What matters more, what we do or what we don’t do? Crime-fighting in Jamaica

As there is more than one side to a story, so there is more than one reason for a problem, and more than one solution. So, no answers provided, today. How much of Jamaica’s problems rest with the absence of things against the presence of things? Having asked that, as many people who read this may have viewpoints, and therein lies many a problem with fixing what we perceive is wrong with society: any and everyone could be right, and each of us does not have to agree with the analyses of others or their proposals. When things change in society it’s because of a critical mass that agree on where to go and how to get there. So, in that sense, the persistence of problems signals the absence of agreement on how to address them.

Today’s Gleaner has a editorial about ways to address Jamaica’s seemingly untouchable violent crime problems, and points to the remarkable turnaround in New York City (NYC), where the level of murders has returned to the level of the 1950s, with about 3 murders per 100,000 people (from around 30 in the 1990s) against Jamaica’s startling 59. The editorial touches a few raw nerves concerning Jamaica’s police force, compared to that of NYC (my emphases):

They targeted hotspots where murders, robberies and burglaries most often took place and went after the known and suspected criminals, who were sometimes picked up initially for small crimes. The police was substantially expanded, giving it the flexibility to do its tasks, without affecting its general policing functions.

Jamaica’s police force will probably insist that its approach is consistent with the New York City model – and may well be. It is not our sense, however, that it is done with the same energy and consistency that delivered success in New York City. And important for Jamaica, neither is the JCF open to the level of transparency and accountability that elicits the kind of society trust that would contribute to its effectiveness.

But, transforming Jamaica’s police force from an organisation with a reputation for corruption and ineptitude to an organisation that is professional, efficient, and accountable, demands new approaches to leadership. This must start with the top political leader, who apprehends that crime poses an existential threat to democracy, a civilised way of life, and the anarchy now imposed by criminals.’

If this assessment is correct, it begs many questions, such as why the police force would be anything but energetic or consistent in its task? But, why has the force been allowed to continue with such a damaging lack of transparency and accountability?

Trash on a bench in Nassau

Not reducing or resolving crimes is not that different from problems with garbage. Those who commit the acts know they can get away easily. Those assigned to deal with it, don’t, for reasons acceptable or not. The persistent presence tells us that no one wants to address the problems.

As with things seen from an economics approach, the questions can be boiled down to who gains and loses from these failings? How much of the transfer of gains and losses are needed to make matters better? That’s the essence of the presence-absence dilemma.

To fix an imbalance does not require that parity be achieved or that one side has to win everything; it means the sides have to be satisfied with the prospective outcomes.

I’ve resolved in my mind why politicians may not want to see a reduction in crime, and it’s based on a cynical assessment of the political structure in place in Jamaica, and its system of rewards and spoils. But, I have not found a good argument for why the police force would want to preside over such a situation. Any ideas?

The stock-flow dilemma of Jamaica‘s progress. Is it mainly about playing political favourites?

Economists often have to draw distinctions between the problems created by stocks (balances at a point in time, which show how things have accumulated) and flows (changes in balances over time, increases or decreases). Depending on the topic concerned, stocks can be so large that only massive changes in flows can affect how things appear. Put simpler, if I have $1 million in my bank account, it wont change if I take out 2 percent a month ($20,000) and receive the same amount as new income. It will grow if my income outpaces my drawings; and decline only if my outgoings outpace my income. But, stocks can be so large or been accumulated over such a long time that people find it hard to conceive of them changing. In this sense, it’s useful to think about some of the social, economic and political problems in Jamaica in terms of how it may be possible to manage the stocks and what can be done to change the flows.

For any country, these ideas are important because it will take a lot of change in one direction to alter what we see and perceive as the situation in the country. People often look at developed countries and see how their accumulation of wealth has left them with assets that won’t decline in a hurry. By contrast, less-developed countries appear less well-endowed and their assets often seem in a precarious position.

For example, while the average age of cars the USA’s is just over 10 years, Cuba’s stock of motor cars is about 60 years (dating from the 1950s) because it had to endure an US trade embargo and restrictions on personal ownership of cars. With the lifting of the embargo, scope is now greater for new cars to be imported, but there’s still the issue of whether many Cubans can afford to buy new cars. So, seeing any major change in the ‘antique’ look on Cuban roads is unlikely to happen fast.

For Jamaica to make it from here (where some things seem alright, but many things are not alright by any stretch of the imagination) to there (where most things are alright, and some things absolutely unparalleled, and few things seem not alright), means dealing with the huge balance of ‘bad behaviour’ that manifests itself in many spheres of ordinary life, and subjecting the country to an enormous flow of ‘good’ behaviour.

