The Jamaica Observer editorial yesterday gave its views on this controversial issue:
The typical nine-day wonder has reached the furore over the ‘gun hand’ gesture by Petersfield High School standout athlete Mr Antonio Watson at the 2021 Inter-secondary Schools Sports Association (ISSA)/GraceKennedy Boys’ and Girls’ Athletics Championships at the National Stadium.
We have, in the meantime, very carefully reflected on the controversy over the hand gesture symbolising the shooting of a losing athlete – Edwin Allen’s Mr Bryan Levell – and the fierce for-or-against arguments regarding Mr Watson’s action for which he has apologised. The main points we found are as follows:
• The 19-year-old was merely mimicking what he had grown up around in the society, because children live what they learn.
• The gesture has to be seen in the context of Jamaica’s troubling murder rate involving the gun.
• It’s a class thing, and if Mr Watson had been from a top high school his action would be ignored.
• He shouldn’t be condemned or chastised; instead, his vast athletic potential should be nurtured.
• Use the occasion as a teachable moment to espouse valuable lessons.
We made special note of the advice from our greatest athlete ever, Mr Usain Bolt, with whom the athlete is being compared: “Reason with him, yes, about his action, but don’t crucify him… It’s a learning lesson and teachable moment for all. Youths, be strong and remember anything is possible, don’t think limits.”
Noteworthy, too, is the response from ISSA: “Champs has always been a time to showcase and celebrate talent. While we encourage the colourful behaviour of victory celebrations and acknowledge the value and excitement it brings to the championships, it should always be within the code of conduct that guides how we act on and off the field and track.”
It is interesting that the large majority of the criticisms were not about punishing the student, but were centred on what others were saying, which suggests that the outrage was an attempt by the society to assert acceptable standards.
We have seen a similar occurrence in the United States, which is known for mass killings, including at schools. The American media is replete with stories of schools suspending students for making similar gestures, in some cases with backlash from parents.
Since the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act mandating zero tolerance for students bringing guns to school in the US, administrators had been expanding that basic notion to include gun play with toy guns, food shaped into guns, and even hand gestures.
In August 2019 the Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that a 64-year-old man was guilty of criminal disorderly conduct for “pointing a finger like a gun at a man, and making a recoil motion as if to suggest he had shot him”.
The Jamaican society should learn from others. We are particularly sensitive that our young athletes be guided, because an international sponsor such as Nike or PUMA wouldn’t want to market their brand with an athlete making an offensive gun gesture.
But for now, we’ll take Mr Watson at his word:
“Upon reflection, I recognise that my gestures could have been misleading and I have no desire to negatively influence others. In fact, going forward I aspire to demonstrate positive behaviours and attitudes that will inspire countless young Jamaicans to strive for excellence and make our country a true beacon of what is good in this world.”
I’m very much in sympathy with the arguments in this column that was published today in The Gleaner:
The caption below a picture in the online Gleaner on Saturday, May 15 read, “Petersfield High School’s Antonio Watson (left) gestures to Edwin Allen High School’s Bryan Levell as he crosses the finish line ahead of him in the Class One boys’ 200m final during the ISSA/GraceKennedy Boys and Girls’ Athletics Championships at the National Stadium on Saturday.”
But that “gesture” was far from innocuous; and a video of the event shows two gestures. In the first, Watson used his left hand to mimic a handgun directly pointing and firing twice, at close range, at his rival. The video then shows Watson use his right hand to pull another make-belief handgun, from his waist, and with flamboyant glorification of gunmanship, mimic chambering a round and pointing the handgun off somewhere.
I am informed that gun mimicking occurs repeatedly at Champs; but that does not make it okay. Such offensive and aggressive displays continue because the meet officials failed to nip them in the bud. Our athletes dare not gesture in that manner after winning any event overseas; why are they allowed to point make-belief guns directly at their rivals here?
No doubt, some (numb to Jamaica’s unabated violence, and/or placatory apologists) will brush aside the gestures as no big deal, relegate them to youthful exuberance, toxic jubilation, or ‘the culture’. But those offensive displays that mimic gunmanship should not be misinterpreted as innocent celebration; they mimic shooting others, an act meant to get rid of others permanently.
