Origins of urban violence and crime in [contemporary] Kingston

This essay examines the origins of crime and violence in Kingston, and proffers a conceptual framework that explains the nature and structure of the city’s criminal networks.

1938 Hunger Riots, Partisan Trade Unionism, Colonial Office’s Policy of Non–intervention

The global economic depression of the 1930s resulted in a slump in sugar prices and reduced wages for Jamaica’s working class (Hart 2002, Lodge et al. 2015:16). Efforts to diversify the economy focused on the less labour–intensive banana production, resulting in massive job loss. Consequently, poor living conditions—akin to those that led to the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion (Hutton 1996:30)—fuelled hunger marches across the island (Williams 2011:49). In 1938, restless peasants poured into Kingston in search of employment (Dawson 2016:190). The Colonial Office responded with lethal force which resulted in forty–six deaths (Hart 2002). The dispossessed peasants were desperate for leadership. When the colonial authorities ordered the police to shoot dock workers in Downtown Kingston, Alexander Bustamante, a white moneylender, commanded them to shoot him instead (Dawson 2016:191).

In May 1938, with the help of his cousin, Norman Manley, Bustamante launched the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU 2018). He made himself permanent president—an early sign of his propensity for autocratic leadership (Dawson 2016:191). The black working class readily accepted the decisions of this messianic figure who had gone to jail on their behalf. A few months after the formation of the BITU, Norman Manley became president of the newly established People’s National Party (PNP), which he ran on a socialist, pro–independence platform. The subsequent rivalries between the two cousins contributed greatly to Kingston becoming one of the most violent cities in the world (Edmonds 2016:57).

As a staunch supporter of the British Empire, Bustamante used violent tactics to destabilise the PNP. In August 1939, he drove “into a crowd of PNP supporters” (Dawson 2016:191). In September 1940, Governor Arthur Richards arrested him for “inciting political violence” (Dawson 2016:194). During his imprisonment, Manley became the de facto leader of BITU (Henry 2010).

Manley’s pro–independence agitation angered the Colonial Office, who, after confirming Bustamante’s anti–self–government stance, released him in 1942, mere days before declaring “that Jamaica was soon to be granted full universal suffrage” (Dawson 2016:195). The Colonial Office’s efforts to widen the divide within the political movement proved successful. Bustamante denounced socialism, formed the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in 1943, and won consecutive national elections. He used his platform as Jamaica’s Minister of Communication to “weaken his political and union rivals”. With the colonial administration’s blessing, “the JLP government made partisan and union affirmation the main (criteria) for awarding…government contracts” (Dawson 2016:200). Bustamante orchestrated attacks against the PNP, Trade Union Council (TUC), Jamaica Liberal Party and the Jamaica United Workers Union (JUWU)—which comprised former BITU officials who he physically assaulted following his release from prison (Dawson 2016:195). The police crafted numerous responses to complaints against JLP aggression in which they explicitly refused to protect PNP supporters from BITU/JLP attacks (Dawson 2016:195).

In 1946, Manley wrote a letter of complaint to Undersecretary for the Colonies, Creech Jones. In response to Manley’s plea for “fair play”, Jones reiterated the Colonial Office’s “policy of non–intervention”, despite also receiving complaints from other sources including the US State Department. According to Dawson (2016:211), this policy “gives the colonial state a central role in the institutionalisation of democratic violence” in Kingston. Jones’ response shattered Manley’s commitment to nonviolent resistance. By 1947, the PNP had created several “strong–arm groups” (Dawson 2016:205). The murder of two JPL supporters in the 1947 Battle of Jones Town confirmed the PNP’s decision to enter a deadly political war.

In 1952, Manley formed the National Workers Union (NWU) in order to strengthen the PNP’s political base (Bradley 1960:411). With victory in the 1995 elections, the PNP “had a much larger coffer from which to…reward supporters” (Dawson 2016:209). They eventually exceeded the JLP in the partisan award of state contracts, institutionalising such awards in their 1959 Group Leaders Training document. Dawson (2016:209) notes that “by the end of the PNP’s term in power, both political violence and patronage politics had become mainstays of (Kingston’s) democratic culture.”

