We cannot just forget and move on

We cannot just forget and move on

Garfield Higgins is an educator and journalist. Send comments to the Observer or higgins160@yahoo.com.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

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A blind person's groundnuts do not get burnt twice. — Igbo Proverb, Nigeria

Last Wednesday's passionate call by the president of the Senate, Thomas Tavares-Finson, for the Opposition People's National Party (PNP) to apologise to the ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) for instituting the 1976 State of Emergency was very timely.

As expert Jamaica Observer parliamentary reporter Balford Henry pointed out, “The emergency, which lasted June 19, 1976 to June 5, 1977, celebrated its 43rd anniversary on the day both Houses of Parliament shared a joint sitting at Gordon House to recall its longest-serving member, former Prime Minister Edward Seaga, who died on his birthday, May 28, this year.” ( Jamaica Observer, June 20, 2019)

I think all well-thinking Jamaicans should join in this noble and necessary call.

Were the PNP to do this honourable thing it would show them in a more positive light, and doubtless improve their waning political stocks.

Over a year ago in this space I wrote, among other things: “Prime Minister Andrew Holness, after less than two years in office, has apologised for the hurt caused by the 1963 Coral Gardens massacre and the Tivoli Gardens joint security operation in May 2010. When will Dr Peter Phillips and the PNP apologise for the trauma of the December 15, 1976 General Election and the Green Bay massacre on January 5, 1978, plus numerous other wicked acts which have caused serious, lasting, emotional, and financial injury to large numbers of Jamaicans?” ( Observer, December 10, 2017)

I suspect, for some reasons best known to them, they have already hidden themselves behind a “move on” denial narrative, similar to that of former British Prime Minister David Cameron. Recall when Cameron spoke at a joint sitting of our Parliament in 2015? He enjoined us to forget about the monstrous wickedness of the transatlantic slave trade, and “move on”. I recall, many in our Parliament banged their desks in seeming overt approval of Cameron's effrontery. I guess for some their priority concern was the supposed good optics of the then British prime minister rubbing shoulders with the then Portia Simpson Miller Administration and the anticipated positive electoral impact which was hoped for with an impending general election. As we all know, there was a tremendous national backlash for Cameron's unfeeling and inconsiderate utterance.

I recall that while the majority of the then JLP Opposition members were far less appreciative of Cameron's move on provocation, some applauded. They, as we say in local parlance, were just being “follow fashion”, as some of their PNP peers, or maybe like their PNP colleagues, they also suffered a momentary lapse as to why they were sent to Gordon House by the people.

Jamaica cannot just move on from the atrocities of the 1976 State of Emergency. Some 600 [some credible sources say more accurately near 1,000], mostly JLP supporters, were jailed, beaten, and brutalised in the weeks and months leading up to the Michael Manley Administration winning a second term in office.

The Jamaica Observer, last Thursday, among other things, reported, “He [Tavares-Finson] added that there was also the need for apologies to 'persons whose lives were destroyed by the detention', including Cabinet Minister Olivia “Babsy” Grange, Speaker of the House of Representatives Pearnel Charles, and late former Member of Parliament Ferdinand Yap. They were detained at Up Park Camp during the period of the emergency, which included the 1976 General Election, which was won by the Michael Manley-led PNP.”

This is not conjecture. These are facts.

I believe the suffering and trauma heaped on hundreds of JLP supporters will only totally heal when there is an acceptance by the PNP that a monumental wrong was committed against the JLP, specifically, and the people of Jamaica in general.

The findings of the Smith Commission revealed that the calling of the 1976 State of Emergency was predicated upon the facilitation of political opportunism, and not bona fide concerns about national security.

The commission also uncovered that the heads of both intelligence agencies of Government — the Special Branch of the police force and the Military Intelligence Unit (MIU) of the Jamaica Defence Force — never advised Michael Manley of any potential threat to national security during Carifesta.

And, indeed, Deputy Commissioner of Police Curtis Griffiths, head of the Special Branch, testified to the commission that he knew nothing about the intention to declare a state of emergency; he read about it in the press, although he was the chief intelligence officer of the Government.

Captain Carl Marsh, in charge of the MIU, also gave devastating testimony. He advised that there was no need for a state of emergency.

Really awful things

Some villainous abuses of power have happened in this country. I don't believe we can just move on and forget as some people would wish.

The forcible eviction of hundreds of our citizens from Rema in 1977 is another blot on our history.

In 2006, Gareth Manning, Gleaner writer, did a five-part series on the findings of a commission of enquiry conducted by the late puisne judge Justice Ronald Small, into the forced eviction of residents from Wilton Gardens (Rema) in early 1977. ( The Gleaner, May 7, 2006)

In part one of his series, Manning noted, among other things: “The day was February 2, 1977. It was a very eventful day for many residents of Rema. Armed men from neighbouring “Jungle” in Arnett Gardens raided the community, forcibly evicting people from their houses, throwing and smashing their belongings on the streets, and looting their homes.

This was done while the Housing Ministry carried out an eviction exercise on 1,000 residents who they said were not paying rent.

The security forces were rushed to the scene to quell the flare-up of violence, but at the end of the day one man was shot dead by the security forces, while several were wounded by gunfire and knives. A 12-hour curfew was subsequently instituted at 6:00 pm that evening.

