Crisis in Kingston

West Kingston, home to some of Jamaica’s most disadvantaged and ardently partisan, is under fire again. Emotions are running high in Jamaica and throughout the Jamaican Diaspora in the wake of clashes between Jamaica’s security forces and armed groups said to be protecting alleged Shower Posse leader Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke, 41, from extradition to the United States. The Jamaican government has declared a state of emergency and those living in or near the capitol are panicked by the conflict in which a reported 26 people, mainly civilians, have been confirmed dead. Twenty-one people are also reported dead in Spanish Town.

The fighting is the climax of a nine-month long process to get the son of the late Shower Posse leader, Lester Coke, to New York to answer charges relating to the trafficking in drugs and firearms. It has been rumored that Coke may not even be on the island.

Jamaicans within the country and beyond have called for the resignation of Prime Minister Bruce Golding, who has admitted that his administration has mishandled the U.S. request for Coke’s extradition.

Tivoli Gardens, ground zero in the clashes, is an area said to be controlled by Coke as a don. It is also the area for which Golding is the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) representative. This overlap has significantly muddied the waters on this issue as Golding’s foot-dragging on the matter of the extradition has been seen as another indication of the perilous relationship between gangsters and politicians in Jamaica – an issue that goes back to the bitter battles between armed supporters in the political wars of the mid-1970s.

West Kingston garrison communities, notably Tivoli Gardens – a JLP stronghold – and Rema – allied to the People’s National Party (PNP) – are zones marked by lack of opportunity, chronic poverty and their own peculiar set of societal rules. These zones are to some effect mini-states with their own leaders and penal codes. The communities within are very self-protective and have long had a siege mentality, but also little patience for community members or outsiders who do not conform to the rules as devised there. Justice is swift and brutal. Hardly anyone enters these zones unless an insider brings them in.

And when it comes to politics, the line blurs between the good-guy and bad-guy politician, for whomever hopes to have political success in these zones has to collaborate with the formidable dons who control the gangs and provide material support to residents.

Coke has the loyalty of Tivoli Gardens residents because he has taken care of them, paid for local children to receive an education and ensured strict enforcement of the rules, ironically making Tivoli Gardens a ‘safe’ community. To the people who recall with nostalgia the ‘fairy godfather’ days when Edward Seaga was in the same position that Golding now holds in Western Kingston, this dystopic world where this hermetic society lives – once a city garbage dump known as ‘Back-a-wall’ until the improvements under Seaga in the 1960s – rule by a don is as good as it can get. So while the Jamaican military battles armed fighters, in a country where gun possession among ordinary citizens is illegal, people in the garrisons have more faith in those fighting to protect Coke, and accuse the army of going on a killing spree.

But the unholy coalition of politicians and thugs, and the taint of corruption have led many Jamaicans to lose faith in the authority of the current government. Jamaicans inside the country and abroad are calling for a clean up of the tainted relationships between politicians and grassroots level community leaders, many of whom are criminals and de facto heads of their own mini-states.

At the root of this crisis, of course, is the lucrative market for substances deemed illegal by an international network of legitimate governments, most vocal among them the United States. It is these governments that have put drug use into the realm of crime rather than accept that it is a health and social matter.

Until there is a significant shift in the approach to this problem there will always be another ‘Dudus’.