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.

And Justice for Tivoli Gardens? Memento mori…

Keeping Tivoli Gardens in the picture…memento mori by Michael Thomspon

Tivoli. What of Tivoli. What of the Tivoli 73. Let’s not forget…

All posters above are by graphic designer Michael Thompson. He’s produced a stream of unforgettable images to sear the unspeakable nature of this act of war into our memories. I will let him speak for himself. The folliowing is a quote from him that accompanied the series above on Facebook:

Immediately after the information began to leak out of the Tivoli Gardens community of the executions by the Jamaican Security forces during the military operations there on May, 24, 2010 I began making posters to express my feelings about the brutality and massacre that the citizens spoke about. Two years after the incident there is still no official report published or any one held responsible for the massacre. The Government and the security forces are silent on the matter. The local media has since forgotten about the incident. Last December an article in the The New Yorker magazine written by Mattathais Schwartz uncovered the tragic stories of killings. A MUST READ for anyone who missed the story. The story is not going away and more people who believe in Justice need to speak out and demand Justice for the people of Tivoli.

For background on Tivoli 73 read my previous post and also Hung out to Dry…Who were the Tivoli 73? and 73 Civilians killed in Jamaica. Big deal! So what?

73 Civilians killed in Jamaica. Big deal! So what?

The deaths of 73 civilians matter so little that the government of Jamaica can’t be bothered to ask for surveillance footage from the US DEA P 3 Orion which should show what took place on May 24, 2010 in Tivoli Gardens

To my astonishment the Jamaica Observer carried an editorial on Sunday  titled “There was a spy plane over Tivoli, so what?”  This was astonishing to me because in my last post I had commented saying that the Minister of Security’s reaction to questions about the spy plane he said he knew nothing about seemed to be a nonchalant shrug. “In fact he acted as if it really wasn’t his business or ours (!) An unidentified flying object in our airspace? Pshaw! So he didn’t know about it, so what?

Now here was one of the nation’s leading newspapers shamelessly saying exactly the same thing. Not only that: highlighted on the Letters page was an inane one titled “What’s the big deal about the surveillance plane?”

“Dear Editor,

Ok, so it has been confirmed that a US plane provided surveillance assistance during the 2010 Tivoli Gardens operations. I don’t understand the controversy and what’s the big deal if they were invited to assist to strengthen the army’s tactics and strategy?”

The big deal dear thick-skulled letter writer and Observer editors is that 73 people were killed under unexplained circumstances during that Tivoli Gardens operation. This spy plane has video footage of what happened on the ground during that operation which ought to be central to any investigation into the massacre of 73 civilians by government forces only one of whom was killed in the battle for Tivoli.

So no one is faulting the government for asking or accepting assistance from the US government. As the Sunday Gleaner’s editorial eloquently said:

“…the decline in crime in Jamaica, in particular homicides, since Coke’s departure and the degrading of his network suggest that America’s insistence on his extradition, and whatever help they may have given to effect it – the memorandum included – were the best aid package by a foreign government to Jamaica in recent times.”

The question is why then Minister of Information Daryl Vaz denied this so vigorously immediately after the Tivoli incursion and why Minister of Security Dwight Nelson continued to do so until a few days ago.

And the really burning question is why the government shows so little interest in acquiring the video footage shot by the P-3 Orion. Are we to assume that the residents of Tivoli matter as little to this Prime Minister as they did to the previous one?

If this is a strategy by the Jamaica Observer to come to the rescue of its favourite political party it should think again because in its haste to diminish the import of the spy plane what it seems to be saying is that the massacre of 73 civilians in Tivoli in May 2010 was insignificant.  Big deal! So what?

The Spy Plane the Government didn’t see…

An article in the New Yorker about the massacre of 73 civilians in the Tivoli invasion of May 24, 2010 sets off a firestorm of denial from the Jamaican government

“Old dinosaur gone and young dinosaur a come.” Caller to Breakfast Club re JDIP scandal and JLP….LOLOL! I had posted on Twitter.

I thought this was quite the funniest comment I’d heard about the runnings when i heard it a few days ago but now I’m forced to wonder if there isn’t some truth to it. The Jamaica Labour Party gave itself a real boost when it decided to select young Andrew Holness to replace the controversy-plagued former Prime Minister Bruce Golding when he stepped down from office some weeks ago.

