I’m no lover of gobbledygook. (Is that an example of gobbledygook?)  President Obama’s visit to Jamaica, last week, left me uneasy with the easy way our officials absorbed the language of American military and security agencies. No one should have a real problem with a country wanting to ensure the security of any visiting dignitaries. We really want that same country to ensure the security of everyone, but we also have to recognize that not all lives matter in the same way in official eyes. However, why could we not say that we needed to clean and clear our streets? That’s easy to understand. Instead, we heard that areas needed to be ‘sanitized’.

Merriam-Webster informs us that the use of ‘sanitize’ as ‘to make more acceptable by removing unpleasant or undesired features’ is derogatory. The way that some of our areas in Kingston were made more acceptable for the visit of the US president seemed to lack due respect for the people who were affected. I did not see first-hand how homeless people or those of ‘unsound mind’ were removed and relocated. I saw on TV how the vendors at Heroes Circle had their stalls dismantled, so that they shattered. I was not there to hear all the conversations between vendors and officials. But, I know that what thought might have been given to the effect on those people’s lives was secondary to the outcome desired. When you cut off people’s means to earn a living during a busy period, it’s likely to hit them hard. It’s really obvious. You have an economy that provides precious few job opportunities, and you crush one that has been created and sustained for decades so that things would ‘look better’. I feel a Bruce Golding-Rogge moment coming.

But, forward-thinking seems to be lacking in so many ways with government.

We heard that amongst the ‘reasons’ the crab vendors needed to be removed were real concerns about health and unsanitary conditions for serving food. However, we were told, and saw, that the vendors would be allowed to resume business the day after the president left. Hang on! What about the health and sanitation issues? Move along, please!

It’s also apparent that credibility isn’t a big concern, either. Ask not what others can do for you…

We saw lack of planning, too, with the hasty outpouring of information about road closures the day before they were supposed to go into effect, and promises from the Information Minister that businesses and organizations would be informed later that day, so that they could decide what to do. I listened to radio interviews later in the day with business people, who said they had not been contacted. It turned out that by the next day many businesses were still not informed, and stayed ignorant, and they and employees and customers ended up snarled in a little traffic chaos. We heard later from businesses about the amount of business and revenue lost. People ask the government for growth strategies. You wonder if you’ll hear something that makes much sense?

You hope that amongst the post-visit briefings that officials will be having, about what worked and what did not, they would start to put in place ways communicating better. You hope.

Admittedly, more time is needed to plan for a presidential visit than Jamaica had: it’s usually about three months, and we had three weeks. However, we make matters worse because we have poor communicators and communications systems. President Obama stands, and stood, out because he seems to be superb at communicating with people. We hope lessons are learned. We hope.

I’m one of those who thought the ‘cleaning house’ that went on was over the top. As I wrote before, President Obama is no stranger to urban depravity: it sits outside his residence in Washington DC, in dirty blankets, and ragged clothes. So, even if he does not have to walk through the homeless who make that area their homes, he passes by them and many others as he wanders through Washington in his car or by any other means on a daily basis. He was also a community organizer in Chicago’s inner city. Even if he was an Ivy League college graduate and then a law professor, he knew the so-called ‘mean streets’.  

Barack Obama is no stranger to urban street life

If if he did not have ot suffer that life himself, he is well aware of the life of most black people in the USA, which is marked by poverty (and discrimination). So, against what were trying to protect him? Bad memories?

I’ve already said that it seemed that our government was struck by a bout of deep embarrassment, which drove it to make things seem better than they were. I’ve also said it seemed offensive to many people simply because that same sense of shame did not seem to drive daily routines and policies for the residents of Jamaica. Doing it for a visitor–no matter how many analogies one wants to use about what we do in our own homes–just highlights that we really don’t care enough about the need for regular maintenance and appearance, only when it may show us up.

I took a German visitor on a trip to various parts of Jamaica over the past few days. I asked her what she found the most surprising thing about Jamaica. “The contrasts…within the country,” she told me. I had taken her to Alligator Pond, Mandeville, and Ocho Rios. She’d also visited downtown Kingston on her own, taking taxis to get there and back. She wasn’t robbed, but witnessed a robbery, while downtown. The contrasts she noted were between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Germany is not equal, but its contrasts are less stark, though recent analysis argues that its reputation for low-income inequality may reflect poor data. She told me how in her part of Germany, the authorities have created ‘adopt a pothole’ schemes. I told her that, in the same way that many of Jamaica’s problems are obvious, solutions to them can come from looking at how other countries have resolved theirs.

If you look around the Internet and social media, you’ll see that adopting potholes is an idea that’s spread to several countries: for example, in India a tyre company has offered to fix potholes that get a certain minimum amount of ‘support’. Make a contribution, have your pothole fixed and your name on it. Surely, we could do something that seems so simple? Why we don’t? Awkward silence. 

Name it, to shame it?

I’m sure that the irony of other things the government did in connection with the visit struck some others. I had to take a deep breath when I heard that JUTC buses were being used to block roads, so that unauthorized vehicles would not go into areas that were supposed to be sealed off.  

Buses blocking roads and endorse by the security forces

It happened to be an action taken just as the West Kingston Commission of Enquiry was due to resume its sessions. Thankfully, for some, the chairman was ill and the start was delayed until after the visit of President Obama. How convenient to not have the chance of those buses pictured and used as a reminder of how Jamaicans often block roads with vehicles…and burning tyres. But, more to it was the fact that Jamaicans were not trusted to be respectful of the requests and instructions about road closures. Or was it that we could not put up effective, but weaker barriers? The US authorities seem to get by with wooden ones, and not have to put vehicles in the way.

We’re really exceptional. Or is the new term ‘extraordinary’?