We can scan the whole terrain of Jamaican activity and identify where and what those bad behaviours are, and what good behaviours we would like to see in their place. So, a classic example is the behaviour of licensed taxi and minibus drivers, who seem to have laws unto themselves and use the roads in near-total disregard of the rights of others on the roads. So, society has to withstand dangerous maneuvering, speeding, overloading, abusive and aggressive behaviour. This is made more appalling to me because their passengers seems to tolerate (and in some cases, encourage) such behaviour. So, bad behaviour is tolerated by most motorists and by fare-paying passengers, so get bigger validation. The police do a poor job of implementing road regulations and dealing with infractions by this group of motorists, which gives further validation. So, the bad drivers have little incentive to change. The costs of their behaviour are borne by the bulk of society and they profit to the extent that passengers readily run to them for transport instead of shunning them. The solutions to these problems cannot come from amnesties on road fines or occasional displays of ‘zero tolerance’. Like pulling off the heads of dandelions, the weeds soon reappear because the roots have been left untouched.

It is not possible to list here all of the misdeeds that make up daily life in Jamaica, and if I tried, anything I missed could be seen as lack of appreciation on my part or lack of observations. So, run through your own list of the things that peeve. The principle is the same. But, let me add a few more that many will know and wonder if they will ever change.

Informal settlements. The country is littered with housing that has been erected by people who decided that they wanted to live somewhere but did not go through any formal processes to obtain land and/or erect housing. Consequently, the country is well-known for the many ‘zinc fence’ communities, made up of ramshackle structures initially of wood but now including some that are made of breeze blocks. While such communities have solved a housing problem for those who chose to that route, they fall short of what can make communities work well. Roads and pathways have been created that may lead in and out, but may not be able to deal with even the simplest of vehicles: these are warrens made for foot traffic, mainly. They can support easily modern motorized service vehicles to deal with garbage and emergencies. They do not have features that make it easy to trace inhabitants, eg road names and house numbers. Consequently, many see such communities as natural breeding grounds for those who wish to be less visible, especially if they are involved in illegal activities. But, they are places just waiting for a disaster to happen. Lacking planned water supplies, sanitary provisions, or electricity, people can survive but tend to be worse-served than if the communities had been planned. By being unplanned, such communities also put an unanticipated burden on provisions that had been planned. In other words, they overstretched what would otherwise be adequate services and this tends to make life worse for a greater group of people. The solution to this problem is not with piecemeal measures. The quality of life and housing in such communities has been well-set over decades and wont change with some community programmes or installing stone walls instead of zinc fencing.

Poor quality roads. Pot-holed streets are as much a signature of Jamaica as are its zinc fence communities. Whether the deterioration of the roads reflects poor design, poor construction, overuse, the unanticipated results of extreme weather, or some combination of these factors, the result of a road structure where driving like a slalom skier is more the norm than the exception. Such thoroughfares are dangerous in general. When they occur in areas where travel is already risky, say in hilly or mountainous areas, it’s a wonder that more accidents don’t happen. No sooner are such roads repaired than they appear to start to fall apart. That leads many to wonder who has been gaining at the expense of society by authorizing and implementing such inadequate constructions. The solution to this problem cannot be through more patch-and-mend repairs; roads deteriorate faster than they are being repaired.

The physical differences in the examples I have cited mean solutions will have to be different in kind, but they have a commonality in that incentives have to change to make people want to do things differently.

  • Taxi and minibus drivers and owners need to suffer greater costs for their disregard of road rules and the needs of other users. Whether these are fines, lost licenses, seized vehicles, prison terms, or other forms of punishment, something that shifts greatly the cost-benefit calculation for them is needed.
  • Informal settlements need to be reorganized so that they become integrated with the general housing and settlement conditions accepted by the majority of the country. They need to be more formal, for the benefit of the greater society. The benefits that may be enjoyed by living without costs that others have to bear have to go. Costs borne by society as a whole have to be shared better by those who live in such communities. Some will say that nothing short of wholesale clearance and resettlement can offer a solution. Maybe, but we should know how difficult such schemes have been when tried (in whatever circumstances, eg in British slum areas) in other countries. The communities have a social cohesion that will be broken and that has to be managed and monitored carefully. Gradually changing such communities may do little to alter fundamentally the problems that exist.
  • New road designs and better construction may stop the current frequent process of build-collapse-rebuild-collapse-rebuild… But, the problems may lie less in physical construction than in administrative weaknesses, ie poor management is the real culprit. So, even if concrete roads were in principle likely to give Jamaica much better road surfaces, those who manage the process of contracts and monitoring them may be so involved in a series of corrupt practices that even these roads will be seen as inadequate.

Each of these problems show things about Jamaica that are pervasive and seemingly hard to change without a series of massive or cataclysmic changes. None can be swept away with the flick of a finger. Each requires major physical changes and changes in how people perceive what they are entitled to do. We also have to separate the problems.

