The following is a reaction to some of the news coming out of last week’s massive security offensive conducted in portions of Jamaica’s notorious West Kingston communities Tivoli Gardens and Denham Town. It was written on Thursday, May 27, 2010. Your comments are, as always, welcomed.
The security forces launched a massive offensive in one of Jamaica’s highly touted crime centres, Tivoli Gardens, four days ago. At the end, the body count in the West Kingston community registered seventy-three, including also some security personnel.
However, there is still no sign of the man they are seeking. The most notorious fugitive this side of the hemisphere, Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke has managed to elude the security forces’ grasp.
Tivoli Gardens which is reeling from the aftershock, following the upsurge in violence and instability, is also home to the internationally renowned ‘Passa-Passa’ street party event. Housed in what former Police Commissioner Rear Admiral Hardley Lewin referred to as ‘the Mother of all garrisons’, ‘Passa-Passa’ is rightly also the mother of all Jamaican streets parties. It too has been affected.
A garrison is a Jamaican reference to communities in which political parties establish strong men to mobilise votes through fear and intimidation and even death, in exchange for government and other kickbacks, when the party gets into power. Tivoli notoriously embodies these features.
On March 24th, this year, ‘Passa-Passa’ turned seven. The celebrations were marked by a bigger than normal extravaganza. Several Dancehall celebrities, including artistes and dancers participated in the late night event.
In retrospect, however, it could be argued that the widely regarded mysticism of the number seven may have suggested that some significant eruption was in the offing. On Wednesday, that unintended prophecy came to pass. Spanish Town Road and its environs were caught in the vicegrip of a looming crisis. The noise of the boisterous street party extravaganza had been extinguished; the thronging bodies stilled under the relentless fire of enemy forces.
There could have been any number of reasons, however, for the change in the atmosphere. Choose one. From the unrelenting assault of ‘Operation Take Back Tivoli’ lead against the community considered a hub for criminality, to the untenable conditions of those hold-up inside, as water and electricity were turned off to help smoke out the alleged crime lord; or even the stench of putrefying human flesh, as the resident crow ‘John’ circled above, savouring the options below.
Still, there is one greater reason – ‘Passa-Passa’s main patron and benefactor, Christopher ‘Duddus’ Coke is still at large. The strong-man-turned-fugitive has been on the run from unrelenting police and military fire, as the state declared war on criminal elements felt to be hiding inside Tivioli Gardens.
As a result, there was none of the usual bustle and excitement Wednesday; where the music generally pierces the night or the sea of dancing bodies and riotous colours defy the early dawn in their surreal transformation into unparalleled urban partying. Only the sounds of gun fire punctuated the dark, last night; the smell of death hanging heavily in the cool night air.
The drought appears to be lifting now. The much anticipated rains have started but only come intermittently; partially relieving the long endured heat which has hung over the capital like an unwanted veil. But even as the straggling clouds struggle to provide relief, the blood inside ‘the Garden’ has flowed freely, already soaking the parched earth below. The combination of rain, blood and death make for a morbid cocktail, not soon forgotten, even as the world watches with rapt attention.
Callers to local radio talk shows are not shy in their descriptions of what has transpired inside Tivoli; that is, in the absence of official media images and sound bytes. Journalists were barred from entering the war zone for three days. On ‘Day Four’, media personnel were given strict instructions by ground commandos of what to film and where to go. Left with little choice they had to rely on the reports given by the residents as their only ‘on-the-ground’ insights.
Conventional wisdom suggests, however, that onlooker accounts should be viewed with suspicion. After all, garrison communities are notoriously defiant in their responses to the perceived intrusion of the state. The media are considered a key part of that group. In fact, on the first day of the offensive, gangsters in the now dead zone made several threats against some journalists, in their efforts to penetrate the criminal fortress with their coverage.
The residents are the chief witnesses to the violence. While, they generally lack the sanitised vocabulary of the anglicised middle classes they conveniently make-up their own words like, ‘be-front’ and ‘dead-ing’ to epigraph their trauma. The latter underlining the conjugated continuous tense of a noun/ adjective dramatically converted to a verb for effect.
