The culture of violence and the state of emergency


Sunday, January 06, 2019

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The Jamaican people begin the year 2019 with some gratification that there was a decline in homicides of approximately 20 per cent in 2018 when compared with 2017.

Yet, there is a dissensus in the body politic as to whether the decline can be attributed to the selective states of emergency and the special zones of operations, or whether the decline can be attributed to more effective police work.

The prime minister, Andrew Holness, wanted the extension of the states of emergency in St James, northern St Catherine and elsewhere in the country. The Opposition leader, Dr Peter Phillips, and the PNP argued that an extension of the state of emergency would be an abrogation of the precepts of the Jamaican Constitution. It was felt that too many people were being detained and too few were being charged with serious crimes. The position of the PNP's shadow minister on national security, Fitz Jackson, is that the Government had sufficient tools in its arsenal to fight crime without resorting to the extreme position of imposing states of emergency ad infinitum.

Despite the political dissensus, there is consensus throughout the landscape of urban and rural Jamaica that violent crime has reached alarming proportions. The critical question at this juncture is whether there can be significant declines bereft of the state of emergency. What the debate has forced is further thinking in the political directorate and in civil society about what is to be done to restore a sane level of security. The Prime Minister has convened a Commission on Violence comprised of experts to make recommendations as to what can be done to reduce violent crime. The report of the commission, which is expected in late January, is timely as budget presentations will be presented in a few months and the allocation of resources can reflect our enhanced understanding and interventions that are needed to roll back the tidal wave of violent crime.

There was a time in the country when we lacked an understanding of economic development and the crippling effects that deficit spending on economic growth. We are still struggling with developing an effective strategy to accelerate economic growth, but at least there is now a profound understanding as to the crippling effects of an unfavourable debt ratio to GDP and how it impacts the capacity of Government to solve social problems. Bi-partisan strides have been made to reduce that accumulated debt to manageable levels. We are still struggling to deal effectively with violent crime in Jamaica and that includes politicians, criminologists, sociologists, et al, in our midst. At this juncture, some humility is required to determine what is it that we know and what is it that we are yet to comprehend.

The wheels started coming off the wagon from the late 1960s and the social order has been wobbly over the last couple of decades. Both a historical and a contemporary approach are required if the society is to equip itself with the tools to achieve the prime minister's aspiration of having a homicide level typical of what prevails in the more developed countries. That is a tall order in the long term but, indeed, a noble objective and something that will require the total mobilisation of the society.

Since independence, Jamaica has become excessively reliant on the coercive apparatus of the State to prop up the social order. The Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) opted for extrajudicial executions when they were convinced that convictions in the courthouse for known criminals had become a rarity as witnesses were readily intimidated. There was a time when not only were homicide rates frighteningly high but extrajudicial executions were some of the highest in the world. The recent confession of a JCF member of an execution squad in Clarendon is a vivid reminder that the culture of violence is still embraced in some quarters of the JCF.

That dependence on the coercive apparatus of the State is further reflected in the debate over extending the states of emergency. But there is widespread realisation that the coercive apparatus of the State has a vital role to play if we are going to be successful in beating back the crime -epidemic. The JCF is still not an effective anti-crime fighting force. There is too much lingering corruption in the ranks and the annual attrition of seasoned professionals is a worrying and troubling dilemma. The Force certainly needs to be expanded and there is a need for effective middle management leadership. The necessary budgetary allocations have to be made to make JCF into a modern anti-crime-fighting force with an improved capacity of gathering intelligence and increasing the percentage of homicide cases that are solved.

Once one steps outside of the coercive apparatus of the State, it becomes evident that structures, institutions and civil society are indispensable to the fight against violent and property crimes. Over the 50 plus years of Jamaica's independence, the scope of some structures has expanded while others have atrophied.

The expansion of educational access is certainly one of the successes of post-independence Jamaica. The increased number of students attending high school is a significant achievement, and the challenge to the Ministry of Education and the peace army of educators in the society is how can the educational apparatus be mobilised to become an integral part of the fight against crime? The fight against crime has to be approached holistically. The prime minister in his new year address mentioned the inability to settle disputes peacefully. The schools should include in the curriculum mediation and dispute resolution. Not every conflict has to be escalated into uncontrollable, violent confrontation. The schools are one place where the culture of violence can be rolled back and the culture of peaceful mediation be highlighted and put into practice. This will necessitate some retraining of teachers who would incorporate mediation into the curriculum.

The Jamaica Observer reported a heartening grasroots initiative in Rollington Town as young people and citizens on the ground put together a soccer and netball tournament that brought together communities from the surrounding neighbourhoods like Burgher, McGregor, Jacques Road, Nannyville, etc, to participate in wholesome sporting activities that will foster peaceful relations. That sort of togetherness should be replicated a thousand times over to break down the cycle of violence and fear of movement in inner-city communities. Sporting activities properly structured and supervised can be used as a tool to heal and foster unity among communities.

Prof Anthony Harriott in a January lecture at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, two years ago, noted that after the Tivoli Gardens uprising of 2010, from 2010 to 2014 the country experienced a decline in violent crime. After 2014, the upward trajectory of violent crime reappeared and carried into 2017. In 2018 there has been a reduction. The challenge for the Commission on Violence is to produce a typology as to how the structure of crime has changed over the decade. Signs are that the age of the all-controlling “Don” has passed and has been replaced by “Corner Fryers”. Dons got their power by serving as conduits for politicians in some constituencies, but that gravy train has dried up to some extent and intra-class, intra-community warfare has taken hold. It is street against street, corner against corner, and reprisal killings shatter and shape the community ethos. When war breaks out the non-purveyors of violence shut their doors and have their children behind locked doors, and leave the streets to the purveyors of violence. What we observe is a collapse of civil society and social disorganisation in which criminality runs rampant.

There is no shortage of programmes in Jamaica. There is the PATH programme, Jamaica Social Investment Fund, National Housing Trust, Social Development Commission and Community Development Council. Yet the haemorrhaging continues.

There needs to be a holistic approach to fighting violent crime. Both coercive apparatus of the State and the non-coercive elements of civil society need to work in tandem to strengthen old institutions and create new institutions that are effectively resourced and can make a difference in the fight against crime. In 2019, emphasis should be placed on strengthening the ground game in civil society. Fighting crime is a humbling learning process that requires ongoing dialogue and intellectual honesty of what works and what we do not know.

Professor Basil “Bagga” Wilson, a former Kingston College Manning Cup footballer and cricketer, is retired provost of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and executive director of King Research Institute at Munroe College, both in New York, USA.

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