Calm on the surface because of the paddling going on underneath

I did it again: I said that the vast majority of people in Jamaica must be quite decent. This time, I was not alone, and was agreeing with someone whom I know is very hard-thinking and often ready to criticise those and that which many defend. Like me, he has spent a lot of his life growing up in England–I think that’s perhaps just a coincidence, but let me declare it.

“Jamaicans drive on the left,” he said, “Which is what the law requires.” He’s a trained barrister, so I wondered where he would go with this. He left it there except to say that if they were not really law-abiding in the vast majority, we’d see more of them driving on the right. Funnily, I had made a similar point at the weekend to some Jamaicans who had said “We are just lawless people!” We are not. We may drive much faster than is sensible on roads that are worse than they should be, but (some taxi drivers, excepted) we do not disobey traffic laws. Roads are lined with yellow lines to signal ‘no parking’ and people do not park there.

When lights are red, people driving sit and wait for the light to change, patiently, sometimes, when there is no traffic coming in the other direction. We do not have many lights set up to change with the traffic volumes. We do not have the US-equivalent turn on red, if the road is clear, and people do not, even though a left turn when no traffic or pedestrian would block the move could be made.

When people want turn into roads or driveways, or come out into flowing traffic, the general tendency is to let them do that quickly, with a flash of headlights to say “Go on” and a quick toot afterwards to say “Thanks”. In the US–Washington DC area, for sure–the tendency is to block and glare and those who dare to enter the flow. That’s a widespread social courtesy that is not something sent to you by UPS and unwrapped for use. You’ve grown up knowing that it’s a decent thing to do, and it makes life easier all around. How many times have I had to bore my way into a line of traffic in Washington and then get hooted and ‘given the finger’?

I marvelled about that general courtesy over the weekend, a massive public gathering of well over 35,000 people happened with hardly an incident reported or mentioned in conversations afterwards. Police were not needed to keep control of the crowds. The nearest to that we saw was their lining the area inside the retaining walls of the stadium in case some thought it wise to jump over and celebrate with the schools that won ‘Champs’. They did not need to. The results were announced. The crowd cheered. The winning schools cheered. Some people left and made their ways home. Many stayed behind to enjoy a gymnastics display inside the stadium, followed by a firework display just outside. We left and were home with few delays in 15 minutes. Most, who left when we did, were headed to catch buses or taxis or walk to their homes.

No murders were reported over Champs weekend. Two fatal road accidents occurred and some illegal arms and ammunition were seized during the same period. The first point may just be an aberration, in a country that has been registering about three murders a day. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that were the norm. The unifying effect of sports? I don’t know. Perhaps.

The examples I cited of decent behaviour can be countered with many examples of misbehaviour.  I mentioned those, however, for a reason. It’s very hard to control the emotions of large groups of individuals massed in a particular space at times when they are due to be and are very excited. It takes little to provoke a bad reaction. A friend is making a survey of The Bahamas Junkanoo festival and one set of questions asks about whether one has seen, or heard, or been the victim of pushing, feet being stepped on, abusive language, abusive behaviour, etc. These things happen a lot in crowds, and often when young people are gathered, and certainly when things are getting to an exciting fever pitch. They often lead to little fracas. Someone has to intervene to keep the peace, or people get drawn in and the little fracas becomes a big fight. The lady seated in front of me at the stadium had my foot on her back and bottom at least a half dozen times on Saturday. She glared at me; I apologised. Her husband looked at me, and showed me how he’d been doing the same to the lady in front of him. We shrugged our shoulders. Stuff happens, but we did not sweat it, at least, on that occasion.

Witness what happened outside a large bank this week, when a fire occurred. The TV cameras captured two men fighting, for reasons we were not told or did not know. Some people, including a security guard, tried to break up the fight, without success at first, as one assailant gave the other a good punch. Eventually, the two were subdued. I noticed that no one came along to just take a picture or gawp–probably too busy watching the firemen. So, for the Champs event to have nothing of note untoward happen is quite extraordinary in my view. I’ve spent a lot of my life going to football matches in England and seen how quickly sporting crowds get rowdy and things get really ‘tasty’. I’ve seen the same in the US at American football and baseball games. I’ve been in the stands when people spilt beer and it led to fights. I’ve been there when people start to cheer their team and opponents take to taunting with verbal abuse and even getting into serious arguments and then hitting each other, and one or many are then ejected. You can see these incidents in big crowds because the masses part to let the protagonists have at it; some start to call for the security to come quickly. Some add to the fire with beer, food, seats being thrown, their own words and blows.

Of course, the British and Americans are bellicose people–look how many wars their countries have been in. In France, Germany, Turkey, India, Pakistan, countries in Africa, Asia, wherever, large crowds mean problems. So, for the volatile mix that is Jamaicans to pass some several days together and not really get into it is extraordinary.

