The anguish of the 1976 State of Emergency and its disasters
The state of public emergency now being held in specific areas of the country has been attacked by partisan voices because of the length of the periods of existence, of merely a few months. These attacks are made by those who gave full political support to the State of Public Emergency of 1976 which lasted for one year with a barrage of state terror, detention of thousands and massive impersonation in the electoral system in the general election of 1976 to retain State power.
Infamous episodes in the history of a country are not meant to be commemorated, nor are they meant to be forgotten. The slaughter in Soweto, South Africa, during the apartheid regime when security forces gunned down protesters, including children, is one such episode of brutality that is commemorated.
Jamaica is not without a record of atrocities committed by State terrorism which shattered the lives of poor, innocent people. The massacre of 25 innocent people in West Kingston, July 4-7, 2001, is such an occurrence. Some were paupers, others mentally challenged elderly people, teenagers, a farmer, a handcart man at the market, a girl who had buried her baby two days before, and others of that ilk, whose only crime was that they were in the gun sights of soldiers and police who, from elevated vantage points, could shoot anyone who ventured on to the streets.
The fact that more than 50 other people were wounded added to the infamy. Worse yet, with several bodies forcibly left on the streets to rot for four days, some eaten by dogs, and the entire community of Denham Town detained as hostages in their homes by soldiers for that four-day period, the West Kingston Massacre, as it is known, would be the second worst of the bestial atrocities committed by Government against innocent people, exceeded only by the 600 people killed in the Morant Bay Rebellion.
SEARCH FOR WEAPONS
Of course, the Government proclaimed the onslaught as a search for weapons, gunmen and ammunition — none of which were found. This is how it was made to be seen by the public. The polls showed a favourable response for the People’s National Party (PNP) to this shocking display of carnage masquerading as a security search.
Those who planned it knew beforehand that this would be the public reaction. They had executed a dry run on Tivoli Gardens, May 7-10, 1977, for the same reason with the same empty results — no gunmen, guns, ammunition, not even spent shells, but on that occasion leaving four dead: a six-year-old boy and three middle-aged mothers with 17 children.
These two episodes of State terrorism secured election- winning responses in the polls which were prime reasons for the resounding victories by the PNP in the general elections of 1997 and 2002.
As in the case of Tivoli Gardens in 1997 and West Kingston — including Tivoli Gardens and Denham Town — in 2001, an election was in the offing at the time when the State of Emergency of June 19, 1976 was called. It was not due until February 1977, but expected in the second half of 1976.
A critical part of the lead-up to this event was the most intensive political campaign ever staged by the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). I launched that campaign in January 1976, to conduct an islandwide programme of 1,000 meetings at a phenomenal rate of 10 spot meetings daily, plus a public mass meeting in the night, for four consecutive days weekly over six months.
It was gruelling to a point of near collapse. But this campaign succeeded in rousing public support which grew monthly, nearly closing by two points the political gap. By May, it was reaching a crescendo.
Prime Minister Michael Manley, it was learned from inside information, was keeping tabs on the size and enthusiasm of the meetings through Special Branch, the police intelligence unit which normally attends important political meetings.
As the enthusiasm and support mounted, it became obvious that the ruling party would have to meet the challenge. This presented a special problem as Manley could not leave his office for four days weekly as I was doing. Something dramatic that would have immediate effect was needed.
The build-up in the incidence of crime during the first half of 1976 was fomenting deep public anxiety leading to a state of panic. A particular episode which must be classified as one of the worst atrocities historically was the burning of tenements at Orange Street on May 19, 1976. The Daily Gleaner reported the event as follows:
“Fifty men set fire to tenement buildings and blocked escape routes to the PNP supporters inside. Barrages of gunshots were heard as the gunmen prevented the police and firemen from entering the premises to put out the blaze. This incident left 10 people dead and 500 homeless.”
The press report implying that supporters of the JLP were the arsonists and terrorists was a blight of political bias on the state of the media. Further, Orange Street was in the West Kingston constituency for which I was the Member of Parliament. While it was a tenement with mixed political support, I enjoyed a significant majority. It was obvious that a political stage was being set to blame the JLP for extreme violence.
Those on the ground politically, so to speak, knew that the gunmen came from Arnett Gardens. But it was after a Commission of Enquiry was established under Mr Justice Small that, in the testimony before the commission from people who asked to be heard in secret, the arsonists and terrorists were identified to be from Arnett Gardens, a PNP stronghold.
A report on the secret sessions was submitted by Mr Justice Small and held in 197, but it was repressed and never published. The damage, however, had already been done.
Apart from the build-up of crime leading to growing public anxiety, the Government was experiencing in 1976 the worst performance of the economy of the five years since it was elected in 1972. The economy, which had been steadily declining, was in a tailspin and out of control in 1976.
While the period 1972-80 was a classic textbook demonstration of devastating macroeconomic policies, 1976 was the worst year of any period in the Jamaican economy, historically, up to that time. This crippling year had begun to peel off the layers of the glitter which Manley had given to socialism by calling it “love” through excessive expenditure on make-work projects and on mostly unworkable social programmes. These were intended to compensate for deepening unemployment, shortages of all kinds of goods and rising prices. But the set-off was only partly effective.
A campaign of a series of infamous leaflets distributed on the streets were issued by PNP-affiliated organisations accusing the press, the church, business, 21 rich families, friendly governments and the JLP of being responsible for the economic disaster facing the country. Despite the most scandalous and libellous statements and despite repeated reports to the police, no action whatsoever was taken. The intention was to deflect the attention of the people from the economy while building a campaign of hate against all who opposed the Government, particularly the Opposition.
With pressure building on Government, violent crime and the crumbling economy became the focus of all levels of decision-making. Added to this was the deepening anxiety and confrontations on the emergence of a growing pattern of connections with Cuba and Cuban involvement in Jamaica, creating a boiling pot of confrontations between those drawn by the socialist magnet and its magical solutions to ease poverty, and those repelled by deepening concerns about the new pathway which threatened their future. The panic level was rising.
For some weeks before, Manley was meeting with a select group of ministers and partisan security chiefs to plan a way to deal with the problems that were overriding his Government.
It was at this stage that Manley, with the Opposition yapping at his heels on the campaign trail and a lead of only two per cent, decided to play a trump card to squash the Opposition by putting it at the centre of the crime wave, while jacking up expenditure to dangerous and unsustainable levels to appease the party faithful and unemployed.
The formula was to declare a state of public emergency on June 19, 1976, as a prelude to the general election in that year, against an Opposition which was weakened and on the defensive. This was the same strategy as used in the years 1997 and 2001 to incapacitate the Opposition and weaken its ability to fight politically by leaving its gate open for penetration.
The state of public emergency unleashed a series of devious plans designed to terrorise Opposition members into submission. These episodes will be discussed in part two.
Sustaining democracy was now the real issue at stake.
— Edward Seaga is a former prime minister of Jamaica, the chancellor of The University of Technology and is a distinguished fellow at the University of the West Indies.