West Kingston Commission of Enquiry: Trust in me…please

Those who have been following the enquiry might have been struck by several disturbing trends across the institutions of the State. I’ll list some of those that seem to recur, and did not seem to have troubled those who practised them during the May 2010 operations, and seem to be readily defended, in the face of questioning, so far.

Communication deficit. From the former PM, through his Cabinet minsters, through Chiefs of the JCF and JDF, we have heard how senior policy making individuals assumed important information would be shared, yet did little or nothing to check if that were the case by informing others themselves, or by assessing if the assumed information had actually been shared. The willingness to assume seemed to be so high. Few, if any, of these powerful people seemed concerned by the cost, potential and actual, of their assumptions being wrong. 

Add to that what we have heard from those lower down the ranks, so far, that they were often not informed of key policy decisions, and one does not really have to wonder why the operation did not end as a rip-roaring success, despite some officials saying it was successful. The ultimate objective, of apprehending Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke, was not achieved by the operation. In the process, however, more than 70 people were killed, much property damaged, and a community’s sense of assurance shifted on many levels.  

Credibility gaps. I’m at a total loss how the chief of defence staff could order the use of mortar rounds (37) and not inform his commanders on the ground of this intention. Several lawyers also find this point lacking in credibility. Yet, the willingness of a ground commander to hold to that view points to a level of trust in decision-making that is admirable, if it is well-placed. Soldiers take orders and carry them out will less resistance than many other functionaries, even when their lives seem compromised by those orders.

This is just the latest in testimonies that push the bounds of believability. Some of the doubts have been expressed by lawyers in their cross-examination. The Commission chair has also flagged that other aspects of credibility will be in the final report, notably the inconsistencies in the alleged timing of when operations were launched. Clearly, the start might not have been like the kick off of a football match, with everyone knowing that there is a single start time. But, for the impression to be that several hours of discrepancy could exist is worrying. It blurs the stories of alleged abuses if it can be shown that security personnel could have been active at times earlier than some of them claimed. 

Treating Dudus like a dummy. The piece of the puzzle that’s bothered me a lot recently is how a known ‘bad man’, who was thought of as a threat to the State, even running a ‘parallel government’ within Tivoli Gardens, who also ran operations with international criminal links and was involved in more sophisticated lines of illegal operations, was somehow treated like a bumbling numbskull. By that, I mean, how could it be assumed that with all of the connivance that such dealings must have needed, it was somehow acceptable to think that he’d be there ‘twiddling his thumbs’ while the organs of the State were close on his tail. He hadn’t managed to become ‘Prezi’ or ‘The President’ because he’d won a few games of marbles or jacks. His gang was known and feared for what it could do and had done, including offer safe harbour for other gangsters and criminals. JCF and JDF officers talked confidently about how they had ‘intelligence’ on Dudus’ operations, but seemed blasé about the possibility that he could and would have even better intelligence on their activities, not least because he did not have to play or seem to play by the rules. He’d been at least a step ahead for years. Why would he suddenly lose that advantage? 

What the Enquiry is showing is a story that doesn’t hang together the way officials want to tell it. How obvious that is is indicated by the speed with which the attorneys for the official agencies jump to defend their image. Flaws were known, but now they keep getting scratched. Like sores, they’re opening up and not looking pretty. 

I spy with my little eye

I’m lucky that I get to travel often, whether on the island, or less frequently off it. Perspective is always important and by seeing your usual surroundings from a physical or temporal distance one can get a better gauge of what really matters. 

It’s ironic that a place to which many Jamaicans seek to flock is also a place whose culture and general direction is really far from ours. I say that, in part of the inevitable Jamaican reactions to the Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 States. One if the papers was quick to show the perceived threat that lurks on our shores.image

In coming days, I’ll be without our local soap opera that is the West Kingston Commission of Enquiry, where, amongst other things, we are trying to find out who killed 70 plus black citizens, and if alleged abuses by security forces were likely to have taken place. But, I’ll be in the land where it seems that black people are being killed by law-enforcement agents almost on a daily basis, or at what seems like an alarming rate and for apparently trivial reasons. 

I’m always fascinated by what I see of tourists when I fly in and out of Jamaica. I see plenty of Jamaicans heading north to the Land of Uncle Sam, whether as visitors or returning to where they now live. Our duty-free stores do a roaring trade, judging by the number of boxes of rum that get loaded into overhead bins in flights.

For all that many like to lament how Jamaicans don’t follow rules, if you pay attention, you’ll see that Americans are pretty good rule breakers. [data on red light running]. If there’s a difference it’s in how the systems deal with rule breaking. Take traffic violations. I know that if one gets get caught speeding, chances are that the car owner will have a fine notice slapped on the car, or will receive by mail a picture of the transgression with a summons. If the fine isn’t paid a series of greater penalties start to kick in, that may lead to higher fines and the licence of the vehicle owner being suspended. 

