Notes from a State of Emergency

Sometimes I forget why I like writing so much. It’s not a habit or some intrinsic drive. Lord knows if I had internal motivation this blog would be updated with something resembling regularity (perish the thought). I like writing because I’m convinced that there are stories out there waiting to be told, and I am the one who needs to tell them. Like the nebulous dreams in The Land of Noddy (credit: Roald Dahl) waiting to be caught and dreamt, there are stories floating in the ether waiting to be heard and written. This is one such story.

This post has a soundtrack. Plug your headphones in and enjoy ‘Caution’ by Damian Marley.

Living in Montego Bay these days feels a lot like living in a fish bowl. Everyone keeps peering in at you and tapping the glass, wondering how you breathe in the same fluid that you keep pooping in. There’s a distinct ‘This is Water‘ kind of vibe, and most residents are aware of the Elephant in the Room in an abstract “Oh yes, that’s a problem” way. The Elephant is, of course, gun violence. St. James has been running hot for a while, with a body count that far outstrips the rest of parishes in terms of people murdered since the start of the year. We closed out 2017 with a record 335 murders.

The government’s initial response to the wave of crime sweeping the country was the creation of ‘Zones of Special Operations’ which gave soldiers and police officers license to set up shop in specified communities where they could question and detain ‘persons of interest’. The first ZOSO was in Mt. Salem, and at the time I lived in a neighbouring community. The ZOSO didn’t really change much about my day to day life, but then I have the privilege of (1) being a woman and (2) living in a community with significantly less stigma. Additionally, I don’t bleach my skin and I don’t drive a so-called ‘scammer car’ (you know, the super expensive ones that ghetto youths buy overnight) so I didn’t fit the typical profile of a ‘person of interest’.

Fast forward to January 2018 and the establishment of a State of Emergency for the parish of St. James. The SOE again grants police officers and soldiers the “power to search, curtail operating hours of businesses, access places and detain persons without a warrant” (JIS, 2018). The Prime Minister reassured citizens that law enforcement officers have been trained in human relations and are expected to treat all persons with dignity and respect.

But the gap between the rich and the poor looms ever wider.

Privileged business owners like Jason Russell complain that the change has hampered Pier 1’s delivery of the ‘tourism product’ (read: Pier Pressure lock off too early). Meanwhile people from poorer communities retaliate futilely against the invasion of their homes and lives as in the case of Lasco, Lost and Found. Overcrowding in the lock-ups creates a public health nightmare, and some of these ‘persons of interest’ are as young as 16 years old. Always the scales are tipped against the disenfranchised, the impoverished and the uneducated. If the US struggles with systemic racism, then institutionalized classism is Jamaica’s cross to bear.

The system designed that stony is the hill dem cyaa climb

Too much, cry the privileged whose lives are only hampered by violence when steps are taken to prevent it. Long lines of traffic at parish border checkpoints cause frequent delays. Businesses forced to close early lose profits.

Too little too late, cry the families whose lives have been shattered by gun and steel. Just last week my hairdresser buried her 26 year old son, gunned down with his baby mother on their way home. He was three months younger than me.

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I straddle a world of relative privilege (a world I work hard to stay in), but my eyes are glued to the harsher realities that exist outside of my immediate bubble. The struggles and paradoxes that perpetuate our systemic inequalities have continued to be forced into a harsh light by the social media coverage of this State of Emergency. But not many of us are ready to see it, to stare without blinking at the uncomfortable truth.

The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.

This is water. Pay attention.

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

{Guest Post} Speaking the truth is not homophobia… Right?

It’s a very clever slogan. The anti-homosexual lobby in Jamaica has really outdone itself this time. It’s catchy, it helps bolster the idea of the need for freedom of speech, it fits neatly on a placard.

But, is it true?

Before we get into it, I think we need to briefly address what ‘homophobia’ actually means. Many want it to mean, “Fear of homosexuals.” But it doesn’t. In most use around the world, it refers to discriminatory action or thoughts against homosexuals, including having heteronormative ideals. We can’t fight that, no matter how hard we try. We can’t make a word mean what it doesn’t; language doesn’t work like that, unfortunately. So, to be clear, I am using the term ‘homophobic’ for homosexuality in the same sense that ‘racism’ applies to race.

Credit: flickr user jDevaun
Credit: flickr user jDevaun (click for link)

Next, we have to break down ‘truth’. I presume it refers to honesty, whether it refers to accurately reporting scientific/statistical information, or when expressing thoughts, emotions, and opinions. The question we have to ask now is, “Can this still be homophobic?”

Let us look at a few scenarios. A young girl is told that she is pretty “for a black girl”. A few minutes later, her friend makes a passing remark about how bad her “tough” black hair is. A decade after that, she is told by a professor that he is impressed with her work, that he did not expect it from someone who looks like her.

What would you call the aforementioned comments made to this girl, and then to this woman? Would you say they are racist? I think many of you would. What if I told you that the people who said these things to her were speaking the truth, that they were being honest?

Credit: flickr user Carlos Smith
Credit: flickr user Carlos Smith (click for link)

So, let us think of a gay man who happens to tell his female friend that he is gay because she just expressed a romantic interest in him, and he didn’t want to lead her on. She tells him he doesn’t act gay. She means it as a compliment. She’s speaking the truth. But couldn’t that be homophobic? Holding preconceived notions of what a gay man acts like is no different from telling someone, “You don’t act [insert racial, religious, other affiliation here].” Who are you to decide what [blank] looks like? And saying it with a smile suggests that you think it’s less-than to act [blank]. Is that not discriminatory?

I should mention here that discriminatory thoughts and comments like that are not limited to those outside the group. Sometimes the most vocal ‘pretty hair’ and ‘browning’ rhetoric comes from those you consider one of you. In the same vein, it is arguably homophobic when gays themselves look down on others for not being ‘straight-acting’. Discrimination is discrimination, no matter where it comes from.

Credit: Flickr user Dimitri dF (clink for link)
Credit: Flickr user Dimitri dF (clink for link)

The above examples have been fairly innocuous, but, to further explain the point, let us go with something a bit more likely to stir up some emotion: HIV. The ‘plumbing’ involved in much male-male sexual activities makes it ‘risky’; the rectal lining is thin enough (and easily damaged enough) for HIV and other pathogens to pass through, and so infection can spread. So, HIV/AIDS and its statistics are often mentioned in anti-homosexual rhetoric. But, is that homophobic?

What if I told a young lady that she was better off being a lesbian, because HIV is more easily passed through penile-vaginal sexual encounters than lesbian sexual encounters. I’m being truthful. The statistics do say that but surely you see the problem. Do you really except a young woman to give up men just because of that? So, why say the same kind of things to (and about) homosexuals? Why associate HIV/AIDS so exclusively to homosexuals when condoms and lubrication work just as well for them as for the heterosexuals?

I think it should be clear by now that truthfulness and homophobia can exist together. Clever as the catch-phrase is, it does not really stand up to scrutiny, I am afraid. In my opinion, it is intellectually dishonest to hide discriminatory words behind a banner of ‘truth’. As a society, we should do better.

Credit: Alan Groffman
Credit: Alan Groffman (click for link)

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Ken, also known as Mr Multilingual, is a tutor of Japanese, and a sign language interpreter. After listening to both ‘sides’ of this issue, he decided some definitions were in order.