People hold posters as they take part in a demonstration against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, at the Emancipation park in Kingston, Jamaica, June 6, 2020.

Violence

Amid global protests, Jamaicans confront their own problems with policing 

Jamaica shares the US’ history of colonialism and slavery, and now has one of the highest rates of fatal police shootings. Activists there are thinking about what the global moment of police accountability could mean for their country. 

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People hold posters as they take part in a demonstration against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, at the Emancipation Park in Kingston, Jamaica, June 6, 2020.

Credit:

Gilbert Bellamy/Reuters 

Earlier this month, Black Lives Matter protesters gathered outside the US Embassy in Kingston, Jamaica, as part of the worldwide George Floyd protests.

The country’s historic newspaper, the Jamaica Gleaner, recorded the chants: “Say her name! Susan Bogle! Say her name! Susan Bogle!”

Bogle was a disabled woman in Jamaica who was allegedly accidentally killed by officers in her home two days after Floyd’s death in the US.

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“There is still a sense where people feel that they don’t get social justice,” Prime Minister Andrew Holness said in an address to the nation.

“The government will ensure that nothing in these matters will be hidden, nothing will be swept under the carpet. And that the social and economic status of the victim does not determine the outcome of justice.”

Prime Minister Andrew Holness

“The government will ensure that nothing in these matters will be hidden, nothing will be swept under the carpet. And that the social and economic status of the victim does not determine the outcome of justice.” 

Those reassurances were necessary because there are long-standing problems with policing in Jamaica. Human rights groups have found there’s a culture of fear, with officers carrying out extrajudicial killings, tampering with evidence and intimidating witnesses.

“To say that the Jamaican police is corrupt is not something that I have to say, and say, ‘Oh, don't say I said that,’ you know, that's openly acknowledged,” said Diana Thorburn, director of research at the Caribbean Policy Research Institute.

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She said that even though the police are widely seen as corrupt, many Jamaicans also believe the country needs law enforcement. Violent crime, pervasive in Jamaica, is fueled by, among other things, the country’s strategic location for smuggling drugs into the US. Just this month, two police officers were fatally shot by men with high-powered guns.

The incident horrified the public, Thorburn said, and reminded Jamaicans that in a society with one of the highest murder rates in the world, they need protection — even if it comes from a police force that’s had issues almost as long as it’s existed.

“Most analyses of the problem trace it back to the origins of the police force, which was as a colonial institution to keep down the formerly enslaved.”

Diana Thorburn, Caribbean Policy Research Institute

“Most analyses of the problem trace it back to the origins of the police force, which was as a colonial institution to keep down the formerly enslaved,” she said.

The British used colonial Jamaica as a center for slave trading in the West Indies. Even after the country became an independent member of the British commonwealth in 1962, the historical disregard for Black life continued, said University of Pennsylvania professor Deborah Thomas, who has written books about human rights in Jamaica.

“It’s a hard sort of conceptual reality for Americans to understand, African Americans in particular, that you could have anti-Black violence in a majority-black country,” Thomas said. “But it doesn't go away because there's a Black person in power, because, in fact, the societies were built on this.”

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After Jamaica’s independence, the US stepped in, eager to make sure that a country in its backyard was secure during the Cold War. Then, during the war on drugs, Thomas said the US helped fund the militarization of Jamaica’s police. That drew international attention in May 2010, when the US pressured Jamaica to extradite the head of a gang who controlled a community called Tivoli Gardens, in Kingston.

Jamaica declared a state of emergency, and during the manhunt, police killed more than 70 people. Thomas directed a documentary about what happened at Tivoli and was surprised that the killings there weren’t a subject of conversation in Jamaica after Floyd’s death.

“The George Floyd stuff happens and people were going back and forth on social media about police violence in Jamaica, there wasn't really a robust conversation about Tivoli and/or a recognition that, in fact, this is what we're talking about — and this is the 10th anniversary exactly of this.”

Deborah Thomas, University of Pennsylvania professor

“The George Floyd stuff happens and people were going back and forth on social media about police violence in Jamaica, there wasn't really a robust conversation about Tivoli and/or a recognition that, in fact, this is what we're talking about — and this is the 10th anniversary exactly of this,” Thomas said.

Instead, since Floyd’s and Bogle’s deaths, Holness has declared another state of emergency in response to violent crime, granting police powers to stop, search and detain residents without a warrant in certain areas.

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“These areas, if left unchecked, have shown historically that they can spiral to chaotic ends, even having national disruptive impact,” he said.

Meanwhile, there are fewer checks on police power. Jamaica’s Independent Commission of Investigations, which once arrested and prosecuted officers, no longer has that ability.

Rodje Malcolm, director of Jamaicans for Justice, said in the name of fighting crime, Jamaicans have given up on human rights for some people.

“But those people are viewed as expendable,” Malcolm said. “Those people are viewed as deserving it because they are from the communities where there is high crime.”

But in this global moment, sparked by Floyd’s death, Malcolm said Jamaicans might be able to consider other ways of policing that prioritize peace.

“It's possible a little bit more now because many Jamaicans can see in themselves as those Black people in the United States,” he said, “and it's simply about turning that gaze inwards to understand ... the ways that we perpetuate various similar systems and are OK with it.”

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