The U.S. has serious problems with red light running. During 2007-11, an average of 63 people died each month in red light crashes. But, the number of crashes decreased between 2007 and 2011 as red light cameras increased by 135 percent. That’s to say that Americans could not be relied on to change behaviour and obey red light WITHOUT measures that literally caught them in the act. 

One of the main differences between countries is their ability to act against, as opposed to talk about, their problems. Jamaica falls squarely I the latter category, as evidenced by a raft of proposals whenever public outrage surfaces. Look back over the years and you see a scary repetition of problems identified and actions proposed, with little action taken. This year, again, Jamaica reaps that harvest. Less rain than expected. Less water in reservoirs. Repeated water problems. 

I spent a lovely day out at Prospect, St. Mary, last Friday. The day’s activities went on longer than scheduled–no problem, when you’re having fun. As we were leaving, near 7pm, my wife mentioned that the 100 meters final was due to be run at 9:15. We hoped we’d be home in time. But, as we neared home, the dust that caked our bodies reminded us of a bigger issue at 9pm. Our water pressure would be much reduced, to deal with the latest shortage. As we got home, my daughter and I ran upstairs and checked a shower: barely a dribble. We’d planned for it, though. The two of us jumped into the pool that’s in our yard. The water was warm, and it was filled with ash from another fire that had ranged in the hills the day before. We were clean enough. We dried quickly and got to see both Shelly-Ann and Asafa win their national titles. My wife, never one to take others’ opinions, went upstairs and turned on the shower. A drip formed on the shower head, but never got big enough to fall.

In that little episode, we lived through decades of inaction. 

Fast forward. The U.S. is no paradise, but it has a reputation for action–sometimes, too fast and too much, but give me some of that. 

What often attracts and excites people about a place is its underlying character. The U.S. has gained a reputation for a place that embraces change and thrives on giving opportunities. I’m not going into a nuanced discussion of that, now. It’s full of things that symbolize that, including the coffee shop where I’m sitting.image

Jamaica has its laid-back, ‘no problem’, image. The trouble is we often want to become like the U.S. but really can’t get up and do what that demands. 

West Kingston Commission of Enquiry: Who’s the clever clogs?

In watching the enquiry unfold, many cameos play out. This week, one that struck me was a kind of pissing contest. Here’s what I saw and my thoughts.

Many of the lawyers who take testimony from witnesses and cross examine them are senior counsels in the British-based system, identified by the term QC (Queen’s Counsel). Like many arenas where ranks may be clear, those who don’t have the stripes or pips on their uniform, often get put through the wringer, to show their mettle. In sports, it’s often termed hazing. Bottom line, though, is that newbies and underlings often get belittled. We hear about it too with big firms, say, in finance. We know it goes on in legal chambers. Some claim it’s ‘character building’. All of that ‘training’ is often out of sight. When it becomes public, many are shocked. Protests may come and calls to cease and desist may follow, from many levels.

What’s also notable, is how these patterns of behaviour disappear or get modified when so-called equals are sparring.

This week, a young and relatively inexperienced attorney entered the proceedings. He got picked on early by the ‘senior boys’. In truth, he was put into a bad position by those from whom he’d taken over. His immediate predecessor parted company suddenly with the client, after what seemed like unimpressive and poorly prepared representation. (She, too, had been heard asking off-camera, why people were being “so mean”.) Prior to that, the initial senior counsel was excused further involvement after being cited for alleged acts of corruption. Tough antecedents.

The ‘new boy’ came not dressed properly. He looked quite neat and presentable in his shirt and sweater, but the dress code the big boys adhered to was more formal, with shirt and tie or even custom-made legal dress. The new boy heard the comments, and on the next day, he came in suit and tie, then followed that by donning some stylish lawyer garb. Dude! Welcome to the club. 

 By comparison with the Alpha males, though, the new boy had much to learn. Teasing or niggling asides kept coming. It got to the stage that the ‘head master’ had to give the senior boys a telling off: “We’re West Indians, not Australian cricketers. There will be no sledging.” For a man who likes his cricket metaphors, this was a clear warning. The big boys started to behave a little better. 

 Now, one has to remember that though the new boy kept on saying that the enquiry is about seeking truth, that’s not a simple thing agreed upon by all. The attorneys have clients who have positions to protect, and in so doing, need to establish ‘truth’ that fits their image and reputation. As things proceed, therefore, we often get interventions when that reputation is put at risk. The new attorney ‘went there’ when he asked a retired JDF officer if soldiers were carrying acid. He faced objections from a JDF lawyer and the commission chair warned the whippersnapper about his future line of questioning.

The young attorney is representing residents of Tivoli Gardens, many of whom claim they were abused by the security forces, so he’s less than sympathetic to the reputation of soldiers and police. He sought to rankle a JDF witness who, frankly, was testing the patience of even the ever-patient chair by taking long periods before seeking to answer questions and then used language that should have been on the cutting floor of a manual of clear English. Maybe, he felt the use of terms like ‘purview’ or double- and triple-negatives would make his replies seem much more convincing.

