The 2010 Emergency and Party Politics in Kingston, Jamaica


Photo by Eilish Hansen

Towards a Less Violent Democracy

By Enrique Desmond Arias 

On May 18, 2010, the government of Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding issued a warrant for the arrest of Christopher “Dudus” Coke, the reputed leader of the powerful Shower Posse gang. Coke, a political strongman in Kingston’s western constituency, faced an extradition request from the United States, and Golding needed to comply with Jamaica’s treaty obligations. The arrest of Coke and his subsequent extradition offered Jamaica an opening that perhaps could bring to a close the history of political-criminal ties that has marked the country since its independence.

The move came at a high cost in terms of bloody violence and political capital, leading to 72 deaths and government resignations. Three days after the warrant was issued, large groups of women wearing white turned out to demand that the Prime Minister not arrest their “president.” The May 21 protests demonstrated the strength of Coke’s local support; soon, gangs from around the island sent armed men to defend Coke against the Jamaican Defense Forces, according to media reports. On May 23, gunmen surrounded and burnt several police stations in western Kingston. Seeing the impossibility of a negotiated solution and fearing that further delay would only increase the risk of civil disorder, Golding declared a state of emergency and ordered the military to arrest Coke.

In a televised address, Golding urged citizens to flee the area prior to the start of military operations. A bloody conflict ensued that left many civilians dead and accusations of summary executions and abuse by the security forces. Coke and most of the other high-ranking gang leaders escaped the area. One month later, police arrested Coke in a car with a clergyman who served as an adviser to Golding. Coke was trying to flee to the U.S. Embassy in an effort to avoid falling into the hands of the Jamaican security forces, in whose custody his adoptive father, Lester Lloyd “Jim Brown” Coke, also a political strongman and gang leader, had died under mysterious circumstances in 1992. The younger Coke did not contest his extradition and, in August 2011, pled guilty to charges in the Federal Court for the Southern District of New York.

The military actions against armed groups in western Kingston go to the heart of the long-standing nexus of political and criminal power in Jamaica. Jamaica’s two dominant parties, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People’s National Party (PNP), have engaged in often violent confrontations since their inception in the 1940s. In the two decades after independence in 1962, both parties armed supporters and used housing policy to create partisan “garrison” neighborhoods and establish hegemony over certain seats in parliament. In Kingston’s western constituency, the JLP government razed pro-PNP shantytowns in the 1960s, replacing them with the modern Tivoli Gardens housing project that the party then filled with loyal supporters defended by armed gangs that eventually evolved into the Shower Posse.

In the half century since independence, the PNP has never seriously contested that seat. The PNP, of course, used similar tactics to build its own political “garrisons” in several nearby constituencies. Conditions of armed dominance affect elections in twelve of the country’s sixty parliamentary constituencies. In 25 of the 49 years since independence, Prime Ministers representing seats characterized by high levels of armed dominance have governed the country. They include Michael Manley (PNP, 1972-1980, 1989-1992), representing Kingston East Central, Edward Seaga (JLP, 1980-1989), a Harvard College graduate who represented Kingston Western, Portia Simpson Miller (PNP, 2006-2007), the current Leader of the Opposition who represents Saint Andrews Southeastern , who succeeded Seaga in Kingston Western, and Andrew Holness (JLP, 2011- ) who holds Saint Andrews West Central. Indeed, since 1972 only Prime Minister P.J. Patterson (PNP, 1992-2004) did not represent a garrison constituency.

Until 1980, the gunmen who controlled Kingston’s shantytowns, poor neighborhoods, and housing projects were tightly tied to the two major political parties. Inter-party violence reached an apogee in the 1980 elections when, after three years of political strife, partisan conflict left 800 Jamaicans dead, including Roy McGann, the PNPs Minister of National Security in the second Manley government. Fearing the possibility of civil war and perhaps more violence against political elites, the two parties began to slowly distance themselves from the political gangs, though they still looked to them to secure their constituencies and turn out votes. Gang leaders, seeing a loss in revenue from political activities, expanded their operations into international narcotics smuggling, using networks in the Jamaican diaspora to export drugs to North America and the United Kingdom. The Shower Posse, among a handful of other powerful political gangs, took a lead in these activities.

