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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Early Mornings (are a health hazard)

I’m hoping this becomes a trend.

Waking up early, I mean. Not suffering from smoke inhalation. It’s day six (?) of the Retirement Dump fire in Montego Bayor as we who live close by call it, “too damn long”. It’s really uncomfortable to wake up and go to sleep in the smell of smoke. Even more uncomfortable to do yoga in it. Not to mention the laundry. My bed sheets are soaking up the smog as we speak, and I don’t even want to think about my hair.

 

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DEATH FOG

One of my favourite things about our house-in-progress is that we finally have work desks right in front of the windows. But peering out my windows to contemplate the flowers in the garden is now a health hazard because I have to contend with emissions of carbon and god only knows what else in the air.

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Please ignore the cables and focus on the haze of death fog.

So on top of the probably indefinite State of Emergency, St. James is now slowly choking to death or at least serious illness. If bad things come in threes, I can’t wait to see what else is going to kick us when we’re down. That’s not true, I can totally wait. At least until I can breathe again.

 

 

 

Hopefully we come out of this with no serious ill effects. You know, other than migraines, chronic cough, upper respiratory infections,  exacerbated asthma. . . I could go on, but run on sentences are harder to do when the air is full of noxious fumes.

Til next time.

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.

***

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.

St. James: warm, welcoming, dangerous, defensive

This parish is a bundle of contradictions. While we smile and wave at tourists on the Hip Strip, lotto scammers fleece hundreds of thousands of dollars from unsuspecting (and greedy) foreigners. Upscale communities like Mango Walk and Ironshore are book-ended by their less refined counterparts Paradise and Flankers. In and around Montego Bay we are a thriving urban cesspool but you don’t have to drive too far out of town to find coconut groves, yam grounds and the occasional babbling brook.

When I went to Flamstead for a health fair Obie told me to make sure I got some coconuts (apparently Flamstead has good coconuts?). I ended up coming home with more than just coconuts, thanks to the generosity of rural folk and the fertile farmland that the community is nestled in.

In fact the good experiences I had at the health fair were entirely due to a brand of kindness that too many Jamaicans are growing up without these days. The church members who hosted us were more than accommodating, and the clients we interacted with were so polite! A far cry from the average short-tempered clinic patient. Jamaicans generally have a problem with patience (meaning we have very little) but aside from some minor hiccups the day was very productive.

As a thank-you gift (and because we asked, shamelessly) the church pastor sent us off with yam, sugar cane and other goodies. Even though I didn’t get home until after 6 I would gladly trade any sweltering unfriendly clinic shift with another day in the field like that one.

By strong and glaring contrast my home visits in the community of Flanker were filled with sharp zinc fences, sketchy looking dirt tracks and suspicious neighbours. Going to someone’s home is totally different from going to their community; home visits are a lot more intimate, and the experience was an eye-opener.

The contradictory nature of St. James came out full force again. Though it is a stone’s throw away from the planned upscale development of Ironshore, Flanker has a lot of captured land* and it is well known for having a violent streak. But while the stereotypical cruffs* congregated at every corner shop, behind the high gated walls you can find middle aged career types, retired couples and aging invalids. Yes, there were the common twenty-something girls with artificially lightened skin and lengthened hair, but in the same place a dirt road might actually lead to a house with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the beautiful bay.

I left Flamstead with gratitude. I left Flanker with grounding.

In my dispassionate survey of these alternate living situations, I recognized that there is no one way to be Jamaican, to be uptown or even to be ‘ghetto’.  Neighbourhood lines and bank accounts don’t always gel, and poverty cannot be measured solely on the basis of ones weekly income. I recognized that the struggle was so much realer that I could have imagined, because it was many struggles rolled in to one. How old you are impacts how much money you make impacts where you can afford to live impacts your access to health care. The intersections of the biological, psychological and social spheres of health were made suddenly and painfully alive.

But despite my personal revelations St. James will continue to woo visitors with visions of sandy beaches and gorgeous sunsets, while hiding their less savoury vistas behind highway rails and zinc fences. When will we improve the pathetic social infrastructure that is dragging our economy down? When will we realize that a nation’s people are its best investment?

 

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Cruff – unemployed male, usually in his twenties, who spends his days smoking weed, drinking rum and Boom and catcalling any girls unfortunate enough to pass by

Capture(d) land – land that isn’t legally owned (yet) by the person living on it