Free to do what?

One lamentable aspect of modern Jamaica is the level of violent crime. Once dubbed the ‘murder capital of the world’, Jamaica, especially the Kingston corporate area, remains tightly associated with being killed violently. Murders have risen from about 80 a year just before Independence to over 1600 in recent years, from around 9 per 100,000 people in 1961-2, to 63 murders per 100,000 in 2009. That is a truly horrific development.

Yesterday was Emancipation Day, 2010-06-21-1.EmancipationParkKingstonJamaicaand it prompted some friends to comment on what Jamaica has to show for the long road travelled from slavery to freedom. Would our ancestors be standing agape that we were now using our freedom from the brutalities of slavery to brutalize each other, and to chop, stab, shoot, poison and strangle each other to death? To the extent that the growth in violence is related to other crimes, such as drug dealing or extortion or corruption, and may be ‘organized’, it requires a different response than if the violence is in some sense the outcome of disputes in simple domestic relations. Neither type is excusable, and both reflect a certain disregard for human life, but I don’t see them as being the same problems.

I am not a product of modern Jamaica, meaning I have little experience of living here since Independence. The Jamaica I remember is that of the 1950s. As a boy, I heard about crime, but cannot recall witnessing any. I knew there were criminals because I lived near the prison in downtown Kingston, and it was full of ‘bad men’. So, I have not had to see and live through the escalation in crime that has taken place over the past 50-plus years. I read and heard about it, but it did not really affect my daily life. I had to deal with living in other violent or crime-ridden places, but the nature and development of Jamaica’s crime problem did not appear to be the same as I experienced in London and Washington DC.

Crime is not new to this small island, but violent crimes on a daily basis were not the norm before Independence, and it stayed that way well into the early 1970s.Academic studies (using data from Economic and Social Survey of Jamaica) have divided the development of crime in Jamaica since Independence into three distinct phases: ‘The first phase (1962-1976) is marked by a predominance of property crimes and relatively low rates of violent crime. This is consistent with the traditional pattern of criminal offending seen during the colonial period. The second phase (1977-late 1980s) marks the turn to violent crime. While in 1974, 10 percent of all recorded crimes were violent, by 1984, 41 percent of all recorded crimes were violent. The third stage (roughly 1989 to the present) is characterized by two major developments: the rise of transnational organized crime and the development of a subculture of violence.’ Many will see the turning point in the mid-1970s as having its root in a disturbing alliance between criminals and politicians, involving guns and drugs. Would that our rulers could be so uncaring for our people? Some would see a horrible irony in the creation of new ‘slave masters’ amongst those whom the people had chosen as their representatives.

Few people in Jamaica remain untouched by crime and violence, and are rightly fearful that they may become victims. How Jamaica has developed in recent decades is testimony to that, with the ubiquitous presence of bars and grills on homes–veritable prisons in what people used to term their ‘castles’. In Kingston, we see the rise in gated communities. Across the country, we see the rapid growth in security companies, whose adverts now show proudly men armed seemingly for major military operations, almost as a minimum requirement for a safe and decent life. Sadly, they have supplanted the police force–whom few trust because of their proven culpability shown by the huge docket of unsolved crimes and their participation in crimes–as the persons to whom citizens turn if they are under threat.  People who live in upscale Kingston neighbourhoods state that they wont walk there any more because of the risk of attack, which may be small in reality, but is enough for them to perceive it as posing too big a risk. Fittingly and ironically, many prefer to walk in Emancipation Park in New Kingston. I also visit few homes that do not have at least one ‘bad’ dog in the yard, and three and four dogs are quite common: if their bites are as bad as their barking, then the burglar or intruder wont have an easy time. I see many homes with alarm systems. That’s modern Jamaican life. In the race of that, however, it seems that (legal) civilian gun ownership in Jamaica is relatively low–about 8 per 100,000 people, compared to 6 per 100,000 in the UK, 2 per 100,000 in Trinidad, and a whopping 100+ per 100,000 in the USA.

But, given the perceived risks of violent crimes, I see a good number of apparent residents walking the roads in upscale neighbourhoods each evening (as opposed to the many workers walking from those neighbourhoods to get home by taxis and buses). In general, the population has not been held captive by the risk of violent crime: people still go out at night and stay out late, though they may do this with a high degree of caution, and they may be choosing venue that seem to have better security (though this is hard to tell). I see people walking alone late at night, both women and men. (I have no idea how many do so with personal arms available to offer some self-protection.) People head out to clubs and parties into the wee hours of the morning. People will also attend mass events with apparent readiness, presumably with some trepidation, but they go anyway. Many people blithely walk along with cell phones, talking and texting, even though thefts of phones and related crimes are prevalent.

