Policing rape culture

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Gleaner column 3/1/2018

Looking back on 2017 one thing stands out. Jamaica was way ahead of the curve in what would become the most significant social disruptor, globally, in recent years—breaking the silence on sexual harassment and rape culture.  As far back as early 2017 a young local activist, Latoya Nugent, had the gumption to start the #SayTheirNames campaign in Jamaica accompanied by a list of offenders who had been named by young girls and women as their violators. For this she was vilified and treated like an enemy of the state, with six assault rifle-bearing members of the Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency (MOCA) descending on Mary Seacole Hall at the University of the West Indies to arrest her.

The actions of Latoya Nugent, and her close allies Nadine Spence, Taitu Heron and others gave rise to what is now known as The Tambourine Army because in accusing the then leader of the Moravian Church, Paul Gardner, Nugent tapped him on the head with a tambourine. This caused several senior activists and journalists to harshly criticize the tactics of the younger generation of activists, on the grounds that their modus operandi was too militant and they were using violence to make their point. Never mind the far more serious violence these women were protesting, assault with a tambourine became a thing in Jamaica.

In India too a young lawyer named Raya Sarkar started a growing ‘hall of shame’ list of names of sexual predators leading to a remarkably similar fallout between an older generation of feminists and a younger, more impatient one, tired of waiting for ‘due process’ to trip in. Like Nugent’s list in Jamaica care was taken to ensure that complaints about sexual predation were registered based on evidence corroborating the accusation. The difference was that the Indian list came in the wake of the phenomenally successful US-based #MeToo campaign in October 2017 whereas the Tambourine Army and the #SayTheirNames campaign in Jamaica were already in full swing by February 2017.

The problem of rape in Jamaica is not new. According to artist Judy Ann Macmillan her mother, Vida J. Macmillan, did her best to change the rape laws of Jamaica in the 70s with continuous letters to the Gleaner. The punishment in her day for raping a child was twelve lashes. Judy Ann grew up on the story that her mother had even tried to talk to Edna Manley about it and Edna’s response was “If you are about to be raped dear I think you should lie down and enjoy it.” Mind you those were the days of the ideology wars and Vida and Edna came from opposite sides of that divide.

The sheer number of women and children routinely being sexually violated even today points to a pervasive ‘rape culture’ that is so deeply ingrained and accepted that there is hardly any outcry against it. Most women don’t even bother to report their rapes because of the tortuous procedures involved that make them relive the trauma in the process of being interviewed by police and legal personnel bristling with disbelief and completely lacking in empathy. Nor is this a local problem only. As @LauraOlin tweeted “Why women don’t report: 60 women give the same account of Bill Cosby and a jury still can’t agree that he raped anyone.”

Latoya Nugent was ahead of her time in the stellar championing of victims’ rights to call out their aggressors by name. So important did a similar movement become in the US only months later that Time magazine named as its persons of the year, The Silence Breakers—the women who had the courage to speak to the New York Times about their sexual exploitation at the hands of Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein.

Meanwhile I heard a local journalist complaining that he preferred the hashtag #MeToo to #SayTheirNames because the latter was too confrontational. Yet as a vice.com article titled The Trouble With Saying ‘Me Too’ pointed out: “For each of us who have been raped, assaulted or harassed, there is at least one rapist, at least one abuser. These are the people who need to be held accountable, instead of survivors being put on trial to prove their assaults were bad enough to count for something.” In France, the campaign used the hashtag #BalanceTonPorc – roughly translated as “snitch out your pig” a far more hard-hitting and unflattering tag than #SayTheirNames.

Naming those who injure you is important, breaking harmful silences is crucial. Let the Tambourine Army do its work. As an anonymous supporter of Nugent’s said, “Men will hear tambourines shake in their heads anytime they feel tempted to touch a woman or child, and they will think twice. They are the ones who will be afraid.”

Bearing Witness: Four Days in West Kingston

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Gleaner column, Nov 23, 2017

How to “make life in and through violence” in Jamaica is the problem an exhibition at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia ponders. Titled “Bearing Witness: Four Days in West Kingston” the exhibition is constructed around a film called Four Days in May by Deborah Thomas, musician Junior Wedderburn and Deanne Bell, a Jamaican psychologist based at University of East London. Thomas who is a professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania initiated research for the film in 2012. The Penn Museum exhibition, unveiled on November 17th, 2017, marked the formal launch of the completed project.

