Every Now Has its Before

In Jamaica it should be #Poorlivesmatter not #blacklivesmatter coz some black lives do matter here and the police doing the killing and maiming are just as black as their victims…

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The column below from a couple of weeks ago about the need for a #poorlivesmatter campaign in Jamaica has been getting some attention. #Blacklivesmatter as a rallying call has little traction in Jamaica where if you’re black but middle class or upper class you’re–for all intents and purposes–an honorary white. Social blackness is reserved for those who are black and poor, not just those who may be dark-skinned, regardless of class.

I thought as much when I saw Fabian Thomas’s ‘Black Bodies’ almost a year ago–a play that aimed to “tell the stories and honour the memories of four Jamaicans (Vanessa Kirkland, Jhaneel Goulbourne, Michael Gayle, and Mario Deane) killed by the police or while in police custody” while attempting to draw a somewhat facile connection with the US’s #blacklivesmatter campaign which was then just beginning to gain momentum.

And in a move to rival the truth in strangeness, a very bougie, uptown Kingston nightclub named Fiction invited patrons to come and show their support for #Blacklivesmatter by partying the night away. Fittingly they aroused the wrath of social media with tweeters like Matthew McNaughton @mamcnaughton saying “Never been more disgusted with Jamaica UPT Culture than when I saw this @FictionJamaica flier.” The flier is at the top of this post, my column is below:

Gleaner, July 13, 2016

The #BlackLivesMatter campaign has rightfully been hogging media attention worldwide with American Police being shown up as less respectful of human rights than you would expect from a nation that regularly monitors and penalizes other countries for their alleged violations of these universally agreed on rights. Superficially there appears to be a resemblance to the way Jamaican police behave except for a crucial difference.

Here it’s the intersection of class with race that arouses the savagery of the Police and seemingly gives them the right to detain, imprison and on far too many occasions murder a ‘suspect’ whereas in the US the detention and deaths in question seem to be largely racially focused. In 2009 for instance the very distinguished Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was detained and imprisoned by police after forcing open the stuck door to his own house. A neighbour, misconstruing the scene, reported a robbery in progress, the police arrived, and despite the erudite Professor’s explanations he was carted off to jail.

This would never happen In Jamaica. Here you might be black and suspect until you display your rightful ownership of certain markers of privilege—and therefore legitimacy–of which the ability to speak English fluently is one. This is another stark example of how Patwa-speakers are discriminated against in their own country. Many parents tell their sons that when stopped by police they are to speak perfect English, and mention that they ‘come from somewhere’—that is, an uptown community rather than a downtown or inner city one. Almost instantaneously this frees them from suspicion.

There is no direct way to relate the #BlackLivesMatter campaign to police abuse in Jamaica without acknowledging or starting a local “#PoorLivesMatter campaign. Less than two weeks ago policemen shot a schoolgirl in the head when they wantonly fired bullets at a taxi downtown. Do you think this would have happened in Liguanea or Manor Park? And then to add insult to injury the initial response of the Police was that they had no evidence to suggest that the shooters in question were police officers. What could be more alarming than a possible scenario involving five men disguised as policemen firing their weapons at taxis? Well, actually, duh, a scenario involving five POLICEMEN firing at a taxi which is what in the end it turned out to be.

These are the same police the Attorney-General, in the wake of Lotto-scam generated crime ramping up in Montego Bay, wishes to endow with more leeway to abuse citizens by  insisting that “To successfully tackle the murder problem, some of the fundamental rights and freedoms which we have guaranteed to people may have to be abrogated, abridged or infringed.” In fact she forgot to mention that this has been the state of affairs for so-called downtown people forever; the outcry now is because the warning is addressed to English-speaking, uptown-dwelling, middle-class bodies.

I adapted the title of this column from Kei Miller’s novel The Last Warner Woman. “Every now have its before”, she warns, although few heed her. Police Commissioner Williams has rightly said that the problems in Montego Bay are not something harsher policing measures or a state of emergency can solve. They are systemic and need social intervention, for what gone bad a-morning, can’t come good a-evening. Imagine the scene in the United States if President Obama used the current crisis to give American police even more draconian powers than they already enjoy. Wrong move. Racism in the USA has a long and troubled history just as the virulent classism in Jamaica does. There’s no moving forward without addressing either.

We would do well to heed the words of social commentator Nadeen Althia Spence, who invoking the late great Jamaican writer Michelle Cliff, said:

If I could write this with fire I would set ablaze some ideas on this page. I would talk about the black boys in Montego Bay who no longer know the value of life. They don’t know because their black always needed to be qualified for it to become fully ‘smadditized’. It needed land, and money or an accent. When you grow up in communities that are built on captured land, what does it mean for the girls and boys who develop their personhood in a place where land and property and money helps to define your person.

Capture is a legitimate philosophy, because dem nuh own nutten. When Daddy Sharpe led his rebellion, when he set Kensington ablaze the white people in Montego Bay were angry, they punished, maimed and killed, and Daddy Sharpe gave his life in the middle of Sam Sharpe Square Downtown Montego Bay, right across from the Kerr Jarrett’s Town House.