Life in poorer neighbourhoods is hard, and to the extent that many violent crimes happen in an around such areas makes it more likely that they will avoided, if possible, especially after dark. Many of these areas are not frequented casually during the daytime. I’ve not seen any signs that they carry any chic appeal, yet, and may be on the cusp of some transformation through the kind of gentrification common in some industrial countries. So, it’s still largely a case of “those poor people…”. Bad things happen to them and that’s the status quo; those who can, avoid those areas. I would be thought crazy if I suggested taking a stroll through the run down and delapidated structures that mark much of downtown Kingston (but, it’s on my ‘to do’ list :-)).

The daily news is littered with gory stories that reflect a wanton brutality that is all-too-common. Reports of missing persons are often tinged with the fear that someone has been abducted and will be found mutilated in bushes somewhere. The apparent randomness of some violent crime is a destabilising influence on many lives. Driving with locked car doors and windows is more the norm. You will find it hard to hide from the feeling that crime is everywhere. While, it may not be right to say that the high level of violent crime is accepted, it is more a part of everyday life than it should be. I was talking to a cousin about things her husband used to do, such as eat roast fish at the weekend with a friend, when she glibly stated “Dem kill him” to report that his friend was no longer around. I didn’t ask then who ‘they’ were, but therein lies a tale.

A well-argued analysis published in the Gleaner last year, by Bernard Headley (retired professor of criminology and professor emeritus (sociology) at the North-eastern Illinois University, Chicago, USA), looked at the rise in crime since Independence, putting much blame on the major changes in the society that resulted in fast population growth, rapid urbanisation and dramatic changes in the nature of economic growth (moving from mainly rural/small community and self-sufficient, to urban dwelling (including the development of large squatter communities) and industrial production). We may want to argue with his thesis, but we have to acknowledge the rise in violent crimes that has been associated with these developments. Rising economic and social inequalities have been linked to increasing poverty and deprivation, and with that, alienation or marginalization of large groups of society. That has been at the root of rising crime in many urban areas, not just in Jamaica.

Many groups and places in Jamaican society are now steeped in crime, often violent, and accept (unwillingly, but inevitably, one presumes) that as a part of their life. Unfortunately, many young people see that as part of their route to adulthood–mired in a culture of violent crimes. That has become part of a lifecycle that may be normal and has few natural opportunities to be broken.

The rapid increase in violent crimes reflects the breaking down of many important social foundations and relations (some will see negative developments in religious practices, family cohesion, and job opportunities as major culprits). Halting and reversing that trend requires the rebuilding of many such relations, which is a major task not least because it needs to undo things that have now become well-entrenched. It also means building or rebuilding trust in areas and between people that has been lost over many years and because of many real grievances (including seemingly brutal ‘justice’ meted out by the police). Institutions may help, and may be necessary to improve living conditions for large parts of the population, through housing, education, health and other social provisions (including those offering activities and opportunities for young people). Better employment opportunities will often be very important, but cannot be created ‘out of thin air’. They cannot be created in a sustained way by institutions, especially in the face of faltering economic activity.

But, even with good institutional involvement, ultimately, the changes will come down to personal willingness to do things differently. In that regard, a particular challenge will be to reduce or eliminate tolerance given to those known to be the main actors. Those who have much to gain from crime and tolerating it, will want to defend their gains as much as possible, and may see opportunities for more gains if others decide to withdraw. Crime really has to be made too costly, either in real financial terms or in terms of social and political disapproval. Fear of retribution (personal or institutional) may not be a trivial consideration for many people, and it is hard to see that declining if people cannot see the real prospect of being protected from retribution, whether by other institutions or other individuals. Trying to hide from crime wont really help, though it may ‘feel good’, whether it means curbing normal activity or declining certain civic duties (eg, acting as witnesses, jury service, etc.) Trying to thwart crime will mean being readier to act against than be a bystander, which will seem much riskier. But, it may take less action rather than less inaction.

As people lament the country’s economic condition, it remains a salutary reminder that violent crime has cost Jamaica very dearly in terms of economic growth in the past and potential growth opportunities as likely investors choose ‘safer’ locations.