April 5 - Born Fi' Dead

Last night I finished reading Laurie Gunst's book "Born Fi' Dead: A Journey through the Yardie Underworld". It isn't a long book, and it is gripping, but still it took me quite a few days to read because it was just too upsetting to read more than one chapter in a sitting. The unstoppability of the endless killing emerges as the main lesson to be taken from the book. But that is only one of many sadnesses to be encountered in the book.

The great strength of this book is Gunst's storytelling skill. The story of the Jamaican gun posses is complex and confusing, yet Gunst manages to keep the historical elements clear while still spending the bulk of the time letting us get to know the various characters in her story. The story's violence is overwhelming and few of the people that Gunst makes main characters in her story escape the brutality of it, both on the giving and receiving ends. But by focusing on describing her own development of relationships with these people she manages to portray them as very human in the face of all of their seemingly inhuman experiences and acts. Glorification of the violence is just not possible when it is so devastating, so she is not in danger of that either. The stories are touching and vivid. It is by her courage to move in this world, and even more to be willing to write down what she saw, that the rest of us can have access to them. No less impressive than her courage is her ability to come in as an outsider and build deep relationships with people who maintain a high level of distrust of outsiders. It is definitely worth the time to piggyback on her abilities and work to see the insides of the world she describes.

All I know about Gunst, I learned in the course of reading the book. (I Googled her this morning and got many many pages that referenced her book but no other information about her.) It isn't much, which I find odd for someone who researched her book as a participant-observer. I know that she is a Harvard-trained historian, which may account for her historian-ish approach to writing what is certainly an ethnography. This fact (about her education) she tells the reader early on. Other relevant facts about her are (almost certainly deliberately) left until much later in the story. The reader learns, through a quote from someone talking to her, that she is white on page 128 of the 250 page book. We find that she is Jewish as we are nearing the very end. And although her age can be inferred at various points, I was surprised to find that she is about the same age as my mother in the second-to-last chapter.

Given how stingy Gunst is with biographical information about herself, she does a very good job of expressing her own personality throughout the book, giving a much more helpful understanding of her character than a bunch of biographical facts could ever convey. On the other hand, living here in Kingston, being an American, white, Jewish, Harvard-educated woman, it seems to me that these little bits of information are useful in comparing my experiences to hers and evaluating the way she portrays her interactions. I recognize the places she describes. Even some of the people are familiar to me. Her descriptions of places and people often feel like something I might have written myself (except that they are better edited.) These similarities seem like they should lessen my desire for her to situate herself because her voice seems trustworthy to me. Maybe I would feel that way if there weren't significant ways in which her experience and her interpretation of it differs so radically from my own. As it is, I worry that as the sole voice telling this story she does not live up to her responsibility to do it in an even-handed way or to at least acknowledge her own bias.

This book is meant to be a non-fiction history book. Yet where ex-Prime Minister Edward Seaga is concerned, Gunst harbors such vitriol that her ability to be a good historian is lost. (He was PM while she was living in Kingston.) She frequently states almost as fact quite extreme allegations against Seaga with little support for them, often only the allegations and opinions of gang members and others loyal to the opposing party. What is more striking, she also states almost as fact quite extreme allegations about how Seaga felt about various things. She never interviews Seaga in the course of the book, not that even then he would ever admit to having the evil, heart-of-stone feelings that she attributes to him. I'll give a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean.

Gunst tells the chilling story of what is known as the Green Bay Massacre. 10 members of a JLP (Jamaican Labour Party--Seaga's party) gang called the Skull were lured with promises of guns by a group of soldiers (while Manley's PNP was in power in the late 70s) and special intelligence forces to an army shooting range called Green Bay. They were taken out onto the shooting range, grouped together in a bunch, and then mowed down by soldiers with semi-automatic weapons. 5 of them managed to hit the deck and crawl away. Ridiculously, the Major in charge of the massacre took pictures of the bodies for the story they were going to put out: that the soldiers had been ambushed by the gang during target practice. The pictures, taken in the dawn light, showed the long shadows of the soldiers, giving the lie to their cover story which was supposed to have taken place at midday. Given that the army and the intelligence units were PNP-controlled and the victims were an entire gang of JLP supporters, it seems quite a difficult stretch to attempt to attribute this one to Seaga. Yet Gunst can't resist throwing it in there, accompanied by an assessment of his character that says that he would have had no problem killing his own supporters:

Manley's responsibility for what became known as the Green Bay massacre remains an open question. There are those who think it was carried out on his orders. Others see it as Seaga's brainchild: even though the victims were Labourites, Seaga would not have balked at sacrificing a few expendable sufferers in order to smear the PNP.

I hope, but don't know, that neither of these men were responsible for the Green Bay massacre. I find it odd, however, that she gives equal or greater wait to the theory that Seaga was responsible (clearly her own belief), when it requires such a tortuous line of reasoning to even make it seem possible.