The young attorney pressed some questions and after another rambling reply that had a clever dig at the end, said he found the JDF witness “evasive and facetious”. That’s fiery stuff in these proceedings. But, guess what? The answers stated to come a bit faster.

The young man tried to probe the emotional state of the soldiers. But, when he asked about whether they exhibited anxiety, he got flailed by the QC representing the JDF, who wanted to know if psychiatrists would be called to help support such contentions. I found that interesting, not least because earlier the same day the chair had asked the JDF officer whether his troops might have been angry. Where was the attempt to upbraid the chair? I’ll wait for an answer. Clearly, the emotional state of security personnel is not trivial. In fact, the JDF officers had drawn attention to it when talking about the lowered morale of their JCF counterparts, as a result of their being under personal heavy attack or their stations being attacked the day before the main operations to enter Tivoli began. Talking about the supposed better mental state of your men is all positive grist to your mill and good putting down of others.

The world knows of many excesses by soldiers and police officers, and in recent times, we’ve seen these in graphic details. We often see them in what appears to be unprovoked situations. We even know of a recent incident in the U.S., where the officer’s behaviour was put into context because he’d had a bad few days and was coming from another stressful call.

So, amongst the many things we see in the enquiry are the need to keep up appearances. The chair made clear that he has noted inconsistent JDF testimony and will draw attention to that in his report. So, the appearances are not under special protection, in his mind. Interesting, then, that the JDF witness then sought to modify his statements by saying maybe fatigue made his recall in written statements less than accurate. Really? Maybe, we need to start questioning afresh.

Meanwhile, the music plays on. Some boys want to kick dirt over the picture others are trying to draw in the sand. Let them. Thankfully, more of this is visible to a wider public. It may not change much, immediately, but facades are not going to look the same going forward.

West Kingston Commission of Enquiry: Where you lead, I will follow, even blindly…

I thought a lot about the testimony I heard yesterday during the enquiry. The witness was retired Lt. Colonel Andrew Sewell, who was the JDF officer in charge of one of the battalions due to work with the JCF in trying to enter Tivoli Gardens in May 2010 to arrest Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke. One feature that has become commonplace in much of the testimony of officials is the degree to which they seem to have relied on expectations of lines of communication and decision-making without using them or verifying that they were in fact being used. To some degree, this is not out-of-place for organizations with clear and long-established lines of commands and ranks, like the police and the army. But, it is not necessarily a good thing.  

Retired Lt. Colonel Sewell, giving testimony (courtesy of JIS News)

We heard, for example, yesterday, that the commander of ground troops was not informed beforehand by his chief of defence staff, now-retired Major General Saunders, that mortar rounds would be used in the area in which or near where the troops were due to operate. Naturally, this caused some surprise from the Commissioners and attorneys seeking to question the witness. Lt. Colonel Sewell gave answers that suggested clearly that he felt that the established principle that a leader would have uppermost in his or her mind the safety of the men (and women) in his charge  was good enough for him to say now, with the benefit of hindsight, that he did not think he needed to have been forewarned. This seems to be a bit too loyal, to my mind.

Many things happen in the ‘heat of battle’, so to speak, and Lt. Colonel Sewell sought to allay concerns by saying that soldiers are used to loud bangs and explosions, so would not necessarily be daunted by hearing or seeing evidence of bombs or mortars or such like in the area of operations. He then sought to put the Tivoli incident into context. He said that troops hearing a 21-gun (or however many) salute while parading would not be ill at ease. I agree. But, that’s largely because it is a known part of the ceremony, and is to be expected. If an explosion occurred in an area not near where the ceremonial cannons were, I defy the soldier to say that the troops parading would be all la-de-dah about it. I think they, would quickly start to take up defensive postures. In Tivoli, when the troops were due to encounter ‘criminal elements’ known to be violent and well armed, it seems illogical that a series of explosions occurring in the area of operation would be seen or thought of as ‘friendly fire’. So, like the residents who were expected to be disoriented by the explosions of mortars, I’d surmise that the troops, too, would be put ill-at-ease. What was more surprising, though, was that Lt. Colonel Sewell did not say that he received any communication once the mortar firing had begun to confirm to him that it was indeed friendly fire, and that he and his troops need not panic or think they were under attack. That seems either careless or reckless on the part of his superiors. At that stage, the so-called ‘need to know’ ought to have included the active troops (and by extension, the JCF officers with them, who could not be expected to be as familiar with such explosions).

It’s worth reading the text of the exchange during cross-examination on this:

Senior legal counsel to the commission, Garth McBean, QC, asked a series of questions and as reported by the Gleaner today, ‘Sewell revealed that it was the sound of “loud explosions” in a section of the west Kingston community that alerted him to the use of mortars’:

“When did you become aware of that (the use of mortars)?” asked McBean.
“During the operation,” Sewell replied.
“How did you become aware of that?” McBean pressed.
“I heard loud explosions, exceedingly loud explosions,” Sewell again replied. “They appeared to have been coming from several areas, including within Tivoli (Gardens),” he continued.

