Jamaica-Roots of Electoral Violence

September 25, 2007

Driving through Western King-
ston, a wrong turn landed us on a
narrow street made nearly
impassable by mountainous
heaps of rubbish. Rows of shacks
-some scarred by fire-lined the
sidewalks, and, as all over King-
ston and urban St. Andrew, once
vacant wall space was decorated
with partisan political graffiti.
Here, the walls gave testimony for
the People's National Party (PNP):
"Vote PNP." "Socialism is love."
In the first seven months of this
year, such attacks claimed the
lives of more than 350 people. But
neither predator nor prey in this ur-
ban warfare is drawn at random.
Having cautiously manipulated
our passage between the huge
mounds of garbage, we im-
mediately came upon their reason
for being: iron barricades im-
planted in the gutters virtually pro-
hibited motor vehicle traffic
through this PNP turf. Why the bar-
ricades? To obstruct the after-dark
invasions by gunmen-among
them mere boys of age 12 and 13
-from nearby communities with
opposing political loyalties.
Both, in fact, are quite distinctly lo-
cated-in the sufferer communi-
ties composed of the working poor
and the vast numbers of unem-
ployed who hustle a precarious
NACLA Reportupdate update*update update
livelihood. In these communities,
violence only adds devastation to
the already pervasive poverty.
This war in which both gunman
and victim are sufferers has be-
come an integral feature of elec-
tion politics in the past 15 years. In
1966 and again in 1976-when
armed gangs of unemployed
youths raided opposing political
ghetto strongholds-violence
was only contained by the declara-
tion of a State of Emergency and
the temporary imprisonment of
gang leaders. In keeping with re-
cent tradition, the escalation of
violence in the spring and summer
of 1980 occurred in preparation
for elections to be held this fall.
In the upcoming contest, Ed-
ward Seaga's opposition Jamaica
Labor Party (JLP) is seeking to oust
Prime Minister Michael Manley's
PNP-the governing party for the
last eight years and the founder
and custodian of Jamaica's demo-
cratic socialist experiment. Al-
though an election is not constitu-
tionally required until late 1981,
Manley was under enormous
pressure to call an early match. In
negotiations with his administra-
tion this past winter, the Interna-
tional Monetary Fund (IMF) in-
sisted that such a move was cru-
cial to economic recovery: the ex-
plosion of anti-PNP sentiment cre-
ated too "uncertain" an environ-
ment for badly needed private in-
vestment. In February, the PNP
yielded, promising elections in Oc-
tober (although the Party was soon
to abandon negotiations with the
Once that decision was taken,
the government moved to estab-
lish the island's first Independent
Electoral Commission. Bipartisan
discussion of the project had oc-
curred since 1977, provoked by
JLP charges of rampant fraud in
the 1976 PNP election victory.
Ironically, it was the creation of the
Commission and its commence-
ment of enumeration (voter regis-
tration) in April that catalyzed the
1980 campaign of violence in the
ghetto constituencies of Kingston
and St. Andrew.
Political Victimization
Sufferer political violence origi-
nated in the practice of what is
known in Jamaica as "political vic-
timization": the party that controls
the state apparatus distributes fa-
vors exclusively to party loyalists
and regularly victimizes support-
ers of the opposition. The island's
two principal parties find them-
selves in a fundamental dilemma.
The PNP and JLP are forced to
seek electoral support among the
poor who constitute the most nu-
merous voting population. But the
consequent demands from below
confronting the victor far outstrip
government spoils available for
distribution to the masses. Hence,
political victimization flourishes.
This process has its most sys-
tematic, and most vicious, appli-
cation in the sufferer communities
of the Kingston Metropolitan Area
(KMA), i.e. Kingston and urban St.
Andrew. The emergence of this
urban-industrial complex, the hub
of economic expansion in Jamai-
ca's post-war "modernization" ef-
fort, stimulated massive internal
migration from the countryside in
the 50s and 60s. But capital ac-
cumulation has remained too lim-
ited to absorb the burgeoning ur-
ban labor force. In the KMA today,
which houses almost 1/3 of Jamai-
ca's 2.1 million people, scores of
thousands-among the youth in
particular-eke out a marginal ex-
istence through some combina-
tion of casual labor, family support
and an ingenious array of legal
and illegal hustles. These lumpen-
proletarians and the working poor,
who hold regular but quite tenuous
employment, comprise Jamaica's
ubiquitous sufferer population.*
In the ghetto constituencies of
the working poor and lumpen, the
spoils of electoral war have pro-
ven an extremely effective politi-
cal tool. During its 10-year reign,
1962-72, the JLP succeeded in
creating safe seats in the KMA
-traditionally a PNP stronghold-
through its ambitious low-income
housing schemes. The Tivoli Gar-
dens housing project was con-
structed in Western Kingston and
Wilton Gardens ("Rema") in South
St. Andrew; work on the construc-
tion sites, as well as the allotment
of homes, was reserved for Party
supporters. A third housing pro-
ject, Arnett Gardens ("Concrete
Jungle"), was under construction
opposite "Rema" when the JLP
suffered defeat at the polls in
1972; the project was completed
and colonized by the PNP. By the
mid-70s then, political victimiza-
tion in the contiguous constituen-
cies of Western Kingston and
South St. Andrew had created
fiercely opposed sufferer locales
in juxtaposition, each beholden to
its political benefactor.
