As we try to stem the gun violence concentrated in some sections of Jamaica, we have to question the patterning of the state’s use of gunfire to mark special occasions by persons outside the state apparatus. A day after Queen Elizabeth 2 of England died on 8 September 2022, there were 96 shot salutes across Britain, one for each year of her life. Jamaica was not to be left out, as on 19 September, the day of her funeral in England, the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) had its own 96 shot salute at Up Park Camp in St. Andrew.
On 11 October 2021, there was no official count of the celebratory gunshots when news spread in August Town and nearby communities that Christopher ‘Dog Paw’ Linton had been killed by the police. There was no pomp and pageantry, no special uniforms, no special field artillery and no prior warning to the public not to panic, but the ritual of gunfire to mark death milestones was the same. And, although there wasn’t uniformity in the number of projectiles, there was official celebratory gunfire across Britain on 21 April 2022, when Queen Elizabeth marked her 96th birthday. Heading up to the 3 December 2021, the police issued yet another warning about illegal gun salutes to mark the beginning of a new year. It is standard issue each year, just change a few details and send it out to the public – and it makes no difference.
While in some instances there are no exact parallels, the essence of a show of force by using firearms to mark special occasions is the same. With increased access to guns (mainly from the US, in Jamaica’s current situation), there is, inevitably, the perception that there is an increase in violence being valued, but it is not so. It is the ability to carry out violent rituals, as well as actual violence, which has been democratized. And in a post-colonial society such as Jamaica, shaped by the terrorism of slavery, and then the use of force to maintain the social order (if not the law) after Emancipation, when the opportunity to imitate the state’s stance presents itself there will be those who will take it. I doubt that this thought process actively motivates someone using an illegal firearm or using a licensed firearm illegally (which amount to the same thing) at the point of discharging the weapon, but it shapes the general environment in which we operate.
Peter Tosh said it best at the One Love Peace Concert at the National Stadium in 1978 and the cheers of the crowd seemed to reflect acknowledgement of the truth being spoken. Tosh said, “Still I nah seh my bredda is a criminal y’know. Learn dis, cause when Columbus an Henry Morgan and Francis Drake come on ya, oonu call dem pirate and put dem inna me reading book an give us observation dat we muss look at an live de life an de principle of pirates. See de yout dem now a fiah up dem gun like Henry Morgan same way. Yu no see it?”
Martin Luther King Jr. drew somewhat the same comparison but between two currently co-existing situations, as he turned his insistence on resolving social ills by non-violent means to the USA’s (ultimately futile) war on Vietnam. In April 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York, USA, he said in part, “As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”
As we engage in yet another round of special anti-crime initiatives with special names, we would do well to keep these things in mind. We also need to ask ourselves the hard question about recent (and ongoing) revelations about the Firearm Licensing Authority (FLA) breaching its own regulations in the issuing of permits to unfit persons. Although it is a small part of the organisation’s operations, in doing so is the FLA any different from a don in a Jamaican inner-city community who decides who must have illegal firearms?
And that leads to another question. To what extent do the infamous ‘states within a state’ in Jamaica shadow the unjust and violence-dependent structure of the Jamaican state? The gun salute, for queen or don, in a dancehall or at Up Park Camp, the ‘boom’ inserted by some persons in the National Anthem or in a deejay’s lyrics, are small parts of the puzzle that we must solve in order to address the social ill of gun-driven violence concentrated in some parts of Jamaica.
Mel Cooke covered Jamaican entertainment as a print journalist for almost two decades, overlapping with his MPhil research on dancehall and experiential marketing with the Institute of Caribbean Studies, UWI, Mona, where he is now working on a PhD while lecturing in the Bachelor of Arts, Communication Arts and Technology (BACAT) programme at the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech, Ja.).