West Kingston Commission of Enquiry: A who fah t’ing dis?

Is the norm in the Commission of Enquiry controlled confusion? That impression comes easily because we rarely get to see in full, or nearly full, the proceedings of many official bodies. We tend to hear about what they do, see their reports, and ponder what really went on. Now, we get to see up and personal the often bumbling and ponderous nature of a lot of official work. I lost count of the number of times this week proceedings stalled at the outset because documents were not ready or each group was not looking at the same set of documents.  We had evidence that included discharge papers for a man who claimed to have been in detention for several days, yet the document showed he went in and out the same day. He was wrong? The paperwork was sloppy? All of this may reflect the normal workings of bureaucrats at all levels, who just can’t seem to get it done right. Sometimes, it’s purely trivial; other times, it could be critical. Time keeps on slipping…

For all the legal training that has gone into the many attorneys who operate in the Enquiry, it’s clear that some of them haven’t mastered that essential skill called ‘listening’. That’s usually bothersome in its own right, but becomes more so when they struggle to waste time asking about things that are already clear. Maybe, they were too busy composing complicated questions to focus on the simple pieces of information they already had in hand. That aspect took on a somewhat different tone, this week, as the Commission chair several times had to help the young, inexperienced attorney for the Tivoli Committee (Michael Williams) how to proceed or to compose questions for the witnesses. It got to the stage, by week’s end, where Sir David couldn’t resist being sardonic when asking if the lawyer appreciated what he’d done, for the n-th time.

The other feature that’s struck me was how the lawyers are somehow falling over themselves because they have lost, or never learned, the art of phrasing simple questions, or statements. In this case, it grates because it’s clear that many witnesses have the hardest time following the simplest of dialogue. Sometimes, the number of clauses and sub-clauses would lose the best trained people in language. When the chair has to ask that a question be broken down into several pieces, you know that he’s seen the danger. It’s part of that being too clever for their own good? Maybe, they should be paid retainers only if they can work in plain language. But, it also shows up that chasm that comes between (too) much learning and (too) little learning–the over-literate and the largely illiterate can only meet in the land called ‘simplicity’.

The proceedings this week were again not free from drama, most of it to do with the goings-on inside the conference room, but some of it resulting from activities outside.

When the Enquiry is over, someone should look again at the dynamics of Jamaican society that have been brought into stark view. One of them is the clear distrust and fear of the security forces, at least by this group of residents. (As I write, there’s a press report of armed police and soldiers going ‘on searches’ yesterday in Tivoli, asking about two young men whom a soldier this week suggested was killed by police during the May 2010 episodes.) But, it’s not Tivoli residents alone, because we’ve heard it and seen the cause of that fear many times. Brutality has been part of the JCF for decades, so let’s not get all Puritanical and say that it has no basis in fact that police beat people for what seems like no, or little, good reason. (If it’s any saving grace, it seems to be a problem with police forces in many countries.) Two sides of that are the tendency of police officers to act first then ask questions after, if at all. The other side is for citizens to expect to be forced to do things and to comply, often with little or no questioning. Those two things tend to reinforce each other. When your community exists in what seems like a state of siege, then it’s easy to see that warmth between the two sides if often missing.

That lack of empathy was clear when witnesses were being asked about why they did not take buses out of Tivoli. One woman (Minette Lindsay) said that rumors spread fast and residents didn’t take bus as they’d heard that people were being taken away and killed. It came again when a witness said he was ‘not from Tivoli’ because he knew that Tivoli residents were being beaten. (He was really not from there, but worked in one of the shops, ‘Top Ten’, that featured as a point of violent encounters.)

Another feature that really hit a low point this week is seeing people struggle with processes that are alien to them and intimidating, maybe, even authoritarian. Whether it’s the many people who took statements, often with specific and limited questions, the answers to which are now being used as testimony in this Enquiry. When a witness said she was not asked about an incident, or to go deeper into the details, one has to remember that some of the information gathering was simply to determine claims for property damage. So many witnesses give the impression that bureaucrats came and did their jobs. With little explanation? With little consistent procedure? Summarizing comments in Patois into an acceptable form of English? Reading that back to people who are clearly barely literate: they often signed because they were given a paper to sign, after it was read back. We can’t go back an rewind those processes, but they’ve tainted what is going on now.

Lawyers have had a field day with insinuation this week. Whether it’s Mrs. Neita-Robertson (JCF) casting aspersions on a mother who claimed she was on the road looking to help people, while her young children were indoors (with some 5-6 other adults). Or, wondering why a women went to do that while (able-bodied) men stayed indoors–ignoring the clear evidence that young/able-bodied men were being targeted by the security forces. The implication was that this was the behaviour of someone collaborating with criminals, especially as she later claimed to ‘know’ that such behaviour had happened in past police operations in Tivoli (women on the streets with bags to collect spent shells, or weapons dropped). (Her claim to direct ‘knowledge’–on top of her “I live in Jamaica” bluster) was questioned strongly by Lord Gifford (Public Defender’s Office). Some of the witnesses rebuffed this well: “My bag is for my money!”

