The good, the bad, and the ugly (April 6, 2014)-Adidja Palmer Edition

A Jamaican judge sentenced four convicted murderers to life in prison, with hard labour, and no less than 25 years before parole would be considered. Publicly, some people, including relatives of the convicted men, wept and were openly distressed. Publicly, some people hailed this as a victory for law and order and shed no tears for putting behind bars persons whom the legal system had determined were murderers. No one but the convicts and some other persons who so far have not been named know what really took place. One of the convicts, Adidja Palmer, maintains that he is innocent. If he is, he will hope that his lawyer’s promise to appeal the judgement and the sentence bring him a result that vindicates his claim. If he is not innocent, then he will have to deal with his own conscience. We wont know how that process will work out, because all of the trial transcripts need to be obtained by the defence attorneys and examined before they can submit their appeal. That could take many months. In the meantime, the men will continue to spend time at ‘her majesty’s pleasure’.

I have not sought the opinion of many people about the case, the verdicts or the sentences. However, I have heard many opinions about them, as I have gone about my business. I have not heard one voice raised in support of the convicted men. Now, that may just be a reflection of who I know, and where I go–that I cannot deny. But, given that these opinions were heard in a range of random movements, it makes me think that they are not very unrepresentative. “Lock him up and throw away the key!” was a view expressed by a taxi driver I overheard as I listened to the verdict on my car radio, and was in traffic. I wont go into a list of views, but most were of this sort. Someone had done a bad thing, been caught, been found guilty, and so much now spend time in jail: “You did the crime, now spend the time.” I have not been to Portmore for many years, and it may be that the views there are very different.

Not surprisingly, the media has had a few persons arguing that the case was a test of the country and its judicial system. Well, every court case is just that. I guess what they mean is that the system we have did not seem to really work, and now we needed to see that it could function as it was meant to. That seems to have happened. We have heard, since the trial ended, that a juror tried to ‘pervert the course of justice’ by offering a bribe to the jury foreperson. Again, a court case is running to determine if that allegation is accepted. We also heard from the police a litany of attempts to pervert the course of justice by persons associated with the accused, so of which are also soon to be the subject of court cases. The wheels keep turning, and nets may soon be tightening around people who thought that they would be able to continue their lives moving freely amongst the rest of us, but may find themselves behind bars.

I often say to my young daughter “People will go to extraordinary lengths to defend the indefensible.” My training as an economist leads me to explain to her that if you follow the money trail you will often get to the root of many things that appear to make little sense. Greed and power, often have money as part of their core motivation, and that lead humans to do what often seems very risky, very selfish, very dishonest, very cruel, and more. So, I think that this case will show that point very clearly. If someone wanted to, they could make a ‘forensic’ analysis of the money trail and find that it leads to many people who will never have to face a court and they will be persons from all walks of life, who would not ordinarily be close associates. In other words, there is likely to be a web of connections, with money (or things bought) as the glue that binds them together. When I hear “crime pay”, I always ask myself “Who has been paid?”

When I worked analysing the finances of countries, it was always the case that the ‘money trail’ did not lie. What is so good about money is that it leaves traces that people cannot erase and many cannot see or know. Facts are facts, and with careful investigation, you can find out facts that people do not want you to know. It also requires you to ask some discomforting questions, to which the direct answers are often lies.

The other fascinating aspect of human social life is that people are very bad at keeping secret things that are very important to them. Whether it’s vanity or some other weakness, people want someone to know, and often feel that part of the burden of carrying the ‘secret’ is lessened.

