I read in yesterday’s papers how the Kingston municipal government had gone about restoring ‘law and order’ in the city–by breaking up illegal sidewalk vendor stalls over the past few days. Reactions to this have been mixed: some see it as good that ‘anarchy’ and ‘lawlessness’ be nipped in the bud; others understand the plight of many Jamaicans, faced with few opportunities for work, to try to make a living. I saw the heavy hand of government at work. Destroying the structures solves the problem in a very direct and brutal way, for sure. It may mean that the people ‘learn their lessons’, but it also likely puts them in a state similar to bankruptcy. Remember, this is the informal economy at work. Many of the vendors are not well-educated. Many are older people. Many are doing their selling to support a household. They are less of a burden on the state, and they are service and goods providers. Yes, we want to see the rule of law prevail, but does it have to be with a boot in the teeth and a rod on the back–to use a metaphor. We seem to like solutions that beat messages into people.
I know it’s an easy allusion, but I believe it applies: we are the products of slavery and we act towards each other as brutal masters did towards their slaves. Disobey and you will be whipped or beaten. “Beat him!” “You want a beating?” “I’m going to beat you!” come out of people’s mouths with such regularity that you must believe it’s the solution of choice.
I know that talking and negotiating take time, and may lead to no results, but I also know that beating often doesn’t do much but inflict pain and bad memory.
I can’t attest to the reported offensive comments of officials (or police, in other instances), but again, they seem consistent with what is often heard when ‘authority’ is imposing itself.
Educated people will say and understand that ignorance is no defence in the eyes of the law, but I wonder how many of these vendors (or similar) really understand what they are supposed to do, and have the means to make it happen. I cannot believe that they resist because they want to lose their chances to make some money. I cannot believe that they resist because they want to be beaten. I can understand that they do not understand. Or, that they have also had to live with years of broken promises, in the sense that people say things and do nothing. So, it’s a shock when someone says “Move!” and then they come and move you.
I’m in favour of orderliness. But, I also understand that there are not random forces at work in what people are doing for economic survival. A country with 16 percent unemployment has to do better than break down the livelihood of people trying to work. Where’s the job that will replace the shattered stall?