FOR many Jamaicans, in concert with Christians around the world, the celebration of Holy Week — culminating in today's observance of Easter and the resurrection of Jesus Christ — is a special time for renewal of faith and affirmation of hope.
But as we celebrate the meaning of Easter and the long weekend, some of us may also pause to reflect on another observance last week, because the ultimate resolution of the issues raised in it may say a lot about whether we can realistically hope for a Jamaican society with more equality and justice than has been our unflattering history so far.
Last week marked the 50th anniversary of what has become known as the Coral Gardens incident, the violent events around Holy Thursday, 1963, when a bloody clash between Rastafarians and police resulted in the deaths of eight persons — three Rastafarians, three civilians and two policemen -- and a period of sustained denial of basic human rights of many persons in the Rastafari community.
As part of the anniversary observances, the Rastafari Millennium Council and the Coral Gardens Committee and other groups Thursday organised a protest march and motorcade from downtown Kingston to the seat of Parliament at Gordon House and on to Half-Way-Tree for a rally at Mandela Park.
Among other things, organisers hoped to use the protest in Kingston and related observances in Montego Bay to raise consciousness of the events and press their case for an apology by the Jamaican Government for actions perpetrated by agents of the State. They were also seeking some form of financial compensation for Rasta elders still said to be suffering consequences of Coral Gardens and subsequent events.
As the Jamaica Observer reminded us last Wednesday, the violence at Coral Gardens was triggered by a land dispute the previous year involving Rudolph Franklin, a Rastafarian who was arrested by police for farming illegally on land owned by the prominent Kerr-Jarrett family.
Franklin was shot six times during a confrontation with the police in 1962 and eventually given a six-month prison sentence for ganja possession. After his release, he returned to Coral Gardens where he had other run-ins with police.
He and two colleagues, Lloyd Waldron and Noel Bowen, were killed in the Coral Gardens stand-off. Two other Rastafarians, Carlton Bowen and Clinton Larman, were charged with murder and were eventually hanged on December 2, 1964.
The widespread public and police discrimination against Rastafarians in the Jamaica of the early 1960s was part of the context for the violence and abuse against them.
Not just a Rasta problem
Fast-forward to the protests of Holy Thursday 2013 and hear one of the organisers -- poet and broadcaster Mutabaruka -- connect Coral Gardens to contemporary violence by security agents of the State.
"The people reach the stage where the State a do what dem used to do to Rastafari to dem. Dem used to say it a happen to Rasta, it nah happen to me," Mutabaruka said in a story in The Gleaner on Thursday.
Now it's not just a Rasta thing. There is now widespread public concern and anger about the high rate of police killings of mostly young men in reported shoot-outs.
As a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world, and where organised criminal gangs are said to operate in most large urban centres, policing is an admittedly difficult and dangerous job in which there will be casualties.
But with at least 76 persons being killed by the police since the start of the year and with one serving police officer alone accounting for 17 fatalities, there has to be cause for concern, especially when there is little evidence of accountability measured by successful prosecution, especially of high-profile cases.
Terrence Williams, head of the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM) which was established in 2008 to investigate wrongdoings committed by the security forces, remarked in a radio interview Thursday that not a single case of murder against a police officer has actually reached the courts, much less tried, since the commission began investigating and making recommendations.
One incident being carefully watched by the public is the recent alleged police killing of three men, from one family, in Westmoreland
A press statement from INDECOM Thursday advised that the commission had completed "a substantial part of the investigation into the alleged fatal shooting of the three civilians — Andrew Brydson, Tristan Brydson, and Kingsley Green — in Shrewsbury, Westmoreland on March 15, 2013".
Fairness to all, including the policemen under investigation and the entire constabulary, requires speedy, but thorough, investigation and resolution.
Those under the microscope — and indeed all security personnel facing murder and other major criminal charges -- do not represent the majority of men and women in the JCF who take seriously their oath to "serve and protect".
But any appearance of different standards of justice for members of the force and the rest of us, or suggestions of impunity, damage the reputation of the entire organisation and erode trust already in short supply.
DPP on the defensive
In recent weeks, Director of Public Prosecutions Paula Llewellyn found herself on the back foot over her handling of several high-profile cases, including the acquittal of one policeman of a murder that looked like a done deal on video; and the freeing of another officer charged in connection with a fatal shooting 15 years ago.
Calvin Lewis, the policeman accused of killing 17-year-old Hapete Henry at a football match inside the National Stadium in 1998, was freed after the presiding judge directed the jury to return a verdict of not guilty. Among other challenges, the prosecution's case collapsed as some of their key witnesses for the prosecution simply "could not recall the events of April 22, 1998".
The acquittal of Lewis came weeks after Police Sergeant Lloyd Kelly was freed of the murder of Ian 'Chen Sing' Lloyd in Buckfield, St Ann. The acquittal was celebrated by community residents who hailed the accused as a good policeman and vilified the victim as a good-for-nothing miscreant who got what he deserved.
DPP Llewellyn has vigorously defended her office's handling of all the cases and fired back at her critics. "What do they expect us to do, make blood out of stone?" Llewellyn asked rhetorically in one of her interventions. She was referring to the reluctance of witnesses to come forward at trial and to inadequate police investigations.
While the blame game gets played out, the people of Jamaica are making up their minds. A United Nations Development Programme Citizen Security Survey on the justice system in the Caribbean reported that 56 per cent of Jamaicans believed that the justice system was corrupt.
In a newspaper interview after the survey was published, minister of justice, Senator Mark Golding, while pointing out that the same survey showed that a majority had confidence in the integrity of the judiciary, conceded that the country's legal system was still faced with many challenges that cause delays, frustrations, and sometimes injustice.
"It may be that the level of acquittals in the court, weaknesses in the collection of evidence, well-known cases of fabrication of evidence, difficulties in securing witnesses due to fear of reprisals and the like, and the inordinate delays in disposing of cases are factors impacting public perception and these statistics. The perceptions reflected in the survey statistics may have more to do with the existing weaknesses in the justice system rather than actual corruption," Golding explained.
As for the view that powerful criminals go free, the justice minister said there was "no doubt that the task of securing convictions of financially well-resourced, ruthless criminals is particularly difficult".
That sounds to me like a broken justice system in urgent need of fixing. If we don't fix it we run the risk of lurching from repression to repression with little chance of making equal rights and justice a reality.
Have a reflective and hopeful Easter.