Reclaiming Humanity for Black Lives in Jamaica

[Savage Minds is pleased to present the third essay in the series “Making Black Lives Matter: Reflections on the Declaration and the Movement.” Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Kimberley McKinson is a fourth year doctoral candidate in UC Irvine’s Department of Anthropology. Kimberley is currently conducting ethnographic fieldwork for her dissertation which is centered on crime, the aesthetics of security and the legacies of slavery and colonialism in Kingston. As a dancer Kimberley also engages her anthropological ideas and questions through movement. She was trained in classical ballet. Today however, her movement aesthetic represents a constant dialogue between modern practice and her inherited Afro-Caribbean traditions.]

The Simple Yet Contentious Truth

Jamaica is less than 600 miles from the mainland US, and the island nation imbibes US popular culture and news at a voracious rate. An awareness of the current plight of African Americans in the US is not beyond most Jamaicans, especially given the deep transnational networks that link the two countries. Many Jamaicans understand the history of what it means to be black in the majority white US, and understand the importance of the declaration “Black Lives Matter.” However, since beginning fieldwork in Kingston this year, and witnessing from a distance the attacks on black lives in the US, the question that I find myself asking as a young Jamaican anthropologist is whether Jamaicans understand or feel the need to assert the fact that Black Lives Matter in Jamaica.

How could black lives not matter in Jamaica? This is a country that has given to the world Rastafari, reggae and Marcus Garvey, a man who proclaimed that black skin is not a badge of shame but a glorious symbol of national greatness. In its own way, what Jamaica has given to the world is the simple yet contentious truth that black lives do matter. Indeed, how could black lives not matter in a majority black country? The inherent complexity of this question reveals itself when one considers Jamaica’s extraordinary record of extrajudicial violence against poor inner-city residents. Deep meditation on this record allows one to begin to get a sense of precisely why the affirmation Black Lives Matter is profoundly relevant beyond the shores of the US in contemporary Jamaica.

The Incursion, INDECOM and the Enquiry

On May 24, 2010, Jamaicans at home and abroad were stirred by a massacre that had unfolded before their eyes. The country’s army, the Jamaica Defense Force (JDF) had invaded Tivoli Gardens, a local inner-city community, in search of reputed “don” Christopher “Dudus” Coke. Located in western Kingston, Jamaica’s Tivoli Gardens bears little resemblance to its namesake, the famed gardens in Italy. In Kingston, Tivoli Gardens features a concrete jungle of dilapidated apartment structures that over the years have come to be decorated with bullet holes. Historically, the community also has the distinct reputation of being a political stronghold or garrison community for the Jamaica Labour Party. In 2010, Coke, then leader of the notorious Shower Posse was being charged by the US government with gun and drug trafficking. Then Prime Minister Bruce Golding’s now infamous nine month delay in acquiescing to the US’ extradition request reflected for many the country’s legacy of political ties to crime. The Dudus affair festered until that tragic day in May when it erupted into a savage incursion that saw the JDF battling criminals. In the end, 73 Tivoli residents were dead.

In the wake of the 2010 Tivoli incursion, the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM) was established with the stated goal of investigating actions by members of the local security forces that result in the abuse of rights, death or injury to civilians. Additionally, since December 2014 an official Commission of Enquiry has been underway that has featured testimonies from Tivoli residents, police and army officers and politicians in an attempt to ascertain what exactly occurred in May 2010. The Enquiry’s proceedings have captivated me like many other Jamaicans. While the establishment of an oversight organization like INDECOM and the commencement of the Enquiry can be read as the state’s commitment to truth and reconciliation, questions remain on whether these initiatives will not only be able to elicit the truth but also usher in a cultural shift away from state violence. Unfortunately, this skepticism is warranted. State violence is not a new phenomenon in Tivoli Gardens. On July 7, 2001, 27 residents of the community were killed during a police operation. That year an enquiry was commissioned which ultimately exonerated the security forces. Thirteen years later we find ourselves in a frighteningly similar situation attempting to account for lives violently lost at the hands of the state.

Reclaiming Tivoli’s Humanity

Innocent lives were lost in Tivoli. And in response there was no national outpouring of grief, no demonstrations. Why? For many Jamaicans, a ghetto community like Tivoli is and will always be a bastion of criminals. Sadly, all residents in Tivoli, whether law-abiding or not, are generally lumped together and seen as unscrupulous elements of society. However, to write off Tivoli as a seat of criminality would be to woefully ignore the underlying post-independence socio-political issues of political tribalism and garrison politics that have helped to breed poverty and crime in the community and cement its present reputation in the national imaginary. It is this political machine that has also helped to breed a lack of respect and value for life in Tivoli Gardens.

This lack of respect for life in Tivoli can be traced back further than post-independence politics. It is rooted in the legacy of a classist and racist plantocratic system that condemned black bodies to inferiority. This legacy has meant that even in Jamaica, where there is a black majority, leadership and wealth, still, there is a valorization of certain bodies and spaces – those regarded as “uptown,” affluent and aspirationally white – and a chastisement of others – those taken to be “downtown” or poor, black and criminal. There is no denying that class and color shape which spaces are visited by the police and which are invaded. It is expected that the Enquiry, which ends this December, will tell the truth of what happened in Tivoli Gardens in May 2010. However, Tivoli’s truth is not a simple recounting of events, dates and names. It is a deeper one that demands of Jamaica a daily affirmation of the fact that Black Lives Matter. The declaration that they matter as much in Tivoli Gardens as they do in Kingston’s own Beverly Hills. Until we confront this truth, we will not be able to reclaim humanity for Tivoli’s innocents – those who lost their lives violently as well as those still living.

Bianca C. Williams

I am a feminist cultural anthropologist whose research interests include Black women & happiness; race, gender, and emotional labor in higher education; feminist pedagogies; and Black feminist leadership and organizing, particularly in relation to #BlackLivesMatter. My book, “The Pursuit of Happiness: Black Women, Diasporic Dreams, and the Politics of Emotional Transnationalism,” examines how African American women use international travel and the Internet as tools for pursuing happiness and leisure; creating intimate relationships and friendships; and critiquing American racism and sexism (Duke University Press, 2018). I have the pleasure of teaching at The Graduate Center, CUNY.

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