This country has not turned around in a weekend. That’s not how things go without there being some catatrophe. But, what may be happening is that the ship is turning. I wont necessarily agree immediately that’s the case. I still hold that, despite what the media report, the country has not gone to the dogs. Grim news sells. My wife, highly intelligent though she is, laps up news reports on CNN of shooters and bombers and the many misdeeds that go on in the world. I’m never far from being opposed to having my senses bombarded by that, so tend to walk out of the room with a few “Do you really need to watch that?” comments. I’d like to see a concerted effort to get away from that diet of news being the disasters of life.

We have a country riddled with lots of petty criminals and, of course, we see and hear of their deeds daily. Many accept that our accepting that is a recipe for some sort of social trouble. Many, though, will quickly point to mitigating circumstances. “He’s poor,” “She has a family to raise and has no job,” “It’s hard to see people with so much doing so little for the people who have little or nothing,” “People have to eat,” “His father beat him, so he’s doing the same,” All of that may be true. We may take it for granted, too readily, and maybe should challenge it. I’ve had many a tough time and I don’t feel the need to become a petty criminal. Something was instilled in me–what I call ‘discipline’: doing the right thing without being told. I’m no saint and I know when I’m doing wrong. I find few people who don’t, but when you get away with it, it’s tempting to do it again.

Jamaica is also somewhere that has tolerated for decades ‘freeness’ when in fact it was stealing. We talk about praedial larceny as a major problem and may have in our minds flocks of goats and herds of cows being taken away in the dead of night and then becoming livestock for someone else to rear and sell or dinner dishes for some to enjoy. Like things that ‘fell of the back of a lorry’ in England, the produce may be offered ‘no questions asked’. But, it may be that no one can know what is the origin and so cannot take issue with the seller.

Lobster closed season just began in Jamaica, but if you already had lobster in the fridge or freezer that was there before April 1, then you are alright. When I saw it on the dinner menu last night, I had to ask two lawyers whom I was meeting for the first time “Is this alright?” Our host–a diplomat–would normally fall squarely into the box of ‘law abiding’ citizens, but maybe she did not know about the closed season and wanted to serve lobster. If she knew and did not care what could I do? I could point out my concern and hear the answer and then decide to eat or not, depending on whether I was about to consume something illegal. Yesterday, a man had his pole trying to take fruit from a garden adjacent to my daughter’s school. I hooted. He looked at me. I waved to say “leave the people’s fruit”. He turned away. I hooted again and made the same gesture. He turned away again. I started to open my car door. He put down the pole. Did we get into it? I’m a pacifist 🙂

Jamaica is the place many people associate with freedom to smoke marijuana, and that reputation has done much to boost our tourism. But, it’s illegal, and many people are arrested for possession and many growers have their crops seized or destroyed, maybe several times. Stacks of ganja are often seized and destroyed. Jamaica now sees parts of the world legalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal and recreational purposes and making huge revenues and profits. We need money badly, so maybe we should go that route. Yet, I sense that many Jamaicans are dead against this. They’ve seen the destructive effects on our youths of smoking the weed and fear that this wont be made better. How could we grow it and sell it abroad but not let that happen domestically? Yes, we may feel that arrests and jail time for possession of small amounts of cannabis seems excessive and may destroy the lives of those who get criminal records for that. Decriminalize? Legalize? That’s a debate that Jamaica is having and it’s not a slam dunk in favour. I wont mention how religious views may be surfacing in guiding that discussion. Some Rastafarians are, naturally, proponents of changing laws to be more liberal, so are dead against. So, that is a very interesting little debate going on right there with a community that has smoking of herb as part of its rituals.

Which brings me to what was one of the main events yesterday. The judge in the case of the murder of Clive ‘Lizard’ Williams handed down sentences on the convicted men. They each were given life imprisonment, with between 25-35 years as the minimum time before parole could be considered. I have said that the jurors who convicted the men showed great courage. It is known that jurors are intimidated; that witnesses are intimidated; that evidence gets tampered with; that police are corrupt. The ‘system’ has been set up to not get convictions. Whatever the law says, ways to pervert it are known to be used to try to get people off. It would have been easy and probably well understood by many Jamaicans if the jury had not convicted. But, that body of 11 persons came to a 10-1 majority in favour of conviction.

Then we heard that one juror had tried to bribe the jury foreman to get an acquittal. Yesterday, the police issued a statement, after the sentences were known, detailing many ways that they claim attempts were made to pervert the course of justice. Let’s take that at face value for the moment. It lists concerted and systematic intimidation of witnesses and jurors, attempts to tamper with evidence, etc. More court cases are due to be heard, regarding these two sets of incidents related to the trial. Those cases may show that the courts do not accept that anything untoward occurred. We will see. But, for now, we have what many often whisper or share in private conversations about how justice ‘works’ in Jamaica to ‘get people off”. For no time to be served for whatever crime was committed.

