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Common thieves who have been robbing us of our birthright

Lance Neita

Sunday, January 21, 2018

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state of emergency declared last week in St James is as welcome as it is regrettable. With 335 murders recorded last year, St James was bleeding. The spate of murders had to be cauterised. “The level of criminal activity experience continued and threatened is of such a nature and so extensive in scale as to endanger public safety,” reported the prime minister at his press briefing.

I cannot recall an announcement issued by a Government which was welcomed with such widespread enthusiasm and relief. Consider this, the Opposition gave an immediate “qualified support to this effort”. They will await, as is their right, the regulations governing the operations of this state of emergency. But, as People's National Party (PNP) President Peter Phillips pointed out, “Based on the spiralling crime rate in Montego Bay,… the city had reached a new state of anarchy which could not be allowed.” In other words, he believes the Government had no choice.

The party's statement also took a swipe at the 'failure of the zone of special operations initiative”, but this was drowned in the public response and agreement expressed by St James residents. From “it's a good thing, I totally agree”, to “I think this is an excellent move on the part of the Government”, and the general sigh of relief that at last something was being done, this state of emergency is off to a positive start.

But here comes the regrettable part. It's happening in St James — the cradle of tourism. Like Dunn's River, Negril, Ochi, rafting, the name Montego Bay is synonymous with tourism all over the world. And within its hub the parish houses Doctor's Cave, Rose Hall, the “Elegant Corridor”, an international airport, Sam Sharpe Square, and Reggae Sumfest. These are the names and places that ring with the sounds of prosperity, employment, image, fame, and fortune for thousands of Jamaicans and visitors. So we cringed every time we heard of criminal insurrection in and around the parish and tourism capital. A state of emergency applied to these areas speaks volumes and suggests a state of anarchy to be contended with.

The USA had already reacted to the crime wave. Words were flowing across the Internet that Montego Bay is under siege. The USA-issued travel advisory on January 10 advised its citizens to be cautious and avoid sections of Montego Bay and Kingston while visiting Jamaica. The prime minister would have thought long and hard as he contemplated his next move.

Almost two years ago he had ruled out the calling of a state of emergency as a means of addressing the then current spate of murders in the parish of St James: “The Government is not afraid to call a state of emergency, but at this time a state of emergency, in my mind, is not a tool in the toolbox to be deployed,” the prime minister stated at that time.

“I don't want the country to feel that we are under siege. The message to communicate is, if the Government deems it necessary, we will. But we are not at that point. But I don't want criminals to feel that we will have any hesitation if it is required,” the prime minister remarked.

In spreading his net from Mt Salem across much wider territory, the wheel has turned full circle and this time he had little choice. Quizzed by journalists as to why it took so long for him to come to this point, he explained the obvious: Such an action cannot be carried out in an arbitrary or hasty manner, and takes a great deal of planning, coordination, resources, and human capacity to be in place.

Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett cannot be amused by this turn of events. But he, as Member of Parliament for St James East Central, would understand the need to treat the wound before it gets any deeper and, like Shakespeare's Macbeth, hope “that this blow might be the be-all and end-all here”.

Bartlett is such an outstanding and imposing figure in tourism that we sometimes forget that he has a constituency in the parish. When his constituency cries out, he feels it too.

Lord knows that this has not been an easy decision to take, but the situation bawled out for it.

The perpetrators of the recorded 335 murders in one year have done Jamaica a wicked disservice. They, with malicious intent, and I suspect a great deal of ignorance, have been steadily robbing our people of our birthright. Over these last few years we have been genuflecting to the criminals and giving them all sort of glory names, like “the real don”, “shottas”, “One Order”, “unruly gang”, “Copper return” or “just baad”. We need to rethink and classify them for what they really are: just common thieves.

No Jamaican likes to be called a thief. They prefer the dashing images portrayed of powerful motor bikes and motorcades, in which dons travel with a line of motor vehicles like the prime minister's security detail, but with these featuring masked faces; powerful, expensive armour; and so many times outwitting the law. Don't big them up, just call dem tief!

I have no doubt that some people may not agree with this state of emergency, but we better get behind it. It's not the final or the perfect solution, but Jamaica has too much to lose. As one headline said, 'Time come now!'

We can't afford to have our future, our hopes, our dreams savaged and plundered by the thieves who have invaded our lives with their guns and their donmanship. They have stolen our innocence, our peace and security, our little business startups, our family life, our image abroad, our self-respect, our loved ones, our savings, our plans for better lives.

Meanwhile, it would have been nice to have a representative from the Opposition on that slate of presenters at the prime minister's press conference. We need to work hard on introducing a 'state of unity'. This is not a political state of emergency - which we have seen before. This is designed to keep all Jamaica and her visitors safe. We have survived many periods in which the country had to governed by a state of emergency since Independence. The most famous being the one called by the then prime minister, Michael Manley, in 1976. That one seemed to have gone on forever, and included a general election which the Opposition understandably lost.

Less known is the first state of emergency in Independence, which was called on October 3, 1966. It was declared, not by the prime minister, but the Minister of Home Affairs Roy McNeill, in Western Kingston. Now take note that this was a Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) minister acting under a JLP Government, and the constituency chosen was represented by an outstanding JLP member, Edward Seaga.

It was said that the declaration was a direct result of an upsurge of political gang warfare which had resulted in three deaths and hundreds being hospitalised. Minister McNeill, being in charge of security, was advised by the police and the army that the only way to control this violence was to impose a state of emergency.

But guess what? The prime minister at the time was Sir Alexander Bustamante, who was ill and confined to bed, while the acting prime minister, Donald Sangster, was off the island. McNeill took the precaution to discuss the advice he had received from the police with Bustamante and the then leader of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union Hugh Shearer at Jamaica House on the evening prior to the declaration. There was no telephone conversation with Sangster. And, remarkably, to McNeill's everlasting credit, there was no intra-party consultation with the MP, Edward Seaga.

The next day it went into effect. Residents of the area woke up to find that barbed wire had been placed across the roads leading into the communities and no one was able to enter or leave without the permission of the military or the police. Western Kingston was searched house by house in pursuit of arms of any kind. Shops, offices and factories were also searched, and the mine detection squad of the Jamaica Defence Force was deployed into the area for the purpose of locating bombs such as those which had exploded in the Queen's Theatre on September 26.

The home searches did not reveal much, but a raid by the police on the JLP's office at Chocomo Lawn on Wellington Street and the PNP's Dudley Thompson's office at 23 Regent Street found homemade bombs, revolvers, machetes, knives, and “much ganga”.

Nevertheless, something was about to hit the fan. Acting Prime Minister Sangster was upset that one of his ministers had called a state of emergency without consulting him. On his return, he immediately summoned McNeill to his office and told him in no uncertain terms that, although Bustamante was still the party leader, he Sangster had the constitutional authority and responsibility of being the prime minister. He it was who had the executive authority to approve a state of emergency. Not Bustamante.

Naturally, and as was the order of things in those days, McNeill did run to Bustamante to complain, but Busta agreed with Sangster, and that was the end of that.

McNeill is to be commended by history for the firm and decisive action taken in the execution of the responsibilities of the ministerial portfolio he carried, even if it 'fingered' the constituency of another member of his own party. It was country above party politics. That's how it was in 1966, and that's how it should always be.

Lance Neita is a public relations consultant. Send comments to the Observer or lanceneita@hotmail.com.

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