Thomas is known for her books Modern Blackness and Exceptional Violence as well as her first film, Bad Friday, which chronicles the state-sponsored repression and victimization of Rastafari in the wake of events at Coral Gardens in 1963. Both films are examples of the thrust of anthropology in the digital age, visual practices attempting “to witness and to archive state violence, and to give some sense of how the practices and performances of state sovereignty have changed over time.”

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Beautifully designed story boards provide details of the timeline of the 2010 Tivoli incursion mounted by heavily armed security forces in Jamaica to restore law and order in the garrison community and to arrest its leader, Dudus, wanted in the United States for drug running and other crimes. A (Very) Brief History of Jamaica provides historical background while below, a series of numbers are provided, amplifying what took place during the dramatic period of the incursion.

The series starts by presenting an interesting connection to Jamaica. 1682: The year Pennsylvania was founded after William Penn was given a land grant from the British Crown due to his father’s role in winning Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655. Then it shifts to Tivoli in West Kingston. 75: The number of civilians the state acknowledged were killed. 200: Roughly the number of people the community says were killed 4: The number of days citizens were locked down in their homes unable to leave. 18: The total number of guns found in Tivoli Gardens by security forces. 36: The number of spent casings that were recovered and presented for analysis. 1,516: The number of rounds of ammunition expended by the Jamaica Constabulary Force. 4000: The approximate number of people detained of whom only 148 were not released. 6.5: The number of years it took to produce an official report on the incursion.

The project is intended as a platform for inhabitants of Tivoli Gardens and surrounding communities to talk about what they experienced during the incursion and to publicly name and memorialize the loved ones they lost. 30 oral histories were collected and portraits created which are displayed in the exhibition. Each life size portrait, expertly and empathetically shot by photographer Varun Baker, is accompanied by a recording of the person portrayed speaking, which visitors can listen to through headphones. The direct, unembellished testimony is moving, sometimes shocking. Many who listened were moved to tears.

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One such portrait is that of Marjorie Williams and her daughters, Diane and Diana Barnes. The text  accompanying it says: Marjorie was born in KIngston, on November 14, 1961, her twins were born at Jubilee Hospital in 1997. Marjorie moved to the area that is now Tivoli Gardens at age three. She attended St. Alban’s Primary School, and then graduated from Tivoli Gardens High School. When her kids were younger she worked seasonally in Cayman doing housekeeping work in hotels. Her two sons were killed, execution-style, outside her house on the second day of the incursion. Since that time, the twins have been living in central Jamaica, as they didn’t feel they could stay in Tivoli Gardens.

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Similar texts accompany the other portraits. Also featured is a life-sized model of a Revival Table, and a display of different kinds of drums used in Revival, Kumina and Nyabinghi, “three musical traditions integral to the formation of West Kingston.” At the launch Jamaican musicians and exemplars of each tradition drummed and danced bringing the still, silent museum to life. We joked that the old African skulls and bones displayed in vitrines in a neighboring exhibition “Is There Such a Thing Called Race in Humans?” must have felt invigorated by the rousing African-inspired rhythms and songs filling the air.

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Also on display is a copy of the Report of the West Kingston Commission of Inquiry. An innovative part of the exhibition posed different outcomes depending on what actions were or were not  taken. What would have happened if the security forces had never gone into Tivoli? What if the Government had not signed the extradition order? What if Dudus had turned himself in?

Bearing Witness culminates in a screening of an eight-minute excerpt from the documentary Four Days in May projected onto three screens. The excerpt starts with footage from the American ‘spy plane’ showing aerial images of the community, with what appear to be gunmen staking out rooftops. The exhibition will remain at the Penn Museum till July 2018.

He raped me! She’s lying…

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Men were well represented at the Tambourine Army march

Gleaner column of November 8, 2017

While the world reels from the fallout of women finding their voices about being raped and sexually harassed over the years, in Jamaica some men would have us believe the problem is a different one. The problem here (it would seem from numerous views expressed in the media) is the preponderance of women who have lied about being raped.

