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Jamaica's political orphans: The 1980 legacy

Donna P
Hope

Thursday, November 28, 2019

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Watching the jubilant green massive of Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) supporters descend unto Kingston and stream into the National Arena last Sunday for the JLP's 76th Annual Conference was a truly captivating spectacle. The annual conferences of both of our mass-based political parties, the JLP and People's National Party (PNP), are always populated by jubilant, excited throngs of supporters decked out in costumes of all sorts depicting their party colours; waving flags, showing their party signs; bodies protruding from or precariously perched atop buses and cars or crouched on a motorbike; backed by loud music. It always looks like a really great celebration; a once-a-year party for those who participate.

With the throngs of green returned home to their regular pursuits, the media and other pundits continue to weigh in on the size of the green crowd, the depth and impact of the speeches, and the winnability of the JLP as it heads towards the next general election due some time in early 2021. But there is one point that I want to ruminate on: That undefined mass of Jamaicans, who, by virtue of the trauma experienced personally or second hand around elections and politics in the late 1970s going into 1980, have been forcefully separated and divorced from actively and openly participating in these celebratory moments. These are the Jamaicans at home and abroad who were orphaned by the workings of Jamaica's political process in that era.

Many of us have never had the opportunity to participate as an insider in one of these spectacles. If we have ever been, we go as spectators, neutral observers pulled by a job, a school project, or other 'safe' cover. We say it is by personal choice, but looking back, many were encouraged into this stance by the workings of history.

Here, I speak most particularly of the generations who, by virtue of the trauma unleashed in the late 1970s going up to the 1980 General Election, became so disaffected and turned off from Jamaican politics that many remain apathetic to date. Are you one of them?

Are you one of those nameless Jamaicans who came to an understanding of Jamaican politics and political culture as something harmful, something bad, something evil, and, therefore, something to be avoided? Do you still mediate ideas about Jamaica's politics and its political culture through your memories of that time leading up to that infamous 1980 General Election? Do you still carry numerous stories of that dark time in the back of your head somewhere? The images of multitudes of green-decked JLP supporters, some sporting bare-as-you-dare, fanciful outfits, a few complete with tattoos and the obligatory bell, some with faces and hair in blazing green, all defiantly showcasing their party of choice regardless of what anyone might think, all sent me back to another time and place.

The general elections held on October 30, 1980 still stands as the culmination of one of the harshest and bloodiest periods in Jamaica's political history, with over 800 recorded deaths attributed to the political partisanship and attendant violence of that time. I was a student at St Jago High School and remember how terrified we were to venture out in our green uniforms. The guys at Rivoli were always very kind. I cannot recall any of us ever being harmed. But we had to dispose of those green hair clips that normally decorated our hair. That was unacceptable. The society was in turmoil. Things were in flux. We were terrified.

When I tell my younger students the stories the majority look at me in shock, and a few recount how their parents and grandparents speak of those times. A few of my older students have their own stories; some sharing how their families had to run away from communities under siege to find refuge elsewhere. There are so many untold stories. Yet, regardless of which side of the political fence they fall upon the truth is that many of us paid a heavy price so that many others can today stand up and be publicly counted on social media and as willing participants in today's political activity. These Jamaicans, the ones I call political orphans, were ejected from full participation in the political process.

This group includes three generations of disaffected Jamaicans. It cuts across Jamaicans in their early 40s — who would have been young children but fully aware back then — to those who are now in their late 40s to early and mid-50s, the teenagers at that time, and includes individuals in their late 50s, 60s, 70s, and over who were adults at that time. We were “encouraged” to reject any close connection to either the PNP or the JLP, either because one could be harmed, or because you would be stigmatised or demonised. Many Jamaicans at home and “ah farin” still refuse to publicly admit their political preference as they ratify the unspoken rule that you must never, ever speak about Jamaican politics. No. You can speak about US politics, UK politics, and politics anywhere else in the world, but you mustn't speak about Jamaican politics, lest you be identified as one or the other.

Yes, this same group was taught that publicising one's party of preference was only reserved for the highest and lowest groups in the political culture; that is, political representatives (Members of Parliament, councillors, senators, etc) and the very poor. This privileged binary was sold to many as the ideal set of Jamaican political actors. And the various agents of socialisation, especially the media and family units, identified these two groups as those with the most to gain from the political process, and therefore those who could legitimately, without fear or favour, publicly signal, showcase, and speak about their party of choice.

The fear, hesitance, and apathy generated in this era have, over time, robbed Jamaica of the opportunity to engage with real political education. It has separated the greater majority of the Jamaican populace from accessing good and sound information about the workings of the country's local government and general elections, the constitution, the arms of government, Jamaica's rich political history, and so on. This lack of political education means that many still do not understand the ideological divergence that existed between the socialist-influenced PNP and the capitalist-influenced JLP back then. And so they do not understand when one speaks about the very visible ideological convergence that both political parties display today.

That same fear and/or hesitance engendered around politics in the late 1970s into 1980 has created a yawning vacuum in the contemporary ranks of those who would be excellent political analysts and historians of this era as the older generation that held that line now fall prey to the vagaries of time and age. There are many untold stories of those who were turned off of political engagement in the harsh crucible of Jamaica's politics in the late 1970s into 1980. Four or so decades later many have never even exercised their franchise. But, as time passes, things have changed.

Today, I continue to marvel at, and congratulate in the same breath, all my students and friends, these young Jamaicans, these brave millennials, whose memories are of a different, more hopeful time, and who enter political representation. I am truly encouraged by these brilliant, effervescent, young people who stand on the backs of three or more generations of political orphans, and are more than willing to be publicly counted as a political supporter, activist, or representative of either the JLP or the PNP. Many don their green or orange colours and decisively make their marks. This is certainly a significant signal of Jamaica's political maturity.

Donna P Hope, PhD, is professor of culture, gender and society at The University of the West Indies. Send comments to the Observer or dqueen13@hotmail.com.


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