Columns

Emancipendence: The unfinished chapter

HOWARD GREGORY

Sunday, August 17, 2014    

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I believe it is a truism to say that we all recognise that the process towards the realisation of the objectives of the struggle for Emancipation and Independence is an ongoing one which demands the commitment of all our citizens. What I find most disturbing is that at the very moment when we are celebrating these historic moments in the life of the nation there should be vulgar manifestations of our captivity to the forces of oppression and division by institutions of the State.

It has been the tradition since Independence for the Government of the nation to allocate funds for the staging of a number of activities to keep alive in the minds of the people the historic events which we are celebrating, and also to provide opportunities for cultural expressions, which serve to reinforce a sense of identity as a people, and serve as an outlet valve for people who live under the daily stresses of life. One such event is the staging of the Grand Gala.

The Grand Gala has become an event which is family-friendly and an occasion to which many people look with great anticipation. Due to the popularity of this event there are more families and individuals desiring tickets than there are tickets available. The issue then becomes one of the allocation of the available tickets in a manner that is transparent, just, and equitable, and which allows for confidence in the system. Unfortunately, what has come to light regarding the distribution of these tickets during our recent celebrations leaves much to be desired, and raises serious questions about the way in which the institutions of the State function in the interest of justice and equity.

I was first made aware of the problem when a family from Montego Bay indicated to me that, on the eve of the Grand Gala, they had been driving from one Tastee outlet to another to seek tickets and, contrary to declarations from the organisers of the event, they were being told that the outlet had not been in receipt of any tickets. The disappointment was all over their faces as this was one of the primary reasons for coming to Kingston and, worse yet, the group included a family member who resided overseas and who wanted to experience the Grand Gala.

Many Jamaicans would have heard the caller to one of the radio talk shows who, speaking on the same issue, asked how it is that people who wanted tickets could not locate them, and yet the National Stadium was full for the event. I did some further checks and discovered from the grapevine that the majority of the tickets were allocated to political representatives and activists who then took care of the distribution. It then began to reinforce in my mind the significance of the statement by a leading politician that, if you don't vote, then you don't count. And, since no politician can know how each person votes, it seems to translate to mean that, if you are not a political activist, then benefits of this nature are not for you. And the tragedy is that many within the political culture see nothing wrong with this perspective.

I just wonder what we expect parents of children who anticipate going to the Grand Gala, but whose parents are not activists, are supposed to tell them as to why they are excluded from such national events. And what a mockery we have made of our people when we lie to them and let them know that tickets will be available at specific outlets on a first-come basis, knowing full well that that is not the truth. From biblical times, as revealed in Psalm 137, slaves have been invited to entertain their captors, and our ancestors were expected to do the same without sharing in the revelry. In a similar way, when those to entertain are being solicited, political allegiance and activism do not come into play, but sharing the revelry is restricted to the chosen of this latter category.

Lately, I keep going back to that recently published book by a Jamaican, Ewart Walters, entitled We come from Jamaica: The National Movement 1937-1962. In the book, he makes the point that, while our society was never a monolithic one, he identifies in the period being studied a national movement which embodied a commitment to national unity and identity, and which was undergirded by a broad-based commitment to community-building and volunteerism.

What is clear from a reading of the text is the fact that the process of nation-building was derailed by the development of party politics, which introduced violence and conflict into what was hitherto a national consensus, and that, not only has this resulted in a divided nation which has lost its core of unity, but it has also introduced a divisive dynamic in which the political dimension is often pitted against other dynamics of the life of the society, which could make for a more constructive path of unity, transparency, and trust in the management of the affairs of the life of our nation.

Sandwiched between the commemoration of Emancipation Day and Independence, there comes this rather tragic story of the beating to death of 31-year-old Mario Deane of Rosemount, St James, who died as a result of injuries he received while in custody at the Barnett Street Police Station. Thankfully, in a day of technology, we were able to see the physical evidence of the brutal attack which he experienced and to which injuries he succumbed three days later.