Garrisonisation: The Institutionalisation of Political Violence in Kingston

The institutionalisation of political violence began after the JLP’s victory in the 1962 independence elections (Williams 2011). Like other newly independent Global South states, the JLP government adopted Sir Arthur Lewis’ industrialisation by invitation economic model (Girvan 2005:199). Jamaica’s underclass watched as the nation’s vast mining reserves disappeared without the promised improvements in their livelihood. Conversely, Kingston’s small white and mulatto class, led by politicians and descendants of colonialists, amassed substantial wealth (Rodney 1969:12). In 1963, groups of disempowered young men who called “themselves Rude Boys… (began) to fight each other for control” of Kingston’s ghettos (Edmonds 2016:58, O’Hagan 2014). Politicians in West Kingston—led by future JLP PM, Edward Seaga—saw the “growing lawless counterculture” as an opportunity to not only curb unauthorised disruptions but as a means of upholding political power. Seaga and the JLP organised Rude Boys into political gangs, offering cash and government contracts in exchange for the “fanatical loyalty” of constituents (Edmonds 2016:59). Additionally, as Clarke (2006:427) argues, the “divide–and–rule tactics of (politicians) vis–à–vis the ghetto” were employed to avert a class–based war in the immediate years after independence.

In 1963, the JLP government constructed housing schemes for its West Kingston voters and gangs (Maragh 2015). This was the beginning of political garrisonisation, a unique creation which “sets Jamaica apart from other Commonwealth countries” (Figueroa and Sives 2002:82). Figueroa and Sives (2002:85) define a garrison community as “a state within the state”, in which one’s opposition to the dominant political culture may result in forced conversion, expulsion, or death (Jaffe 2015:54). Garrisons are the “central aspect of Jamaica’s politics” (Figueroa and Sives 2002:82). The JLP government sought to established garrisons across several urban parishes. After promising to build houses for his supporters in the Southern St Andrew constituency, JLP’s Wilton Hill won his seat in the 1967 elections and became Minister of Housing. With Seaga as Minister of Finance, they “developed patron–client relations on a constituency–wide scale”—in communities like Trench Town and the newly developed “Wilton Gardens” (Clarke 2006:427).

The destitute working–class were resolved to kill in order to get their candidates elected. Figueroa and Sives (2002:98) stress the importance of understanding how the “psychology of tribalism” has prevented the forging of a national identity and “why many Jamaicans have been willing to give so much to the parties, often with little to show in return.” The “distribution of material benefits was (is) seen…as a legitimate reward for loyalty.” Tapping “into the political patronage network” was their only means of securing employment through housing contracts and other “state projects” (Clarke 2006:428).

These garrisons were/“are controlled by local strongmen known as dons” (Dawson 2016:186). Prerequisites for ‘donmanship’ include remorselessness (Levy 1996:13); involvement in organised crime and the willingness to act “as intermediaries for the distribution of political patronage” (Dawson 2016:186). As payback for political patronage, dons secure votes for MPs during elections (Figueroa and Sives 2002:84, Edmonds 2016:56). There’s the expectation that all residents will vote for the dominant party (unless otherwise orchestrated). Dons collect taxes from residents, protection fees from business owners and dispense justice via community courts. Edmond (2016:60) notes that “a degree of political protection insulated the gangsters from the reach of the security forces”. This autonomy enabled gangs to build vast criminal enterprises which stretched to “the United States, Canada and England” (Edmonds 2016:60, Volsky 1987). Much of their earnings were pumped into community projects. As such, several generations of young men grew up aspiring to attain “the wealth and status (of) dons, who they saw as role models in communities bereft of opportunities” (Edmonds 2016:60).  By 1966, a year before the general elections—which the JLP won—“the lines between the criminal and…political became increasingly blurred” (Edmonds 2016:59). Politically motivated attacks in Kingston, including bombings and western style shootouts left 20 people dead and 50 injured (Lacey 997:93). According to Edmonds (2016:59), this “seismic episode…of organised electoral violence marked Jamaican politics for the next forty years.”

When the PNP rose to power in 1972, they replicated “the JLP model” (Edmonds 2016:59) in Arnett Gardens. This new housing scheme doubled as “the military headquarters for gangs as anxious to do the bidding of their political masters as the JLP–affiliated gunmen in Tivoli Gardens” (Clarke 2006:426). The PNP welcomed those who the JLP displaced, creating a situation in which the lives and livelihoods of the urban poor were hollow outside of the domain of partisan politics.

By 1993, there were five full–edged garrisons in the Kingston Metropolitan Area and several semi–garrisons elsewhere in Kingston, in St Andrew and as far as St Catherine (Sives 2000). The Nation Housing Trust Act—established in 1976—“prohibited” the creation of garrisons. However, this did little to curb “the garrison effect” (Dawson 2016: 187).

Cold War: PNP’s Democratic Socialist Government, Destabilisation by JLP, CIA

The PNP and JLP operated at different ends of the Cold War’s ideological divide (Edmonds 2010). Two years after the JLP’s defeat in the 1972 elections, Michael Manley, the populist leader of the new PNP government, denounced capitalism and declared Jamaica a democratic socialist state. In response, the pro–US JLP, and “the CIA conducted lengthy destabilisation campaigns” (Edmonds 2016:55, Oliver 2001). The CIA provided money and guns to JLP leaders “and (their) affiliated gangsters” (Edmonds 2016:55). Jamaica became “one of the primary battlegrounds for progressive change in the developing world” (Edmonds 2016:61).

Manley’s socialist experiment could not have happened at a more inauspicious time. In addition to the 1973 OPEC oil crisis which widened the trade imbalance with the West, Manley’s “imposition of an increased bauxite levy” on Kaiser Aluminium and heavy taxes on other foreign investors, led to capital flight and mass relocation (Neita 2014). In 1978, Jamaica’s dire economic situation forced Manley to seek assistance from the IMF (Edmonds 2016:61). Protests against rising poverty rates created chaos in Kingston. JLP leaders launched calculated attacks against Manley’s government. Violence resulted in a steady stream of deaths on both sides.

In 1978, JLP gangster Claude Massop, asked reggae star Bob Marley to headline the bipartisan One Love Concert, which aimed “to bring about a reduction in violence” (Edmonds 2016:60, Young 2013). Politicians who viewed this as a “threat to the status quo” paid Rude Boys and police to disrupt the fragile truce (Edmonds 2016:62). One month after the concert, Lester Jim Brown Coke (“father of Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke”) arranged the murder of PNP don, Dennis Barth. Barth had worked closely with Massop in the peace process. Less than a year later, police shot Massop fifty times. By December “1979, all the gang leaders who had organised the truce had been killed” (Edmonds 2016:62). Several prominent “gunmen went into exile…with the assistance of the political elite” (2016:62). This “exodus” of gangsters to North America and England became the “foundation for the new international crime networks that (emerged)” in the ’80s (2016:63).

Eight hundred Kingstonians died in conflicts leading up to the 1980s general elections, which the JLP won in a landslide (Bertelsmann Stiftung 2016). By 1982, JLP gangsters had burned the homes of 17, 000 PNP supporters in Rema and Arnett Gardens (Edmonds 2016:63). By the 1990s, the political divisions were so entrenched that JLP supporters who accepted assistance (e.g. toilets) from the PNP government were murdered by pro–JLP gangsters (Clarke 2006:432).

1980sLiberalisation, Cocaine Trade, New Power Dynamics between Dons and Politicians 

The JLP’s victory in the 1980s elections led to the reestablishment of Jamaica’s relationship with the US. Jamaica’s economy struggled to recover from the slump of the ’70s. Despite increases in aid after the 1980s elections, “trade deficits tripled, with inflation reaching 30 per cent by…1985” (Edmonds 2016:63). New structural adjustments policies meant that politicians were no longer in a position to give state resources to gangs.

The emergence of the international drug trade in the 1980s vastly complicated Kingston’s crime culture (Clarke 2006:421). It marked a change in the balance of power between dons and politicians. Kingston stood “at the centre of a US$ 3–3.6 billion dollar crack–cocaine trafficking network” (Clarke 2006:433).The gangs turned to the trade, which “allowed them to become more autonomous” (Edmonds 2016:57). The export of marijuana to the US existed long before the cocaine trade. Routes were well established, and traders were versed in transhipment strategies (Sives 2002:80). By the mid–1980s, West Kingston garrisons became major transhipment hubs for Colombian cocaine.

With their newfangled wealth, “dons replaced the state as the major patrons of inner–city residents” (Edmonds 2016:64). Political campaigners turned to Kingston’s drug lords for funding (McKinley 1990). In turn, the state gave gangsters free reign. For instance, after Lester Coke arranged the “massacre of twelve people in Wilton Gardens in 1984…his connections with Seaga ensured that he did not face trial” (Edmonds 2016:65). Gangs began to fight for key transhipment points and drug related killings dwarf politically motivated murders. Before the turn of the century Kingston became one of the most violent cities in the world (Clarke 2006:460).

In the mid to late ’80s, the JLP and PNP took steps to regain control of garrisons. Both parties agreed to give state resources “directly to MPs” for them to disburse at their discretion. This shift led to a “resurgence in clientelism” (Sives 2002:80). This decision is a major source of contention in Jamaica’s contemporary political debates.

Conceptual Framework: Political Clientelism

Scholars (Sives 2002, Edmonds 2016) contend that the notion of political clientelism best explains the emergence and prolongation of crime and violence in Kingston. Flynn (1974:134) defines clientelism as a “personalised relationship between…sets of actors, commanding unequal wealth, status or influence, based on conditional loyalties, and involving mutually beneficial transactions.” Clientelism reduces the potential for conflict between the impoverished majority and the ruling class (Figueroa and Sives 2002:84).

Clientelism manifests in various ways. This paper focuses on clientelism “as a method of electoral mobilisation” (Stokes 2013), class control (especially via fabricated kinship) and organised crime. According to Stokes (2013), “the distributive criterion of electoral support…distinguishes clientelism from other materially oriented political strategies.” This kind of clientelism exists elsewhere, including in Brazil’s favelas, South Africa’s townships and the camorra in Southern Italy (Jaffe 2012:80). However, in addition to electoral support, Kingston’s unique brand of political clientelism prioritises extreme partisan violence, organised crime, the creation of autonomous garrisons with strongman leadership, and the denigration of the working class.

Clientelism has enabled Kingston’s “elite class…(to construct and maintain) a form of hegemonic consensus.” A critical feature of this scheme is the effective “capture of civil society” (Sives 2002:69) and “rebel cultures” (Gray 2004:11). Since 1944, the major civil society organisations that emerged from the working class have been aligned to the JLP or PNP. This was inevitable, given that political parties have “captured the spaces in which a counter–hegemony could be constructed” (Sives 2002:69)

Sives (2002:66) holds that political clientelism in Kingston is “a form of class control (which stuns) the development of horizontal political alliances amongst the urban poor”. The promise of largess stifles dissent and “dampens the demand for political and economic reform” (Edmonds (016:56). Politicians contain political violence within the boundaries of garrisons. Divisions among the poor suppress their desire to mount “anti–hegemonic challenges”, thereby “(halting) the development of horizontal alliances” (Sives 2002:68). As a result of this, “politics becomes a zero sum game (when) losing means the surrender of a job, house, and or contract” (Sives (2002:7). In addition to securing scarce benefits, violence creates solidarity and a sense of belonging due to its “inextricable link to…identity formation” (2002:72). These strong identities have made bipartisan stewardship very difficult. Bipartisan stewardship is especially difficult because garrisons are organised around the political philosophy of patrons. Alternative worldviews, such as religions or potentially subversive art are subsumed under this philosophy, making it nearly impossible for residents to exist outside of the prescribed paradigm.

Additionally, client–based interactions trap residents in a perpetual state of false consciousness regarding their kinship with the governing class. This perceived kinship is a complex undercurrent in Kingston’s clientelistic relations. At one end, it works as an inhibitor to dissent, leading to a fatalistic acceptance of the status quo (Sives 2002:68). At the other, it convinces the often gullible working class that politicians are working in their interest, when they are not. For instance, after the US issued an extradition order for JLP don, Christopher Coke, in 2009, then JLP PM, Bruce Golding, launched a robust yearlong defence of Coke’s civil rights (McGreal 2010). A defence disguised in rhetoric about Jamaica’s sovereignty and America’s bullyism. The PM’s long resistance enabled Coke’s army to recruit fighters, dig war trenches and block entrances into Tivoli (Edmonds 2016:55). Many Tivoli residents saw Golding as an ally, even though his actions where driven by the fear of Coke revealing JLP secrets to US authorities. Golding signed the extradition request in May 2010 and ordered a military incursion into Tivoli. Scores of people were killed (Edmonds 2016:55) and the injured have not received sufficient compensation.

The ramifications of political clientelism pervade Kingston. Clientelism has stifled civic engagement and critical public discourse. It has spawned a culture of extortions that transcends the geographical boundaries of garrisons. Business owners submit “to the culture either with the hope of receiving benefits or from fear of the consequences” (Figueroa and Sives 2002:99). Additionally, as Figueroa and Sives (2002:100) note, “the institutional cost of political violence associated with garrisons has been enormous…homes, infrastructure, schools…have been abandoned.” One of the worst consequences is the “widespread acceptance of law breaking” and the denunciation of “workmanship” (Figueroa and Sives 2002).  The expectation of patronage has spawned a generation of (predominantly) young men for whom taking illicit routes to quick and easy wealth is second nature.


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