The speaker is animated now; her anger clearly showing. The wanton misuse of the English language is accentuated only by a violent choreography of arm movements while some of the other residents simultaneously perform ‘be-front’ the news cameras and recording equipment. They are re-enacting their panic and anger. In true, Jamaican inner-city style, sagging breasts fall out of skirts hurriedly hauled above distended bellies, as hairnets shift out of position, young children clutched in their mothers’ clenched fists. Everyone is seeking out their fifteen seconds of fame.
This is war. There are no pre-prepared media briefs, no eloquent spokespersons. Only grief, bloodshed and anger remain. And there is lots of that to go around. The impromptu performances help mediate the despair, offering meagre consolation to tired bodies and beaten spirits.
Now, the bawdy call of the deejay on electrifying sound systems disrupting the otherwise expected calm of the early morn has fallen silent. There is no prescription to nubile young women to ‘skin out’ because their ‘holes are good’. Or agile young men costumed in garish Dancehall paraphernalia, sweating profusely as they writhe in agonising pleasure to the latest dance tunes for awestruck audiences and the ubiquitous searchlight of the videographer, known in these parts as ‘the video man’.
Now, the once confident Tivoli Gardens’ residents are suddenly bashful. They hide their faces with pieces of cloth and old clothes from the glare of the media spotlight, as it harshly captures their darkest hours of death and starvation. They violently berate the security forces reserving their worst bile for the government, specifically their Member of Parliament (MP) and Prime Minister Bruce Golding. They have vowed never to vote again.
While that remains to be seen, however, the events of the last four days indicate a dramatic turn in events. It is all seriousness now. The music is gone and only the reverberation of gun fire and the spontaneous protest to register the collective disgust of the remaining few, the only orchestrated performances.
Stripped of the illusion of peace, Tivoli Gardens is now seen for what it really is, another impoverished and under-developed Jamaican inner-city enclave caught in the fight between the state and gun-toting thugs for ultimate control. The gangsters have wielded power for many years, calling themselves ‘dons’ and harnessing resources enough to repudiate the official advances of the state in restoring civility.
There is much here that the offensive has taught, even as the government battles the great public relations nightmare that must surely follow from this onslaught, internationally. The still resonant calls for the PM’s resignation are now hinged on why he came to make this decision after delaying for nine months and whether the bloodshed could have been avoided, altogether.
What happened to have caused a reversing of the hold-up in signing the extradition request by the United States Government? Is there any truth to the claims made by the US media organisation ABC that Mr. Golding is a ‘known criminal affiliate’ of Mr. Coke and that he was caught, along with other Jamaican government ministers in electronic communications with the reputed crime lord?
Notably, the Government has vehemently denied the accusation, threatening legal action if there is no retraction. All wait to see.
In the meantime the question of whether it is sufficient to just ‘bring back the love’ to the now decimated inner-city community seems more than appropriate though only an afterthought. After all, ‘Passa-Passa’ absorbs the boundless energies of unemployed young men, as they dance their troubles away, under the watchful surveillance of the ‘President’s’ men.
Tivoli operates under the well constructed narrative of being well organised. Everyone knows that breaking the rules of ‘order’ will have dire consequences. Indeed, any kind of action which threatens to sully the already tarnished image of this garrison community as disorganised attracts deadly penalties. Hence, ‘Passa-Passa’. It is the ultimate illusion of power, calm and relaxation.
Except today, the complaint is different. Bodies are allegedly being burned in the community, while others are said to be buried without dignity in mass graves. All semblances of order and civility are gone now. Jamaica has slipped in the international ratings. There is no civility, stability, modernity or democracy here now, as per the recent Tivoli offensive.
Perhaps some of the very dancers often decked out in their colourful scarves, form fitting jeans and braided hair, during earlier editions of ‘Passa-Passa’ now lay dead in the mass graves – faceless, nameless and without dignity. Their bodies unceremoniously disposed of in holes in the nearby May Pen Cemetery, itself reeking with the stench of death.
In all this, however, one thing is certain – the music has stopped. There is no ‘Passa-Passa’ and still no ‘Duddus’!