When History Comes to Meet Us

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Photograph of Marjorie Williams and her daughters from the Bearing Witness exhibition accompanying the film Four Days in May.
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Information board from the Bearing Witness exhibition accompanying the film Four Days in May.

My last column in the Gleaner was published in April this year. For the time being I’ve decided to take a break from writing a column to focus on other projects which need my attention and time. Will resume writing on Active Voice as and when time permits. Thanks for tuning in!

At a discussion after a sneak preview of the film Four Days in May, a documentary about  what survivors experienced during the blitzkrieg we refer to as the Tivoli incursion a young man said:  “We can all remember where we were when history came and met us.”

“It come like a war zone. Caw dem a drop three bomb eno. Nuff a mi fren dem dead. After di incursion mi can tell yu seh mi guh funerALS,” said another resident who can’t forget what happened to his community in 2010, when the armed forces conducted their search for Dudus, the strongman of Tivoli Gardens on whom the United States had placed a bounty.

History will record that the most senior custodians of the state lied about what took place during those 4 days. They said there were no bombs; there was no surveillance drone when men and women had seen it with their own eyes; they did not ‘recall’ any such thing;  moreover no angels had died in Tivoli. The 73 or so civilians who were killed should be seen as collateral damage they implied. What is worse is that large swathes of Jamaican society agreed with this view of things.

Nearly 8 years later the country has had to bring back limited states of emergency in different parts of the country after declaring them zones of special operations—ZOSO. While the clampdown in Montego Bay seems to have contained the spiraling violence there, it feels as if the criminals have simply scattered to different parts of the country. How else to understand the murderous turn of events in August Town as soon as 2017 ended and 2018 began?

In a remarkable article called “Teaching In The Line Of Fire” published in the Gleaner on March 5, UWI senior lecturer Saran Stewart tried her best to raise the alarm about what is going on in the country. For those of us who live and work in this corner of Kingston the last few weeks have been punctuated by gunfire, sometimes so loud it seems to be on the UWI campus itself. Wrote Saran:

It is now month three of the new year and the shots have left the dead of night and ring loudly in the peak morning time when children are still walking to school. Our educators teach in the line of fire and not only in the community of August Town, but also Denham Town, Flankers, Norwood, Cambridge and Rose Heights, just to name a few. In these communities gunmen trade bullets for the simplest necessity, such as a tin of mackerel, and barter lives for a ‘bills’ ($100). I have taught numerous students from volatile communities, whether they were born and raised there or currently boarding. Trying to centre their minds about the philosophies of education becomes futile when my students learn first-hand the ideologies of gun violence. As an educator, I have had to drift from the standard course outline and include students’ lived experiences as a mechanism to navigate their realities and consciously re-centre the course around their true learning environments. There are students who write their papers in the shell of their bathrooms by candlelight as it is the safest concrete box in the house. When the Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) suspends bus services, how do children leave those said communities to go to school? As educators, we try to find ways for students to unlearn what they perceive as standard, normal activity such as seeing mourning, orphaned children, weekly funeral gatherings, yellow ‘caution’ tape, bullet holes, blood stains, smelling gun powder, and reading WhatsApp messages stating, “Daddy dead”.

Yet this excellent article remained relatively unnoticed while the media exploded in an orgy of moral outrage about silly statements by members of one political party calling a member of the other party “black royalty”. Day after day for the entire week radio talk shows gave oxygen to this banal nonsense as if we live in Switzerland or Singapore and have nothing else to worry about.

When one of Saran Stewart’s students texted her from August Town to say that her assignment would be late as a family member had been shot dead Stewart asked her to forget the assignment and document her raw emotions instead. This is part of what she wrote:

“Over 20 years of blood shed! Has violence become my norm? Without thinking about my answer to this question, I would immediately say ‘yes’, crime and violence has become my norm. Born and raised in the community of August Town, nestled in a valley in the parish of St Andrew, surrounded by hills, the Hope River and in close proximity to two universities, this is my community.”

There’s more but is anyone listening? Is this really how we want our youngsters to meet history? Brutalized, shattered and traumatized, with no one even willing to pay attention when they write or talk about it?

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.