Cries of ‘foul’ by those drivers who claim that their opportunities for making a livelihood are being curtailed need to be set against the daily mayhem their behaviour creates; the wins can’t all be theirs.

We need to make informal settlers understand that moving to areas that have insufficient housing does not entitle anyone to just construct fixed structures to solve that problem. (The problem in some other countries manifests itself with people moving into mobile homes and setting up ‘camps’. Camps can be moved without people losing their homes, and sometimes are, shifting the problems from locality to locality.) Cries about ‘homelessness’ that may arise if such areas are removed need to be set against the anarchic situation that has been allowed to exist.

Our road construction problems aren’t solved for most by new highways built (mainly by foreign companies) to higher standards and under processes that seem to avoid certain malpractices. To replace all the bad roads with roads having guaranteed longer durability would impose an enormous cost and inconvenience on many travellers, but would seem worthwhile if it stopped or reduced substantially the constant repairs that seem to be the current norm. Is society ready for this process and trusting of those who will set it in train?

If, by some miracle, it were possible to get every Jamaican to commit to behaving correctly from this time forward then our problems would be solved. We would stop hoping that people would behave. But, that miracle is unlikely to happen. So, the best we can hope for is that most people decide to act in this correct way, and those who are misbehaving decide to do no more misbehaving. But, even that is a big hope. What is more likely is that many Jamaicans will behave and try to weather the storm of the many Jamaicans who see continued misbehaving as what they spend their time doing. That’s where we’ve been for a long time and it wears down those who are on the good side, and makes it harder to see or believe that the bad side is not taking over and swamping the good.

We have accepted that it’s unlikely that some moral and civic wave will wash over the country so that those who misbehave will see the errors of their ways, repent, and change.

One of our grave problems is that many people have no experience of life being lived differently and of life being such that hustling and trying to beat down each other is not the only way. Our social landscape is not filled with enough bright lights who can say they shine because they did it only the right way. That’s sad because it means that people who could have succeeded by merit have to acknowledge that they got help from ‘connections’. So, if even those most likely to succeed don’t trust merit alone to move them ahead, what hope is there that those at the other end–ie most likely to fail–would choose to do otherwise?

We could offer the case of Jamaicans who migrated and how they have managed to succeed in countries that lay greater stake on orderliness and merit, and appear to deal more stringently with corruption, but again our landscape would show that such successes are few amongst the first generation (products of Jamaica), and those of later generations are really products of their new home, so have essentially been socialized differently.

Dealing with many of Jamaica’s problems now seem daunting to many people, because the problems seem so widespread and the strong impression is that the bad are quickly out-fighting the good. So, even if say 3/4 of the island’s nearly 3 million people are good citizens, the impact of the remaining 1/4 is so significant as to outweigh them. Put simply, the significant minority is beating hands-down the majority. People feel under siege from several fronts, and that creates levels of stress that have reached intolerable levels for many. Any one of these stressors could be a trigger for an explosive reaction.

But, how ready is Jamaica and its policy makers to tackle any or all of these problems? Part of the answer rests on the extent to which policy makers’ hands are ‘clean’, ie to what extent are they direct or indirect beneficiaries of the bad behaviour?

We know that to be part of the problem with public service vehicles, where members of the security forces are known to be owners and operators of taxis and minibuses, which creates clear conflicts of interest when it comes to implementing road regulations.

We know that informal settlements can be and are pockets of political support which would be diluted or lost completely if the communities were disrupted.

We know road contractors have been favoured by political connections but cannot determine if that also involve unwarranted financial or other gains by public officials. Rigorous policies on asset declarations would go someway to seeing if that were the case.

So, we have to do some serious self-examination. If a major part of the problem comes from the convoluted intertwining of political favour and implied misappropriation of public funds then its unlikely to solve itself.Our country is driven by partisan politics and it would be too risky for one party to cede control in the name of ‘levelling the playing field’ for the nation as a whole, versus the party.

If political favouritism isn’t the root of the problem, then does that imply we are a country that love to inflict pain on itself?

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I’ve not addressed specifically the problem of violent crime here. My own feeling is that it manifests features that are much like those in the three examples I cited: an official tolerance for certain misbehaviour that has then grown to a level that has more momentum that can be addressed by ‘simple’ policy changes. Instead, certain people have to be forced to accept costs and recognize losses. That politicians (and by implication, public officials) are involved in proven–at the very least in the creation of the ‘monster’ that now roams the land. To what extent are they still involved? Only they can say. Is the country prepared to look squarely into the eyes of this elephant in the room? Measures like Zones of Special Operations (ZOSOs) cannot do much as they affect little, if at all, the culture that says crime pays. Our low rates of capture, clear-up and conviction are testimony to a swathe of failed policing and justice practices, plus a society more inclined to keep silent about what they know than give up criminals.