Something else I learned during my working life was to ask questions of disconnected people who had some common ground. In my case, I would not get all the answers about what the government had spent from the ministry of finance. But, if I spoke to the central bank, commercial banks, enterprises and corporations, and looked at their accounts, I would often find the pieces of the answer. Example. “Mr. Minister. Your country had a war with a neighbour, yet I see little sign in the budget that you spent money on arms and ammunition.” I would then hear about how this and that had helped and that little money was needed, blah-blah. So, I spoke to the central bank governor and lo and behold I would find transactions for government that were not reflected in the government accounts. The payer was sending payments to someone on behalf of the government. The banks would sometimes give similar evidence. Then, I would talk to persons whom were known to be big business persons, and often the main source of things the government needed. Wow! “You shipped how many armoured vehicles into the country?” A few questions of the Customs and shipping companies and the picture started to be very clear. “So, Mr. Minister, it seems that your country imported X armoured cars, Y guns, Z bullets, none of which appear in the government’s accounts.” Then would come the pleas for understanding and tales of how the President was insistent, and how the country could not be allowed to just stand by and be overrun, etc. None of which is untrue and all of which is understandable. But, Mr. Minister thought that if he tried to hide the facts he knew, somehow the problems they created would disappear. Wrong! What was always so painful about such exercises was that I really cared two hoots about the armoured trucks. I had a hole in my analysis that I wanted to fill and I knew that either someone was hiding something or a lot of disparate pieces of information showed something that was not there, which is unlikely. Once I filled my numerical gap, then I could figure out how to help the Minister get out of the financial hole he said he was not in.

So, I will wait to see the little dribs and drabs of evidence that come together with a little probing.

The cynical part of me wonders how many people were beneficiaries of crimes and are concerned that their little livelihoods are now about to go under. Of course, they may have no real allegiances and may just be ready to find some other, similar source. That’s especially true for people who have little to sell in terms of skills. It’s unfortunate for Jamaica that it has such a poor record of creating jobs. People want to eat, and see their lives improve and if regular work doesn’t provide the means, then no rocket scientist need be called to help figure out what options people may seek. That’s right, they do not all go to street corners to sell bananas and cigarettes.

Another development that interests me, and also intrigues me a bit, is the intellectual support that some forms of misbehaviour get, and how people ‘buy into the hype’. Some of that is not really meant to be ‘justification’, but it turns out to be that way. I wont get into the specific arguments put forward by some social scientists about the cultural merits of some musicians. My point is just that any validation is something that builds and even better if the validation comes from people who are not ‘the masses’. Whether those validators move their positions slowly or quickly as instances occur to put in question their views is often a fascinating exercise–often slow, often a little painful to watch.

But, let’s get something clear: ‘Vybz Kartel’ did not exist as a person; ‘he’ was or is a persona. Just like Clark Kent is real and Bruce Wayne is real but have characters associated with their real selfs, Palmer had a nom de plume for his artistic ventures. He was also known as ‘Worl’ boss’ and ‘Teacha’. The law tried Palmer and he will be the person doing time. Vybz Karkel can jet off, or sail off, into the horizon never to be seen again. Conflate them, if you want, but don’t confuse them as being one and the same, or as both being real. That’s where lots of mental gymnastic problems lie. The courts had it clear and so will all of those close to the person and the persona.

I have many thoughts about what the just-ended case may mean for Jamaica. But, I want to point my finger at two persons who should be looked at very carefully for what they did in the past and what they continue to do, without seeming requests for favour. They are Clovis Brown and Las May. Both are talented cartoonists–one for each of the major Jamaican papers. They have been very sharp observers and gleaners of public opinion and readily share those in their biting caricatures and text. Call it satire, if you wish. But, they are often not far from where many views seem to be. I will just leave a sample of the many cartoons that they have drawn related to the case. In all cases, look very carefully at the images because the first glance may not reveal the many messages that are there to be seen and interpreted.