It also came when Linton Gordon (JDF) referred to ‘Tivoli Warriors’, which Michael Williams queried as a new term ‘of art’, and the Commission chair agreed that it was new to him, too. Gordon knows his terms well, so choosing a term that clearly depicts a soldier or combatant seems less than a slip of the tongue. He never retracted the term.

Sir David, despite his association with Jamaica, not least through his wife, has struggled with the Patios this week. He got tripped up by a reference to ‘pon chart’, which to his Barbadian ear came over as ‘pine cart’, and so it became for him (made of, carrying, he’ll have to explain). He was stumped, royally (and he loves his cricket analogies) when a witness spoke of “my heart gone”…(meaning he was terrified). But, he recovered well, when a witness referred to a young girl as “she body fine” (meaning small).

The in-session ‘drama’ included testimony from a remote location, with distorted voice of ‘soldier 1’, a JDF serviceman who alleged that JCF officers killed civilians in cold blood. The testimony was not such a big bombshell, as the soldier did not see, but heard, activity then found bodies in the area from where police had gone. It also included many witnesses from Tivoli not showing up to give testimony: that caused one day to go by without any testimony and another session to end at lunchtime. The problem of getting witnesses to appear is widespread, and many have commented at the seeming ridicule that the witnesses face is one simple reason. Clearly, some have concerns, too about personal safety, and that has led to several giving testimony but not appearing on-screen.

Outside the sessions, we’ve seen and heard a war of words between Lloyd D’Aguilar (Convenor, Tivoli Committee) and the media. He got into a Twitter rant with Nationwide Radio’s Abka Fitz-Henley, concerning claims by some witnesses that statements prepared by him from their testimony did not accurately reflect what they had said. One witness even went as far as wondering if he couldn’t read and write. You can read for yourself below the Twitter exchange.

Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 11.34.55 AM

Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 11.35.44 AM

Anyway, the Twitter exchange moved onto a taped radio interview, with D’Aguilar again trying to clarify what he had done and how he felt about the proceedings. He went a little further, though, and referred to supporting evidence in a testimony that has yet to be heard by the Commission. That was brought to the attention of the chair, by Linton Gordon, at the end of Friday’s session, in an exchange that also included comments about the conduct of attorney, Michael Williams, on the matter of finding that a witness’ testimonies had discrepancies (suggesting William should have given back his retainer). (Williams explained to the Commission that he had thought, initially, that Gordon’s concerns were about this week’s testimony of JDF soldiers. While Williams stated he had not shown D’Aguilar, or anyone else, statements from the JDF witnesses who are to give testimony under secure conditions, he indicated that he discussed the statements, as is his duty to his client in preparing to address the witnesses.)

The Commission chair expressed his serious concern about the D’Aguilar interview, and said the Commission would seek to obtain transcripts of the two interviews done by D’Aguilar on Nationwide News Network as well as the verbatim evidence of the witnesses “about whom the comments were made”. He said the entire package would then be turned over to the office of the DPP.

Finally, some of Jamaica’s quant traits get played out nicely during the Enquiry. Take, for example, simple civilities. It’s usually the case that courts have their traditions of how witnesses and attorneys address the judge. Some of that has inevitably carried over to the Commission, given the prevalence of legal bodies that guide the proceedings. But, we also see how ordinary Jamaicans deal with people in authority. “Yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am” are still common phrases in ordinary life. Sometimes, we get the twisting of that in quite natural ways, as when Ms. James (an elderly witness) referred to attorney Debra Martin as “darling dear”. The cameras were not on Ms. Martin’s face at the time, but I could imagine her eyes widening and her brows raising as if she’d just been addressed by her elderly aunt.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

2 thoughts on “West Kingston Commission of Enquiry: A who fah t’ing dis?”

  1. Wow. Being side-tracked by other happenings, I missed so much of this Dennis! thanks so much for this excellent (and very disturbing) account. Confusion, indeed – and a great deal of trauma and distress behind it all, of course. I did catch some of Valerie Neita Robinson’s comments and was not at all impressed. The only saving grace perhaps, is Simmons, who seems not to be allowing it to degenerate further. Otherwise this COE would be a complete mess. Thank you again for this.


    1. Few of us can imagine or understand the trauma and distress, which have become an ingrained feature of Tivoli and many other violence-plagued communities. We saw it again with the Denham Town residents, grieving for children lost to this. Children! 😔


Comments are closed.