Jamaica is world renowned for its Reggae music gifted to the world by legendary Rastafarians such as Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. The edgy looking Jamaican Rastafarian locks have come to represent the emblem of a rapidly growing rebellion against the status quo so much that it has become normative behaviour and a widely accepted lifestyle choice for many. The Rastafarian movement now has an estimated one million persons scattered across the globe and the movement is still gaining momentum. Yet the movement emerged from a people on the island of Jamaica who have suffered a history of structural, physical, emotional oppression.
Rastafarians are a set of people rooted in a cultural specific way of life who are indigenous to Jamaica. They clamour for specific rights based on their historical, ancestral and spiritual ties to Africa. Their cultural or historical distinctiveness from other populations is that that are often wear their hair uncombed (a statement of resentment against the status-quo and to assert their common identity) and they uphold Pan-African social and political desires. Most Rastafarians spiritual divinity is rooted in a belief of Haile Selassie as God personified. Their political aspiration is an emotional and, in some cases, physical repatriation to Ethiopia. There are three main pillars of Rastafari: the Bobo Ashanti, the Niyabinghi and the Twelve Tribes of Israel. There are two components of Rastafarianism: the lifestyle and the doctrine. The lifestyle includes wearing a dreadlock hairstyle, eating natural food devoid of sugar, salt and other processed chemical additives; the doctrinal tenet draws in part on the Abrahamic faith. Rastafarians also believe Haile Selassie is God incarnate and that he will return to Africa members of the black community scattered abroad who are living in exile as the result of colonisation and the slave trade.
In Jamaica, Rastafarians are often despised for their culture. They are often ridiculed and marginalized, abused, and denied the right to self-determination and to practice their spiritual and cultural beliefs. The state apparatus in Jamaica has long ignored the recognition of Rastafarians in line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Jamaican government has shown some sympathy toward the Rastafarian movement yet most of the state’s engagement has been historically patronising. Up until recently there was a lack of political will to protect and promote their full and effective participation in important Human Rights matters that concern them.
While rights organisations in the US and Western Europe have continuously garnered statistical data about police brutality and stop and search episodes of black and ethnic minorities, the routine stop and search by the Jamaican police of Rastafarians in Jamaica bear no statistical importance. Thus aggrieved Rastafarians are left only to ‘forget their troubles and dance’ according to the Late Robert Nesta Marley. We know that Black Monday refers to Monday October 19th 1987, when stock markets around the world crashed shedding a huge value in a very short time but who the heck cares about ‘Bad Friday’ in 1963 in Coral Gardens?
‘Bad Friday’, 11th of April 1963, was a very gloomy day in the historic struggles of Rastafarians in Jamaica. The then Prime Minister of Jamaica Sir Alexander Bustamante made an order to the security force to ‘Bring in all Rasta’s, dead or alive!’ Six Rastafarians died and hundreds of others were rounded up, wrongfully arrested tortured and imprisoned. It was a grave crime against humanity that Rastafarians have not forgotten. There has been a long and protracted lobbying of Rastafarians for state reparation and an official apology by the Government of Jamaica for this atrocity.
Earlier this year in Jamaica, I had the distinguished honour to be introduced by the late Clive “Kuba” to Ras Iyah V, the President of the Westmoreland Ganja Farmers association. Ras Iyah V is a fervent campaigner for reparation for Rastafarians and the victims of the Coral Gardens atrocities. At the meeting he became very emotive about the JLPs’ involvement with the Coral Garden massacre and the Back O Wall displacement of Rastafarians. He was unhappy that the victims of both incidents were not offered apologies and reparation. I, too, felt that these incidents were the Achilles heel for the JLP, creating a wedge between the Party and the wider Rastafarian movement. A redeeming feature of those conversations was Ras Iyah V acknowledgement of the JLPs Mike Henry’s contribution to a debate in Montego Bay in 2007 that a Coral Gardens Committee Commission was appointed by the Jamaican government in March 2009.
Ras Iya V and Dub poet Mutabaruka have been at the forefront of social advocacy, actively lobbying Government officials and seeking reparation for victims and survivors of the Coral Garden massacre. The incident was triggered by a land dispute where a Rastafarian was shot, injured and imprisoned unjustly by the criminal justice system at the time. As revenge on his release from prison he started a riot fire by burning a gas station that eventually ended up with a number of fatalities. Eight persons were killed; this included two police men and the rebellion leader. Incensed by the scale of the riot- the then prime minister ordered the police to restore order by shooting Rastas as on sight. A strong detachment of police from neighbouring parishes was dispatched to Coral Gardens and surrounding areas where more than 150 Rastafarians were rounded up and arrested, beaten and tortured. At the heart of the uprising was social injustice, lands rights, social inequality and the unfair distribution of justice.
