We were driving down to the Orange Street Jewish Cemetery (more about this in a later post). It was a busy Monday lunchtime, and on the way we were slightly delayed by a minor accident – two cars with rumpled radiators and rear bumpers. Nothing serious. But as we drew near to the cemetery, we came across a yellow tape, right across Orange Street, with another one further down the street. In Jamaica, that means only one thing.
The Jewish Cemetery, where volunteers from overseas were working on recording a part of Jamaica’s history, appeared to be in the middle of a crime scene.
I managed to slip through to the cemetery entrance, and was almost overrun by a group of military-looking policemen in black overalls, all carrying big guns and all laughing and joking among themselves. They had apparently just set up the yellow tape. They seemed very happy and were so busy talking they didn’t even notice me. Over the road, the group of buildings next to York Park Fire Station was quiet. A few curious people lingered near the tape. It was quiet, very quiet.
“They got the wrong man.” When I came out onto the street a couple of hours later, one of the residents told me that the police had killed the man who ran the cook shop over the road. He told me they were chasing someone on foot, who ran into the lane, and shot 27-year-old Robert “Nakiea” Jackson by mistake. A report in the Star newspaper said that the police were chasing a man with dreadlocks, and that Mr. Jackson also wore locks. A relative says in the report: “A fry di man a fry chicken inna him cook shop. Dem claim say is a Rasta dem a run down. Dem just go in there, pull the gate and shoot the man two times.”
A van from INDECOM (the Independent Commission of Investigations, which probes police killings and abuses) was parked near the concrete apartment blocks adjoining a small lane, while two or three policemen stood guard and two police cars flashed blue lights outside the yellow. (One question: Television Jamaica’s reporter noted that his crew spent over twenty minutes at the scene, and no INDECOM representatives had appeared. By this time, residents and many others had disturbed the crime scene. Why did it take so long for INDECOM to arrive? Were they alerted by the police in a timely fashion?)
A CVM Television report that evening showed a thick smear of blood along the pavement between the cook shop and the street, and a glimpse of a twisted body lying in the road. There was blood on the cook shop floor, where dutch pots stood filled with rice and peas and chicken. There was an empty bowl and fork, perhaps from a meal that Mr. Jackson had just eaten. A plaque with a prayer on it hung on the wall. Perplexed firefighters from next door mingled with a group of residents, who expressed their shock and anger and held up hastily written cardboard placards to the camera: “We want justice!”
Her eyes reddened, the dead man’s sister said: “One shot in the back, one in the abdomen – you took my brother at age twenty-seven.” Seven years earlier, she said, her brother raised some money to open the cook shop. It had been operating in the small community ever since. “The only thing he was guilty of,” she continued, in a clear and resolute voice, “was waking up on his day off to cook for his customers.” He had invested money in equipment over the years, she added, and his business was “something he was passionate about.”
“We have to do something about this,” Mr. Jackson’s sister said, suppressing the tremor in her voice. She had a message for Jamaica’s leaders and was determined to deliver it; and she did not speak in patois. The anti-gang legislation is not enough; there needs to be more legislation to control the “police officers who think it’s OK to come, scuff (sic) out a life and not be held liable.” Kingston Central (the police division where she lives) is not full of bad people. She was holding the Prime Minister and the Police Commissioner accountable, she said. “I don’t want anything less than justice. Quick, expeditious, speedy…”
On one wall of Mr. Jackson’s cook shop are paintings of former Prime Minister Michael Manley and Jamaica’s current Prime Minister, Portia Simpson Miller.
“I don’t have any trust in the lawmen,” the woman concluded. “I’ve given up on my country.”
This evening, residents set up a fiery roadblock in protest at Mr. Jackson’s death. They say they will not stop until the Prime Minister (who grins at them from Mr. Jackson’s cook shop wall), the Member of Parliament or the Police Commissioner come and talk to them. I hope they don’t have to wait too long.
INDECOM reports that 258 citizens lost their lives in incidents involving the security forces in 2013 – 39 more than in 2012 (48 more than in 2011) and a 17.8 per cent increase in one year. Ten Jamaicans also died in custody. 29 per cent of fatalities were in the Kingston/St. Andrew region. In October 2013, the police killed 40 Jamaicans. As of January 14, INDECOM was working on 1,900 cases of alleged police abuses, dating back to 2008; these are mostly fatal shootings, shooting injuries and assault.
I spoke to Susan Goffe, from the human rights group Jamaicans for Justice, about the issue of extra-judicial killings in Jamaica. Ms. Goffe responded: “The figures from INDECOM for the number of fatal shootings by the police in 2013 show a significant increase. And the level of use of lethal force remains at an unacceptably high level. As a society we seem prepared to accept the position that because we have a high level of violent crime, we must therefore have/accept a high level of police killings. Not so. We cannot kill our way to security. Each fatal shooting must be thoroughly investigated, but we also cannot ignore the patterns that have been established for so many years. Patterns which see continued impunity for police use of lethal force.”
Footnote: When I learned the name of the man who was killed (he was the same age as our own son) a memory returned to me. Several years ago, I was at a meeting at a government agency with a group of young entrepreneurs. A young man with short dreads approached me and told me about a new small restaurant he was setting up in downtown Kingston. He proudly gave me his card, brightly decorated with pictures of vegetables and fruit, with his phone number, and invited me to come and eat there. I admired his card and commented that his name reminded me of the cell phone company.
The name of his restaurant: “Nakiea’s Kitchen.”
Here are links to the relevant television reports: