BY MARK WIGNALL, Contributor
There are many young men, and women too, who believe that the laws of the land and the justice system are held together by the most powerful gang on the block. That gang they see as government with its army of gunmen (JCF and JDF) and dons (parliamentarians) with hired mouthpieces in the media, academia and sections of civil society.
They may not have assimilated it as how I have stated it, but in the context where government consigns some of them to live in the heavy smoke and stink of Riverton, make available to them ‘residential lots’ on the edge of riverbeds and gully banks and rural hill country, corral many of them in dense inner-city pockets, lock them out of the quality education system and a shrinking job market and, to add insult to injury, on too many occasions are set upon by the government’s official gunmen (police), to many of them some are quite justified in forming their own gangs with their own army of gunmen.
I am not making out a case that the majority of the poorest among us are gang members or are in favour of shooting and mayhem, but tomorrow morning as you have your visiting gardener wash the car and put a shine on it before you head out to your place of employment or business, it is useful to remember that it was just about five years ago that then Housing Minister Dr Horace Chang stunned the nation when he informed us that about a million of our people were living in about 700 squatter communities islandwide.
In plain language that meant that they didn’t own the land, couldn’t afford to buy land or pay rental. Many of them lived without running water, electricity or proper sanitation. About one-third of our nation’s people!
In the aftermath of the Kartel trial, conviction and life sentence (he will be 73 before his first parole hearing), the police high command issued a press release which highlighted what many in the journalistic community already knew. Indeed, there is much more that the release could have said.
What I saw in that release is an understanding by all, including those at street level, that money can purchase everything (in most instances) from the friendly nod of kings and princes to the fanatic acquiescence of those living on the dump heap of poverty. It’s only a matter of the pricing structure.
Again, the street learnt another most valuable lesson when they saw ex-parliamentarian Kern Spencer walking away to breathe the sweet air of freedom without having to answer to any charges alleging corruption of many hundreds of millions of dollars and Kartel entering a cage and being forced to make it his home for the rest of his life.
The strength and influence of ‘street government’ reached its zenith when ‘Dudus’ from Tivoli Gardens was operating his highly structured operation with the full knowledge of JLP and PNP politicians. When his ’empire’ began to crumble and the all-powerful US decided that he was most wanted, there were many reports from certain sources that a number of politicians and government officials had grown very scared because of real or perceived threats on their lives.
Indeed, one of the ‘threats’ I heard at the time was that if a favourable resolution was not arrived at, the war would be taken to uptown communities. In the wee hours of the morning when my drinking buddy Keith Clarke was being brutally shot to death in his home at Kirkland Heights in May of 2010, I was excessively scared because I lived just about 400 metres away and, not knowing what was happening, I thought that the uptown war had began.
The recent release from the police high command states that during and after the Kartel trial, threats were made against the DPP’s office, senior policemen and other witnesses for the prosecution. In the annals of how justice is arrived at in Jamaica, if not actually dispensed, I am certain that precedence for that sort of shifting of gears to arrive at a set destination had already been established.
In the 1970s and 1980s Jamaica’s most notorious criminals murdered with impunity, and after being arrested (that is, if they were arrested at all) they laughed at the police, the courts and the nation because they were fully aware that eyewitnesses would never show up, especially where many rogue cops were on their payroll.
Under Commissioner Ellington, if there has not been the earth-shattering change that many of us would have preferred in our unrealistic impatience, there are signs that this police commissioner is serious about his job, his legacy and the sort of policing that a civilised country ought to practise. We are not there yet, and in fact, we are quite far from it, but I am pleased at the steps being taken.
Is there, however, another side that we are refusing to acknowledge?
The existence of police death squads is no great revelation
In the action movie, The Punisher, there is this quote from ‘Frank Castle’, whose entire family was murdered by an organised criminal outfit. At that stage Castle is planning to do what the police have failed to do.