Responding to a question from McBean, Sewell maintained that the former army chief [retried Major General Saudners] had no duty to inform him of the use of mortars and insisted that himself and the men and women under his command were not at risk because of it: “I do not think it would have been the purview of the then chief of defence staff to have put his men at risk,” he testified.

Maybe, he was right. It never cost the soldiers any loss of life, but it could have gone very badly, very easily.

I admit, freely, that I thought of Lord Tennyson’s famous poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade (my stress in verses 2 and 3), when I listened to those words above:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
“Charge for the guns!” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.Cannon to right of them,Cannon to left of them,Cannon in front of themVolley’d and thunder’d;Storm’d at with shot and shell,Boldly they rode and well,Into the jaws of Death,Into the mouth of HellRode the six hundred.

The charge of the Light Brigade
The charge of the Light Brigade

It’s ironic that this poem came to mind. It was there, at Balaclava, in The Crimea, that the now-famous ‘helmet’ of that name was first used, or came to fame. It was then more for keeping heads warm. Now, they are used for disguise–also, now famously, by the JDF during their activities in Tivoli Gardens.

West Kingston Commission of Enquiry: Its own alphabet

The show goes on, again. We now have the first witness from the Jamaica Defence Force, retired Major General Stewart Saunders, former chief of defence staff, who seemed of more candour in his testimony, and in the process has contradicted several politicians’ testimony. Curious and curiouser? 

But, for levity, as the saga goes on, I’ve some thoughts on how its refining our vocabulary, as well as our understanding. 

A is attorney, asking and answering, even when not asked

B is bazooka (used to fire mortar rounds; familiar in World War 2, but unknown to Commissioner Simmons, and now commonly termed rocket launcher)

C is collaboration with foreign governments, often without knowledge of our own government 😕

D is for ‘Dudus’, ‘the President’, ‘area leader’, an escape artist

E is emergency, state of

F is firestorm

G is Golding

H is highest authority, which, interestingly, was not G

I is incursion, a term some use but others avoid

J is joint operation, and certainly not joined-up government

K is killed, as in over 70 people 

L is lines of communication, which were not what you’d reasonably expect

M is mortar rounds, fired to confuse, frighten, and disorient people more used to sounds of gunfire 😳

N is nomenclature as used by the security forces: JCF called the Tivoli incursion Operation Key West and the JDF called it Operation Garden Parish

O is operational security (aka who can you trust?)

P is protective garments for security forces, legally, and illegally obtained by criminals

Q is Queen’s Counsel, the A team players in the bench: young lawyers, watch and learn 

R is recall, often with “I don’t…”, when questions get tricky; also, responsibility, which some won’t take

S is surveillance aircraft, whether knowingly or unknowingly requested from the U.S.

T is Tivoli Committee, unclear who’s represented, but given standing, and holding it tenuously till June 29

U is for unprepared (as with more than a few attorneys, present or now absent)

V is version of events, of which few seem the same

W is witness

X is X factor, not musical talent, but made-for-television drama of decent order

Y Is yard, tenement 

Z is zinc fence mentality, and calling things ‘gardens’ doesn’t turn them into Paradise

Jamaica’s logistics hub: when hubba-hubba doesn’t get you past first base

Over 15 months ago, Dr. Omar Davies, Jamaica’s minister of transport, got the country excited about plans for a logistics hub to be developed on the island. Back then, he talked about an ‘initial framework agreement’ with China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC). Since then, I don’t recall seeing or reading about a ‘final’ or even ‘intermediate’ framework agreement. If China is the economic dragon, then it seemed to have gone to sleep, and its fire was not going to blow in our direction. 

Several weeks ago, Dr. Davies’ Cabinet colleague, Anthony Hylton, ministry of Industry, Investment and Commerce, informed the country about a ‘memorandum of understanding’ (MOU) he had entered into with two foreign entities, which had made ‘unsolicited expressions of interest’ in investing in the development of the logistics hub–Krauck Systems and Anchor Finance. Unlike CHEC, barely a soul knew about these firms and their reputations seemed thin, to say the least, based on flimsy information offered on their websites, and some bizarre hostile reactions to local media questioning. Not everyone likes the glare of publicity, so I would not hold the odd reaction on the phone against Anchor Finance. Given that this deal was supposed to involve about US$ 5billion of investments, Jamaicans could be excused for thinking that they need not fret about the sleeping dragon, because Anchor was on its way to take us to the Krauck of gold at the end of the rainbow. 

You know how to whistle, but can you dance?
 But, like with many B-movies, the plot thickened and the smell of acrid smoke started to get worse. What little I know about big-ticket investments told me that, if we weren’t getting a pig in a poke, then we were about to get a poke in the eye. The MOU became its own drama, as this was signed under cover of darkness and a distinct lack of public fanfare. No photo opps! Who does that? 