Inside jobs? How to nail the perpetrators? (Clovis taps into the core motives)
Inside jobs? How to nail the perpetrators? (Clovis taps into the core motives)
From number 1 hit to being number 1 in prison. Inmate?  (Clovis is wickedly funny)
From number 1 hit to being number 1 in prison. Colour me honey? Inmate? (Clovis is wickedly funny)
Las May mentions 'cellfie' and puts a 'mark' on a convict that is beastly
Las May mentions ‘cellfie’ and puts a ‘mark’ on a convict that is beastly
Calabar school pride on show, and with such a glow (Clovis on the mark)
Calabar school pride on show, and with such a glow, words have meanings, don’t we know (Clovis on the mark)

Vybz Kartel, come on down

I believe that many lessons may be drawn from the recent murder case involving Adidja Palmer (aka ‘Vybz Kartel’) and four other defendants. Everyone who had some notion of the case is likely to have an opinion about what went on before, during and after it. Thankfully, we have a democratic society with a good amount of freedom of speech, so everyone is entitled to his or her opinion and should express it if he or she so desires. I am not going to go to a place where many will travel–putting the case into some context that suggests it is the pinnacle of a great change in Jamaican society, even if I wish that change would hurry up and come. I prefer to make some simpler points.

Adidja Palmer can be separated from Vybz Kartel (VK) in our minds

Adidja Palmer-Vybz Kartel
Adidja Palmer-Vybz Kartel

, but it is very hard to see them as separate in body. Whatever we think that VK did, we have to ask ourselves what embodiment went with the action. The singing and dancing and writing of lyrics under the stage name ‘Vybz Kartel’ were a turning point in the development of Adidja Palmer. At a certain stage, Palmer got left behind and Vybz took over in the public’s consciousness. Vybz then had great success, was heralded for his ‘iconic’ lyrical and musical gifts. He showed he had a great understanding of the society in which he lived. He developed trappings of power, even naming his organization ‘Empire’–which seems grandiose, but money and power tend to do that to people’s self-perception. He began associating with richer people and people in different walks of life who wielded power. He was able to send his child to a private school. He created Street Vybz Rum. He hosted a weekly dance party Street Vybz Thursday. He got fame in a big way. hosted his own reality television show “Teacha’s Pet” on CVM Jamaica broadcast channel, the first reality television show hosted by a dancehall artist in Jamaica. He was a full-blown celebrity. He spoke at UWI, at the invitation of Professor Carolyn Cooper: he got academic approval, of sorts. He established his own label Adidjahiem/Notnice Records. He was ‘Mr. Business and Mr. Music’.

Still, Vybz Kartel was showing signs of a less-than perfect person. He got into disputes with fellow musicians. He gained notoriety for his lyrics, which contained obscene and violent references. He was banned from the airwaves; he also was banned from performing in some countries. He faced charges in 2011 for murder, conspiracy to murder and illegal possession of a firearm; he was bailed in that case but kept in jail on another murder charge , concerning the death of Clive ‘Lizard’ Williams(for which he was just being tried).

While Vybz was feeling his vibes, Adidja was somewhere else, some would have us believe. Perhaps, in the evening, a man in felt bedroom slippers and a warm cup of cocoa would pull out a copy of The Bible and read some verses. Maybe, he lamented what had happened to put him in the background and let Vybz get all the light. This is pure speculation, of course. Alternatively, Adidja was fully aware of who and what Vybz was, and the persona was just a front behind which the real, living Palmer could masquerade.

I had an interesting time with some ladies yesterday, while we discussed this topic. Here was my postulation. Imagine that a man looking like Adidja Palmer drove his car into the front of the bank and killed 6 people standing in the teller line. He gets out of the car and says “Sorry about that, I wasn’t driving or in control of the car. My persona was behind the wheel. Got to dash.” What would most sensible people think? Let Adidja Palmer walk out of the bank and wait for Vybz to come in and own up to this deed? Somehow, that “It wasn’t me” line doesn’t seem to be one that people would accept. Does it matter what the deed was? I think not.

If the person, who has two personalities, was my neighbour and associate would I feel differently? Would I say, “Man, Adidja wouldn’t do such a thing. Maybe he lost his mind.” That would help me understand. Or, “He’s pretending to be Vybz; look how he’s acting crazy.” That would also help me understand. I might even suggest that Adidja get counselling and work out the issues that were behind this split personality, that seemed to be so far apart, dare I say like Jekyll and Hyde. But, let’s leave that splitting aside for the moment.