“In certain extreme situations, the law is inadequate. In order to shame its inadequacy, it is necessary to act outside the law… to pursue natural justice. This is not vengeance. Revenge is not a valid motive, it’s an emotional response. No, not vengeance. Punishment.”
Most of us who have the luxury to ‘dispense justice’ from our armchairs or while sipping Chardonnay have a lot in common with the man at street level. Many share the belief that certain rogue cops are necessary to silence those who need to be punished.
A man and his cronies enter your home while you are away. They rape your wife and 12-year-old daughter and leave them half-dead with beatings and stabbings. They are held by the police, taken before the courts, where defence lawyers make them out to be angels who are always first in their class at Sunday School.
Your daughter cannot testify because her mind is in another place and she cannot be reached by anyone. She is scarred for life. Your wife is made out to be a liar and maybe even a slut who knew one of the men and was harbouring some nebulous feeling of jealousy against him. The men are freed and they laugh on the way out of court.
This is not a movie script, but real life. What do you do and who do you call? Certainly not the ghostbusters!
Ever since the Pratt and Morgan decision by the British Privy Council that keeping murderers on death row for five years and more constitutes cruel and inhumane punishment, lawyers in Jamaica have manipulated it to get their clients freed from the death penalty and instead, settle for life with the possibility of ‘early’ parole.
When that is added to the fact that hardly any witnesses will be willing to show up in support of the prosecution and the State is bogged down by a backlog of 400,000 cases, justice in Jamaica is a dream that only the very rich can manipulate with cash.
How does one force a murder case to the very top of the roster if the names involved are ‘no-name’ people? Worse, how does one even get the police, overworked as they are, to investigate to conclusion murders involving the many ‘no-name’ people in this country?
It has to be borne in mind also that even in cases where a conviction is secured and the murderers get life in prison, many eventually get institutionalised to the point that they are able to continue their criminality from right inside GP where the warders are the real kings with the ability to control not just what contraband gets in but also what information gets out.
Many uptowners and those at street level still love the iconic Reneto Adams because he was always seen as a fearless cop who fought back against terror and made many communities feel safer. Some saw him as having an acute understanding of the ‘shackles of the law’ and its inadequacy, especially in the Jamaican context where known murders acted with impunity and thumbed their noses at the nation.
So, if certain cops are aware of murderers and the inadequacy of the system to put them away, can it be justified that there are death squads in the police force?
The official answer is no, but to what extent does the official answer bear any relevance to pragmatism and the experience of the mostly poor living in ‘Hell Dump?’
Now, I have stated that the poor understand how justice is dispensed in Jamaica, and one important part of that understanding is that they will never get it. There are contradictions, of course, in that it was the experience of say, residents of Tivoli Gardens in the ‘reign’ of Dudus that one could leave one’s door open and nothing untoward would happen. But of course, a price of loyalty and silence was demanded in return.
In other words, one had freedom but only to the extent that the ‘president’ deemed it so. So the question always comes down to what price is one willing to pay for justice?
If death squads in the police force ‘clean up’ (a term first used in the late 1960s to mean kill) known murderers in various communities, even though those cops are ‘shaming the inadequacy of the law’ into bringing a pragmatic solution to the problems of the people who are feeling the pangs of criminality, at some stage in the search for civility those very cops will have to be made an example of.
The obvious danger is, how does one turn off a killing machine? Until the justice system dispenses real justice, that is, until the police force has the capacity to investigate murders and hold the culprits, and the courts can speedily pass them through to conviction instead of guaranteed acquittal, we will continue to have death squad cops, some of whom are the first line of defence between the poor and the murdering pack.
Of course, another contradiction creeps in where death squad police are sometimes seen as both community antagonist and community protector.
Do I support death squads in the police force? Of course not, especially because I have been personally assaulted by the police — first when I was 15 and next when I was 39. And I have witnessed many of them brutalising ghetto people.
But have my views changed since?
The simple answer is, a society’s viability spins on civil order. We are still far way from being a civil society, so what does that mean?
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