The Trip Wire

A couple of weeks or so ago I spoke with Professor Obika Gray, author of Demeaned but Empowered (a history of the role of the urban poor in Jamaican politics) for a newspaper interview. Although the news cycle moved on and it therefore didn’t make its way to press, the interview was and still is an interesting perspective from an insightful and important researcher.

Dudus: Trip Wire for the Jamaican Crisis

Christopher “Dudus” Coke, the man wanted by the United States for drug trafficking, whose attempted extradition from Jamaica has cost the country 73 lives, at present count, is “irrelevant”, or so says Jamaican scholar Obika Gray.

The professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin and author of multiple books about the Jamaican political system, suggests that Coke is simply a catalyst: “He is the trip wire…If he is extradited or if he’s killed it doesn’t matter in the larger scheme. He’s only the occasion for the exposing of this massive crisis in the country.”

What’s actually important is that the present situation in Jamaica has exposed what Gray calls a “bizarre system”. Since 1944, Jamaica has had elections every five years – there’s been no coup, no one party rule, no dictator. “To the outside world it looks like Jamaica is a model democracy,” says Gray, but there’s no real democracy for the urban poor.

From the first elections in Jamaica, there were “street battles between the political parties”. But in the 1950s and 1960s, Kingston became the largest and most important city in Jamaica, and controlling the capital meant controlling the country.

Gray explains: “What the political parties did was they recruited the youth gangs on either side and brought them into the political process as defenders of the political constituencies on both sides. Eventually they began arming these youth gangs on both sides and they [became] entrenched as political gangs rather than just gangs fighting for turf and territory on their own.”

Two parties, the People’s National Party (PNP) and the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) dominate urban neighbourhoods. One of these is that of Tivoli Gardens, site of much of the recent unrest. “It’s a colony of the JLP,” describes Gray, who makes it clear that there are “similar neighbourhoods that belong to the PNP in urban Jamaica as well, and the same thing occurs there.”

But this isn’t just about power. It’s also very much about culture and what it means to be Jamaican. The country, explains Gray, “was colonized in such a way that the society oriented itself culturally as European. This was especially so for the political elite, the middle class and the business elite, and they set the tone for the consciousness and cultural outlook for the country.”

This created a clash. The elite were predominantly white or light skinned, and the black, urban poor, were, according to Gray, “seen as a group of people who were holding the country back because they were illiterate, undisciplined and didn’t subscribe to the moral codes of the dominant elite. What the political parties did was carve up districts and organize them for their own political designs.” However, within these areas, these so-called garrisons, Jamaican culture developed.

To Gray these communities are “disrespected because they are black, disadvantaged, won’t sign on to the moral values of the middle class and the political elite in the country.” But, he continues, “they’re empowered, because they’re so irrepressible and so defiant. They have been able to fight back in their own way. Everyone knows Bob Marley came from this neighbourhood and developed this independent creativity which put Jamaica on the map. Nobody knows who the Prime Minister of Jamaica is but they all know who Bob Marley is.”

And this need to be independent from a political system that doesn’t provide for the people has had clear repercussions: “From the 60s right down to the present what has happened is that the more defiant elements among the poor have developed their own forms of income, the drug trade, and they gain an opportunity to become financially independent and no longer to depend on the handouts that the politicians were giving them. The politicians no longer control the gangs. The gangs have gone off into international ventures, [enabling] them to get guns, and carve out bases of power in these same neighbourhood.”

So as early as the 1980s, “politicians no longer dictated the tune but had to follow and pay some respect to the dons or the leaders who now had access to capital and wealth because of the drug trade.”

And this brings Jamaica to the present situation. People admire Coke, because, as Gray says, “These dons become people to whom these communities look for providing all kinds of welfare that would typically come from the government. They are now the people who are regarded as the effective political authority.”

So how might Jamaica wrestle itself out of this crisis, a crisis triggered by Mr. Coke?

“Are we going to continue to have these fiefdoms controlled by drug dealers and by criminals who are affiliated with the political parties?” asks Gray. “Will the political parties rid themselves of these criminals and open up these communities so that they can freely exercise their vote and live like the rest of the country?…The people who come out to demonstrate on masse for [Coke] are victims of the system. In their own way they understand that the system is not giving them anything and so they look to this drug dealer. So any Jamaican government that emerges in the aftermath of this crisis will have the enormous challenge of breaking down all garrisons.”

The politicians are caught in a contradiction. “The system that they created is now wrecking havoc on their careers and on the country at large,” Gray concludes, “We’re going to have to find someone in either of the political parties who is large enough, visionary enough and enlightened enough to see the strategic need to end this horrible situation that has existed since the 40s and 50s. I keep thinking to myself where is the Nelson Mandela of the Jamaican polticians? And we don’t see any.”


Rereading Obika Gray

It’s difficult to discuss the potential end of soundclash, as it’s deeply upsetting that clashes of a very different sort are occurring in Kingston, Jamaica.

I picked up my copy of Obika Gray’s book, Demeaned but Empowered: The Social Power of the Urban Poor in Jamaica, published in 2004, and read through chapter one, which ends as follows. Stuck in a whirlwind of information from multiple newspapers, magazines, tweets, updates, television reports, bbms and blogs (some quite eloquent in their descriptions), a strange solace is found in context:

The predicament of the predatory Jamaican state is that the measures that secure its dominance and sustain the cohesion of society–clientelist party rule, punitive violence and elite unity–become the very sources that threaten the erosion of its power. As the parasitic state and its agents move into the shadow economy, violate democratic practices with impunity, protect fearsome gunmen, and foment a crucifying political violence in which the poor became cannon-fodder and the well-to-do fear for their safety, a legitimation crisis ensues and the hold on power by state agents becomes increasingly tenuous.

Recurrent attempts to surmount this dilemma, however, seem only to compound the problem. Repeat announcements of harsh crime eradication programmes appear ineffective as the provoke party factionalism, distress civil libertarians and alienate the poor, whose neighbourhoods are targeted in the fight against crime and political violence.

Similarly, official denials of state involvement in political violence, political leaders’ ties to gunmen, and the parties’ repeated signing of peace accords, merely earn politicians the cynicism of the poor and the unease of middle-class and corporate backers of the state. In both instances, the generic strategy of combining both “order” and “disorder” entangle the state in myriad predicaments. It is hardly worth mentioning that this loss of authority requires measures to arrest it. However, efforts to stem the state’s weakening hold over economic processes and social relations are themselves sources of hegemonic decline.

The perception of growing disorder and enravelling of social relations have thus far provoked the state into devising even bolder strategies involving risky and controversial policing. But as these measures founder and become what observers cynically call “nine-day wonders”, the seem only to invite scorn for the political leadership and to further the disgust with a foundering state that cannot maintain order, achieve legitimacy or solve economic problems has not provoked a ruptural break with predatory rule. Disillusionment has led neither to calls for military intervention nor to any support for a popular uprising and seizure of the state.

This impotence of civil society and the state’s inability to unravel the tangle of social contradictions is a fitting expression of the social crisis and of the identity of power in Jamaica. On the one hand, the crisis–manifesting itself in the double handicap above–clearly shows the checkmated relations between state and society. On the other hand, however, the crisis fittingly attests to the consequences of the distinctive play of power in Jamaica. That is, the Jamaica ordeal seems to confirm what I have argued here–namely the durability of state predation and its capacity to nullify and disarm its many detractors.

Though Gray ended his book with a discussion of 2001’s assault on Tivoli, resulting in the deaths of twenty-five people, he still had faith that relations of power could be reinvented in Jamaica, specifically in Kingston. I hope he still has this faith, for I wish to share it.