with anyone, we decided to do all the things one normally postpones. In twenty years of visiting Bastar, for example, I have never seen the Kutumbsar caves. Everywhere we went, including the haat at Tongpal, the Tirathgarh waterfall and the Kutumbsar caves, as well as shops in Jagdalpur, the SPOs followed us, one pace behind, with their guns poised at the ready. Two women SPOs had been deputed specially for me. The SPOs also intimidated our jeep drivers by taking photos of them and the vehicle.

DGP Vishwaranjan claimed on the phone that it was for our ‘protection’ that we were given this treatment since there was news of Naxalite troop movement, and has gone on to say (Indian Express, 3rd Jan), “anything can happen. Maoists can attack the activists to put the blame on the police. We will deploy a few companies of security forces for the security of the activists.”

Clearly all the other tourists in Tirathgarh and Kutumbsar were under no threat from the Maoists – only we, who have been repeatedly accused of being Naxalite supporters, were likely targets. As for the police ensuring that we got no accommodation and trying to send us from Sukma to Jagdalpur in the middle of the night, such pure concern for our welfare is touching. The SP of Dantewada, Amaresh Misra, was somewhat more honest when he said he had instructions from above to ‘escort’ out ‘visiting dignitaries.’ The Additional SP shouted at us to be more ‘constructive’ – not surprisingly, though, with 12 swaggering SPOs snapping at one’s heels, one is not always at one’s constructive best. The next time, I promise to try.

The SPOs in their jeeps followed us some way from Jagdalpur to Raipur, even when we were on the bus. In addition, two armed constables and an SI were sent on the bus to ensure we got to Raipur. We overheard the SI telling the armed constables to “take us down at Dhamtari” but fortunately this plan was abandoned. Poor man, he narrowly missed getting a medal for bravery, and as the good DGP tells the readers of the Indian Express, it would have been passed off as an attack by Naxalites. On reaching Raipur, the SI was confused. Shouting loudly and forgetting himself, as bad cell connections are wont to make us all do, he said “The IG and SP had told me to follow them, but now what do I do with them.”? The voice on the other end told him to go home. We flew out of Raipur the next morning. In real terms, this was a rather pointless exercise for the CG govt, since we were scheduled to come home the following day anyway, bound by the inexorable timetable of the university and classes. But symbolically, it allowed the SPOs to gloat that they had driven us out.

The CG government obviously wants to ensure that no news on their offensive or even on the everyday trauma of villagers reaches outside. Many villages have been depopulated in the south, both due to the immense fear created by Op. Green Hunt and the failure of the monsoons this year. All the young people are migrating to AP for coolie work. There are sporadic encounters – the day we were in Dantewada (29.12.09), two ‘Naxalites’ were killed in the jungles of Vechapal and three arrested. A week before seven people had been killed in Gumiapal. Who is getting killed and how is anyone’s guess. The Maoists are blockading roads with trees and trenches, and killing ‘informers’. There is compete terror, fear and hunger throughout the district.

While the CG govt is busy providing us ‘protection’, it has refused to restore the armed guard that was taken away from CPI leader Manish Kunjam. He has had credible reports that his life is under threat, and he may face a replay of the Niyogi murder, because of his opposition both to forcible and fraudulent land acquisition by multinationals like Tata and Essar and to the Salwa Judum and Operation Green Hunt. Manish Kunjam, whom I have known since the early 1990s, is the single most important mass leader in the area who has been independent of both the state and Maoists, and taken a stand on various issues. Despite Raman Singh assuring the CPI leadership that this would be done, the DGP has refused to act.

It is also remarkable that a government which can waste so many armed SPOs for an entire day and night on two people who do nothing more dangerous than teach and write, has been unable to catch the SPOs who are responsible for raping six young women. Despite the trial court finding the SPOs and Salwa Judum leaders prima facie guilty of rape and issuing a standing arrest warrant on 30.10.2009, even two months later, they are ‘absconding’. Some of them even give public speeches, but they are invisible to the police. In the meantime, when Himanshu reported that the rape victims were kept for 3-4 days in Dornapal thana and generally terrorized, the Chief Secretary’s response was to accuse him of running an ‘ugly motivated campaign.’ All good men these, good fathers, good husbands, good citizens. So was DGP Rathore and all the honourable men who defended him, promoted him and awarded him despite what he did to Ruchika. Unfortunately for these adivasi girls, they are not middle class, so no media campaign for them.

Bastar can no more get rid of me than I can get rid of Bastar. In 1992, because I attended meetings to observe the protests by the villagers of Maolibhata against the steel plant that was proposed to be sited there, the government denied me access to the local archives. But it was the government which then fell, and my book on Bastar, Subalterns and Sovereigns, was published by 1997. In 2004, four of us were stopped in a village while doing a survey of the Lok Sabha polls by village level sympathizers of the Maoists. They retained Ajay TG’s video camera, for which the brilliant CG police later arrested him. In 2005, Salwa Judum activists stopped us as part of the PUDR-PUCL factfinding on Salwa Judum; in 2006, as part of the Indepdendent Citizens Initiative, we were stopped and searched in Bhairamgarh thana by out-of-control SPOs, and Ramachandra Guha was nearly lynched inside the station, while the thanedar was too drunk to read the letter we carried from the Chief Secretary. My camera was taken away by a Salwa Judum leader, and returned only months later. In 2007-8, the then SP, Rahul Sharma, fabricated photos of me with my arms around armed Maoist women and showed them to visiting journalists and others to try and discredit my independence. He later claimed, when challenged, that the photos were of one “Ms. Jeet’ and it was he who had verified the truth. In 2009, Ajay Dandekar (historian), JP Rao (anthropologist) and I narrowly escaped a mob of around 300 Salwa Judum leaders, police and SPOs, who, however, took away JP Rao’s mobile phones, a camera charger and vehicle registration documents. The police refused to register our complaint and detained us for questioning for a few hours, even though we had got the consent of the District Collector and the Mirtur CRPF contingent to visit Vechhapal.

For anthropologists, our professional life is difficult to separate from our personal – our research depends on developing deep friendships with the people we ‘study’. In the twenty years that I have been visiting Bastar off and on, I have acquired a range of friends, acquaintances and people who are like family members, whose concerns are my concerns. This does not in any way diminish one’s commitment to independence and objectivity. As Kathleen Gough said in 1968, when the American Anthropological Association was debating whether to pass a resolution against the war in Vietnam, ‘genocide is not in the professional interests of anthropology.’