I’ve said this before, so please don’t be surprised. I do not ascribe to the commonly-expressed view that Jamaicans do not respect rules: Jamaicans are normally compliant. They respect rules that bind. The evidence that many bring forward to support the argument to the contrary is often partial, at best, and if looked at carefully, often reflects the same group of people behaving a particular way in different places and circumstances. So, for example, most Jamaicans, by an overwhelming majority, respect the rules of the road. The main miscreants are those driving private transport vehicles–taxis and minibuses. The proof of that is everywhere, every day: Most people respect red lights, do not cut in recklessly, do not speed (most of our roads don’t support driving much over 80 km/hour on their straightest sections, and the state of many roads is so dangerous that it would be both dangerous to body and vehicle, and Jamaicans love their vehicles). Most people do not park regardless of obstructions created or signs that indicate parking should not take place. To my mind, ignoring what is the overwhelming evidence is indicative of something people do a lot in Jamaica, which is to leet emotions run even in the face of facts. What I see as the truth is borne out by other data that go beyond what I see with my own eyes. Speed is a major culprit in road accidents, but the mapping of those accidents show that they tend to be on stretches where traffic can flow fast and relatively freely for long stretches–along the north coast–and, for reasons that I cannot fathom, means to control speed either physically or with police acting as deterrents seem to be used rarely. We have few accidents at intersections and we have few instances of vehicles careening off roads.

I cite the issue with traffic for a good reason. It’s where we see masses of people acting in the same general space. When we see congested roads in Jamaica, we often do not see wholesale disregard for rules of the road. Jamaicans do not decide to take over the opposite carriageway, for example, which may be mainly empty. They try to ease the burden of waiting by antisocial things like blocking junctions (a common practice in congested urban areas), but that stops whenever there is control at such points. In other words, most drivers suffer. That suffering reflects some unbelievably low levels of enforcement, the proof of which is the regular amnesty for traffic fines, that tell us that it’s the collecting agents and those who should monitor infractions who have fallen down on the job.

You see the same tolerance in many areas, such as markets and eating places, as well as administrative places (government offices and banks, for example). Few people like waiting unnecessarily. However, when people see ‘fair treatment’, they tend to be more understanding. So, when an institution has ‘single queueing’ say with tickets, people more or less gladly wait their turn. When such methods are not evident, then people revert to ‘only the strong survive’ methods and try to use ‘muscle’ to be served before others. However, in my experience, a lot of peer pressure often stops that being too bad–‘Eh, bredda! Yu nuh see me in front a you?’ People will usually respect what they know to be the reality and respect ‘first come, first served’. Jamaicans do not routinely resort to physical or verbal violence in such situation. Pride and shame kick in fast and most will mutter displeasure, rather than letting that boil over into some physical confrontation. Where that may be different is in places where people feel that ‘life and limb’ are at risk, so we see some hostile behaviour at places like hospitals. But, I don’t recall seeing altercations in restaurants or patty shops, for instance. That contrasts immensely with what I have often seen in the UK and USA, and in other parts of the so-called ‘civilized’ world. We don’t tend to see road rage. Again, the more common sight is suffering (in relative silence).

Some Jamaicans tend to feel that they need to ‘take the law into their own hands’ in the face of some form of social injustice and the offender is often the government or some public agencies. In such cases, we know the common reaction of burning tyres and blocking roads, carrying placards and shouting about ‘Justice’ to any who can hear. We see that, too, in terms of reactions to the police, when it seems they have been heavy-handed. That is when Jamaican tolerance has reached a natural barrier.

The reaction to the police deserves to be looked at separately because it comes in the wake of a long history of abusive behaviour by that arm of the security services. There is little love lost between the police and many average citizens and too many officers are woefully short of good interpersonal skills. I’ll attest to that personally based on several interactions that could have escalated in reaction to an overly-aggressive attitude displayed by a police officer. By contrast, I have seen exemplary behaviour, too, by members of the JCF, which tells me a lot about the inconsistencies in how it develops its work force.

All of this is to say what?

The government yesterday declared a ‘public state of emergency’ for the parish of St. James.The PM ‘declared that the prevailing conditions in St. James met the conditions for [its] imposition’….”We will be going after wanted men, seizing weapons and taking back our communities,” Police Commissioner George Quallo declared in support of the decision to impose the State of Emergency. The PM, in response to a question, said the government had waited this long to declare the State of Public Emergency because it needed to have appropriate resources to make the initiative a success. Furthermore, he said, the administration needed to be assured of public support for the measure before it went ahead with it.

So, here are my concerns:

The ‘prevailing conditions’ had been evident for nigh on two years. In fact, they were so evident that the now-PM had made a pre-election declaration about how his party being elected would bring forth a much-safer Jamaica. What changed after the election?

The police commissioner declaring what the force will do now, suggests they had been doing nothing of the sort beforehand. Waiting for ‘appropriate resources’ makes little sense when two national budgets have been prepared and these resources were not sought as priority spending.

Public support, if really needed, could have been sought by a simple and repeated call from day one of the administration.

I see no evidence that Jamaicans were not willing to see the government take a ‘more aggressive’ approach to murders–on the contrary. So, was the government so bad at reading those somewhat obvious signs? Had it been a matter of real urgency, the matter could even have been put to the people as a referendum motion, or (less fitting, but in keeping with the times), through an online petition.

The feeling I get, is that, like the situation on the roads, where most people want to act in a certain way, but a few want to impose their way of acting on the rest, when they prevail, it seems to some that the general has lost its place to the particular. Now, whether those few are local business interests, criminal interests, or political interests, they are far outnumbered by the rest of the country. So, why was the popular sentiment so hard to discern? Why was more suffering piled on an already suffering nation? It could only be because it’s generally known that Jamaicans are indeed compliant people.