The Cabinet did not seem at one on this Krauck-Anchor interest business, and in time-honoured joined-up government fashion, they started to ‘walk back’ from the early (some think premature) announcements about more logistics hub-hub. They formed a committee and we saw the unroll BG of balls of red tape to put this project into stall mode. First, a 30-day information-gathering period was put into play under the Memorandum of Understanding. This period was dedicated to requesting and obtaining confidential information from the two companies. Then, The National Logistics Initiative Council (NLIC) was appointed by the Cabinet to, among other things, review the information provided by Krauck Systems and Anchor Finance Group LLC. The Council, headed by Professor Gordon Shirley, chairman and chief executive officer of the Port Authority of Jamaica, comprises officials from across government including, the Ministry of Industry, Investment and Commerce, the Ministry of Transport, Works and Housing, the Ministry of Finance and Planning, JAMPRO, and the Attorney General’s Chambers. 

NLIC has reportedly reported to Cabinet twice and both reports are understood to be ‘inconclusive’. Again, in my limited experience, that sounds like no-likey from NLIC. Whether that gets said, formally, soon, I won’t venture. 

How we’ve moved nowhere much in several years of talking about the logistics hub is worthy of academic study. But, the people have been teased and tickled and yet we’ve still to see signs that there will be any erections. 

Letting the diaspora vote in Jamaica?

Last week, the Gleaner wrote an editorial, ‘Fuller embrace of diaspora’. I had a few reactions, which I sent to the editor, based on a number of considerations, one of which was that for most of my life I was part of that diaspora. Anyway, while the editor decides whether to publish my comments or not, I’ll use my own bully pulpit to share my opinions. 

Dear Sir,

The idea of more fully embracing Jamaica’s diaspora is laudable, as you try to explain in your leader ‘Fuller embrace of diaspora’. But, we need to make sure we don’t go running down blind alleys or into dead-ends. Embracing the diaspora need never extend to giving them voting rights. In fact, with France, many expatriates openly acknowledge that their being outside of the country temporarily or for extended periods reduces their claim on involvement with national politics. They often understand that being free of national taxes has a corollary in not being able to vote. We can argue both sides of that till kingdom come.

You cite France and its relatively new onzieme circonscription, which created constituencies outside the national borders and allowed French citizens abroad to vote in 2012 for representatives in the National Assembly.

France was clear in being able to identify its citizens abroad, and place them into 11 distinct regions, and allow them to vote for candidates there.  

 We would, at least, need to assure those living in Jamaica that we had foolproof ways to locate and confirm ‘Jamaicans’ so conveniently. 

We also have to convince people about the true meaning of any overseas constituency, beyond being a net into which we put some Jamaicans. Would we be able to ‘do anything’ else in these places? If, like the French version, these overseas candidates are really to ‘fight for’ the needs of their overseas constituents, what kind of ‘national’ politics would that create?

We’d also need to think clearly about what people’s decisions to go abroad represent. For some, it’s really disengagement from national activities, and they may reflect that by having plans to change nationality, or becoming involved in local politics where they now live. Would we want to reward that by letting them still hold power to determine Jamaican national affairs?

At the root of such considerations is what it means to be part of a nation. France has a long and clear history of its nationhood. Do we? 

One clear problem of trying to harness the diaspora is whether the mere fact that one remains a citizen confers rights to representation when outside the country. Once Jamaicans leave do they truly and fully want to remain part of national politics? If the answer is yes, then, how is that demonstrated? Do people ensure that they remain foreigners abroad, so that they do not dilute their demonstrated citizenship? Do they ensure that their offspring remain citizens, rather than take on citizenship of the new host country? Do they strive to continue to pay taxes ‘at home’, even if that is in addition to paying taxes in the host country? Do they try to retain a certain residency status by returning home for prescribed periods?

If the idea is ‘to gather the intellectual and material capacities of Jamaicans, wherever they are’, there are many ways to do that which do not require any form of eligibility for representation. As suggested often, one can have ‘funds’ or ‘bonds’ that allow clear the diaspora to make financial participation in national development. 

I think we need to carefully discuss harnessing capacities and representation, and not conflating them or even mentioning them in the same breath. They are separate and quite different.

Destined to fail? Have the road planners lived in Jamaica?

The last few days have given me an insight into why change in Jamaica is difficult. The proximate topic was changes to road traffic laws. I did not listen to any of the discussion in Parliament. But, I heard a barrage of mainly negative comments on the radio. One of the things that was clear from some radio interviews was a willingness of our policy makers to borrow ideas from abroad–not surprising, given that we are developing and take ideas from developed countries. But, these ideas were implemented without seeking to adjust for known aspects of the Jamaican environment and population. So, when it appears that the policies aren’t working well, the official attitude is that Jamaicans must change their ways. Just so! An official from the National Works Agency (Stephen Shaw) talked about how Jamaicans don’t follow rules, then lamented how the rules that need to be followed aren’t followed. Hello! His minister (Dr. Morais Guy) wanted to walk along the same street. The problem that was annoying was a set of controlled pedestrian crossings at Crossroads (how apt), where pedestrians do not have enough time to cross the roads. Able-bodied people struggle and those with disabilities have little or no chance. Let’s just stop and think a minute.