It’s curious; whereas women who have actually been raped, here and elsewhere, say that  the hardest thing is getting anyone to believe them, in Jamaica, it would seem, women who falsely accuse men of raping them are instantly believed (oh! Jamaica is exceptional also in having no violence against women in case you didn’t know).  The phenomenon is crying out to be researched as it would suggest that Jamaica is bucking global trends by accepting prima facie evidence in rape cases.

“How does an innocent man defend against a sexual harassment claim made many years after the alleged harassment?” The tweet appeared mild, innocuous almost, but I felt rather than saw a little red flag waving at me from the margins of my mind. Coming from a prominent talk show host and attorney whom we’ll call CW it echoed the reactions of several callers i had heard on radio shows ever since powerful, influential men in the US, the UK, and elsewhere were brought to book by women they had harassed sexually, in some cases several years ago.

“But why is the discussion about innocent men? Why is that the reaction? Why isn’t the discussion about guilty men?” Diana McCaulay’s response to the CW’s tweet seemed extremely pertinent to me as did her following tweets: “What I want to know is why is this the question? Why is the question not how to stop men behaving this way? Men are afraid of being falsely accused by women. Women are afraid of being actually attacked by men. These are not equivalent fears.”

Why is it that whenever women try and talk about being victimized men seem to want to insist on their victimhood instead? Isn’t it a bit like the planters demanding compensation when slavery was abolished?

In other words instead of commiserating with the poor human beings they had enslaved, all the planters could think about was the ruin now staring them in the face. What’s more they were easily able to convince the powers that be that they were the injured parties, not the other way around. Everyone knows about the millions of pounds slaveowners received in compensation for the abolition of slavery. That’s what happens when you live in a system skewed towards maintaining the power and privilege of a particular segment of society.

So it was with the plantocracy then and so it is with the patriarchy now. Ultimately this is about power, as is rape. The takedown of so many powerful men all over the world seems to be sending shivers down the spine of men here and everywhere. There is no other way to interpret the rhetorical shell game being played by men whose learning ought to lead to less blinkered responses from them.

I agree with Diana McCaulay., When rape/assault/harassment of women and girls by men comes up, why is the response the possibility of a false accusation?. I agree too with Rachel Mordecai: These dangers aren’t statistically equivalent so why such anguish over something that is much less likely to happen than rape? And where is the anguish over the global culture of rape in which we find ourselves?

Catherine Burr, a professional investigator of sexual harassment claims in the US wrote an article on so-called false allegations in 2011. She had several insights to offer which CW and others should ponder:

— “It is simplistic and unhelpful to frame allegations as “true” or “false”.  If the allegation has merit it will be substantiated by the evidence. If it does not, it will not be substantiated. In a few instances, a determination of “unable to substantiate” may apply, if the investigation has not been able to find evidence persuasive either way, often the result of a lack of any evidence (direct or similar fact) which might shed light on the matter.”

— care must be taken says Burr, not to define lying as a false allegation. “While popular discourse may equate false allegations with lies, not all lies are false allegations. For example, let us say a complainant (an administrative staff member) does not disclose the fact that he engaged in kissing and sexual behaviour with the alleged harasser (a professor) or that such behaviour was consensual in the early days of their intimate relationship. However, this “lie” (lack of full disclosure) does not necessarily mean his allegations of subsequent sexual harassment by the faculty member are false”.

— and finally, points out Burr, not proven (not substantiated) does not necessarily mean a false allegation, it simply means there was not enough evidence to satisfy the court or disciplinary process in question. If A kills B, but there is no evidence to prove this, it doesn’t mean that A is innocent or didn’t kill B.

So now can we discuss the real problem? Those with power using their superior positions, whether in academia, the entertainment industry or politics, to rape those subordinate to them. THAT is the real issue.