Understanding numbers: How Jamaica being baffled by crime is hard to understand

I won’t make this long. Jamaicans are often accused of being numerically illiterate. Unfair? Here is the latest proof. 2016 witnessed 1350 murders on the island, which over 366 days (a Leap Year, remember), means about 3.7 murders a day. So far, during the first 3 days of 2017, we have had reported 11 murders, which (surprise) is 3.7 murders times 3. JCF data show that murders are happening all over the country, though still largely an urban phenomenon (which is just sheer weight of numbers). The Parish of St. James (‘capital’ of lotto scamming) is surpassing all areas. The downtrend in murders following the Tivoli operations in 2010 stopped after a couple of years and is now clearly up again. The shake-up in the world of gangs is still on-going (why would it stop?), and it’s moved away from Kingston. 

So, why are people surprised? What happened at the turn of the year to stop the spigot of killings? Nothing, as far as I know. If the annual feasting on food and drink did nothing to curtail the killing, then it must continue its trend thereafter. So, rickety policing and creaking justice system didn’t get a make-over, sir? Go to the naughty corner!

Now, please don’t get me wrong and get all bent out of shape: this is nothing to do with what I think about much of the violence that I am trying to understand. It’s about how a people (Jamaicans) can watch a phenomenon, do little to affect it, and then expect things to change. 

One answer is blind faith, as in ‘The Lord will provide’ (no offence to my fellow religious faith followers).

Another answer is total apathy: there’s got to be someone who’s going to do something about this, right.

Another answer is denial.

On the one hand, Jamaica’s crime problems are simple to solve. If, like New Year resolutions, each person made and kept a pledge, our crime would disappear overnight. The pledge would be: “I will not take the life of any fellow being”. Now, for many of us, this is an old pledge, even if unstated. It’s how we live our lives. Whatever befalls us, we do not see that making the decision to end another person’s life is ours to make. However, some have made the pledge and not kept it, or not made the pledge? The questions to try to answer are ‘Why?’ and (less important, I think) maybe ‘When?’

Jamaica’s killing spree is odd. It’s not much about serious redistribution of riches between Jamaicans who are wealthy and those who are not, as it’s much targeted on in-fighting (gang warfare, is the term used by JCF). However, let me pull back. That is about redistribution of riches, that come from controlling real/turf. Whatever is possible in terms of revenue/money gains must be so enticing that having that control is worth risking and taking lives. Countries do this all the time, so that part is not odd. But, why are killers not pointing their arms against those who are outside the turf, except it seems in a few cases? If I have that wrong, then blame JCF for not giving me enough details to come to another conclusion. But, I am getting there from my reading of reports in the media. (JCF was reported yesterday to be doing a full analysis of murders and also taking a five-year perspective.)

The wave of domestic violence that ends in killing is not much different, it seems, as we hear of few cases where such incidents are in homes/neighbourhoods known to be better-off. So, in a class sense, it seems like ‘poor people’s’ troubles. If I’m wrong, again, please set me straight. 

Those two categories of killing seem to cover the bulk. Now, in terms of how to address them, we can go back to the three suggested states of mind. 

We know plenty of Jamaicans are fatalistic and see all of this as either part of a master plan to pay us back for wickedness, or just ‘His will’. Hard to analyse that. (Blind faith.)

We know lots of people don’t care, really, so long as they do not seem to be affected. (Apathy.)

We know lots of people are finding reasons to look away and protect or even aid those who kill. (Denial.)

The PM says he has big plans to announce on how to address the crime ‘problem’. I will be in search of things that seem to tackle the states of mind. Am I optimistic? Not really. What I heard yesterday about harsher measures for gun-related crimes is typical Jamaica-lala. We already have life imprisonment as the maximum sentence, so are we going to extend those sentences into the after-life? I asked how many such sentences had been handed out in the past five years. Still awaiting an answer. Some also say through this fast, and asked about the mere matter of illegal possession, not getting to use. Let’s hear if silence prevails.

A great maxim for success is always give yourself a chance to succeed, not to fail. Let’s see how ‘Team Jamaica’ take to the field today. 

Don’t joke about rape

We’re all entitled to our opinions, and freedom of expression is a right that many would wish to cherish. But, society usually has limits to public free expression, not least to prevent the powerful from abusing those without power, or the strong abusing the weak, or to resist wanton discrimination.

Most societies set high standards of behaviour for its rulers, especially politicians. However, we know that politicians are human and, therefore, prone to mistakes. Many of these mistakes are tolerated to some degree, but we hope to see certain mistakes, rarely, if at all.

Our societies have a tendency towards violent behaviour. They also have a tendency towards such behaviour against women. Jamaica has become a country where violent behaviour is commonplace, and violence against women happens far too often.