Germany is renowned as a country where people follow rules, almost without question. It’s got nothing to do with drinking flagons of weissbier from birth. It’s about what people have imposed on them. It’s called ‘implementation’. When I first went to Germany in the 1970s, I was surprised to see electronic pedestrian crossings. In England, I’d grown up used to ‘zebra crossings’, with stripes on the road, and a flashing amber light (‘Belisha beacon’) signalling its location. It’s clear, from a distance, to drivers and pedestrians. It’s set up to aid crossing safely.

Typical British road crossing
Typical British road crossing
Motorists were supposed to stop if someone was crossing or wanting to cross, as they approached the stripes. If the road was clear, though, I could cross at my leisure. In Germany, I saw people standing on the sidewalk looking across at a light. The road was clear, but no one moved. I started to cross. “Nein!” I heard a gaggle of voices cry. I turned round and saw people beckoning me back, frowns on their faces. Then, the lights changed and everyone marched over. Someone muttered about how irresponsible I had been to try to cross. Simple point: Germans were brought up to obey the lighted crossing rules; the society enforced it; and if needed, the police would enforce it.

Fast forward. These kinds of crossings are now commonplace in the UK. But, I remember when they were introduced and see how they are used now. People still have plenty of chances to cross roads when they can, and if they cross at an electronic crossing, the general attitude of the nation is ‘So what?’ That’s part of British upbringing, and it’s not a real problem. For a German, that would be like taking a free ticket to Hell.

The German ingraining is so deep that even when streets are closed to traffic for special events or weekends, say, for farmers’ markets, people generally will not cross until the light is in their favour.

Germans tend not to cross until they are instructed to do so
Germans tend not to cross until they are instructed to do so
A recent article in England’s ‘Daily Telegragh’ confirms my experiences and emphasises these differences between Germany and the UK.

Jamaica is not Germany. Whatever the reasons for our lack of orderliness, it is there. So, why in Heaven’s name expect rules to govern what we do? Our children are raised learning to put up a hand to halt traffic and then taking each other’s hands and crossing the road wherever they can. We continue that behaviour everywhere. We don’t have the infrastructure in general that is consistent with orderly crossing: look at the number of painted crossings that are simply faded almost to being invisible. We don’t have crossing places that make much sense to pedestrians, because we have structured roads for cars, primarily. Look at the extent of our roadways, even in dense residential areas, that do not have places for people to walk safely. Taking your chance with the road is the national norm. So, where are you going with a set of rules that run counter to what is the norm?

How Jamaican chlldren learn to cross roads
How Jamaican children learn to cross roads
Implicitly, we know this is how people will behave. We design (or don’t) space and ‘force’ people to cross when and where they can. Look at where Hydel School of José Marti School is situated–right by highways or roundabouts with no safe designated crossing. They have been that way for years!  The problem did not jump out of the ground yesterday. It was unplanned development in that it left people to cope with the ridiculous. 

Look at how many commercial areas are set up. They are not set up so that pedestrians can move between them easily, unless it’s in a plaza. There are few crossings if businesses are set on both sides of a busy street. As I’ve noted many times before, who will just stroll 400 meters to cross (then have to stroll 400 meters back) when the target is just 10 meters across the street?

Of course, we compound our problems in this regard because the motorists think they are kings (or queens) of the road. Give way to pedestrians? Who tell you so? Well, that’s what the law says. “But, I can’t read, mi boss…” Aha!

In England, they call the humps meant to slow down vehicles ‘sleeping policemen’. In Jamaica, we often don’t slow down for them and use them like roller coasters. But, we also have the real sleeping policemen. I’ve seen too many police eyes averted to road infractions to believe that they are trained to impose road laws.

Look, Officer!
Look, Officer!
They love to issue tickets to taxi and bus operators, or hide in wait to catch motorists speeding, but stop other infractions?

Someone asked about implementing laws against jaywalking in Jamaica. I nearly rolled off my sofa laughing. In the same way that buying food and fruit on the roadside is Jamaica, so too is crossing the road liberally. I don’t know if the caller moves through rural Jamaica much, but I can suggest a trip and figure out how between any two communities people will cross the road without jaywalking.

We think and act, without really assessing consequences, as if that is enough. We need to think and act with consequences in mind. There is a whole world of difference between the two states.

Jamaica’s trickle-down economy still facing a long drought?

Every few days, the grains of an idea recur in my head. As I drive or move around Jamaica, I see a rather sad story playing itself out all the time. The economy has too few jobs for the people who live here, and lots of people are living on the financial edge. That joblessness is obvious in many ways. Most simply, one can see people ‘idling’. That image is not a sure bet that someone hasn’t a job, but it suggests that what they have to do is less pressing than actually work. I could take the generous view, and assume that like me, they are retired and enjoy their freedom from hum-drum by hanging out on the corner. 