Jamaica saw many things during the case. We saw saturated media coverage. That meant that for many it was a first look into how courts work and how the justice system functions. Judges, lawyers, juries, bailiffs, etc. The arguments and facts were sometime very complicated to follow. Many times we were given a sight of things that were not so clear and perhaps not so easy to believe. Telecom experts who told us that technology seemed more limited than we were often told it was. Cloned chips? Tampered text messages? Phones that couldn’t be traced? We heard about procedures that were shoddy at best and downright suspicious at worst. Evidence that was missing. Evidence that was open to tampering. We saw jurors run a foul of the judge and health problems that meant one had to be excused.

At the end of the case we saw what we had been awaiting: the jury were given instructions and went off to deliberate and came back with a verdict. The verdict was reached quite quickly. For some, that seemed strange. I did not think so. I did jury service when I was 18 and just a university student. Juries discuss cases as they proceed. Many jurors have their minds made up early. Many need lots of time. In the jury room, time is needed when opinions are divided and people need to be persuaded to change their views. If views are aligned, decisions can come quickly. The verdict was guilty for four of the five accused, including Palmer.

We also saw something that we honestly did not expect. We often hear about corruption in Jamaica, but by its nature it’s hard to see. But, we saw it live and direct in the courtroom. Within minutes of the verdict, we heard that one juror was to be charged with five counts of attempting to pervert the course of justice and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, by offering a bribe to the jury foreman, which had been reported. So, it was true: money comes into cases to try to steer verdicts.We still have to wait and see if the charges sticks and what else emerges.

Towards the end of the case, public emotions appeared to run high. People began amassing around the courthouse, showing support for Vybz Karkel and Adidja Palmer. Reports are that this was a ‘rent-a-crowd’ affair. Jamaica has 17 percent unemployment and 40 percent youth unemployment. Offer people money for light or no real work and they would be fools to turn it down. Think of it like ‘Christmas work’ but without a cutlass and rake. There were some violent incidents with crowds breaking police barricades and some bottle-throwing, I understand.

Now, the verdict has been given and the court of public opinion is in session. Some stridently claim that ‘the system’ was against the accused and there could not and was not a fair trial. I’m not sure if that same argument would have been made if the verdict had been innocent. It may seem strange to some that the same system smells sweet if you get what you want, but stinks when you don’t. I’ve not figure that out, yet.

Some intellectuals have put forward arguments that centre on the ‘creative genius’ or ‘icon’ status of Vybz Kartel-Adidja Palmer. I hear those arguments, but don’t understand what they are meant to prove in terms of what was the charge. Many great artistes are flawed, some severely so. We read almost daily of ‘stars’ who are in trouble with the law. Just this morning, I read about Kanye West and a battering charge. I don’t think I need to list all the instances. Some of these flawed characters appear more associated with some musical genres, say hip-hop and rap in the US. Some American artistes have openly claimed criminal backgrounds, eg Ice T (bank robbery), Snoop Dogg (marijuana and firearms). But, Jamaica has its notoriety, eg Buju Banton (cocaine trafficking and firearms). Such flaws are not unique to musicians. It may be part of what it takes to be great in ‘creative’ fields; it could just be part of the human condition.

Many people see the case as exceptional in that money and position (albeit gained through music) did not seem to sway the court decision. Many wonder aloud what would have happened if the case had concerned someone identifiably from Jamaica’s upper classes.

We saw the Director of Public Prosecutions happy that the prosecution case held up. She has begun an inquiry into procedural inefficiencies and revamping the protocols relating to the storage of items pertaining to cases before the courts.

Nothing is perfect in the world. I saw the justice system working and it seemed to perform well. Are there flaws? Sure. The system is compromised in many ways, however, importantly by negative feelings about the police and their impartiality and honesty.

People have vested interests. Did those dominate the proceedings? I don’t think so in any clear way.

This is not the end of my deliberations, but it’s enough food for thought for today.