“One from ten leaves naught”

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my Gleaner column of October 15, 2017

Research on a great Jamaican scholar who went to Oxford in the fifties has led me face to face with the exciting moment when the political federation of the Anglophone Caribbean was not only seriously being considered, it had briefly become a reality. By Jan 3,1958 the Federation of the West Indies was a functioning political entity and by May 31, 1962, it was no more. Most of us are only familiar with the famous statement made by then-President Eric Williams of the federal government of the West Indies when Jamaica’s departure put paid to the future of Federation: “One from ten leaves naught.” But what exactly were the considerations that led Jamaica to leave the Federation after a referendum by the then JLP government returned a majority vote against it?

Among university students from the Caribbean at Oxford, Cambridge and other universities in England the Federation was a political entity impatient of debate. In the West Indian diaspora that developed in England, migrants from different islands were forced to shed their national identities and band together as West Indians. To begin with, it soon became obvious that to the English they were all seen as having the same racial/ethnic identity—often misidentified as Jamaican.

As they settled into their new homes and workplaces the creolization of English cities began to occur, arousing the resentment of working-class English men and women who viewed the West Indians as interlopers. This pushback further reinforced the sense of a diasporic West Indian identity.

It was natural in such a climate for there to be great sympathy for a federation of the relatively small micro islands of the Caribbean into a larger, more powerful polity. This further united the university students from the Caribbean, who felt that uniting against common adversaries would give the West Indies a better chance of postcolonial prosperity. Today the plans for a Federated West Indies are hardly remembered and it’s well worth lingering on them here to regain a sense of why the idea was so seductive.

The initial push for Federation had been made by the British, who were increasingly reluctant to foot the mounting bills to maintain their fifteen colonies in the West Indies. There were, for example, seventeen governors, eight directly taking orders from Downing Street, complete with their individual staffs, to govern the 15 colonies or ‘units’ as they came to be called.

Many of the West Indians at University in England looked forward to returning to become citizens of the independent “West Indian nation state” proposed at the time. But Federation meant different things to different islands in the Caribbean. In Trinidad and Tobago, it was synonymous with the politics of Chaguaramas, a piece of land leased by the British to the US in 1941 for purposes of maintaining a naval base there. There was tremendous political pressure to recover the leased lands for the site of the Federal Government but Eric Williams, the leader of Trinidad and Tobago was also wary of alienating the Americans by making such a demand.

It fell on J. O’Neil Lewis and William Demas, civil servants who had been sent to university in the UK by their government, now back in Trinidad and Tobago, to write a paper on the Economics of Nationhood laying out an administrative structure for federal governance. Trinidad and Tobago felt that the freedom of movement of persons enabled by Federation without concomitant movement of capital and investment would affect Trinidad the most, with other small islanders flocking to the oil-rich island for jobs. The Federation had to be able to intervene in such a situation by providing aid, funds for which could be found only if the region’s customs and income taxes ended up in its coffers. The Federal entity would also determine industrial policy for member states. Naturally, there was disagreement over such proposals particularly from countries such as Jamaica that felt it had little to benefit from such administrative arrangements.

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There was no agreement among the 10 countries in the Federation as to whether the power to regulate industrial development, freedom of movement and the collection of taxes should rest with the Federal Government or the individual island state governments. For Jamaica, for example, the ability to use its own income tax and country revenues to fund its industrial development was crucial to its economic policy. The Jamaicans countered the strong-Federation model proposed by the Economics of Nationhood with MP18, a proposal for a looser federation of politically powerful units.

There was also disagreement about parliamentary representation for the member states. The Jamaican Premier Norman Manley suggested that it should be proportional to population numbers so that Jamaica with a full half of the population involved in the Federation, ought to have fifty percent of parliamentary seats available. Although a modified version of this and other suggestions of Manley’s were taken on board by the incipient Federation, in 1961, the people of Jamaica voted in a referendum not to remain part of the regional entity. Basically, Jamaicans could not see what advantage there was in a coalition with a number of, what they considered small, insignificant islands, and were suspicious of being governed by a government external to their territory over which they would have little control.

Had British Guiana and British Honduras been part of the Federation the Jamaican decision to leave might not have been so clear-cut for it was felt that their larger markets would have made belonging to such a federation a more economically viable and durable political decision. But for various reasons they were not so Jamaica bowed out, leading to Williams’s immortal statement “One from ten leaves naught.

From Nation to Abattoir?

