Reader Margaret Lowe of Orlando sent me a video that left me bewildered and sad. It was a documentary produced by award winning English journalist Ross Kemp, who traveled the world to seek insights into gang cultures. Kemp ventured into parts of Kingston where I have never been and talked to gang members whom I will never see.
He came away with troubling glimpses of their brutal lifestyle. But his documentary offered no answers.
As I watched, I had flashbacks of the old days, when the Dungle was emerging in Western Kingston. Ramshackle huts patched together from cardboard cartons and scraps of zinc roofs… John crows circling against a pitiless sun… A child crying and crying and crying… The smell of diesel fumes from the buses and sickly undercurrents of human waste and rotting refuse…
In 1951, when I was only 16, I gave a speech about that in West Ham, near London, and the English people who heard me were so affected that they lifted me on their shoulders and carried me around the room.
“What Jamaica needs is a Socialist government,” the (Socialist) Mayor exclaimed after I had described the horrors of the Dungle and the inequities of Jamaican society. At the time, Jamaica was on its way to Independence and Sir Alexander Bustamante was the Prime Minister. Buster was a populist leader but nobody would describe him as a Socialist.
Jamaica was to get a Socialist Government some years later. Norman Manley, the brilliant barrister, Rhodes Scholar and founder of the People’s National Party, became Prime Minister. And he was every inch a Socialist.
So was his son, Michael, the labor leader who formed the government in later years.
From what I saw in the video, Socialism’s answer to the spreading shantytown blight was to create public-housing projects, which were filled with the ruling party’s supporters. When the other party came to power, those politicians built public housing for their own supporters.
Inevitably, the projects developed into the warring “garrisons” of today.
Neither party has had much success in alleviating the basic causes of the shantytowns – social injustice and lack of economic opportunity.
With nothing to do all day but endure the pangs of hunger and resentment, the youths of the projects joined gangs. To make matters worse, evil politicians armed the gangs and used them to intimidate opposing voters.
Large tracts of the city of Kingston rotted away and gangs festered among the filth and the poverty and the drugs.
Who is to blame?
The English? They started it. Under the British Colonial system, the mass of the Jamaican people was held in contempt. To the English, most Jamaicans were little better than savages, good for nothing but manual labor, minor clerical work and domestic service. The English government’s not-so-benign neglect laid the foundation for the oppression of the future.
Bustamante? He is a National Hero and I hesitate to criticize him. History has dimmed the scandals and enshrined his achievements. But you will never convince me that he did not sell out, abandoning the poorest of the poor to court the rich and powerful.
The Manleys? Some of their policies were beneficial; others proved disastrous. The elder Manley meant well but his doctrinaire Socialism plunged the island into debt and spread dissension among its population. And Michael was – to put it kindly – confused.
Donald Sangster gave Jamaicans a period of calm and might have set a saner course, but he died too soon. Jamaica had Triple-A bonds when Donald was at the helm, and if my aging memory can be trusted, Jamaican currency was at least on a par with the American dollar. Still, I don’t recall that he concerned himself with the plight of the sufferers.
All I recall of Hugh Shearer is that he devoted most of his time as prime minister to pursuing wine, women and song. I was the spokesman for the Jamaica Telephone Company when he allowed its U.S. parent to drain millions of dollars from the island without providing the services that were promised. I never knew just how it happened but it looked very fishy to me and I quit. I don’t recall that Shearer did anything significant to alleviate poverty.
While P. J. Patterson was running the country, I was back in Canada but from what I heard he was a huge disappointment.
I think much of the blame for the gang situation belongs to Eddie Seaga… Eddie, who was married to one of my relatives, Eddie who was the darling of so many of my family members, all deeply loyal to the Jamaica Labor Party. Eddie, who undoubtedly did many good things for the island. Eddie, I hate to say this, but you gave the fledgling gang movement a boost when you promoted the Rasta culture and inflicted your Harvard-bred ideas on our poor island.
I am not saying it was all your fault, Eddie. I could spend the rest of the day reciting the names of politicians who contributed to the rise of factional strife. They know who they are! I hope they toss and turn at night as scenes of bloodshed and deprivation invade their rest.
But that’s in the past. What lies ahead?
Words like Socialism no longer have much meaning. Bruce Golding’s JLP is probably more “socialist” than Portia Simpson-Miller’s PNP. Pragmatism is the order of the day. So what should the powers-that-be do about the deplorable conditions spawning gang violence in Jamaica?
It goes without saying that politicians who encourage and arm the gangs should be rounded up and imprisoned in some appropriate hellhole forever. But what else can be done?
As I watched Ross Kemp’s video, I was struck by the similarity of the garrisons to the Sunni and Shiite strongholds in Iraq. The same kinds of ancient grudges breed the same kinds of vendettas. No one seems able to bridge the chasm dividing the factions.
Will Jamaica have to bring in United Nations peace keepers to impose a cease-fire before some lasting accommodation can be worked out?
And even so, how will the government address the underlying causes of violence – the poverty, ignorance and despair that have persisted for so long?
About the Author
George Graham is a Jamaican-born journalist and author who has worked as a reporter in the Caribbean and North America for more than half a century. He lives in Lakeland, Florida. His new book, “The Color of Ice: A Canadian Serenade,” is available at www.publishamerica.com/shopping/index.htm. His previous books are available at http://stores.lulu.com/georgeg