Despite these changes and political reforms that eliminated some of the worst political violence and polling abuses, armed groups continued to play important political roles. Local gang leaders, commonly known as “dons,” engage in an array of political activities, including helping to turn out voters and protecting residents of the neighborhoods they control against possible attacks both during campaigns and on election day. Occasionally, as occurred during the 2007 campaign in the Saint Andrews southeastern constituency, open conflict can break out in some areas where politicians may see an opportunity to flip a constituency their way. In return, local armed leaders often receive public works contracts in their areas and may distribute jobs to favored neighborhood residents. The more sophisticated gangs receive larger sums for the protection of major government enterprises or, as was the case with Coke, obtaining government contracts with legitimate businesses. Important gang leaders also expect a degree of protection from police and the politicians they work with.

When Golding won the 2007 general elections ending seventeen years of PNP rule, he promised a “new approach to governance” that “converts the energy” of “competitive politics into nation-building power” and called for various efforts to control crime and establish a more effective rule of law. Despite these aspirations, Golding did little in his first two years in office to establish a more effective rule of law in his own constituency and made no effort to address the local gang that had helped to secure his election in 2007. In August 2009, the U.S. government requested that Jamaica extradite Coke. Golding then sacrificed much of his political capital, putting his career and government at risk, to avoid taking action. A U.S.-based law firm was hired to lobby Washington to withdraw its extradition request. In general, Golding did not seem to want to bring Coke to justice. When the clandestine efforts to lobby the United States came to light, Golding resigned his leadership of the JLP, opening the door to his vacating his role as head of government. The JLP’s leadership, however, refused his resignation. In this difficult context, Golding, having little political credibility but with no support from the party to install a new leader, ordered the security forces to arrest Coke. A formal parliamentary inquiry took place in early 2011 into the Golding government’s activities during the extradition process, focusing on efforts to cover up hiring lawyers to lobby the U.S. government. This led to the resignation of Dorothy Lightbourne, the Justice Minister and Attorney General.

In October 2011, politically exhausted after more than two years of dealing with the Coke extradition request and perhaps not wanting to stand for election again in Kingston Western, Golding announced that he would step down as Prime Minister. On October 23, Sir Patrick Allen, the Governor General, swore in Andrew Holness, the 39-year-old Minister of Education, as Jamaica’s ninth Prime Minister. Holness, who has represented one of the JLPs Kingston area garrisons since 1997, has, like his predecessor, spoken of political reconciliation in the run-up to general elections that he is expected to call in the near future.
Despite the violence associated with the security forces actions in Kingston Western in May 2010, the arrest of Coke and the disruption of his gang offered Jamaica an opening that might bring to a close its long history of political-criminal ties. Action against a prominent armed supporter by a Prime Minister suggested that it could lead the way in transforming the garrison constituency he representedinto something a bit different, setting up new relations with residents and finding new ways to channel political patronage into the area. Yet despite evident success in maintaining lower levels of criminal violence in the capital since Coke’s arrest, ongoing investigations and revelations about how the government mishandled the extradition and, perhaps, a lack of political vision prevented a real effort to restructure state-society relations in Kingston Western.

The choice of a Prime Minister who was too young to have had any part in the conflicts of the 1970s and the 1980 election offers a promise that in the coming years Jamaica can confront the relics of garrison politics and begin to alter the configurations of power in the island’s poor urban communities. The fact that Holness and Portia Simpson Miller, his probable opponent in the coming elections, both represent heavily garrisoned areas suggests, however, that change may take some time. Nonetheless, their own experience and exposure to political risk in changing the communities they represent gives them real credibility, should they seek to undertake reforms that can move Jamaica further in the direction of a more open and less violent democracy.

Enrique Desmond Arias is Associate Professor at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

See also: Crime