If someone on the street mimics shooting me, I would feel a reasonable apprehension of an imminent harmful or offensive contact. I would feel under threat, assaulted. Try mimicking a gun pointed at any security force personnel and see what happens.
What message does mimicking murder send? There are no redeeming qualities to gesturing like a depraved and murderous gunman. Those gestures are nothing but serious intimidations and macabre rehearsals of murderous acts. They incite and encourage bitterness, the type that kills sportsmanship and transforms friendly competition into acrimonious rivalry. This is the exact diametric of what sports is meant to achieve. FIFA would never ignore or tolerate such behaviour, and neither should we.
The following day, The Gleaner stated that “The incident has been met with public criticism amid Jamaica’s troubling murder rate.” Watson apologised in a carefully crafted statement, ostensibly penned by someone else, to ward off serious repercussions that could jeopardise his career. “I therefore want to unreservedly apologise to all the stakeholders, my school, fans, and family for my actions … . I have taken full responsibility for such actions as it is in no way a reflection of the ethos of my school, the principles of my coach or the position of ISSA or any of the sponsors”.
Jamaica is under siege by gunmen who act with impunity. They attack and kill whomever they please. They terrorise individuals, communities and the society at large. The gun has become the surrogate for the power that knowledge and skill bring. The gun has become the means of inflicting pain on others, a blowback of disenfranchisement, disempowerment, disrespect, disdain and distress among the less fortunate. Guns have become the final arbiter and the final solution for almost any problem.
Guns are used to intimidate the entire country; we venture on to the streets with some degree of timidity, wondering if we will encounter violence, especially gun violence. We try to secure our homes, our sanctuaries, from blood-thirsty gunmen. The gun is the murder weapon of choice in Jamaica; it is responsible for incalculable suffering and billions of taxpayers’ dollars being spent on security and healthcare. It has decreased productivity and dissuaded business investment.
In an enlightened society where there is awareness of the meaning and serious impact of mimicking murderous gunmen, all athletes would be warned of disqualification for any such action. And if any breaks that rule, they should be summarily disqualified. We must draw the line somewhere.
For those who celebrate and enjoy Christmas, this season of ‘joy’ is turning out to be one of dread in Jamaica. Why? Because, as a society, we condone violence against each other as a means of resolving problems, from the earliest age, yet we stand awe-struck when that same attitude takes its ultimate toll as one human takes the life of another, often over something seemingly trivial. When emotions run high, calm is often needed to stop the situation escalating. That is not something that seems to be taught, or valued in Jamaica. If my sense seems off, please correct me.
So, let me be brief. I have watched the eyes popping open as another news report tells of a man killing a woman, in these days, over a failed relationship. Yet, this is the same society that watches on silent when parent threaten to whip their children in public (for something much less than any crime that is on the books). Our approach to ‘discipline’ is NOT teaching children to know the right thing to do without being told, but it’s the principle of ‘let me beat sense into you’.
One does not need to be a qualified psychologist to understand if, from birth in some cases, brute force and pain have been used to ‘teach lessons’, that the lessons learned are about using brute force and pain. ‘If you cant hear, you must feel!’
It is extremely hard to keep one’s temper in the face of annoyance. Let me not claim to be a saint. Let me cite an incident this morning, during rush hour.
The man driving his van past the two lanes of standstill traffic on his side of the road, waiting for the light to change to green, who decides that driving on MY SIDE of the road is acceptable is someone who disregards others. His reaction to my continuing to drive so that our cars meet, on my side of the road, is to wave his arms at MY ‘unreasonable’ behaviour. I had no where to drive other than the lane assigned to me. He did not want to wait for traffic to clear. He was expecting that I would acquiesce to his demands. He was not going to negotiate with my life. He was the same as the motorcyclist and pillion passenger who were riding on my side of the road, because again, their side was filled with slow traffic. I move to avoid killing them. They were followed by another pair of motorcylists and a cyclist doing the same. Their unwillingness to be patient was going to be the cause of grief, and maybe loss of life. Why?
The minute I picked up my phone, the driver of the van, to whom I made reference swerved to join his line of traffic. But, I am quite reasonable. I did not pull a fire arm, or get out my machete, or pick up a rock and aim it at him or his car. Those reactions are not uncommon in Jamaica.