The Top-Ranking
The conduit for the dispensa-
tion of party patronage is the com-
munity's top-ranking, its most
notable and feared gangsters.
Even before the politicization of
gangs, an explosive sub-culture of
street violence had crystallized in
the mushrooming sufferer com-
munities and leading rude boys
quickly assumed local positions of
power. Close links with politicians
*Currently, 31.1% of Jamaica's
labor force is unemployed.
39update update update update
"PNP enter on their own risk"
afford the top-ranking access to
work contracts and other party fa-
vors, i.e. opportunities to increase
personal wealth and extend con-
trol. And close links with top-rank-
ing permit bourgeois politicians to
foment an ever-more ferocious
intra-class struggle that leaves un-
challenged the system that con-
tinually reproduces poverty.
The violent activity of the top-
ranking and their underlings first
assumed a political character in
1966 when both JLP and PNP can-
didates in Western Kingston re-
cruited street gangs to establish
and defend Party turf. Not infre-
quently, political violence was a
simple extension' of pre-political
gang warfare; arms obtained
through party connections were
used to settle old vendettas.
Nevertheless, crucial political
advantages accrue to the party
NACLA Reportupdate update update update
that controls the streets. Rival
campaign activity is virtually im-
possible; voter registration in hos-
tile communities is hampered; and
bogus voting is rampant since in-
timidated polling scrutineers fail to
show up on election day.
Having recognized the advan-
tage in controlling the streets, par-
ty politicans sought and found, in
the very structure of the ghetto,
the mechanism that made control
possible. Set in motion for the first
time in May 1966, it engendered a
night-time guerrilla war of rival top-
ranking and their supporters in
Western Kingston that culminated
in the country's first declaration of
a State of Emergency. (Invoked in
October, the Emergency was hur-
riedly lifted in November for fear
that it would jeopardize the fragile
tourist industry.)
Ten years later, the socio-eco-
nomic relations that structure the
ghetto community once again
found expression in sufferer war-
fare. The cue to renewed violence
in 1976 was the start of voter regis-
tration in preparation for the pend-
ing election. The principal arena of
war was South St. Andrew, where
armed gangs from "Rema," prop-
ped up by Tivoli Gardens shock
troops, fought pitched battles
against "Jungle" rivals. To stem
the violent tide, the Manley gov-
ernment declared a State of Emer-
gency in June, aimed chiefly at the
political gunmen: all top-ranking
known to the Special Branch were
placed under "heavy manners"
(temporarily imprisoned).
The psychological impact of the
Emergency was damaging to the
JLP, which became identified with
conspiratorial political violence.
The widespread view of Seaga,
who had assumed leadership of
the Party in 1974, as a ruthless,
power-hungry politician further
undermined the JLP's standing,
and, in December 1976, the elec-
torate voted overwhelmingly to re-
turn the incumbent Prime Minister
and the PNP to power.
In its attempt to dictate the vot-
ing outcome in certain keenly con-
tested communities, the violence
that marred the 1976 election re-
called the earlier experience of
1966. But the greatly extended
scale of violence and of direct par-
ty involvement in its planning, and
the inclusion among its targets of
individuals outside the commun-
ity gang structures-"socialist"
youth, that is, PNP Youth Organ-
ization members, were a new
mark-suggested that political
violence had assumed another
function: it was widely suspected,
and publicly asserted by the Prime
Minister, that violence had be-
come part of a well-orchestrated
"destabilization" campaign to
discredit Michael Manley's demo-
cratic-socialist administration.
Democratic socialism was the
trump card played by the PNP in
1974 to consolidate its popular
support before the looming eco-
nomic decline had become too
severe. By assigning itself spokes-
man for the working class and es-
pecially the sufferers, the Party
successfully harnessed their
anger and discontent in its own
power designs. There did exist an
historical precedent for this move:
at the time of its formation in 1938,
the PNP had committed itself to
the principles of democratic so-
cialism-a programmatic deriva-
tive of Fabian socialism, i.e. British
social democracy. However, in
1952, during the heyday of anti-
communism, the Party purged its
left wing, and there was no more
talk of "socialism" until 1974
when a new generation of reform-
ist politicians deemed it appropri-
ate for public consumption.
The JLP response to the PNP's
renewed ideological thrust was
consistent with its long tradition of
vulgar red-baiting. (Since 1944, it
has persistently charged the PNP
with harboring communists.) In
the summer of 1975, after Manley
visited Cuba and professed admi-
ration for some of its social experi-
mentation, the JLP once again
took up the cross. In alliance with
the private sector organizations of
the national bourgeoisie, and the
influential Daily Gleaner, the
"Laborites" waged a vicious anti-
communist crusade likened by
"Socialists" to the CIA campaign
in Chile that preceded the 1973
coup. It was, in fact, the many
"parallels with Chile"--psycho-
logical warfare, economic sabo-
tage and political terrorism-that
raised the spectre of "destabiliza-
tion" in the 1976 Jamaican elec-
The Plot Thickens
These distinct though tangled
strands of urban warfare-the
scramble for control of individual
communities on the one hand, and
the campaign to create chaos and
mass hysteria on the other-have
been woven into an enormously
complex and brutal 1980 scenario
of violence.
