Our heritage of criminal violence


Our heritage of criminal violence


Sunday, November 03, 2019

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It has been more than two weeks since the ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the Opposition People's National Party (PNP) concluded their bipartisan crime-fighting summit on finding practical and lasting solutions to what the editorial of the Jamaica Observer of Tuesday, October 22, 2019 called “the viciousness and seemingly unending bloodshed” that has taken over the country. As such, and until we are made aware of the outcomes of this extremely difficult undertaking, I wish to associate myself with all well-thinking Jamaicans hoping for a set of realistic, resolute, and well-thought-out initiatives guaranteeing a relatively crime-free and peaceful society; since, by all appearances, our very survival as a civilised society in the 21st century depends on it.


But succeeding in this task will be far from easy, as it will involve uprooting criminal violence. Though those roots are deep-seated, that is the only way we can hope to achieve genuine social transformation that is propelled by a genuine bipartisan national mobilisation effort similar to when we gained Independence in 1962. The country's economic and social gains since 1938 are now seriously threatened with impairment by criminal violence and lawlessness, and it is no exaggeration to say that, private and public sector corruption notwithstanding, crime and violence is the greatest challenge since Independence with which we are burdened today.

None of this, of course, is by any means a new perception, and I would hope that both the JLP and the PNP will begin their very difficult crime-fighting deliberations with an acceptance of the uncomfortable fact that violence is a part of our DNA, and that finding solutions to the intractable spread in our midst of disorders like transnational criminal operations, lotto scamming, drugs/gun trafficking, and organised crime with the attendant gang culture that has coalesced around these maladies, must involve glancing in our rear-view mirror so as to gain an appreciation of the very complex issue of the social psychology of Jamaican criminal violence today.

There are numerous criminologists and sociologists who are convinced that the very lopsided nature of the society, with its social inequalities and psychological and material deprivations among the mass of the population, is a rich gift for a proneness to endemic violent and criminal aggression in the form of resistance to constituted authority. Some psychologists have offered a further tint to the analysis. Not having gained collective liberation by the use of violence against a well-armed and almost impregnable power structure, go their argument, the “victims” turn in on themselves. So, instead of our gun-toting, “unattached ghetto youths” attacking with regularity the affluent in upper St Andrew, they indulge almost daily in maiming and liquidating each other with high-powered guns as “gang members”.

This insane drama of self-destruction has intensified, goes another kind of argument, ever since the violence-prone, unemployed and disgruntled were coaxed into hiring themselves out to power-hungry politicians protecting turf and ill-gotten votes. Violence and crime, concludes the critical observer, is natural to Jamaicans.

Celebrating violence

On this score, the theory of political thinker Frantz Fanon has long been part of our public intelligence. It states that all colonial societies are by definition held in subjugation by violence; hence, Haiti and the original 13 colonies (the United States) in the liberation history of the Americas. History is thus appealed to in justifying armed resistance to unjust laws, unjust states of socio-economic existence, as well as unjust allocations of power at all levels of influence and decision-making.

In Jamaica's case, this is celebrated in our heritage of popular resistance to power-structure violence, whether of the State or of the plantation, starting with the long and sustained Maroon Wars; the many slave rebellions on individual estates (the Tacky rebellion of 1760 being the most memorable), the Baptist War led by Sam Sharpe in 1831/32; and the Morant Bay rebellion led by Paul Bogle in 1865.

Certain members of the Jamaican middle class have themselves been known to question the likes of Sam Sharpe, Paul Bogle, and the aggressive Nanny being made national heroes. Even Alexander Bustamante, who harangued aggressively in 1938 about blood and fire, and Marcus Garvey, who mobilised the black masses to dangerous levels of activism, are seen by them to reflect the violence-prone proclivities of the society. And, as icing on the cake, the 1938 riots which spawned the trade union movement and the self-government movement are also seen to have been born of violence.

Perpetual war

Is it any wonder that states of emergency (SOE) and zones of special operations (ZOSO) are viewed by the State as natural reactions to criminal and violent events involving the mass of the population? For although it is a fact that they are capable of self-discipline, there is ample evidence of behaviour to the contrary when the volatility of the faceless crowd defies common sense and deteriorates into squalid lawlessness.

I, therefore, expect the police and military high command to be tempted to concur with this view; for to the law enforcement authorities it is difficult to resist fighting fire with fire. The problem is, however, that the crime and violence producers feel that they, too, must fight police firepower with their own firepower. They believe the police are to be defied, outwitted (by the latest technological means), and killed, if necessary. State intelligence suggests, furthermore, that many a wayward youth be encouraged to join the constabulary and the army in order to fulfil their yearning to get back at the society and to carry out the wishes of the criminal oligarchy. The moral of this, in the final analysis, is that the police and the Jamaican citizenry are perpetually at war.

If Jamaica is indeed a criminally violent society, then it stands to reason that not only the wider society must be tamed into non-aggression and civility in dealing one with the other. The members of the police force, the army, guards, and other security personnel armed with guns — who are themselves spawned and nurtured by the society — must also be educated in a systematic way about their responsibilities. We need more, not less, courses on the social psychology of Jamaican criminal violence on the curriculum of the police and military academies, our tertiary institutions, in-service training programmes, and youth, community and civil society groups.

An extremely complex business

Broad-based crime-fighting legislation is one thing, but if we are serious about finding concrete solutions to the problem of the monster of criminal violence then we shall have to tackle as well the legitimised violence of popular entertainment as in music and the action television, cinema, and social media (Internet) fare to which young and old Jamaicans are constantly exposed.

It is worth considering also that the criminal violence that is everywhere evident not far from the congenital hot-tempered aggressiveness, Anancyism, and marronage, that we betray in our ordinary speech and day-to-day relations with each other is a matter for families and schools (our major socialisation agents) as it is for the much-distrusted police — themselves the products of those very families and schools. No one should doubt that tackling our problem of crime and violence is an extremely complex business.

Andrew Holness and Peter Phillips, and all others interested in a law-abiding and peaceful society, have their job cut out for them in getting to the root of this worldwide trend of self-destruction, self-abuse, and criminal violence. Large armies of police and soldiers scattered throughout select communities to prevent crime and violence will clearly not help, at least not for long. But, glancing in our rear-view mirror as we journey towards a new crime-fighting paradigm may just prevent us from reinventing the wheel or, at worst, veering off course.

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