Don’t get ge wrong! I am not trying to conflate murders with bad road behaviour. But, what I see is a set of people who do not care what they do, so long as it’s what they want to do. Everyone else must accommodate them.
We are not the best people in the world, and I am not going to draw comparisons with other countries. We have our origins and we have the path taken to bring us to where we are.
There are other countries that take an approach similar to ours to ‘discipline’ that do not have the wave of killings we do. That, sorry, is not a justification for what WE do. There are few countries that do not do what we do from childhood that have our rates of killing each other.
We’ve elevated violence to a point where we do not understand what it is, and expect to see it used in moderation when we have done little to ensure that many or any understand that that is an option. We go ‘full bore’. Now, we are getting ‘double barrels’ of us right back in our faces.
What is now showing up as men killing women is another twist in the long-running habit of men killing men. Gangs looking to take each others’ lives are one piece of the problem that also has male partners killing female partners. It’s the same problem that has men killing defenseless children. It’s the same problem that has a women stealing a newborn baby from a hospital. It’s the same problem that has the crowd meteing out ‘justice’ by hacking to death a person accused of a crime. It’s a society that has gone so far off the rails that no one has any idea where it is headed, or how will be run over by the train that seems to be travelling faster. As I said above, we are gripped by an disturbing number of people who want things to be THEIR way and theirs only.
If we have the resources to analyze the many different forms of social disorder that is being displayed we may find that a disturbing number of people are undoubtedly clinically insane. That would be more than worrying. But, we would then have to try to understand how they got into this state. It is something that is not confined to certain classes, though it may look different in many cases and in many places.
If my assessment is wrong, please point me to the evidence that counters it. I am willing to listen and learn. I will not strike you down, if I happen to disagree.
Many people love butting heads. I say that not because of Brazil 2014, where footballers head butting each other has come into vogue, even between two Cameroonian team mates.
This is basic behaviour between fighting animals. It’s often spontaneous and violent, though we’ve seen some pathetic acting during this World Cup and in many earlier football matches.
But, butting is also a good metaphor for how issues are addressed. My eyes focus on Jamaica most days and I heads and horns locked, wresting each others from side to side. Think of any recent ‘hot button’ topic: Brendan Bain-UWI/CHART, Jamaica Constabulary Force-INDECOM, 381 megawatt project-Minister Paulwell-Office of the Contractor General, repeal of buggery laws. The butting need not be mutually started, but by its nature, once butting starts it tends to be met with rebuttal.
On sexual topics, Jamaicans have a few extra problems. They like to head butt, but anything involving butts causes many Jamaicans to squirm. Probably, the last thing a Jamaican man wants associated with his name is ‘head butter’. The potential confusion is so wide that the man may well scream for help. But, what tends to happen is that the butting starts early and if the topic of the butt enters the conversation, then ifs and buts get no space, but butts are all that people focus on and they butt each other mercilessly after that. Huffing and puffing, they may well take a pause, but will be butting about butts in no time at all.
One of Jamaica’s main newspapers is currently letting its obsession with butts get in the way of serious balance in its news coverage. They are not into buttering up the audience, but they have gone overboard and leave no butt unturned–if that is a phrase to coin now. If, occasionally, they would say to themselves “but”, then their own butts would be in a better place and they would perhaps feel less need to keep focusing on others’ butts. But, they don’t.
Thoughts of heads, butts, butter, and better are not likely to make them feel comfortable, even though better use of their heads would let them see that they need not go butting into people’s business so much. Instead, they try to butt us into accepting that, but for them, the world would be in total tatters. But, they keep ramming us with their butt obsession.
The butt is not what is used in reasoned debate. If you sat on yours and butted less with your head, you’d often end up in a better place. But, your head rules your heart and you become a butter. Clonk! Though adults tend to do it, it seems so childish. It fixes little except a sudden rush of anger and is often followed by deep regret, and maybe a deep cut.
Looked at from the distance of Europe, I can see Jamaican butts everywhere. No, madam, it’s not a naturist site. Heads are locked and not much real talking is going on. “Hrmph!” “Grhh!” Seems that those are the popular utterances. Sex education material in some private schools seems to be the latest issue for butting, and again butts feature in the ‘concerns’. It’s resulted in the loss of the head of Jamaicans for Justice, who resigned. She’s out on her butt. But for her, where would Jamaica be in addressing certain ethical issues?