We try to frame laws to protect those who are victims of violent abuse, male or female. Rape is one of those forms of abuse. It’s not a matter about which to joke.

Why, then would a politician, a senior male politician, the leader of government business in one of our legislative assemblies, think that he could make a (little) joke about rape? What part of the image of rape would make someone want to laugh, or smile, or titter, or say “That’s alright”?

I’m not going to repeat his words, which he did not deny, but then retracted after initial resistance, as they are no longer part of parliamentary official records. But, he asked if someone couldn’t make a little joke anymore.

Yes, a person can make jokes, but not about certain things. A list of such things may not be agreed, but would include for most people matters like the mothers of those present, or about those who have died.

To joke about rape is, at the very least, insensitive. But, it’s really disrespectful and insulting to actual victims, and to all of us, because anyone can become a victim. I’m not getting into any discussion about whether males can be raped. Anyone can be physically abused in a sexual manner.

What makes the incident in Jamaica’s Senate, yesterday, especially disturbing is that the words were uttered by our principal voice to foreign governments–our minister of foreign affairs. It is not hard to imagine that the next briefing that is prepared on him will have reference to his remarks. Imagine his meeting any of the female foreign diplomats currently officiating in Jamaica. It’s a discomforting image.

Many will look to his prime minister, our prime minister, to at least reprimand him publicly. But, many will not be surprised if this doesn’t happen. The fact that our prime minister is female, and has publicly, nationally and internationally, spoken up against rape and violence against women and children, would suggest her hackles would have risen after hearing of the foreign minister’s remarks. But, will we get just another brush off, and ho-hum response?

We sing proudly our national anthem. Our foreign minister is always there representing those words for us in front of the rest of the world. Let me just remind the minister of some key lines, that he should hold dear to his heart:

To our leaders, Great Defender,/ Grant true wisdom from above

Teach us true respect for all

Strengthen us the weak to cherish

Jamaica, land we love/ Jamaica, Jamaica, Jamaica, land we love.

Our love of country is conditioned by many things. One of those is the image we have of ourselves. Another is the image we have of those around us.

When we are ready to tarnish and sully the image of those around us, we are just ready to sully and tarnish the image of ourselves, in our own eyes and in the eyes of the rest of the world. We deserve no respect, because we do not respect ourselves.

Why should our country have to keep washing away stains from its image? Why should those stains be made by those who are supposed to represent us to the world?

The good, the bad, and the ugly (August 4)

Good:

  • The lovely orchids lady who gave my daughter a gift of her own ‘starter’ orchid. 548932_10151599326179022_1635439581_nOrchids are supposed to live forever, so the plant and child should have a happy life together.
  • Doreen Lawrence, Baroness Lawrencemother of murdered Stephen Lawrence (died 1993), was named a Baroness and made a Labour Party peer in Britain’s House of Lords. As a result of her efforts to get her son’s killers brought to justice, the Macpherson Inquiry established in 1999 that the Metropolitan Police was ‘institutionally racist. Ms. Lawrence also founded the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust and sits on panels within the Home Office. In May 2011, following a cold case review, it was announced that two of the original suspects, Gary Dobson and David Norris, were to stand trial for Stephen’s murder. In January 2012, both Dobson and Norris were found guilty of murder and were ordered to spend a minimum of 15 years in prison.
  • Downtown Kingston, for still being a vibrant heart of the capital, even in its dilapidated state.

Bad:

  • Racial profiling of black police officer: NYPD’s highest ranking black officer, Chief Douglas Zeigler, 60, head of the Community Affairs Bureau, was in his NYPD-issued vehicle near a fire hydrant when two white plainclothes cops approached on May 2 and ordered him out of his vehicle. Zeigler has headed the Community Affairs Bureau since January 2006.His wife, Neldra Zeigler, is NYPD deputy commissioner for equal employment opportunity.

Ugly:

  • Spate of shootings in Jamaica on Emancipation Day (Thursday, August 1) [Read ‘Free to do what?]

Police officers involved in the fatal shooting of a man along Sutherland Avenue, Kingston 10, Thursday. Since ordered by Commissioner to be withdrawn from front line duty

In Denham Town, west Kingston, gang rivalries resulted in the apparent accidental shooting death of an 11-y-o girl on Thursday. A curfew has been imposed in sections of that area from Friday night.

The week had included gunmen shooting and killing a man at the altar of a church in Bull Bay, St Andrew, injuring one child and traumatising many others in the process on June 29.

  • Pride of place goes to Ariel Castro, who received a life sentence plus 1000 years for his kidnapping of three women in Ohio, between 2002-4, and keeping them locked up in his house for 11 years. His claims of the women living a happy life with him must go down as a seemingly vile contortion of reality.