What struck me a long time ago was what happens in many societies because of facilitators, not merely perpetrators. In other words, corruption (in the broadest sense) has to be sustained by a large body of persons who turn blind eyes, abet, aid, lie, cheat, etc. so that the misdeeds can continue. They ‘feed’ from it and it’s quite a rational thing if a livelihood can be sustained that would otherwise not be possible. It goes largely hidden, by necessity. When it’s flaunted, then you know you’re in major trouble. I remember once working on an IMF mission when a new tax administrator said openly that the ‘job had been worth’ US$1 million–that was in personal gain, not revenue earned for the country. This was ‘known’ by the population and understood as a way of rewarding friends of the president. That explained why the post holder often drove his own Mercedes in a country where the Lada was king. If the holder did not make that, then he had been a fool, was the general view.

We need to see more cases go through the courts and more ‘right’ verdicts arrived at before we can say much more.

A lot of people in Jamaica know that they cannot work alone to combat the many forces that may be there to push things in an undesired direction. They prefer, therefore, to live their lives with heads below the parapet. It’s no solace to know that major criminals are a minority; their force and destructiveness are lethal and they have enlisted a cohort to help keep them in positions of power. Many would come to cheer for one of the accused were ‘rented’; that news filtered out within minutes of their appearance outside the court. Who was paying them? Why? What would people do for a little money? A lot, we know. Remember reports of how cheap it is to get a prostitute (J$50/50 US cents)? Remember the low cost of a contract killer? In the UK, researchers found the average cost was 15,000 pounds (about US$25,000). In Jamaica, the price could be J$5000 (US$50). Desperation is at a higher level here, and the likelihood of getting caught tends to be unacceptably low. People want to eat?

Those who have lost sight of the value of others’ lives may be hard to reach in a rational conversation. Those who seem ready to do desperate things, short of taking another’s life, may also be not ready to change. Our sociologists and psychologists and criminologists can think and discuss the hows and whys of having got there. We know that part of the getting away from there has to be an economy that offers many other viable alternatives for making money.

That Jamaica did not disintegrate into a mass of social terror is a sign that most people are not ready to be belligerent and socially disorderly. That is not to accept acts of social terror that have gone on, and still go on in some communities. We do have serious problems in knowing who we can trust to keep law and order, in the face of security forces that have problems keeping law and order by wholly honest means. Again, we need to change the equations that say the chances of ‘getting away with it’ are much greater than the opposite. Yesterday’s sentencing is part of rewriting that maths.

It’s an odd characteristic of English-speaking Caribbean countries that they have generally accepted the results of national and local elections without public displays of disapproval. That’s one of those things that suggest that respect for law (and order) is well ingrained, despite how people may act–and Jamaicans, for instance, often ‘act’ angrily. I’ve written before that we don’t do coups.

To keep that relative peace means that a lot of people–the majority–have had to keep fighting against other strong forces. Most have done it without visible or vocal recognition, and that may be where a large problem lies, in not wanting to be seen to be opposed to what is not desired. No one wants to be the victim of bad things. Who would wish to find a bag with a cow eye and a cow tongue with his or her name written on it? Who would want to run the risk of their home being torched or their friends and children being threatened? No one, I know. But, also, who are the people who know the people who would do such things? The duck can’t stop paddling.

Calm on the surface, but paddling furiously

Calm on the surface, but paddling furiously

The facilitators need to have their guards brought down and their sense of impunity shaken. Then, the perpetrators will start to feel more uncertain. Good footballers know they need to

Messi on the dribble, perfectly balanced, able to avoid tacklers

Messi on the dribble, perfectly balanced, able to avoid tacklers

keep good balance and to keep their opponents off-balance and guessing. Wrong doers will keep on their track if they don’t have to guess about outcomes and have much more uncertainty to deal with. The table needs to keep turning away from their favour.

You’ll notice that I have not named certain names. Maybe, I am being naive, but I also believe that what feeds certain behaviour is egotism. Let the egos be fed by others. Some will have to remain nameless. My old history teacher would be mad with me for not giving the essential facts. Too bad. If you know the names, good for you. If you don’t, well you can still understand the principles. Feed a cold, starve a fever?

Did I hear politicians talking last week about dismantling ‘garrisons’. Did I mention ‘facilitators’? You also have to remember that adage about fooling people more than once and beware what what may come back biting.


About The Grasshopper

Professional international economist, recently retired from an international organization. I use blogging as a way of organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, and spent many years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for a few decades, and worked and travelled abroad extensively. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of girls. Also, married to an economist.
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4 Responses to Calm on the surface because of the paddling going on underneath

  1. I was reading your other blog on Barbados. I am currently a U.S. Citizen looking to move down to the island and was wondering if you were able to send me in the right direction!

  2. carson c cadogan says:

    very nice article.

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