That’s how things go on that sunny little island, that foreigners think is so cool and laid back.
I must write about some of the implications of the so-called ‘Vybz Karkel murder trial’. But, first, I want to touch on one of Jamaica’s other seeming conundrums. Many people are quick to say how Jamaicans lack civility and decent; how they are rude and boorish and disrespectful; how they are quick resort to anger and use foul language and violence. Yet, I contend, that is not what most Jamaicans are like. It may be what we see sometimes. It may be part of what the news media report as ‘news’. But, it is a small part of the picture that has been made to seem like the whole or most.
In the middle of the week I was a witness to a violent attack. I was outside with my daughter and a classmate, who were riding on the roadway. One of my neighbours pulled up in her car, with her older daughter. We began a conversation. I had seen her a few times recently while she was running but we had not chance to talk by our houses. We took the time to catch up casually–about her running, about our children (her oldest daughter was with her in the car), about my wife, about work, about our dogs. Two of her dogs were nearby, roaming on her lawn. My daughter’s puppy came down the driveway and was also roaming around. Suddenly, my neighbour’s dog, black, jumped on my daughter’s puppy, white, pinning him to the ground and taking a good bite of him. I heard the first squeals and went quickly to the dogs, yelling “Hey, stop that!” The black dog jumped up and ran back towards his home.
His owner, a little shocked, began to apologise for what had happened. The black dog, showing some contrition, had his hackles raised and his head was bowed. Our dog, got up and walked around without any gait. I saw a streak of redness around one eye and damp pinkish fur around his face. Clearly, he had been cut, but it was not too bad. He skipped back inside the house not seeming to be in too much pain.
The children were shocked but not scared. They went back to riding bikes. My neighbour and I continued talking for a few more minutes, then she headed home and I continued with the children.
When my wife came home, we explained to her what had happened. She decided to send the dog to the vet the next day to check the injury. When we came home later the next afternoon, a strange-looking animal came to greet us. We did not see the long-haired, round-faced puppy that we had begun to know so well. Instead, we say an elongated animal, looking like an a sausage on legs, with a pointy face and nose, and a bluish ring around one eye. The only way that we knew the two animals were the same was from the subdued but familiar greeting, as he tried stand on his hind legs to be stroked. Shock! Horror! The dog had been shorn, literally, of his dignity. We laughed. He went to lie do. He had stitches and was still recovering from his ordeal at the vet’s. It turns out that the vet had added insult to injury by cutting the dog on his stomach, and having to stitch that, too. I wondered if we would sue the doctor.
Yesterday, my neighbour called at my house. We spoke for several minutes about her running and how her injuries were just making it all too difficult. She then saw our puppy and asked what had happened. I explained about the visit to the vet’s. Then, she said “Give me the bill from the vet. It’s my fault; it’s my dog who did the damage.” I told her to talk to my wife, who had the bill and they could sort it out.
That’s where we are now. I don’t know if my wife will act and if my neighbour will pay. I expect the situation to be resolved amicably.
Although, the incident did not involve any people directly, it seemed like a typical confrontation that could occur anywhere, not just in Jamaica. An unprovoked attack. An injured victim. An attacker witnessed and apprehended. It could be allegorical, but I wont go there now. No harsh words were exchanged between my neighbour and myself. She looked embarrassed as well as a bit shocked. I was not too taken about–nature in the raw, tooth and claw, I thought. It was not our children having a go at each other. Not much blood had been spilt. I was sanguine about the sanguineness.
On any given day, as I roam around Kingston, I see little incidents. People yelling at each other. People waving their arms at each other. People showing clear signs of anger with each other. I have yet to see anyone strike another person, and therefore, I have not seen what is reported daily in the apparent litany of crime that occurs. I am not denying crime and its horrific and senseless self.
