Tivoli Commission of Enquiry: Things learned this week

The enquiry took a break today from live TV coverage; proceedings were behind closed doors–in camera, in legal speak, or off-camera, to ordinary people.

From watching a few hours of transmissions I now know the following.

The Jamaican military have a strong interest in cats. A male witness alleged that soldiers toured with guns yelling “Whe di pussy deh?” (where are the cats?). He never expanded on why the armed men had this keen interest. The commission room erupted in laughter, perhaps they thought it funny that amidst all the mayhem, the burly soldiers still had time to show they had a soft spot, so to speak.

Jamaicans giving directions can be very confusing. A witness was asked where he lived and how far it was from another place. He replied that he had to cross two bridges. Well, I used to live in London, which has around 40 bridges. I have no idea what it means to say I live two bridges away from somewhere. I suspect the lawyers had no idea, either, but were so drunk with the set of answers that they gave up on that one. Truth is that in gully communities in Kingston, crossings may be close, still it’s a vague measure. But, in the same way that Jamaicans use points of reference to give directions–left at the ackee tree, then up to the tamarind tree…–this may all seem fine.

Jamaican lawyers see no problem in being condescending to people who are not their peers. Lloyd D’Aguilar brought it on himself some may say, but that was no reason for an attorney to tell him he needed to pass the bar exams before he could act as a lawyer. Add to that, references to his racial antecedents. Poor form, mate.

Another female lawyer saw fit to tell the witness that he was in the Convention Center not Tivoli Gardens. What?! The man was getting annoyed at her repeated question that he thought he’d answered. Who’s really the one trying to say that “People like you must learn how to act around ‘civilized’ people, or it’s back into the slave hut for you”? Pompous, did I hear someone offer? Any advances?

The Commissioner is trying to find his feet and set the ground rules for engagement between witnesses and lawyers.

Sir David Simmons, trying to keep things moving evenly.
Sir David Simmons, trying to keep things moving evenly.

He’s bound to get it wrong sometimes, but seems to have a clear idea of where lines are and when they are crossed. He’s been good at defusing tension, often born of misunderstanding. But, that’s also shown that some witnesses have a taut relationship with those representing the security forces, but seem to regard the Commissioner as less of an adversary. Sir David Simmons has been to good uncle, putting a metaphorical arm around the person about to lose his or her cool.

Lloyd D'Aguilar
Lloyd D’Aguilar said ‘the words’ and saw the red card from referee Simmons: early bath for Lloydie.

No one calls the Commissioner a “political hack” and stays in the proceedings. Lloyd D’Aguilar went there, and got the resounding boot out of the door.

The stories so far have been a harrowing recounting of events, which if all true are of the most villainous kind. But, we’ve only heard one side so far.

Compensation is clearly expected by some witnesses.

Whatever witnesses hope for in compensation, little may be forthcoming
Whatever witnesses hope for in compensation, little may be forthcoming

However, when I listened to the list of items missing that included a Rolex watch and a gold nugget, I wondered if a lawyer would ask about the estimated value. That might have show. If the items were thought to be the real thing or fakes. Other claims for damage have been made and will be assessed, in due course. But, people better get ready to be disappointed.

Some 300 witnesses are due to testify. So far, we’ve seen eight. It’s going to be long and tiring.

There’s a lot to learn along the way.

Tivoli Commission of Enquiry: A tale of two cities?

In the early days of the enquiry, which began this week, some raw aspects of Jamaican–actually, Kingstonian–life are being scratched and the sore is quite painful.

One clear issue is that the language witnesses from of the inner city used is a far cry from the language of the professional classes who administer the proceedings. We have the rough, fast cadence of Patois, against the moderated tones of uptown standard English.

At its simplest, one has to ask if the comprehension of the two sides is zero or close to it. This gets bothersome when certain words do not seem to carry the same meaning.

We had instances today when a witness was asked if he was aware of certain developments. He reacted angrily, saying that wasn’t his business. While, I take awareness to just be about having some knowledge, it seemed that for the witness there was a deeper, sinister meaning, perhaps suggesting responsibility. Neither lawyers nor Commissioners latched on to this, today.

We have heard each day terms that are familiar on inner city streets, some of which are common across Jamaica, but rarely heard in formal settings. So, it was interesting to hear people referred to as ‘fish’ or ‘fishermen’, meaning they were homosexual men. We also had examples in reported speech of some common Jamaican bad words, allegedly uttered by soldiers and police officers.

I was fascinated by the animated description given today by a male witness, who mimicked a person shooting, plus all the noises (“Blam! Blam! Cheeng!”). Plus, he went though the actions associated with the various beatings he alleged soldiers meted out to him and his wife. She was ‘boxed’ into a flowers garden–she was slapped and fell long way away. His descriptions were so vivid, as he was reportedly beaten, then marched to another area, beaten again, etc.

We also had the wonderful contortions of Patois, where sometimes negatives (or words sounding negative) are used as positives, maybe. Several times the questioners had toast if it was can or cannot.

Several of the attorneys try to bridge the gap, hen it suits by lapsing into Patois or adding a term that seems to put them in the same footing: “Cmon, man…You is a big man…You want to eat a food…”

But, when a man was asked yesterday if he was a look out (for someone), that lapsed into laughter as the man said he was looking out for himself. He wasn’t looking out for anyone else. I got the impression that the dialogue went in parallel.

We have had a run around terms used for firearms, such as ‘Chiney K’, for AK-47 rifle.

Today, we heard the nuanced terms for where people live. We heard about ‘Yard’, ‘Big Yard’, ‘Tenement Yard’, ‘Big Piece a Land’ pan which nuff people live. I’m sure the witness was clear about the differences. To the degree that it may matter, was it as clear to the lawyers and Commissioners?

At times today, the speed of speech was too much for the recorders, the Commissioners claimed. Were they just unable to translate themselves fast enough? The Chief Commissioner is from Barbados, though married over 40 years to a Jamaican.

This may all really suggest a need for simultaneous translators. Will any of it matter when the level of distrust amongst the witness, Tivoli residents having to relive a harrowing episode, is so evidently high? Too early to say, but surely not to be ignored.