Tipping Points. Is Jamaica ready to change?

One of my favourite people of Jamaican heritage is Malcolm Gladwell, whose mother was born in Jamaica, but who’s classed as British-Canadian. He’s written some bestselling books, which would really fall gladly into the term ‘nerdy’. One of those books is The Tipping Point, tipping-ptwhich explores how ideas spread. If one could identify tipping points before they are reached, then betting would be a great sport. The important elements of Gladwell’s arguments centre on the importance of a ‘few’ people, how an idea becomes memorable, and the context or social conditions. Put simply, you need the right people to spread a message; it has to have something special to help it take hold; the time must be right (or ripe). I have a feeling that Jamaica is nearing some important tipping points.

Can Jamaican get out of its economic malaise? On a good day, if you ask me what I am, I’ll say “An economist.” If you ask me where do I work, I’ll say “I’m retired. I used to work for the International Monetary Fund.” In Jamaica, that last statement could be the excuse used for people to hail a handful of rocks at a person. So far, it hasn’t happened to me. I do not believe that Jamaica has made a dramatic change of heart and fallen in love with the IMF, but I think people have begun to better understand that the IMF tends to get blamed for things governments need to do but find difficult–the blame is often put on the messenger. Ultimately, the IMF does nothing but dispense advice and dole out some money for what it feels is the right things being done. Governments have to act, and citizens need to get used to taking governments and politicians to task for policy failures.

In coming weeks, the IMF will have a team of economists assess formally how the government has performed under the current arrangement with the IMF (stiffly termed the ‘quarterly test under the Extended Fund Facility (EFF) Agreement’). I have not seen any figures or internal reports of policy actions, but clearly the government is very confident. Within days of the test date (June 30), officials went official saying they were confident the tests would be passed. That message has been repeated at very high levels for a good month. Now, you generally don’t blast out such impressions unless you’re locked into them being true: the cost of failure is high, but the cost of false promise is worse.

One of my bosses at the IMF once told me that one of his bosses only ever needed to see three numbers to know how an economy was doing, so he did not relish sitting in meetings with his team members poring over reams of data. In the same way, some people (me, for instance) believe that you can sense when people are going about things differently. That may not show up in figures we like to consider, not least because the changes are subtle and widespread and are represented in attitudes and behaviour, which don’t lend themselves to clear measurement.

People often lament that certain things didn’t happen when they should have. They then rail that things would be better if action had been taken earlier. I wont disagree with that sentiment. I just say that sometimes the time is not quite right and things have a habit of happening when conditions are right. That’s Gladwellian, but I thought that way long before reading Gladwell’s book.

Jamaica is on the cusp of pulling itself out of its economic malaise. I will look at the three numbers but have nothing else that can prove that. I feel it in my bones.dog_with_a_seriously_large_bone I wont be proved right within the next weeks, nor will I be proved wrong by year-end. This process takes time, but I sense the process is working. Like Usain Bolt, putting his finger to his lips when winning the 200 metres final in last year’s Olympics as a way of silencing the critics, I have an inkling that Jamaican officials feel they can walk the walk. About time!

Is Jamaica ready to get up and stand up for (their) rights? I believe that there is a limit to the degree of self-delusion. No doubt, the light bulb may not go off for a long while, but it usually does. Jamaicans readily cry and wail when their fellow citizens fall foul of some heinous deed by another citizens. Look at the regular outpouring of grief as innocent people lose their lives when gangs or criminals of another stripe have a shoot-out and a stray bullet takes a life, especially that of a child. We are living that now as Denham Town in west Kingston mourns an 11 year-old girl who was shot and killed as a hail of bullets sought some other target. The local MP, Desmond Mackenzie, came out publicly against this latest tragedy and his constituency office has offered a J$300,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the shooters. (He’s also paying the funeral expenses.) Local residents are crying “Enough!” Will this be the straw that breaks the back of the camel of gang violence? Which will be stronger, the disgust that people feel that some come into their midst and have no respect for life and limb or the sentiment that “Infomer fi dead!” You can’t have it both way.

Don’t even think that the homophobia that is part of Jamaica’s image is going to disappear. Things like that are so deeply ingrained into the fabric of this country that it has to take generations to move to another state. But, I sense that the public comments condemning the recent brutal killing by party goers of a young man who was dressed in women’s clothes at a dance. Reason is not going to affect immediately those who were involved in the beating, chopping and dumping of the body. The person who exposed the cross-dresser has to live with their role–proudly, of course. Reason is not what matters in such cases. It’s passion, as in rage. You cannot reason with a crazy person, and for sure, not with crazed people. While you may leave a two-year old, who gets into a tantrum over custard spilled onto a favourite toy, to cry itself to sleep, when you’re dealing with much older people, you have to take some clear actions to make them understand that ‘this foolishness’ has to stop. Religious organizations have a sorry role to play in the lack of understanding of the rights of homosexuals, and no amount of twisting and scripture-turning can excuse the abuses of logic that come from accepting one kind of ‘sin‘ and condemning what are deemed to be others. For sure, we do not have the means to bring back a life taken, but we have the means to use that loss in positive ways. The Justice Minister openly condemned the killing. Other ‘opinion makers’ are joining their voices. Are they the important ‘few’? But, so-called ordinary people need to lift their voices and their heads to say whether they condone or condemn–they need to make the message stick. No more sitting comfortably on the fence and merely tut-tutting. Some have called for a show of public disobedience on this issue. Is the social environment better positioned? The time may well be right.