I am no fool, and I did not grow up in a baby’s nursery. I did not grow up in the poshest of neighbourhoods, nor did I grow up in a seething cauldron of violence. But, I grew up in places where people took out their grievances openly quite often. I’ve seen my mother face a deranged woman–a tenant–wielding a huge kitchen knife in our house. I’ve seen a man take a crowbar and beat another to the ground (over a minor traffic incident). I have been in riots in London that involved molotov cocktails and people kicking policemen and their horses. I have been in football stadiums when all Hell broke loose and it was a miracle that I did not get crushed in a stampede.
I know that it takes little provocation or none at all for people to let loose on each other and try to beat the living daylights out of each other. Hurling bricks, wielding sticks, pulling knives are things that I have seen up close–when I was a boy, mostly. Cuts, punches, kicks, bites, ripped clothes, bloody faces, broken limbs or joints are things that I have seen as the results of altercations. Some of the encounters were in places where confrontation reigns–on the football field; the worst ones ended with the police arriving and people being taken away in handcuffs. Most of the others ended with people running away or walking away, sometimes promising that “This isn’t over…” Sometimes, people returned to the fray at their next meeting.
Which is to say what? Jamaica is extraordinary but yet quite ordinary. What I have seen (though it may be changing) is that a large proportion of the daily violence that is reported occurs in a very small space.
Police reports often talk about ‘gang-related’ crimes. Let’s say that much of the violence is due to ‘turf wars’. Wherever that ‘turf’ is, the incidents related to it are concentrated. The metropolitan area of Kinston-St. Andrew and St. Catherine represents one of its prime areas.
Are most disputes resolved peacefully? I’d think so. Is violence the norm? No. One of the puzzling things about society is that we can get to believe not what we know to be commonplace but what we see reported or told to us often, even if it is not commonplace. Jamaica has about 3 murders a day; that’s a lot for a small country. Many of us will know victims and assailants. Few of us will ever be witnesses, however. That does not mean that the threat to us all is not worrisome.
For all the reports that I hear and read about crime in Jamaica, I do not walk with anything like the fears I harboured living in London or Washington. Why? I’ve been told that the Jamaican variant is really focused on a subculture of the society. I may cross its path, but I think I can help myself by steering away from it, or making my encounters when things are more favourable, say in daylight not at dad of night. In London, I was living in the midst of terrorism, with bombers planting traps any and everywhere that large groups of people went. Mailboxes and garbage bins were places to hide parcel bombs. Train stations were targets. ALl parts of daily life held danger. Just look at the summary data on terrorist incidents in Britain.
Daily life was compromised, yet daily life went on. We took the best precautions we could. Public mailboxes were sealed in some places. Barriers were erected. Police presence became more common place. Sometimes, travel on the Underground was mayhem as the security was so heavy. Going out for a pint with your mates became a dice with death experience. That is not living, but it was daily life.
We lived in Washington DC during the time of the so-called ‘Beltway sniper attacks‘. It was around the time we were due to get married. We were out getting decorations at a store and got gasolene nearby, hours before there was a sniper attack on that same gas station.
That makes your knees knock. Friends would not come to our wedding from abroad because they feared for their lives. We were shocked further when the snipers were captured and one of them had a Jamaican connection. Oh, no! Our people, we thought.
The London and Washington experiences were harder because they involved crime as random events–the risks seemed evenly spread that we could be caught up in it; there was no place you could avoid easily. Alright, don’t go to work, or out to the pub, or take a train or walk in the park. Live a life in front of the TV or reading books and order in food, and somehow continue? I think not.
When I lived in England, people could not understand why I lived in an area, Tottenham, that was full of violence. It was rough, but it was to me, just a working class neighbourhood that offered great amenities and an easy commute to The City. True, one of London’s famous riots, at Broadwater Farm, happened in a housing estate five minutes walk from my house. I had no inclination to move to bucolic suburbs or rural areas; I could visit them whenever I wanted. I grew up as a Londoner and like it.
When I lived near Washington DC, and worked downtown, people outside the US knew DC to be the murder capital of America and again asked “Why go there?”. Again, the whole was true but the problem was really only in a part, mainly South East DC. I felt more trepidation because I did not know the city well at first. Over time, I got the measure of the place and went about my business blissfully ignorant of dangers. We faced other dangers because, after ‘9-11’, Washington became another target for terrorists. Roads were closed, barriers erected, security levels raised. Daily life became a hassle.