* On July 13, in a pre-dawn at-
tack on Greenwich Town in South-
west St. Andrew, a PNP yeat, five
gunmen invaded a four-apartment
tenement, killing four women and
three men. The following morning
in Jones Town, South St. Andrew,
another PNP constituency, politi-
cal gunmen murdered three wom-
en, aged 55, 70 and 75. And in
Fletcher's Land in West Central
Kingston young children num-
41update update update update
bered among the dead.
The targeting for extermination
of the elderly and young children,
almost unfathomable in a culture
that reveres its old and shields its
young at all costs, and of women,
previously excluded from the
sphere of violence, marked a criti-
cal break with past political war-
fare, primarily a top-ranking affair.
0 During the spring and early
summer, political gunmen forced
the depopulation of Western King-
ston's Coronation Market, the
principal distribution center for
food brought from the country-
side. Attacks on country buses
carrying rural higglers* to the ur-
ban center, and shootings in the
Market vicinity itself, compelled
the diversion of produce to outly-
ing markets. This disruption in the
distributive system-Coronation
Market was the primary source of
foodstuffs for the urban poor and
the chief supplier for urban hig-
glers-vastly magnified the a!-
ready severe food problems stem-
ming from Jamaica's foreign ex-
change shortage and the specula-
tive machinations of corporate
food distributors. Thus, for the first
time since its emergence in 1966,
political violence has been directly
wedded to economic sabotage.
* Also unprecedented are the
nightly shootings at Kingston Pub-
lic Hospital that have frightened
off its staff and greatly limited ac-
cessibility and service.
In the seeming pointlessness of
its new barbarism, the political
violence of 1980 is carrying out a
far more ambitious project than
that of prior wars. "Random" ter-
ror is aimed at both creating mass
fear for life and limb and disrupting
"*Market women who buy and sell
food produce.
essential social services. This vio-
lence constitutes a broad organ-
ized effort to undermine the
Manley government.
But as such, it is a process
grafted onto, and sometimes indis-
tinguishable from the continuing
urban warfare precipitated and
structured by the PNP and JLP
scramble for control of particular
sufferer constituencies.
The 1980 locus of warring com-
munities reflects in part, the pat-
tern of control established in past
battles. In Western Kingston, con-
trolled by Seaga since 1962, and
South St. Andrew, a PNP strong-
hold, internal violence is limited,
But the top-ranking in these con-
stituencies are expected to assist
the invasion or defense of other
constituencies-like West Central
and Southwest St. Andrew-cur-
rently under siege.
The unprecedented level of vio-
lence in the new battle zones
bears witness to the incredible ar-
senal of automatic weapons-of-
ten more sophisticated that that
readily available to the police--
now servicing certain gangs. The
money behind the guns, the finan-
cial backers of efficient murder,
have yet to be exposed. But bipar-
tisan appeals by Seaga and Man-
ley for an end to the violence were
an unconvincing response to the
question of party complicity.
Whatever Happened to the
Working Class?
Despite its hybrid nature, politi-
cal violence in 1980, as in 1966
and 1976, is a war conducted on
the edges of the working class; it is
at core a process of sufferer fratri-
cide. The politicians' successful
use of the ghetto man in achieving
their own opportunist ends is testi-
mony to the desperate conditions
of the sufferers. But it also ex-
presses - and reinforces - the
sufferers' limited consciousness
of the economic forces responsi-
ble for those conditions.
The continuing pivotal role of
sufferer violence constitutes a
strong indictment of the PNP's
democratic socialism. At a simple
level, the involvement of sufferers
iin a violent bid for control of urban
constituencies is unbecoming a
party pledged to "socialist" aims.
Moreover, the PNP has permitted,
if not pursued, a pivotal role for the
sufferer in lieu of a pivotal role for
the working class, that class alone
whose conditions of existence in
capitalist society enable it to lead
the struggle for socialism.
The Jamaican working class
has lingered on the sidelines, as-
suming only the most peripheral
role in the furious ideological
struggle of the current period. The
two major trade unions-the Na-
tional Workers Union (NWU) and
the Bustamante Industrial Trade
Union (BITU), affiliated to the PNP
and JLP respectively--have not
even bothered to decry the recent
violence. Notwithstanding the tra-
ditional economism of the Jamai-
can trade union movement, the
present political passivity of the
working class reflects the ab-
sence of leadership concerned to
educate and organize the class
around its political objectives
-and in so doing, to give working,
class leadership to the sufferer
The PNP's reliance on sufferer
youth as the bulwark of its popular
support exposes the PNP's demo-
cratic socialism as a program
aimed at democratic reform of the
capitalist system; it is a far cry
from a socialist program aimed at
the fundamental reorganization of
state and economy to eliminate
capitalist social relations.

Tags: Jamaica, electoral violence, electoral commission, urban poor, patronage

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