Free to do what?

One lamentable aspect of modern Jamaica is the level of violent crime. Once dubbed the ‘murder capital of the world’, Jamaica, especially the Kingston corporate area, remains tightly associated with being killed violently. Murders have risen from about 80 a year just before Independence to over 1600 in recent years, from around 9 per 100,000 people in 1961-2, to 63 murders per 100,000 in 2009. That is a truly horrific development.

Yesterday was Emancipation Day, 2010-06-21-1.EmancipationParkKingstonJamaicaand it prompted some friends to comment on what Jamaica has to show for the long road travelled from slavery to freedom. Would our ancestors be standing agape that we were now using our freedom from the brutalities of slavery to brutalize each other, and to chop, stab, shoot, poison and strangle each other to death? To the extent that the growth in violence is related to other crimes, such as drug dealing or extortion or corruption, and may be ‘organized’, it requires a different response than if the violence is in some sense the outcome of disputes in simple domestic relations. Neither type is excusable, and both reflect a certain disregard for human life, but I don’t see them as being the same problems.

I am not a product of modern Jamaica, meaning I have little experience of living here since Independence. The Jamaica I remember is that of the 1950s. As a boy, I heard about crime, but cannot recall witnessing any. I knew there were criminals because I lived near the prison in downtown Kingston, and it was full of ‘bad men’. So, I have not had to see and live through the escalation in crime that has taken place over the past 50-plus years. I read and heard about it, but it did not really affect my daily life. I had to deal with living in other violent or crime-ridden places, but the nature and development of Jamaica’s crime problem did not appear to be the same as I experienced in London and Washington DC.

Crime is not new to this small island, but violent crimes on a daily basis were not the norm before Independence, and it stayed that way well into the early 1970s.Academic studies (using data from Economic and Social Survey of Jamaica) have divided the development of crime in Jamaica since Independence into three distinct phases: ‘The first phase (1962-1976) is marked by a predominance of property crimes and relatively low rates of violent crime. This is consistent with the traditional pattern of criminal offending seen during the colonial period. The second phase (1977-late 1980s) marks the turn to violent crime. While in 1974, 10 percent of all recorded crimes were violent, by 1984, 41 percent of all recorded crimes were violent. The third stage (roughly 1989 to the present) is characterized by two major developments: the rise of transnational organized crime and the development of a subculture of violence.’ Many will see the turning point in the mid-1970s as having its root in a disturbing alliance between criminals and politicians, involving guns and drugs. Would that our rulers could be so uncaring for our people? Some would see a horrible irony in the creation of new ‘slave masters’ amongst those whom the people had chosen as their representatives.

Few people in Jamaica remain untouched by crime and violence, and are rightly fearful that they may become victims. How Jamaica has developed in recent decades is testimony to that, with the ubiquitous presence of bars and grills on homes–veritable prisons in what people used to term their ‘castles’. In Kingston, we see the rise in gated communities. Across the country, we see the rapid growth in security companies, whose adverts now show proudly men armed seemingly for major military operations, almost as a minimum requirement for a safe and decent life. Sadly, they have supplanted the police force–whom few trust because of their proven culpability shown by the huge docket of unsolved crimes and their participation in crimes–as the persons to whom citizens turn if they are under threat.  People who live in upscale Kingston neighbourhoods state that they wont walk there any more because of the risk of attack, which may be small in reality, but is enough for them to perceive it as posing too big a risk. Fittingly and ironically, many prefer to walk in Emancipation Park in New Kingston. I also visit few homes that do not have at least one ‘bad’ dog in the yard, and three and four dogs are quite common: if their bites are as bad as their barking, then the burglar or intruder wont have an easy time. I see many homes with alarm systems. That’s modern Jamaican life. In the race of that, however, it seems that (legal) civilian gun ownership in Jamaica is relatively low–about 8 per 100,000 people, compared to 6 per 100,000 in the UK, 2 per 100,000 in Trinidad, and a whopping 100+ per 100,000 in the USA.