The lack of income is often presented to you directly, by the tendency of people to ‘ask for change’: that’s a sure sign that whatever they are doing they do not have enough cents to rub together to get them through the days. In other words, they are not earning much, if any, income, so they try to find someone whom they think can bridge their income gap by getting a gift. It’s not begging in the normal sense, because the person does not spend all day doing it; it happens when circumstances allow. So, for instance, I met the man collecting the garbage, and after he made a quick reference to moving something he’d found lying on the ground, asked if “Yu nuh ha a likkle change fi spare me?” It’s a parasitic experience and our economy and society has allowed it to thrive because we’ve few support systems that are not based on personal goodwill.

The joblessness is often most apparent in terms of what people have to do to earn income. If Jamaica were characterised by a single image, I’d argue it’s that of a vendor.  

Typical Jamaica
People have needs and our society has decided that the best way to satisfy those is to accept that people will sell the items  demanded almost any- and every-where.

This morning, I caught a glimpse of a typical vendor on her way to work. She was dressed neatly and carried with her a large jar of candy. It was about 7:15, so I imagined she was on her way to her spot to catch some school children, and then be there to sell to adults later, who needed a little ‘sweetmouth’. I thought about years growing up in England: when I wanted sweets, I would go to a sweet shop, and there woul be jars filled with them from which I could choose.  

Romanticised, maybe, but a typical English sweet shop
I never in my life there saw someone selling sweets on the street corner. So, it’s not about whether people want to buy the goods or not, but who can sell or needs to sell something like that, and if a wholsesaler can provide the items cheaply enough for a decent profit to come from selling with a little mark-up. 

More often, though, we see the archetypal vendor, selling fruit or vegetables, placed on a rickety stand on the roadside. i often see them, too, on their ‘way to work’, very early in the morning, pushing a supermarket trolley filled with all kinds of wares. Up the scale a bit, and we have our ‘pan-chicken’ vendor, oil drum fuming with smoke, and air filled with the sweet smell of barbecued food. I use the pan chicken image as a shorthand for all kinds of street food. Jamaica is famed for it. Think back to Heroes Circle and the crabs and roast and boiled corn that President Obama never got to sample. We were distressed as much by his lost opportunity to sample the ‘real Jamaica’ as by the affront of moving the vendors to give the impression of some pristine space. (In my image of ‘brand Jamaica’, I’d push the Tourist Board to make parish festivals of street food a feature of what we offer to tourists as a conscious attraction, not an accident that we hope happens, if they venture out of the all-inclusive experience.) 

But, we know, too, that clothes are also now the stock of many vendors. Take a walk through Half Way Tree, or downtown Kingston, or Mandeville town centre, and ‘briefs and panties’ and all kinds of under- and outerwear can now be had. Yes, our higglers are famous in airports in Panama, or Curacao, buying cheaper-made goods,often  from China, to thrill our eyes and grace our bodies. 

We have not built up many retailers like Macy’s or Marks and Spencer, where we can go and browse through aisles to get the view of the range of goods we may want to buy. We have ‘bend down and rummage’ on the sidewalk. The department store takes investment in bricks and mortar and other financial strength to form a company and have it become a feature throughout the country. Put simply, we have not managed to create a class of entrepeneneurs who make jobs. If you want a job, make your own work seems to be the norm in Jamaica.

To most people, this image is also that which comes to mind when they think about the ‘underground’, or ‘black’ or ‘grey’ economy. Everything done for cash. No receipts. No returns. We suspect no taxes. We suspect no licence. We suspect no operating fee. We suspect overheads of these kinds are minimized and that is how they survive. 

When I lived in the UK and experienced its recession in the 1970s and 1980s, the image of the economy reviving was that of factories starting up again, or of big industrial operations starting to produce again, and of their need for people to come piling up to the gates and look to be newly employed, or working longer hours. Economic recovery had a kind of vacuum cleaner image, of people being sucked back into work. When I think about whether or not Jamaica is having any kind of economic recovery, the image is not so clear. 

