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.
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.