27 August 2006

The Duty of a Leader

Common Sense
John Maxwell

On February 8, 2003 I wrote: "Never fear, the PNP can produce, at a moment's notice, someone as irrelevant to our problems as Mr Seaga. They will be doing their damnedest to thwart Portia Simpson Miller, the only top politician who shows any signs of being able to listen to the people or to understand what they say.

"In my view, and I am clearly prejudiced, Portia Simpson is the only Jamaican politician now capable of leading a movement for the building of a nation out of the atomised parts of what was once a proud and honest people. If we do not return to that path, 'dog nyam we supper'."

That was three years ago. My opinion has not changed.

On Monday, Jamaica's fastest-growing and most vital city, May Pen, was closed for business. It was shut down by what the Press described as a mob, bands of people outraged by the behaviour of the police, demanding justice for four alleged gunmen, shot dead by the police on Saturday.

According to the police, they carried out a "targeted operation" in Alexandria, on the Chapelton Road, where they killed two brothers, one 21, the other a year older, and two teenagers. According to the police, they recovered three pistols from the four corpses. Not one surrendered.

The demonstrators said it was murder. According to them, there was no shoot-out, and the guns had been planted by the police.

It isn't easy or wise to contradict the police version of violent confrontations - as I am aware from more than 40 years of writing about such encounters. In the first place, the presumption is that the police, being a fine, upstanding body of men and women, sworn to uphold the law and acting in the best interests of the community, have a decided advantage when they testify in court.

Judges, juries and the public they represent are normally on the side of law and order and deplore criminal behaviour of any kind. On the other hand, the people usually shot by the police are almost always described as 'wanted men", even if nobody inside or outside of the force knew that they were wanted before they died. In fact, they are usually the unwanted members of the society, dropouts, no-hopers, usually with few friends and no money.

According to the police, many of these young men, some no more than boys, are so hardened in vice and so desperate, that as soon as they see policemen they open fire at them. Some of the behaviours described by the police are so outlandish as to verge on the fantastic.

In Grants Pen Four Roads a few years ago, the police described shooting two boys who, according to them, had ridden past the police on bicycles and when challenged, had leapt off their bicycles and began firing at the police. As I commented at the time, the young men seemed to be kamikaze acrobats, rather than, as proved later, just two ordinary boys walking home (not riding) after 'liming' at Half-way-Tree.

Even if the police's May Pen story is true in every particular, the society should be really alarmed at two things:
  • First, that there are people in this society so desperate and depraved that they only need to see a cop to begin hostilities; and
  • Second, that there are people willing to violently and publicly demonstrate their solidarity with such despicable desperadoes.
If the young men are so terminally desperate, how did they get that way?

What is it in their lives that makes them so careless of death that they will continually confront superior forces of heavily-armed police, knowing that there is no recent record of the police losing any of the shoot-outs in which they have been engaged?

Why are our youth so keen on police-assisted suicide?

Do they consider themselves so worthless and so lost that anything is better than life?

Don't the people who show solidarity with these men understand that eliminating criminals is good for them and the rest of the society?

Don't they understand that the more criminals killed by the police, the happier and orderly will their societies be?

If the police story is correct, if it is the truth as they continually insist it is, there is something very wrong - dangerously wrong with this society.

If the police story is wrong, if it is a lie, there is something very wrong - dangerously wrong with this society. Whichever of the stories is true is immaterial. Whichever of the stories is true demonstrates that this society is sick, diseased, and in urgent need of fixing.

Waiting for Portia

I have been an admirer of Portia Simpson Miller almost from the first day I met her, more than 30 years ago. Although she was hardly more than a schoolgirl at the time, she struck me as a very clear-eyed, straight and straightforward woman with a developing vision of what Jamaica could be.

She didn't believe in airy-fairy solutions. She understood that development was about people, not about concrete and steel. She knew that people wanted work, not simply jobs, but work to fulfil their ideas of themselves. She understood that creative work which involved the whole person was the answer to many of the problems of alienation, exclusion and misery which beset the people of whom she was so unapologetically representative.

She was not afraid to stand, almost alone, in defending her people when they were savagely attacked in the 1970s. I remember one weekend in July 1980 when she had to find from God knows where, the funds to bury 17 of her constituents, gunned down in partisan warfare.