She later goes on to blame Seaga for the assassination attempt on Bob Marley at his Kingston home (a few blocks from where we live now), based on extrapolation from a story that she was told by someone who was supposedly told by Bob that a JLP-related don had been there the night he was shot:

Ever since that attack in 1976, Jamaica had buzzed with rumors about who had set it up. The timing showed a certain brutal intelligence; the botched attack came just before the December election and made it look as if internal security under Manley's regime was so shaky that it could not even ensure the safety of the island's most important citizen. so Jamaicans always assumed tha Seaga and the JLP had been behind the shooting. No one believed that Claudie Massop, Marley's close friend, would have gone along with such a treacherous move. But Jim Brown would have done it, to show Seaga that he could be a trusted assassin.

Again she uses a very thin veil ("Jamaicans always assumed"--with no elaboration of which Jamaicans or how she knows) to justify her blame of Seaga and attribution of heartlessness to him. Of course, I have absolutely no way of knowing that her account is not true, but in my opinion it is her job as a historian to give me enough support for her claim that I feel that I can believe it. As it stands, considering Seaga's long history as an music producer and historian/ethnographer of Jamaica's own music tradition, it is very hard for me to believe that he would order the assassination of Bob Marley.

Throughout the book there are single sentence references to actions or feelings she attributes to Seaga that aren't even as well supported as the quotes given above. For example, "Trevor ran into him at Central Peace Council meetings, where Seaga had sent him to spy." Another passage quotes a young Labourite:

"You remember the Manley time, miss? You recall the shortages we had? How there was no salt fish, no flour, no rice, no cookin' oil in the shops? Jamaica never stay so until Manley messed everything up." I refrained from saying anything about how the merchants and shopkeepers were to blame, hoarding precious foodstuffs to raise the prices when the dollar plunged. Many of them were paid off by the JLP.

To blame the food shortages on the JLP--when shortages are not at all an unusual result of failing experiments with socialism--bothers me, especially along with the unsupported allegation that the JLP was behind it. I am glad she refrained from saying anything to the youth who seems to me to have a clearer view of the reality of the situation than Gunst does.

Although much of Gunst's character assassination of Seaga seems untrustworthy to me, it is impossible to deny his and other politicians link to the gangs and gun violence and drug trafficking. Gunst tells that the first of the JLP gun posses was called the Phoenix. Just weeks ago at Tivoli Gardens high school--the JLP stronghold which contains one of the schools at which we work--the head of the computer lab told me they were designing a special front page for their web site that would have an animated graphic of a phoenix flying up and bursting into flame. It is the symbol of the JLP, she explained. I wonder if she knows of and supports the connection to the father of all JLP gun posses or whether the symbol has lost its meaning for her and many other Tivolites.

All the time I see evidence of the links between the drug trafficking, garrison dons, and government ministers (now the PNP). Recently a news story told of massive quantities of money being siphoned out of government funds to a contractor for construction jobs that turned out to be fictitious. In turn this contractor gives huge sums of money to support the PNP and its election campaigns. This contractor is the don of a downtown garrison which supports him staunchly (and surely with guns). He earns this respect and adulation from his garrison, presumably, by a combination of intimidation and financial support, with the money likely coming from international drug trafficking. When this major financial discrepancy surfaced in the news, the police dutifully took statements from something like 8 people who had sufficient personal connection to the affair to testify about it. Unsurprisingly, someone in the government saw that all copies of the written statements by potential witnesses were handed over to the contractor himself. By the next day all of the potential witnesses had either disappeared or retracted their statements.

I don't think that I have my head in the clouds, unable to see the reality of what Gunst writes. But given the similarity in our perspectives on other things, what might account for our differences in our view of Seaga and the JLP? I have a few possible explanations.

I have no love for either political party in Jamaica and do not consider myself to be a supporter of either one. However, it is much easier to see the faults of the party currently in government. They have the lion's share of the power and the money. It is possible that the other party would be just as corrupt and abusive of power if they were in charge, but they just don't have the power or the money to do it when they are not in power. I frequently see examples of the current PNP government doing things I think they should not. They control the police force, which seems to me to be to almost out of control in their abuse of their power and their violent treatment of suspects, criminals, and innocents. Stories like the one I related above are so frequent as to only make the news for a single day before something else comes along to bump them off the radar. People are so used to it they hardly bat an eye. I hope that the violence that Gunst describes in her book is less of a reality today than it was in the late 80s, but based on the stories about murders downtown that I see on the TV each day, I doubt it. I believe there is a strong pull to distrust the government that is currently in power. When Gunst was in Jamaica, Seaga and the JLP were in power and it was easy to see them as the greater evil.

Gunst had several people with whom she became quite close in the course of writing her book. By far the vast majority of them and the people with whom she talked closely seemed to be associated with the PNP. The perspective related to her by these people must have been seriously skewed and the JLP-perpetrated damage she saw around her must have been very great. It is easy to see how she could have become almost as partisan as her Jamaican friends.

Finally, Gunst must have been in college and graduate school in the U.S. in the late 60s/early 70s. I don't think I can underestimate the difference of growing up in that time and growing up, as I did, in the 80s/90s. I won't venture any specific guesses about how this migth have affected our different liberalisms, but I am sure it does and I am sure it contributes to our differences here.

I learned a huge amount reading "Born Fi' Dead". It is an important story and Gunst tells it well. I only wish that Gunst had better followed the admonition of her Kingstonian friend Brambles: "You are not here to say who is good and who is bad. You should only be committed to reality." I hope that when you read this book you can feel/find the reality in it without giving your absolute trust to it.