But, given the perceived risks of violent crimes, I see a good number of apparent residents walking the roads in upscale neighbourhoods each evening (as opposed to the many workers walking from those neighbourhoods to get home by taxis and buses). In general, the population has not been held captive by the risk of violent crime: people still go out at night and stay out late, though they may do this with a high degree of caution, and they may be choosing venue that seem to have better security (though this is hard to tell). I see people walking alone late at night, both women and men. (I have no idea how many do so with personal arms available to offer some self-protection.) People head out to clubs and parties into the wee hours of the morning. People will also attend mass events with apparent readiness, presumably with some trepidation, but they go anyway. Many people blithely walk along with cell phones, talking and texting, even though thefts of phones and related crimes are prevalent.

Life in poorer neighbourhoods is hard, and to the extent that many violent crimes happen in an around such areas makes it more likely that they will avoided, if possible, especially after dark. Many of these areas are not frequented casually during the daytime. I’ve not seen any signs that they carry any chic appeal, yet, and may be on the cusp of some transformation through the kind of gentrification common in some industrial countries. So, it’s still largely a case of “those poor people…”. Bad things happen to them and that’s the status quo; those who can, avoid those areas. I would be thought crazy if I suggested taking a stroll through the run down and delapidated structures that mark much of downtown Kingston (but, it’s on my ‘to do’ list :-)).

The daily news is littered with gory stories that reflect a wanton brutality that is all-too-common. Reports of missing persons are often tinged with the fear that someone has been abducted and will be found mutilated in bushes somewhere. The apparent randomness of some violent crime is a destabilising influence on many lives. Driving with locked car doors and windows is more the norm. You will find it hard to hide from the feeling that crime is everywhere. While, it may not be right to say that the high level of violent crime is accepted, it is more a part of everyday life than it should be. I was talking to a cousin about things her husband used to do, such as eat roast fish at the weekend with a friend, when she glibly stated “Dem kill him” to report that his friend was no longer around. I didn’t ask then who ‘they’ were, but therein lies a tale.

A well-argued analysis published in the Gleaner last year, by Bernard Headley (retired professor of criminology and professor emeritus (sociology) at the North-eastern Illinois University, Chicago, USA), looked at the rise in crime since Independence, putting much blame on the major changes in the society that resulted in fast population growth, rapid urbanisation and dramatic changes in the nature of economic growth (moving from mainly rural/small community and self-sufficient, to urban dwelling (including the development of large squatter communities) and industrial production). We may want to argue with his thesis, but we have to acknowledge the rise in violent crimes that has been associated with these developments. Rising economic and social inequalities have been linked to increasing poverty and deprivation, and with that, alienation or marginalization of large groups of society. That has been at the root of rising crime in many urban areas, not just in Jamaica.

Many groups and places in Jamaican society are now steeped in crime, often violent, and accept (unwillingly, but inevitably, one presumes) that as a part of their life. Unfortunately, many young people see that as part of their route to adulthood–mired in a culture of violent crimes. That has become part of a lifecycle that may be normal and has few natural opportunities to be broken.

The rapid increase in violent crimes reflects the breaking down of many important social foundations and relations (some will see negative developments in religious practices, family cohesion, and job opportunities as major culprits). Halting and reversing that trend requires the rebuilding of many such relations, which is a major task not least because it needs to undo things that have now become well-entrenched. It also means building or rebuilding trust in areas and between people that has been lost over many years and because of many real grievances (including seemingly brutal ‘justice’ meted out by the police). Institutions may help, and may be necessary to improve living conditions for large parts of the population, through housing, education, health and other social provisions (including those offering activities and opportunities for young people). Better employment opportunities will often be very important, but cannot be created ‘out of thin air’. They cannot be created in a sustained way by institutions, especially in the face of faltering economic activity.

But, even with good institutional involvement, ultimately, the changes will come down to personal willingness to do things differently. In that regard, a particular challenge will be to reduce or eliminate tolerance given to those known to be the main actors. Those who have much to gain from crime and tolerating it, will want to defend their gains as much as possible, and may see opportunities for more gains if others decide to withdraw. Crime really has to be made too costly, either in real financial terms or in terms of social and political disapproval. Fear of retribution (personal or institutional) may not be a trivial consideration for many people, and it is hard to see that declining if people cannot see the real prospect of being protected from retribution, whether by other institutions or other individuals. Trying to hide from crime wont really help, though it may ‘feel good’, whether it means curbing normal activity or declining certain civic duties (eg, acting as witnesses, jury service, etc.) Trying to thwart crime will mean being readier to act against than be a bystander, which will seem much riskier. But, it may take less action rather than less inaction.

As people lament the country’s economic condition, it remains a salutary reminder that violent crime has cost Jamaica very dearly in terms of economic growth in the past and potential growth opportunities as likely investors choose ‘safer’ locations.