She did not flinch, she did not run away. Despite the fact that her constituency was viciously polarised and as badly neglected by her own government as it had been by the JLP, she built a community of interest there in which former enemies became reconciled to each other and a measure of peace introduced into what was a battleground created by others.

While most Jamaicans do not know the details of her work, there is an intuitive sense of who Portia is among most people. Which is why there was such unbounded celebration at all levels of the society when she triumphed in the leadership contest in the PNP earlier this year.

What she inherited was a national movement which had lost its way and forgotten its historic purpose. Patterson had recreated the PNP as a more efficient and globally serviceable version of the JLP. It was more efficient and ruthless about liberalisation, privatisation and retrenchment than the JLP would ever have dared to be. Its policies have created more millionaires in the last 14 years than existed in the entire Caribbean before then.

The transfer of wealth from poor to rich proceeded at a pace unmatched even in the satellites of the former Soviet Union. In one of the most economically unequal and savagely unjust societies on the planet it is now chic to speak about "wealth creation" without admitting that wealth creation goes hand-in-hand with poverty creation.

Most Jamaicans know very well what has been happening. They know that, like a smouldering dung heap, Jamaica is ready to erupt into flames. And they believe that Portia Simpson Miller can put out the fire, and redirect our energies to building a Jamaica of the heart and soul, instead of an embattled collection of gated communities sitting on top of a degraded environment from which all hope has fled and where joy is a refugee.

Most of us, with the exception of the political classes, know that Jamaica's course cannot continue to be business as usual. It cannot make sense for the government to steal beaches, destroy green spaces, provide inadequate schools and keep people from growing their own food.

In a country of just over 1,500 arable square miles, it is in my view a scandal that one family can own nearly seven square miles and an even bigger scandal that the government can contemplate handing over to that family another couple of square miles for factory farms. It is a scandal that the government can even contemplate covering farmland with concrete, so-called housing solutions.

It is a scandal that we have raided the national pension scheme to build highways whose real purpose is to celebrate the soon-to-be-defunct internal combustion engine. It is utter madness to build thousands of hotel rooms in a climate of fear which will, in a few years, destroy mass tourism. It is even crazier to build these hotels in areas which will be destroyed by increasingly frequent and violent hurricanes and subverted by climate change.

In Hanover, the parish council is braying for another super hotel. Why? Because it will produce a few jobs for a few labourers and mass profits for a few contractors. But such hotels will not be about Jamaica, they will be about processing visitors like hogs in a 19th century Chicago slaughterhouse. The only thing they won't capture is the squeal of the processed animals.

Meanwhile, no thought is given to a different kind of agriculture, one based on the care of the land by people and not on the brutalisation of the land by pesticides, herbicides and expensive machinery.

If we began to think, it would be plain to us that the tourism industry, if intelligently designed and operated, could provide not only jobs for waiters and housekeepers, but a huge export market for Jamaican produce, organically grown and nurtured with love by people with real stakes in a peaceful, prosperous society.

A Jamaica of the heart

There are people of all classes waiting for Portia to summon them to sacrifice and work. There are people waiting for Portia to tell them how they can help re-think, redirect and refashion Jamaica, how they can help to develop their brothers and sisters, how they can teach the illiterate to read and to grow food, lead scout troops, teach children music, dancing, gymnastics and swimming and how they can bring Jamaica back from the brink of disaster.

Sadly, it seems to me, Portia is being purposefully entangled in a bureaucratic spider's web of 'heavy metal development' in which people wax eloquent about trickle-down theory without understanding that education and better domestic environments will not only reduce crime and HIV/AIDS but increase the GDP and public safety. And that the politics of love and care can produce Marcus Garveys and Harry Belafontes out of 'wanted men' and Mary Seacoles and Louise Bennetts out of 'teggeregs' and 'bad girls'.

When Portia Simpson Miller was campaigning for the presidency of the People's National Party she told us, famously and presciently, that we needed to elect not a manager but a leader.

As her paradigm, Norman Manley said nearly half-a-century ago, in 1958 when Portia was still a little girl: "The duty of a leader is to lead."

A few years later, he advised us to 'dis-enthrall' ourselves - to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery. And then he died, but his movement did not die, nor did his ideas.


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