Wed | Aug 12, 2020

Mark Wignall | The colour and class complexity in Jamaica

Published:Sunday | June 28, 2020 | 12:16 AM

Burning debris, demonstrations, and looting were features of the 1999 gas riots.
Burning debris, demonstrations, and looting were features of the 1999 gas riots.

It was summer of that year, August 1965, to be exact, as I entered Parade from the north-east end. I was on the way from school to catch a bus home. I was almost 15 and could quickly sense that something was wrong, and fear was taking over.

Another flash in the unresolved class issue between Chinese Jamaicans and black-skinned Jamaicans was running wild on the streets of downtown Kingston. A Chinese merchant and one of his Jamaican workers were involved in an intimate relationship. The wife from China showed up and rudely placed the man’s lover in the basement of their lives.

An altercation took place, and the man was said to have either kicked or ‘boxed’ his Jamaican worker/lover. The information that quickly reached to the streets was that ‘a Chiney man kick dung a Jamaican woman’.

The mob took over as the frontal glass sections of stores downtown were broken. That was, of course, a prelude to looting. It immediately shot across the purely Chinese-black Jamaican problem. The black-skinned mob began to beat up anyone who had a hint of brownness in their complexion.

In a matter of days, we came back to a normal state of affairs. The Chinese went on expanding their wealth and influence in commerce ( if not their public visibility) as the rest of Jamaica, the majority of us, pondered the tough road ahead.

Three years after Independence, the major issues affecting most Jamaicans were illiteracy, education, landownership, praedial larceny, and poverty. Plus, most people who lived in rural areas had no electricity supply or piped water. The state of our roads was simply not a problem because few Jamaicans owned cars.

Colour and class were not items many Jamaicans saw as oppressive to their social and economic aspirations. Racist thunder and lightning and storm clouds of the 1960s were mostly generated in the US. Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X were still our martyred heroes as we entered the 1970s.

The George Floyd spillover

In 1972, Tony Spauling, then the new housing minister in the wildly popular Manley Government of that time, walked into the Skyline Pub attached to the Skyline Hotel in New Kingston. A member of his party was asked to remove his cap. Spaulding, never the type to back down from what could be considered a race- or class-driven moment, insisted that the cap would not be removed, and the incident made big news.

In 1968, Jamaica experienced what were called the Rodney Riots. A JLP Government at that time, mired in political backwardness, had somehow convinced itself that Guyanese lecturer, historian par excellence, political activist, and author Walter Rodney was a danger to the minds of our people.

So it booted him out of the country, and for a time, there were street disturbances – riots, some called them. Again, there were reports that brown-skinned Jamaicans were roughed up.

A week after the irascible but confident Spaulding visited Skyline Pub, we visited there on a Friday to take advantage of a wide table at one far end of the pub. It was ‘all you can eat for J$0.50’. The ‘we’ were me and three friends, all having caps on our heads. We were taking our cues from the political leaders we admired.

Last week, a Jamaican living abroad asked me why Jamaicans were so ‘involved’ in the urgencies of the Floyd protests that have socially occupied many spaces globally, and at the same time, we have been deliberately refusing to address the racial issues here at home.

In my response, I was forced to tell him that we have long been ahead of the curve and that America’s problems are not, in the pure mechanics of it, similar to our own.

The vast majority of our people are black-skinned, and no white person calls us the n-word on the streets. What we have here is the realisation that since Independence, without anyone damaging us by calling us hurtful words, the more important metric is that the ownership of land, businesses, and influence has hardly changed since the Chinese riots of 1965.

Yes, there are the outliers in many spheres of influence, but behind the scenes, where the powers operate, people are let in and welcomed based on their loyalty to those very powers. In fact, what I find particularly painful is that many of us are used almost as advertisement props to exalt ourselves in public when the psychology directs the population to the old order. The change, if it is happening, is painfully slow.

The April 1999 gas riots

P.J. Patterson was in power, and from all who were concerned about the political and economic directions of the country, he would win again and again because Seaga’s leadership was drowning the JLP.

An increase in taxes on gasolene was announced, and at first, the population was led to believe that the street disturbances that broke out were spontaneous. They were not. They were hatched by an arm of the Opposition JLP in the Corporate Area while it was trying to gain ascendancy in the hierarchy of the party.

Soon, there would be blocking of roads, burning of tyres, and looting and fire-bombing of some business places. Most of those involved in the madness were those long left out of the system while being manipulated by it: the illiterate, the perennially unemployed, and those who simply wanted to ‘throw bombs’ at the system.

No one was calling them the n-word, no one was imploring them to do better for themselves. They simply knew that street disturbance after the other, riot after riot, political speech piled on top of empty oratory, nothing would change for them.

Their fathers and mothers were poor, powerless, used, and abused. And the people doing it to them looked just like them. Our people know the experiences in the US and ours here at home cannot be laid out on paper with exacting templates.

- Mark Wignall is a political- and public-affairs analyst. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and mawigsr@gmail.com.