I’m not going to make light of Jamaica’s crime and the dilemmas it raises, but I am also not going to put it in front of my face as being something that is ‘sweeping the land’, despite what news reports or some commentators try to suggest. I may find myself held up today, or shot at this evening, or witness a robbery, or see and hear someone being violently attacked. I may be wrong, but I don’t have the impression that this is the Jamaica I or most people walk through each day. That it is the Jamaica for some is a problem and that I will tackle later. That some people have a wanton disregard for law, order, other people’s lives, I wont deny. That Jamaica has a social system that is broken or breaking, and a political system that is not really healing that, I wont argue. But, I will argue that ‘good’ has not yet given way to ‘evil’–and that is not to put a carrot in front of those who want to see it all in religious terms. To me, that’s important to hold on to and think about moving forward.
Lick ‘im! Fling di stone! ‘im nah move? Mi t’ink ‘im dead. Is yu fling di stone.
Based on five primary school children ‘playing’ in a car park, yesterday. My daughter and I were running errands to get her supplies for a school project. We came across a group of children walking from school, romping in the car park. But, it was clear that two boys were having a little dispute. They chased each other, using the three girls as shields. Then one boy picked up a large stone, waited then flung it at the other. It missed.
I’m not shy of using ‘teaching moments’. “What did you just do?” I asked the thrower. “‘im start it…” I interrupted with “What did YOU just do?” He said he had thrown the stone at the boy. I told him to go and pick it up. One of the girls started to laugh. I told her “YOU let him throw the stone. If he had hit the other boy and cut his head, then you should feel that you let him do that.” She shuffled.
I told them to put down the stone and go on home. If I saw them again acting that way I would walk them to the police station–it’s about a quarter-mile away.
The security guard standing by the pharmacy entrance looked on, seemingly unconcerned. I had no idea what was going through his mind.
We adults are great facilitator for children. I, helping my child get something done in school. I cannot speak for the other adults in the lives of those children. Without getting too moralist, we turn a blind eye to problems in their infancy, so to speak, then wonder where the big problems come from.
I read in yesterday’s papers how the Kingston municipal government had gone about restoring ‘law and order’ in the city–by breaking up illegal sidewalk vendor stalls over the past few days. Reactions to this have been mixed: some see it as good that ‘anarchy’ and ‘lawlessness’ be nipped in the bud; others understand the plight of many Jamaicans, faced with few opportunities for work, to try to make a living. I saw the heavy hand of government at work. Destroying the structures solves the problem in a very direct and brutal way, for sure. It may mean that the people ‘learn their lessons’, but it also likely puts them in a state similar to bankruptcy. Remember, this is the informal economy at work. Many of the vendors are not well-educated. Many are older people. Many are doing their selling to support a household. They are less of a burden on the state, and they are service and goods providers. Yes, we want to see the rule of law prevail, but does it have to be with a boot in the teeth and a rod on the back–to use a metaphor. We seem to like solutions that beat messages into people.
I know it’s an easy allusion, but I believe it applies: we are the products of slavery and we act towards each other as brutal masters did towards their slaves. Disobey and you will be whipped or beaten. “Beat him!” “You want a beating?” “I’m going to beat you!” come out of people’s mouths with such regularity that you must believe it’s the solution of choice.
I know that talking and negotiating take time, and may lead to no results, but I also know that beating often doesn’t do much but inflict pain and bad memory.
I can’t attest to the reported offensive comments of officials (or police, in other instances), but again, they seem consistent with what is often heard when ‘authority’ is imposing itself.
Educated people will say and understand that ignorance is no defence in the eyes of the law, but I wonder how many of these vendors (or similar) really understand what they are supposed to do, and have the means to make it happen. I cannot believe that they resist because they want to lose their chances to make some money. I cannot believe that they resist because they want to be beaten. I can understand that they do not understand. Or, that they have also had to live with years of broken promises, in the sense that people say things and do nothing. So, it’s a shock when someone says “Move!” and then they come and move you.
I’m in favour of orderliness. But, I also understand that there are not random forces at work in what people are doing for economic survival. A country with 16 percent unemployment has to do better than break down the livelihood of people trying to work. Where’s the job that will replace the shattered stall?