Much of our recent growth has not been of the visible production sort. Sure, we may see more bauxite being shipped, or larger truck loads of sugar cane rolling along the roads. But, if it’s service sector jobs, we see that growth less easily. Do the banks have more pople working? Maybe, but they may be in the back-office, not at the teller counter. If they are doing better, they may not be taking on more people, at all; machines or processes may be giving them the gains they enjoy. Are the hotels fuller? Are tourists staying longer and spending more? We may ‘see’ teh recovery in the negatives it creates. In a country that has a hard time dealing with garbage, dirtier surroundings could actually be a proxy for an economy doing bettter. Nasty, but nice? 
Our economy is so oddly structured that growth could show up with there being more vendors on the street. I make this point for a simple reason. Much of our economic ‘strength’ comes from simple trickle down. If you look at any ‘uptown’ community (shorthand for upper-income), it is surrounded by lower income communities. It’s as if the uptown area represents a pile of money that has bills blowing down from its summit to those at the foot of the hill. Sit close enough to the hill and some of those bills will blow your way. It’s simple economic geography really. Literally and figuratively, the earnings will flow off the hill. Jamaica hasn’t managed to create many new upper income communities, but the existing ones have become much denser. Part of that increase in density is good for creating jobs, though. That we see from the many construction sites that have been sprouting up in ‘uptown’ Kingston. The nice new homes will bring in more payers. The new plazas going up may offer more vending opportunities outside as well as jobs at the stores inside. That’s good for those living at or near the foot of the hills.

If ever I thought that jamaica’s economy would be transformed and look more like that in say London, or Manchester, or Miami, or San Francisco, or Mexico City, I have to put that thought on hold.  By that, I mean seeing opportunities for mass employment. (For the record, I do not think the logistics hub holds much hope in that regard.) 

We’ve shown that we can’t hold onto manufacturing jobs, with the demise of our garment factories.  

Jamaica coudn’t keep on its short, but maybe it can bamboo-zle another investor
We’re trying to prove that we can hold onto decent service sector jobs in the form of call center work. Do recent notices requesting interest to work in places such as Island Grill suggest that things are picking up? Even if they are, it’s not enough to draw in the massive numbers who are qualifeid to do more than sell ffast food, but would take that over days spent hoping for a job that better rewards the years of high school or college study. (Again, for the record, I see nothing wrong with selling fast food no matter what educational qualification you have. A foot in the door is a step in the right direction.)Trickle down economics has long been how we have given blood to an anemic economy, but it can’t take us very far, very fast. I see little being done to change that structure, which means that even if signs of more economic life start to appear, we can’t go very much further much quicker. I’ve not heard anyone say much about how the mass of people are going to be working productively for more pay.. Is it because that’s not the vision they have for Jamaica, or they have that vision but have no ideas of how to make it real? 

Good neighbours? Sometimes, high jinks get to be too much

Many people are quick to make judgements. We’ve seen that recently, in Jamaica, in the business aired publicly on social media by one person about her allegedly noisy neigbour. The neighbour happens to be a national sporting idol. The complainant is the wife of a national musical idol, and has some celebrity status of her own. That spiced up the dispute in many people’s minds. Many weighed in with their opinions about the complaint, and what some of its words meant in a broader social sense. Lots of people did not like the approach or its tone. Another neighbour weighed in that the disturbances were not so bad, in her experience. The initial complainant, perhaps feeling stung by the negative public criticism, has since apologized abjectly for the tone and content of her complaint, but made clear that she’d been driven to excess by frustration. 

Many said, in essence, “Go and speak to the man.” The lady said she plans to do just that.

But, this seemingly simple approach can itself be loaded with problems. I speak from personal experience. I remember approaching different neighbors about their behaviors and being told to “shove it!”, after I complained about a loud party going on next door through the night till day break. Or, if I didn’t like it, I could move. Or, if it bothered me so much (the broken fence that had fallen into my property), then I could replace it myself. Or, I should let my insurance pay for the damage (by the tree on their property that fell onto my house). In none of those situations did talking to my neighbour remove the nuisance or help me make much progress. I called the police about the party, and they shut it down; my neigbour never had a nice word to say to me after that. I put other matters in the hands of a third party to try to resolve. Some were successful, some not. In every case, I never felt that neighborliness was on a happier footing after my talking. 

But, just look at another neighbourly dispute, not involving any celebrities. In England, this week, a lady was sent to jail for two weeks because her neighbours complained about her noisiness. She was enjoying her sexual escapades too much. In fact, she breached a court order that barred her from making “loud sex noises“; she was a repeat offender. This time, the judge concluded she had breached an anti-social behaviour order by “screaming and shouting whilst having sex” at a “level of noise” that annoyed a neighbour. Birmingham City Council had taken legal action after a neighbour complained. It was just sex that was noisy: the judge said she had also breached the order by arguing with her boyfriend, swearing at a neighbour, “banging around the house” and “running around in the property”.

Those kind of disturbances pose lots of issues about social delicacies. “I heard you and your boyfriend last night…” could easily be met with accusations of nosiness. People are often quick to defend themselves and respond with accusations. 

I hope the local dispute resolves itself amicably. I happen to live close by to the people concerned, and know first-hand about some of the type of noises that created the reported disturbances. I cant pinpoint their source, though one of my direct neighbours is also into dirt bikes, and when I’ve heard them roaring up and down outside in the early weekend or holiday mornings, I’ve not been happy. I hear the noise of parties often. The area is generally quiet, so noise travels far. Noise is also a creator of stress and the distress from it shouldn’t be blown off as trivial. 

We all have different breaking points, and when they’re reached the snapping can be loud.