Fifty three years later, on the back of constant lobbying, a documentary screening about the Coral Gardens incident premiered at the Smithsonian Institute, resulted in several protesting voices and a public march staged by Rastafarians in Mandela Park. Resulting from a 2009 Government led public enquiry Rastafarian’s voices are only now being heard.
I have voiced my opinion in private with my JLP colleagues about these two incidents and the deportation of Walter Rodney. I am deeply dissatisfied by the manner in which Rodney, a Rastafarian aficionado, was banned from Jamaica when he returned to the island after he attended a black writers' conference in Montreal, Canada in October 1968. The Hugh Shearer led JLP cited, among other things, trips to Cuba and the USSR as justification. It was an open secret that his growing popularity among the Rastafarian community made the Government very uncomfortable. Speaking through the Political side of my mouth my viewpoint is that, as a party, the JLP need to redeem its credibility with Rastafarians by also offering an unreserved apology.
There is still a failure by the state institutions in Jamaica to ensure the Rastafarian’s right to remain distinct and to pursue their own priorities in economic, social, spiritual and cultural development is protected. Attitudes have begun to shift; Senator Mark Golding, Jamaican Justice Minister, has shown remarkable sensitivity on the rights of Rastafarians. It was at his behest on Monday 2nd June, Cabinet approved certain changes to the law relating to ganja that will in part benefit Rastafarians. Under his watch, approval was given also to a proposal for the decriminalization of the use of small quantities of ganja for religious purposes. This was done on the recommendation of the 2003 Chavannes Report. This will go far in ridding Rastafarians of unwarranted police harassment and criminal convictions that prevent them from access to work, social exclusion and the prevention from overseas travel.
So you all can imagine how the graves of elder scribes of the Rastafarian movement, such as Leonard Howell, Mortimo Planner and Samuel Brown Graves, must have jolted with the news of a final settlement broken by my beloved mentor, Adrian Frater of the Gleaner Western Beuro. This settlement proposed reparation for the victims and survival of the callous Coral Garden Massacre of 1963. It was reported at a meeting of the St James Parish Council in Montego Bay Jamaica that the Public Defender, Arlene Harrison, presented a member of the Coral Gardens committee with a copy of the enquiry Report. The Public defender stated in her findings that a great discourtesy had been done to many Rastafarians at the time. She outlined a raft of recommendations to be acted upon by the Government of Jamaica, such as an apology from the Government to the injured party. She called for the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to take the lead for developing a culturally specific centre for the preservation of Rastafarian culture. Most important, the report, according to Adrian Frater, includes a suggested reparation component of ten million Jamaican dollars to the families and victims of and survivors affected by this historical atrocity. This figure, in my opinion, falls way below the value of compensation that deserves and should be revisited .The matter is now squarely placed in the lap of the Jamaican government to implement these recommendations.
The right of state compensation to the victims and survivors of Coral Gardens are enshrined in Resolution 60/147 of 16 December 2005 of the UN General assembly. The resolution lays out basic principles and guidelines on how the state should act on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law.
The preamble of this UN resolution reaffirms the principles enunciated in the Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power. This includes that victims should be treated with compassion and respect for their dignity, have their right to access to justice and redress mechanisms fully respected, and that the establishment, strengthening and expansion of national funds for compensation to victims should be encouraged, together with the expeditious development of appropriate rights and remedies for victims of such atrocities.
Those who know me well will attest to the fact that I have an unswerving bias to the principles of the Jamaica Labour Party. However in terms of human rights I hold principle above my political leanings. The Coral Gardens incident presents a pivotal moment for political convergence for bi-partisan confluence on such an important and sensitive issue. Rastafarians in Jamaica have long been alienated from the political system based upon the way in which they are falsely perceived; they have contributed so much to our rich cultural heritage. The means by which we tackle class prejudice is not by offering comforting political platitudes but by swift and concrete actions that enable a fair distribution of justice. I see within every Rastafarian what I see in myself despite my secular leanings. Out common humanity it what unites us: not how we speak, look and worship. The victory of the Rastafarians in their struggle for equality and the right to self-determination raises the level of our cultural cohesiveness as Jamaicans. It can also reaffirm and adds value to our common heritage. Blessed Love Iyah V.
This article was written by Donovan Reynolds CEO and edited by Ann Smith Managing Editor of Kingston-Mouth .com. Donovan Reynolds is an Independent Blogger and Human Rights Activists who is of a Jamaican descent and a legal academic that has an interest in Human Rights, Culture and International Development Issues.