Chubby

 

My column of September 6, 2017. The funeral for Leonard Collins “(Chubby”) is this Saturday at Church of Christ, Mona. I still shed tears at the wantonness of his killing.

I didn’t know his given name. On campus he was known as Chubby, a dread with a bicycle and a green thumb, who worked in the Maintenance Department for many years. Involved in a job-related accident some years ago, Chubby was waiting to collect some long overdue compensation monies.

On Friday, the 25th of last month, the money finally arrived in his credit union account and Chubby went and collected it. The first thing he wanted to do was buy a cake for his two-year old son. He sat down outside his August Town home with some friends idly discussing where to buy the cake. Some said Megamart, others said he should get a Cherry Berry cake from Sugar and Spice in Liguanea.

I remember when the ‘yout’, as Chubby called him, was born. The proud father came to my office to see if I could help in any way, as there were complications. I gave him some money. What Chubby really wanted was for me to visit his son in hospital because he said ‘they’ would treat him and his family better if someone like me visited. It haunts me to this day that I allowed my fear and dislike of hospitals to dissuade me from going.

Two years later Chubby did not get to buy his son a cake. The same night he got the money, someone pushed their way into his house and robbed him, viciously shooting and killing him in the process. I don’t think his death made the news. Sometimes I wonder if murders in August Town are under-reported to protect the much vaunted but fragile ‘peace treaty’. I know that not all murders are reported to the media by the Police in time for them to carry the news.

It’s heartbreaking when from he that hath not, even that which he hath not is taken. A good, hard-working man has been struck down, separated from the one thing he could call his own—his life. What lies ahead for Chubby’s son now, joining the legion of fatherless children?

There was a series of gruesome murders in Clarendon during the same period but  it’s human nature to mourn those closest to us, especially if they lived in physical proximity and you knew them. Someone from one’s own family, country, class or caste takes precedence over nameless strangers halfway across the world. The media too spends more column space or airtime on individuals who were prominent because of talent, brains, money or beauty. Thus the murder of designer Dexter Pottinger last week has dominated social media, where shell-shocked Jamaicans have been expressing sorrow, outrage, anger and bewilderment at his killing by a person or persons unknown.

The usual arguments are making the rounds. As Pottinger was openly gay there are those who suspect he was killed directly or indirectly because of his social orientation. Others counter this by saying he was likely killed by a lover in a crime of passion, so this can’t be classified as a homophobic murder. I find the latter a strange claim the fallacy of which is illustrated by looking at women who are murdered by their partners, ex husbands or boyfriends. Does the fact that this might be a crime of passion negate the fact that beneath the casual slaughter of women lies a deep-seated patriarchal belief that they are inferior and therefore expendable? Does it negate the widespread misogyny that permeates such societies and drives violence against women?

“Please don’t make it about the fact that he was gay” implored someone on my Facebook timeline. And I get that people don’t want Jamaica to get bad press again, especially if this was a straight robbery and murder, so to speak. But the fact is if a black man is killed in a racist country, the first thing you’re going to wonder is whether the color of his skin was a contributing factor. If racists view black people as an alien species endangering the public, in much the same way as homosexuals are viewed as dangerous threats to society here, it makes them more vulnerable to violence by those who feel justified in ridding society of the ‘menace’ by killing them.

Thus some men feel justified in killing men who make advances towards them instead of politely brushing them off in the way women do 365 days of the year when men make unwanted passes at them. Imagine what the world would look like if women killed every man who made a pass at them! I’ve never understood the “I killed him because he made an indecent proposal” defence that seems to find such currency here.

We might never know the reason Dexter was killed but in the meantime how about building a nation where people are as concerned to eliminate unwarranted prejudice as they are to protect their country’s reputation?

Routes and Culture

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Cutting a cake for Marcus Garvey at the launch of Cinema Paradiso

Below is my Gleaner column of August 16.

Last weekend I found myself repeatedly being reminded of something the eminent social and cultural theorist Stuart Hall was fond of saying about identity and culture: “If you think of culture always as a return to roots — R-O-O-T-S — you’re missing the point. I think of culture as routes — R-O-U-T-E-S — the various routes by which people travel, culture travels, culture moves, culture develops, and culture changes, cultures migrate, etc.”

I found myself thinking this as I watched Rasta: A Soul’s Journey, a film starring Donisha Prendergast, that kicked off Cinema Paradise, the Portie film festival put on by Portland-based Great Huts Resort. Produced by Patricia Scarlett whose brainchild it was, Rasta tracked the routes taken by Rastafari as it traveled across the world, reincarnating itself in various locations from Ethiopia to South Africa to Canada to England.

Cultural identity, Hall said, is what you make with what you find. Thus Donisha Prendergast, found herself born in Jamaica into the family of Bob Marley, her maternal grandmother being Rita Marley, whose first child Sharon, Donisha’s mother, was adopted by the famous singer. Though not connected to Bob by blood, Donisha grew up identifying with him as her grandfather and Rastafari as her cultural heritage.

The film followed her travel to eight countries linking with those espousing the tenets of Rastafari far from the Caribbean island where it was born. Thus Prendergast was following the routes taken by the culture of Rastafari as it rooted itself in different parts of the world. The second film in the Portie Film Festival, screened the following night at Great Huts, was Shashamane by Giulia Amati, an in-depth look at Jamaican and Caribbean migrants to Ethiopia, who went there in enactment of the Back to Africa ideology so integral to Rastafari.

Theirs was an attempt to return to their roots, to the legendary promised land, “We’re leaving Babylon, We’re going to our Fatherland” as Bob Marley sang in Exodus. But it was a bittersweet experience for the few who survived and remained in Shashamane, especially after Emperor Haile Selassie who had donated the 500 acres of land in 1948 for descendants of the enslaved to repatriate to, was deposed in 1974. The communist government that followed reclaimed most of the land leaving just a little for the Rastafari who had been living there since the early 60s, to call their own.

As Ras Mweya Masimba, the protagonist of the film said: “After being so long in the Western world, it’s a joy to be back in Africa. But it’s a very great challenge. We are coming back here now as foreigners. People don’t remember who we are, or forget that they sold us into slavery, or how we left here. It is a hard task of re-integration with the people on all levels.”

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Dr. Paul Rhodes introducing the film Shashamane at Africana House

The film Shashamane captures exactly why thinking of culture exclusively in terms of one’s biological and ancestral roots is insufficient. The routes Masimba and his ancestors took or were taken on, from Western Africa to Jamaica to the UK, where he lived before migrating to Shashamane, defined his identity and made him who he is just as much as his ancestral origins. What comes across clearly in the film is how Jamaican/Caribbean and Rastafarian the culture of most of those who migrated from this region to Shashamane, has remained.

“I’ve got to go back home, This couldn’t be my home, It must be somewhere else…”, plaintively sang another Jamaican singer, Bob Andy, in his contribution to the back to Africa discourse. But going back is easier to sing about than to accomplish. In the words of Bro Trika, another resident of Shashamane, “It was a complete challenge to make it here to Ethiopia. And a lot of people couldn’t do it. So whenever you see people come from outside to Africa, you have to respect them. Because there are so many people who don′t have the guts to leave the developed countries to come here.”

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A chair by Gilbert Nicely

There was something poetic about viewing Shashamane at Great Huts in Boston Bay, an Afrocentric resort created by an American medical doctor, Paul Rhodes, who first visited Jamaica in 1973 as a medical student. In Brooklyn where he studied, his landlord, Edward Gentles, was a Jamaican. It was a Caribbean neighborhood and Rhodes, a secular Jew, felt a kinship with Rastafari, because of the common histories of persecution and longing for a promised land to call one’s own. “Many Jews would look upon the Rastafari as their brethren,” explained Dr. Paul, the name by which he’s popularly known.

With its ingenious architecture and design, furniture by master carver Gilbert Nicely, statuary by master potter Sylvester Stephens, artworks by Mazola, Alicia Brown and others, Great Huts occupies the land with a lightness of being that’s bracing. If you’re ever in the area you should check it out, it’s a serious hat tip to African roots/routes and culture right here in Jamaica.

A new cadre of investigative journalists

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Zahra Burton of 18 Degrees North

Have been forgetting to update Active Voice with my Gleaner columns. This one is from August 9.