Holness further boosted his ratings when he asked for, and received, Transport Minister Mike Henry’s resignation in the wake of allegations of corruption in that ministry. But almost as soon as he had staunched that open sore, another boil erupted in the body politic with Security Minister Dwight Nelson’s pointless denials to the media that the government had authorized a US DEA Lockheed P-3 Orion plane to provide surveillance support during the May 24th, 2010 offensive by the Jamaican armed forces against Tivoli Gardens. TG was the highly fortified garrison community in which Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke, wanted by the US for drugs and arms running was thought to be hiding at the time.

Most people in Kingston saw the plane flying around over the harbour that day and wondered about it especially after then Minister of Information Daryl Vaz categorically denied in a May 25, 2010 press conference that the Jamaican government had received any assistance from external governments. The confusion increased earlier this week when a lengthy article in the American magazine The New Yorker affirmed that the US had indeed provided Jamaica with aerial surveillance during the military operation.

According to the article:

A year and a half later, the Jamaican government has refused to make public what it knows about how the men and women of Tivoli Gardens died. So has the government of the United States despite clear evidence that the US surveillance plane flying above Tivoli on May 24th was taking live video of Tivoli, that intelligence from the video feed was passed through US Law enforcement enforcement officers to Jamaican forces on the ground and that the Department of Homeland Security has a copy of this video. The video could corroborate, or refute, allegations that members of the Jamaican security forces massacred dozens of innocents, and could help identify the alleged killers.

Questioned about this on Nationwide radio two days ago Minister Dwight Nelson refused to acknowledge that there had been any assistance, asserting that he knew nothing about the alleged ‘spy plane’. Nor it seemed was he curious enough to find out, all these months later now that the question has come up, what a foreign aircraft was doing in local airspace. In fact he acted as if it really wasn’t his business or ours (!) An unidentified flying object in our airspace? Pshaw! So he didn’t know about it, so what? Fail!

Nelson simply, stubbornly, kept denying that there had been assistance from any other government –forcing the young Prime Minister to call a press conference by the end of the day admitting that there had indeed been assistance from the US government although he tried to make a great deal of the fact that the US had not been part of the planning of the operation. Head of the JDF Antony Anderson also made a point of this.

This however was not what the public had asked about. What everyone wanted to know was the origin of the so-called spy plane and the reason it was in the air above Tivoli Gardens on the day of the military incursion into that community.

Its also interesting that all of this has now come to light because of investigations and expos´s by foreign journalists. So it seems that we are on the whole in need of quite a lot of foreign assistance one way another for in addition to the New Yorker article titled A Massacre in Jamaica which highlights the fact that despite 73 civilians being killed in the military incursion (in contrast only one security personnel went down) no one has been held accountable and no satisfactory answers seem to be forthcoming, there was also a Wired article on the subject titled U.S. Spy Plane Shot Secret Video of Jamaican ‘Massacre’.

In fairness local journalists such as Lloyd D’Aguilar and others have also been demanding similar answers but none had been forthcoming till now.

The following is an excerpt from the Wired.com article:

Somewhere in the bureaucratic bowels of the Department of Homeland Security is a videotape shot above the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood of Kingston, Jamaica on May 24, 2010. It could reveal whether the Jamaican security forces, acting on behalf of U.S. prosecutors, killed 73 members of a notorious crime syndicate or innocent civilians caught in house-to-house fighting. That is, if anyone in a position of power actually wants that question answered.

Over 500 Jamaican soldiers rushed into the teeming Tivoli Gardens neighborhood that day for what became known as Operation Garden Parish, a mission to capture the local mafia don, Christopher “Dudus” Coke. The mission was the result of heavy U.S. pressure: Coke had been indicted in U.S. federal court for running an international marijuana and cocaine ring. It would become one of the bloodiest days in recent Jamaican history.

What happened on May 24, 2010 garnered international headlines. But what no one knew until now was that circling overhead was a P-3 Orion spy plane, operated by the Department of Homeland Security. A lengthy investigation by journalist Mattathias Schwartz (a Danger Room friend) reveals that the Orion took footage of the hours-long battle. It has never been publicly revealed.