a word on checkpoints and the assailing of women’s bodies

The State of Emergency is now in its tenth month. Violent crime levels appear unabated. Every issue of the Western Mirror carries a front page headline on some gruesome murder or gunfight.

Twice daily checkpoints are my new normal, since I live and work in two separate parishes. I drive through, waving to the unlucky soldiers assigned to stand in the middle of the road in the grueling summer heat, and smile.

At first I would approach each checkpoint with a sense of trepidation. Would they stop me to search my car? And then annoyance. Would they stop me to try and get my number? My experience was getting harassed by soldiers and police officers alike who appeared to have no other reason to stop me than to chat me up like a man in a bar. It was unprofessional and frustrating.

I used to slow and stop so that the officer or soldier could peer into the car, but these days I slow down just enough to give a brisk wave unless I’m told otherwise. This is just another way one learns to navigate social conventions as a person of the feminine gender.

After a while, when my frustration had faded to good-natured acceptance, I started to notice female soldiers now deployed to man the line. One day while cruising through at my snail pace, I overheard a bus driver call out a raunchy greeting to the lady soldier standing in the road. I cringed, and questioned.

Beyond the sexism that exists among one’s professional colleagues, a sexism that can potentially be challenged and eroded by professional success, is there a deeper and more pervasive sexism in society at large that undermines the execution of professional ‘gender roles’?

Is there a certain level of respect accorded to soldiers and police officers? Do we accord that same respect when the soldier or police officer is a woman? And does the change in tone when addressing a female member of the armed forces imply a lack of respect, or is it simply a neutral cultural phenomenon?

I’m pretty sure that woman was used to getting catcalls in her line of duty, and many women are. Some find it annoying, some find it flattering, and for some it’s just a part of life, neither good nor bad. In my culture there are many things that my liberal ideology struggles to accept, and this is one of them.

Is it inappropriate and unacceptable for a man to calls out ‘Psst, babes‘ when a woman walks by? Is it only inappropriate when he does it to certain Women, or in certain Spaces? Does the acceptability depend on the man’s intention: to objectify and assault, or to compliment and affirm? If the action is allowed, is there an expected response? Is it rude to ignore them? It certainly seems that way.

And is it really such a big deal?

In some spaces it can be. As a general rule I ignore the leaking air and the catcalls, but on certain streets I make damn sure to respond with a polite greeting. At issue here is the concept of danger. On main roads I feel safe enough to ignore the calls; on side streets I am too aware of my vulnerability to invite an uncertain threat. I fear, so I conform. But does this make me complicit in a social norm I desperately wish would change?

I don’t have the answers, but I think it’s important that we start talking somewhere. A catcall on a lonely avenue isn’t the same as being sexually assaulted, but the threads of gender-based violence run deep. Until we can pick up the ends, wherever they are scattered, we will never begin to untangle that knot.

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Oh, Say it Ain’t ZOSO

The latest buzzword in the Jamaica crime scene is these Zones of Special Operations (ZOSO). ZOSO is an Act recently passed by Parliament which allows for the use of “special measures” to uphold public law within “certain geographically defined locations”.

At face value this Act sounds like an Act of Discrimination, like the Prime Minister is giving the security forces full permission to kick down people door and mash up dem tings, but only within specifically designated areas of course (aka ghettos). But according to the Jamaica Gleaner, the Bill is trying to balance the need for extreme measures in the battle against crime and violence with the fundamental need for the protection of citizens’ rights.

On September 1 the PM declared Mt. Salem, St. James the very first ZOSO. Acting on information that was later challenged by residents of the community (backed up by the Councillor for the area), Mr. Holness may well have moved somewhat rashly. But despite the less-than-sinister statistics, Mt. Salem is still perceived as a tension-driven melting pot of criminal activity. Driving through that community just last week I heard one woman cussing another spit menacingly, “You feel seh ah you one know gunman!”

So there is no question about the need for increased police attention, even with a police station already on the main road. What I do feel needs to be questioned is the approach to the citizens on the left and right sides of the Mt. Salem main road. And yes, I’m talking about a literal representation of the ubiquitous class divide.

After you pass the hospital, on the left hand side going into Salem the side streets display large, well-painted two and three storey houses. There are garages with cars, the houses are populated by a mainly middle-aged and retired set of citizens, and the streets themselves are paved (for the most part) and wide enough to accommodate two lanes of traffic.

