Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The conundrum of violence in Jamaica

Jamaica has a scourge of brutal personal violence. It has plagued the country for the past 40 years, and seems to have reached new levels. A lot of bright heads have been scratched to find ways to solve this problem .

The images alongside show how violence has changed lives in most parts of the country--the difference between the "sweet old days" and the "time of wicked ways". They reflect a harsh reality about the problem of violence. Wealth has done very little to protect a Jamaican from being a victim of crime. The one area where people's fear of violence is greatest is in the home, which is supposed to be a sanctuary. Access to the wider range of consumer goods available on the island or "from foreign" has given comforts but also given motives to some criminals. The motive is less the visible signs of wealth--TVs, VCRs, DVD players, fancy cars--but often the basis of those comforts, which is money.

Life behind household bars is as much about protecting oneself as about protecting one's wealth; though most wealthy Jamaicans do not keep much cash at home. Criminals, however, know that invading a home to get cash or easy to sell items is often simpler than robbing a bank or holding up a store. Most institutions now surround themselves with armed guards, alarms and electronic monitoring devices. Most homes are protected by dogs, alarms, contracts with security companies, and personal firearms. However, it is still not easy to get money from people directly and that seems to have led to use of kidnapping and ransom, hoping that people will pay highly to save loved ones. The fear is greater because it seems that whatever victims do the criminals will be brutal. The instance and fear of crime is greatest in the corporate areas of Kingston, St. Andrew, St. Catherine and St. James--the latter posing a particular economic problem because that is the parish of Montego Bay and many tourist dollars.

Many Jamaicans, however, also respond to the threat of crime in an enigmatic way. Despite the very high levels of crimes against persons and a rising level of murders, people don't impose curfews on themselves. While residents may stay behind bolted doors and grills when at home, when people go out they appear to have less visible security; and as far as I know no one is making a big market of selling bullet-proof glass for cars. At night the roads in Kingston and many other places are not empty. Of course, certain downtown areas are avoided. But in uptown areas, people will still have a heavy social calendar, and it is rare for an event like a regular house party to be protected by guards; and such events will still be held outdoors if weather and space permit. In rural areas most people seem to go along with daily life much as they want to.

It seems that citizens see less of a role for themselves and more of a role for government, and they feel that crime has never really made it onto the political agenda, in part because a significant number of politicians and the party machinery are somehow implicated in criminal activity. A recent correspondent to The Gleaner seemed to sum up well how many people feel about crime and government's inability to deal with it.

"The crime problem has been neglected for so long that people have become comfortable with [actions] that are in place - and working. This system uses violence to solve all problems. People no longer have to use the expensive and meandering maze that we call a justice system. Violence is immediately and richly rewarded and the entire society has come to realise this.

Crime cannot be managed without the help of the citizenry. The Police have lost their respect and earned their distrust. Many now see them as nothing more than an irrelevant irritant.

Minister Smith has got to level with the people and let them understand that the violence we are experiencing is the result of deep, long-standing social and psychological problems which have been ignored for so long, they are now absorbed into our culture."

People have become cynical about "crime plans", and a new one was launched in early November. Equally, many people have little sympathy for action to cut down ganja (marijuana) plantations such as was reinstated recently; many feel that by giving a livelihood to some in rural areas ganja cultivation has been a factor in minimizing crime.

Some see the government's assessment of the problem as deeply flawed because it will not accept certain "truths" about Jamaica that have a greater bearing on crime that low income and race. In an newspaper letter/article provocatively entitled "Licensing the Jamaican penis" (see link), Kevin O'Brien Chang wrote the following:

"No other country has over 85 per cent of babies born to unmarried mothers and over 50 per cent without registered fathers. No other country routinely discusses parenthood in such relationship neutral terms as 'baby father' and 'baby mother'. No other country so readily accepts absent fatherhood or brings up children so carelessly. And no other country not at war has such a high murder rate.

In "Life Without Father" David Popenoe found the relationship between family structure and crime to be so strong that it erases the relationship between race and low income and crime. Two-parent white and black and rich and poor offspring have far lower incarceration rates than their fatherless peers. But because there are so many more poor and black single-parent children, these make up the bulk of those in U.S. prisons. No doubt the dynamics are the same in Jamaica.

Most fatherless children grow up to be well-adjusted individuals, and only a small percentage become criminals. But almost anything bad that can happen to children occurs with much greater frequency to those from single-parent homes. Nor does fatherlessness affect only children. For men with no family involvement are far more prone to violence than those in settled relationships.

Any society with large concentrations of young, unattached males asks for and gets chaos - two prominent examples being the 19th century American west and the 21st century inner-city ghetto.

All of which boils down to this: If the majority of fathers supported their offspring psychologically and financially, Jamaica would have a much lower murder rate."

Jamaica appears to be an exception to many rules. That related to its attitude toward parenthood is worth considering in the context of dealing with crime. Again, taking words from Kevin O'Brien Chang, he cites the famous anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski:

"[He] considered the principle of legitimacy a universal sociological law. The crucial determinant of legitimacy in his view was the male's public commitment to his child's mother, not the widely varying concept of legality...What matters is not a piece of paper, but the father's willingness to give emotional and material support to his offspring.

The general societal rule, Malinowski found, was that no child should be brought into the world without an acknowledging father to act as the custodial male link between child and community.

But with more than half our children having no registered fathers, Jamaica appears an exception to this rule. Many of our 'fathers' are mere sperm donors who boast of the number of their children but contribute nothing to their welfare."

From this perspective, crime fighting is a much harder task because instead of blitzing crime it would need changes in social inter-relationships and introduction of laws that bind fathers and empower women and mother with regard to paternity obligations. That's has more banana skin quality for most politicians, who would rather go with the visible "attack" on crimes and criminal themselves, and would be leery of touching a deep-seated social issue of which many may be part.

However, if this parental root is indeed the main cause of the crime problem it will be very difficult to deal with because Jamaicans have lived so long with a slack attitude to child-bearing and child-rearing. It seems that people have been more prepared to protect their right to "just go mek pickney" than most other things. But if they believed that this was actually life threatening would it be enough to make that attitude change? Answering that question will be an interesting test over the next year.

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