The violence triggered outcries from the people as well as the Opposition JLP, which heaped venomous criticisms on the Michael Manley-led Government. Then Opposition Leader Edward Seaga issued a statement the next day condemning the incident and accusing the Government of orchestrating an illegal and violent eviction of JLP supporters.”

Can we just move on without holding accountable those who planned and executed the political eviction of hundreds of our citizens from Rema in 1977?

The children of Rema 1977 are now mature adults. They would have doubtless told their children about the injustices that were meted out to them in Rema on February 2, 1977 and afterwards. I don't think one needs to be a psychologist or psychiatrist to realise that closure is needed. Witnesses at the inquiry reported that the evictions were, among other things, “supervised” by gunmen at some stages.

Justice Ronald Hugh Small, who presided over the commission of enquiry into the Orange Lane fire (May 19, 1976 in which 10 people died in a fire set by gunmen to a tenement building on Orange Lane, Kingston) and the Rema Enquiry, said then that one PNP Cabinet minister had “more than a blushing acquaintance with gunmen”.

But should one person be singularly be tagged with the ignominious acts committed in Rema? Are there others who had a hand in the 'political cleansing' that took place in Rema? And what of the PNP, which was in power at the time, should the PNP of today not follow the lead of Prime Minister Andrew Holness in relation to the Coral Gardens massacre and the security forces' operation into Tivoli in 2010, and apologise to the survivors and the people of Jamaica?

Truth and reconciliation

Some years ago I recommended in this space that we needed a cathartic mechanism, possibly like the truth and reconciliation commission that South Africa had after racial apartheid was outlawed, to fully ventilate barbaric acts such as Rema 1977. Its therapeutic value, I believe, would be immense, and it could serve as a conduit to facilitate closure of many of the gaping political wounds that are still raw.

Those who think time alone will heal all wounds are making a sad mistake.

On April 15, 2012 this newspaper published a tear-jerking interview that was written by H G Helps, editor-at-large, with Delroy Anthony Griffiths — a survivor of the Green Bay massacre.

In the interview, Griffiths said, among other things:

“ 'Green Bay is the worst thing that ever happened to me,' Delroy Anthony Griffiths, the only one who still lives in Jamaica, said.

“ 'People are still talking about it, even though so many have died in Garden (Tivoli Gardens). Sometimes people stop me, wanting me to give them history. Sometimes they will give me money,' said the man who was 23 years old when the incident occurred.”

Does that sound like a man who has moved on from the harrowing experience of January 5, 1978, which almost cost him his life?

Recall, members of the Jamaica Defence Force's MIU went into Southside, which was an area of Kingston Central, then the constituency of former Prime Minister Michael Manley. Southside was, however, an enclave of the JLP. The army personnel spent upwards of two months gaining the confidence of young, unemployed men. The dispossessed men were promised jobs at $300 per week. Army personnel lured some of those whose confidence they had won into ambulances and took them out to the army shooting range at Green Bay in St Catherine where a platoon of soldiers waited. Five of our citizens were slaughtered after bullets from a general-purpose machine gun rained bullets on them. Two escaped. According to the army, they came upon the men offloading a shipment of guns at around midday.

Griffiths in the H G Helps piece gave this bone-chilling account of how he came within inches of losing his life and how others around him were butchered. “ 'Anybody who was not hit by that gun, the macka (prickles) that you had to run into would rip you up and tear you up. I run away when the shooting started, and while I was going through the macka I met up on a soldier, so I turned and run off. He shot at me and I ran away on a lonely road until I reached on a little hill with the sea below,' he said.

“ 'I spent the entire day in the bushes and made my way down from the rocks toward the sea, when I saw some fishermen way out, went on a rock and signalled an X sign to them. I took nearly 20 minutes to make the X sign and I saw a man put up his hand. The fishermen came towards me and said I had to tell them what's going on. I said that the soldiers were coming and if they saw us they would spray us with bullets.

“ 'The water over that side was cold and shark-infested. My knees were knocking,' Griffiths recalled.

“ 'I jumped off in the cold water, got into the boat, and they took me toward Greenwich Farm.

“ 'When I reached there, I took off towards Caymanas Park before realising that I should be going the other way towards Southside. It was like I had lost my mind,' he said.”

Apocalyptic-like fire

In the Eventide fire many lost more than their minds; they lost their lives. They were among some of our most poor and vulnerable citizens.

Thirty-nine years ago, on May 20, 1980, 144 Jamaican citizens perished in a hellish-like fire at Eventide Home for the Aged on Slipe Pen Road in Kingston.

Forty-eight hours after the tragic inferno two more elderly women died from their injuries.

Seven were never found. The devilish orange flames spared only 58 of the 211 women in State care.

Myers Ward, which most called home for several years, was destroyed.

The charred remains were interred in a mass grave in National Heroes' Park.

Who stood to benefit from such a ghastly event?

To begin to really move forward from the 1976 State of Emergency, Rema political evictions, Green Bay massacre, the Eventide Home fire, and similar nefarious acts, we first need a full apology from those who had the power to prevent these monstrosities.

Garfield Higgins is an educator and journalist. Send comments to the Observer or higgins160@yahoo.com.

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