Flip the script, and observe the right hand side of streets. They are narrow and winding, descending sharply into one way lanes and dead ends. There are two and three storey concrete structures at the intersection yes, but as you advance further along, there are more board houses, less space for cars to fit and a dramatic increase in shady characters lurking on street corners. Some taxis don’t even carry people here.

Obviously infrastructural problems have played a huge role in this divide, and real estate prices drive people left and right as their pocketbooks allow but my real contention is that there are two very different classes of citizens living in Mt. Salem and my concern is that one set will end up with the “special measures” while the other enjoys the “protection of citizens’ rights”. So far I haven’t heard anyone cry foul (quite the opposite) but in these cases the voices of the downtrodden rarely make it past the streets where they are stepped on.

What ZOSO excels at is highlighting the blurred geographical lines of Jamaica’s class divide. It is a truth universally acknowledged that beside every uptown is a ghetto: Ironshore has Flankers, Westgate Hills has Mt. Salem, Mango Walk has Paradise and Norwood. . . The list goes on, and this is just in St. James. But as time has progressed, social climbers (including scammers) have managed to straddle these communities and erase the demarcations. ZOSO is a potent and pointed reminder that “ghetto people” are considered criminals before they even open their mouths. Reminds me of that Etana song.

Ultimately, I don’t think ZOSO will be an effective crime-fighting strategy. It is too much of an acute solution to a long term problem, too much of treating the symptom and not the disease.

Man goes to the doctor and says Doc, I have these headaches. Doctor says, Take these painkillers. Man dies of a brain tumour*.

What have we learnt?

Crime and violence in our society is directly related to our social infrastructure: education, employment and parenting, underlined by systemic political and judicial corruption. Opportunities for legitimate engagement are scarce while guns are plenty and every little boy is raised to be ‘tough’. Legal jobs grant you enviable social standing but it’s the under the table stuff that sends your kids to offshore schools. This culture is entrenched and serves far too many powerful people for it to be overturned overnight.

But that doesn’t say we can’t try.

In his Letter to the Editor, Dr. Canute Thompson expounds on the theory that attacking these root causes will ensure a sustainable decrease in crime statistics. He lays out an innovative approach to community development involving skills training and infrastructural reform. Granted it raises a whole new set of questions, but it’s a solution that just might make Jamaica the place of choice to live, work, raise families and do business.

–*–

*I am compelled to disclaim that headaches are not usually the presenting symptom of a brain tumour. Not every headache needs a CT scan. The point is that you need to rule out a more serious problem. /medic

The few, the smartphoneless, and the violently jealous

These days it’s as strange to meet someone without a smartphone as it is to meet someone who isn’t on Facebook, or who only has a Lime (one of two local networks) phone. But we’re out there. Well, I’m on Facebook, but the other two are totally me.

Smartphones have become de rigeur among Jamaicans, with the more affluent among us owning not just one, but two. Yes. The Blackberry is the Lime phone and the iPhone is the Digicel. Of course the allure is understandable: you have the internet at your fingertips, not to mention cameras and MP3 capabilities. It’s like a computer that fits in your pocket. What’s not to love? People my age are all over them for the instant communication of BBM (not that anyone uses it that much any more) and the du jour What’s App. Sometimes I catch students revising Powerpoint presentations on them too. They’re multi-functional, I get it.

But they’re still just a technological fad, and one that will fade or change or become obsolete with time. It happened to the early “fridge” cellphones; it happened to the first room-sized computers; it will happen to everything. Everything is eventually improved upon.

I’m in no rush to get a smartphone, because riding that wave only leads to wanting more, more, more. You get the Bold, then you have to get the Bold 2, the Bold 3, the iPhone, the Samsung Galaxy, the Galaxy 3. Hell, I want a smartphone, but I’m smart enough to know that that way lies madness. Always, there is the rush to keep up with the times and with your friends. It leads to all kinds of disparities and envy, and once people get jealous they get angry. They do stupid things.

Last week my friend’s phone got stolen because some jerk decided he wanted one too, and instead of getting one legally or accepting the fact that he couldn’t, he decided to gang her with a couple of his friends and just take it. But I don’t want to digress into our social injustices; that’s a whole blog on its own.

To all the smartphone users out there – and someone is probably reading this on one – be careful about where you use your gadgets and who you use them around. Play nice; don’t leave people out just because they don’t have email on tap. And be grateful for what you’ve got. 50 years ago, we didn’t even have cellphones.

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If you’re interested in more discourse on technology and communication, my friend Ray blogs about that very thing on So Says Ray. Go check it out.