Jamaica consistently ranks highly in global press freedom rankings, yet seems to exploit that freedom too little. There’s a burning need for hard-hitting, in-depth journalism exposing and stemming the rampant white collar crime and corruption we live with yet it’s something our media houses don’t focus on enough, a state of affairs in itself worthy of serious investigation.

So it gladdened my heart when freelance journalist and writer Kate Chappell recently brought a community journalism training program titled Building a Journalist With Integrity and Impact to my attention. Chappell, along with Zahra Burton of Global Reporters for the Caribbean, has been working with Omar Lewis, Civil Society Coordinator at National Integrity Action (NIA) and Ian McKnight, Chief of Party USAID COMET II, to train about 30 community members in investigative journalism and will be publishing 10 pieces (in print, radio and television outlets such as ROOTS FM, MORE FM, The Gleaner and POWER 106) produced by the novice journalists in the next few weeks. The aim of the program is to cultivate investigative skills as well as to hold authorities accountable by using tools such as the Access to Information Act (ATI).

Zahra Burton as many of us know is the star reporter of 18 Degrees North, a TV news magazine inspired by shows such as CBS’s 60 Minutes and ABC’s Nightline. With Zahra’s rigorous approach to journalism and Chappell’s organizational and empathic skills, and the help of mentors such as Dennis Brooks and Kalilah Reynolds, fourteen women and 13 men with a mix of educational levels, mostly in their 20s and 30s, were trained at the end of April and have spent the last three months researching, interviewing, writing and putting together pieces to air or be published in media outlets.

The project coordinators were interested in training community members to report on what happens in their communities with a particular interest in good stories that hold people to account, instead of the standard media fare of “Everybody a tief and rape and kill each other”. One story involved churches and noise pollution. One day Burton received a call from the veteran dub poet Oku Onoura in Portmore saying “18 degrees North I have a story for you…” The story involved a church near Onoura’s house making intolerable noise that he wanted help in curbing. The group investigated the situation and produced a story with a clever lead in: “Oku Onuora has been attending church every Sunday morning, though not by choice. He goes up to four times a week depending on when his neighbour, Harvest Temple Apostolic, chooses to meet.”

“So we’re trying to do the kinds of stories that maybe people do want to tell, but that maybe another outlet may not be interested in because it’s too small an issue, it’s too big an issue, it’s too rural an issue,” said Burton who also arranged for a screening of the film Spotlight, some months ago in Kingston, which focused on the Boston Globe’s exposure of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

I spoke to two participants from the training program, Sharlene Hendricks and Jamaila Maitland, both of whom had studied at CARIMAC. Sharlene described the investigative journalism training as exceptional, especially learning to use the ATI Act to pry out information from tight-lipped government ministries and agencies. A resident of Rae Town in downtown Kingston, Sharlene focused on the adverse effects of the dredging of Kingston Harbor on fishermen who were being insufficiently compensated for the reduction in their fish catch by Kingston Freeport Terminal Limited (KFTL), the entity doing the dredging.

Sharlene’s team started by finding out the process by which fishermen would be compensated, under what legislation the dredging was being undertaken and the terms of the beach license granted. Some of this was obtained from NEPA but the ATI request to KFTL revealed that the company was private, not government-owned which meant that they had to be persuaded to release information. Charlene and her team were eventually successful in getting the information they wanted.

Another aspect of the Rae Town story was environmental as it seemed KFTL was dumping what it was dredging up, in the community, silting up archaeological sites in the process, but doing so legally with NEPA’s permission. An examination of the weekly reports KFTL was required to make showed that complaints were being registered but NEPA advised KPTL to ignore these and proceed, as the beach license granted them leeway to dump there! While NEPA’s ATI officer was forthcoming, Sharlene was unable to get a comment from someone senior at NEPA in charge of monitoring KFTL, a problem Chappell said many of the trainees had when attempting to get interviews with those in charge.

Jamila Maitland and her team’s TV report stemmed from a budget speech made by PM Holness in 2016 after a number of women were brutally murdered by their partners, in which he promised there would be a domestic violence coordinator in every police station in the country. Calls made to 40 police stations a year later revealed only one domestic violence coordinator in place.

Kudos to all concerned for this much-needed fillip to local journalism.