Ex-gangster has a peace vision for Jamaica

BY KARYL WALKER Observer online news editor walkerk@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, May 08, 2011

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This is the eighth in a Sunday Observer series featuring stories told by inner-city men who have turned from a life of crime and are trying to steer young, at-risk males away from that destructive path.


AFTER surviving a deadly gang war which raged for years in the once-troubled community of Mountain View in Kingston, Courtney Morris has shed the skin of gangster life and is now working to get other young men to follow suit.


In fact, Morris was one of the main catalysts of a peace deal that has seen the once explosive community, which has been divided along political lines, now enjoying a lasting peace.


Morris, who is now a member of the nine-man Citizen Security and Justice Programme (CSJP)-sponsored Men With A Message — a group of reformed gangsters and ex-criminals who have been spreading a message of hope among the nation's at-risk youth — has a vision for his country.


"By 2015, I want to get three-quarters of Jamaica on the peace level. This is my vision and I know it can happen with the help of others. It is more than a message, it is a goal," he said.


Morris hails from Jarrett Lane — a tough community which runs off Mountain View Avenue and ends in the Long Mountain foothills leading into Wareika Hills.


The residents of Jarrett Lane and the nearby Saunders Avenue traditionally support the opposition People's National Party and have for decades been at loggerheads with surrounding communities, including Jacques Road, Back Bush, and 83 Lane, whose residents are known Jamaica Labour Party supporters.


For years the two sides were at war and many lost their lives in the political feuding.


Life in a garrison area is never easy and many young men are forced to become protectors of their communities. Morris also fell into that abyss.


"I was a real gangster. Police had to back up. I am so ashamed of some of the things I used to do that I don't want to talk about that part of my life, sometimes," Morris told the Sunday Observer.


"We were outnumbered. Our place got bombed out so we got on the defensive," he said.


He has lost several of his close friends in the bloody battles that sometimes saw more than six people being killed in a single day.


But it was the death of his close ally known as 'Yankee', and the illness of his mother which forced him to take stock and make a serious attempt to turn his life around.


"My mother had a heart attack. I told myself I can't get another mother. So I started to ease up. After Yankee got killed I left the community in search of a quieter life. I started to think that too many of my friends were dying. I didn't want to be on the corner anymore. I had dodged enough bullets," Morris said.


After a year, Morris got homesick and returned to his hometown, but this time he was a rejuvenated man with a mission of peace.


He had always aspired to embark upon a career in entertainment and soon he was recording tunes under the moniker Jah Flamez. A member of his community approached him in 2008 and asked him to record a peace song, which was produced by the cultural outfit Area Youths Productions.


The single, We Need To Stop It, was soon a reality and a video was recorded on the turf of the opposing factions and was a major boost to peace efforts which were underway between the warring sides.


"The video helped in a big way to bring peace to Mountain View," he said. "Music then replaced my desire to hold a gun. Nobody never forced me into badness, so we have to force ourselves out. We have crossed a great hurdle. I have eradicated crime and violence from my mind and hands."


In 2009 he enrolled in a vocational skills course with the CSJP. He has since passed a level one electrical course and is set to complete level two soon.


Morris went through rigorous vetting by the CSJP and had to be nominated by a community action officer before he was accepted as a founding member of Men With A Message. Now he traverses the country appealing to prospective gangsters to turn their backs on crime and seek a productive life.


He visits schools, and most importantly, spreads his message of peace and love in his own community.


On top of everything, he has been called on to settle disputes in communities where it once would be suicide to tread.


"A man and his woman were fighting in Jacques Road and is me them call. I pacified the situation and they are still together now. I walk anywhere in Mountain View. I can't tell the last day I see a gun in Mountain View," he said.


But his community activism began before he was a part of the group as he maintains that although he was involved in crime, he never encouraged younger men in his community to follow his destructive path.


"I have helped females and males in my community with Maths, English and Science projects. I am a teacher from my crime days and now it is even greater," Morris said.


Courtney Morris was not your typical gangster who dropped out of school and rebelled against authority. Although he has experienced jail, he has never been charged for any crime. Moreover, the former student of Kingston College is the holder of nine Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) passes.


He has ambitions of seeking higher education in a tertiary institution.


"I have to go to college. I want to finish a degree in psychology because I am good at counselling people. I love putting a positive impact on people. Saving a life is much better than taking a life," he declared.


Morris does not intend to rest on his laurels and still encourages others in his community to keep on the straight and narrow.


"I am trying to get the youth involved in school or refer them to the CSJP. While you can't get everybody to do what you are doing, I try to influence people that they must not smoke weed on the corner," he explained.


Apart from being a member of Men With A Message, Morris is also involved with the Long Mountain Community Club and the Amy Jacques Club.


He is adamant that as long as he is breathing, he will make a positive contribution to society and has this message for young males who may yield to the temptation of the gangster lifestyle:


"Experience teacheth wisdom. Find the perfect form of yourself and that way you will be able to abstain from crime and violence and all that is bad," he said.


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