How has Montego Bay changed? Who plans for the children of Sam Sharpe and his soldiers, the Christmas martyrs. Dem used to state of emergency, di blinking city was born in a state of emergency. What they are not used to is justice and equality and rights and development. Give them that Minister, give them justice and mek it stretch back to 1831 and remember Sam Sharpe. Start with the land…mek dem stop capture…because all lotto scam is another capture philosophy…

The CCJ and Shanique Myrie: How to signify ‘good taste’ and ‘respectability’

A look at the Shanique Myrie case and how class and taste impinge on it.

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Shanique Myrie, circa the time of deportation from Barbados

There’s a landmark case being heard in Kingston, Jamaica, at the first sitting of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ ) here. In March 2011, Jamaican Shanique Myrie landed in Barbados to visit a friend there (by her own account). Instead of the usual sedate Barbadian welcome Myrie was treated to a cavity search, kept in a dark room and deported the next morning to Jamaica although nothing illegal was found on her person or in her possession.

After this unceremonious return to the country of her birth Myrie charged that in the process of the cavity search  she had been finger-raped by the immigration officials concerned. Her lawyers took the case to court claiming that her rights as a CARICOM citizen were abused, and that she was discriminated against because she is Jamaican.  The CCJ argued that Myrie does indeed have a case against Barbados and the trial began yesterday morning at the Jamaica Conference Centre in downtown Kingston.

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Photo of Myrie (r) from the Jamaica Observer

When one of my favourite Jamaican journalists who was present in court yesteday tweeted the link to her post on the proceedings of the first day I clicked on it rather eagerly but was repelled by her opening sentence:

A beautiful fair skinned pony tailed, black suit, white inside blouse wearing young woman in a medium heeled closed up black shoes, Shanique Myrie is called into conference room 2 at the Jamaica Conference Centre, in a fight for her rights as guaranteed under the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas which establishes the Caribbean Court of Justice, CCJ.

In the first place, the Grammar Nazi in me was offended by the overladen, clumsy, grammatically dubious lead-in to the report. How on earth could “white inside blouse wearing young woman” be considered acceptable English by anyone but particularly a journalist? Was there a moratorium on fullstops, commas and hyphens? How could a black suit ever be described as beautiful, fair-skinned and pony-tailed?!

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Second, why was it important to know what the claimant was wearing? would a male petitioner’s clothing have been described in such tiresome detail? Later in the same post the journalist went on to note:

Wearing a diamond shaped gold looking clip on earring, Miss Myrie recites her full name as Shanique Samantha Myrie who though unemployed now works in food and beverage in better times.

I was dumbfounded and took to Twitter challenging this gendered depiction of events. Why not focus on the substance of what was unfolding in court and leave sartorial detail  to be captured by TV cameras ? The journalist responded saying “I believe it is important to paint a full pic for all.” She appeared puzzled by my objections.

I was even more puzzled by the reaction of another tweep, @diva_simmo, who argued that “in the court room image is everything. Even Vybz Kartel choose jacket and tie over – straight jeans and fitted.”  Her next tweet said “as a listener I found the information very useful especially the ‘medium heel shoe’. Image matters.”

Curiouser and curiouser. Pray how did it help to know that the claimant wore a medium heel shoe I tweeted back.

Because “if she wore 6″red wedge with mini green dress and blue wig it would indicate the direction her legal team is taking” responded @diva_simmo, “…her attire in court says legal team is portraying self respecting, mature professional.”

The penny dropped.

This landmark case is not only about nationality, it’s also about ‘class’, the ungainly elephant in the room no one wants to explicitly mention. It is important to portray Myrie as ‘decent’ ‘respectable’ and ‘sober’ because the image of Jamaicans in the region is overwhelmingly influenced by the higglers, DJs and hustlers who often represent the face of Jamaica,  visiting, even migrating to other countries, where they are not always welcome.

Why? because these enterprising but capitally-challenged individuals (ie owning  little capital, whether financial or social) often violate all the dearly held norms of ‘decency’ ‘respectability’ and ‘good taste’ with their choice of garments, raw speech and boisterous behaviour. They regularly transgress the zealously guarded borders of civility and decorum as much as the borders of nation states which under the new Chaguaramas Treaty they now have a right to breach.

Perhaps this was why Myrie was given the finger when she arrived in prim and proper Barbados, regionally glossed as ‘Little England’. Not just because she was Jamaican but because she was perceived to be a particular kind of Jamaican. So @Emilynationwide was right to emphasize the outfit and demeanour of Ms Myrie. It may be extremely germane in the instant case.

PS: The overall point I’m making in this post is not to dis the journalist concerned or claim that there was no substance to her post. Far from it. When i said let’s focus on substance rather than style or appearance it hadn’t yet occurred to me that in this case style IS the substance or a substantial part of what’s at stake.   I realized belatedly based on something @diva_simmo said that the reason for the focus on Myrie’s dress was because class prejudice is a real danger here and Myrie’s appearance is material evidence that may well influence the jurists involved,  so much so that her legal counsel went to great pains to counter this by dressing her ‘classily’. So Emily was right to focus on how this was achieved. Being somewhat resistant if not immune to the strictures of fashion this wasn’t obvious or self-evident to me. My point is simply that if class is an issue let’s explicitly state it and discuss it because that’s the substance of what we’re getting at by extensively describing Myrie’s carefully assembled clothing. Profound apologies for any distress I caused Emily Crooks.