I regard this as tragedy and a travesty of justice for a number of reasons. There are allegations from the members of the family concerning the sequence of events surrounding his arrest, an unsuccessful attempt to gain bail, his hospitalisation, the reasons given to the hospital personnel for the wounds which brought him to the emergency room, and his eventual death.

The Police High Command has been swift in offering its denial of the family's allegations about the death of Deane at the hands of the police and, as proof of this, have subsequently arrested and brought charges against two fellow inmates who have been deemed the perpetrators of this violent act.

While this response is geared toward damage control, it does not put the issue to rest. There is no question that the damage has already been done to the police force, and we must ask the question, why is it that, if the story of the family is fabricated, people at every level of society are prepared to attribute credibility to the family's story? The point is that there is a serious breakdown of trust between citizens and the police force. And, at this time when there is a search on for a new commissioner of police, the concern cannot simply be with filling the vacant post. Rather, it should be with how can the Government and the Police Service Commission ensure, through this appointment, the country is given a leader who has a vision and commitment for the overhauling of the force and the forging of more positive relationships with the citizenry. I believe that there are sufficient people within the force who share such a commitment and who can make it happen with the right leadership and policy support.

There are yet other unanswered questions and challenges which take us way beyond the events of the Barnett Street station. While the Police High Command has offered an explanation countering the family's version of what transpired, it has not dealt with the issue of responsibility and culpability. Every citizen who is jailed or incarcerated becomes the charge of the State and the jailers become responsible for the direct care and oversight of that citizen. So those who were on duty at the time must be accountable for what transpired under their watch. And, if an investigation reveals any wrongdoing or culpability on the part of those officers on duty, I hope that the Police High Command discovers that it has done more damage to the credibility of the force than the officers at Barracks Road.

There is yet a fundamental question which must be answered by the citizens of this country and our Government: Why was this young man brought into custody for the possession of a spliff? And here I want to bring into the public arena a subject which we keep avoiding because it is too uncomfortable or controversial. This whole incident is about another young black male in this society who has become a victim of a system which keeps perpetrating such systemic acts of discrimination in the name of social order. A Jamaican young man of another social class would not have been jailed and become the subject of this tragedy. The laws which have been used to criminalise those persons found with a spliff have been used primarily against one social class within the society.

As the Government moves toward decriminalisation of marijuana use in small amounts, it seems to me to make sense that, if the Government is serious in tackling this social problem, and not just being wary of what the North has to say, it must move to eliminate the possession of a spliff from the status of an offence, and concentrate on the larger issues as is being done in other societies.

I have consistently argued that, as a nation, we wait on the voices of others from overseas to shame us and make us take the actions which have been evident for ages. I am not surprised that a member of the Government, Raymond Pryce, should publicly declare that Jamaica's image is taking a beating over the controversial death of construction worker Mario Deane while in custody at the Barnett Street Police Station. We don't need to have people abroad telling us that the gruesome picture of the violent death of this young man was unwarranted. Is this not another story in the chapter of the struggle of our young men to experience the respect and inclusion in the life of the society which those of other social standing enjoy? Does this not sound like the struggle for liberation, freedom and emancipation being played out all over again? The platitudes from platform and pulpit uttered during the Emancipendence celebrations can neither cover nor cancel the negative messages which this incident has communicated to our people still on the road to Emancipation and Independence.

Thankfully, there are such things as the cellphone with its photographic and distributive capabilities, as well as that thing called the Internet Revolution which has made it possible for incidents of this nature to go viral in no time at all. The picture of Mario will be there to haunt this nation for a long time. But hopefully it will remind us that what we do, or fail to do, as a people, may take us into the realm of global scrutiny and which may only bring us the kind of damage to our image of which MP Pryce speaks.

When the family has buried Mario, and the investigations have been done, what is the message which we, the citizens of this country, will take away from this incident? I suggest it is one which does not speak well for where we have reached on the road to the realisation of Emancipendence for all.

— Howard Gregory is the Lord Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands

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