Book: Gangs of Jamaica: The Babylonian Wars by Thibault Ehrengardt
Contributor, Dr Glenville Ashby
Thibault Ehrengardt pens a provocative work that transcends the violence and mayhem that bleed through its every page. This is clinical journalism. It is insightful, investigative and written with sheer brilliance. It is how a story should be told. It is raw and cutting, dragging the reader into the trenches of an urban battlefield.
Gangs of Jamaica: Babylonian Wars reads like Ehrengardt’s intimate diary. Given rare access to the gangs that litter Jamaica’s urban landscape, he is mindful of not overplaying his hand with sensationalism. He is measured, deftly detailing the cesspool of wanton viciousness that weighs heavily on Jamaica Constabulary Force, an agency that is mandated to hit back at urban warlords. But when they do, we are reminded of Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous quote: “Be careful when you fight with monsters, lest you become one.”
The dramatic capture and extradition of Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke that resulted in damning political repercussions for the JLP, does not escape the writer’s radar. It is a defining moment. It is also the underbelly of Jamaica’s violence – a sacrilegious marriage between career politicians and hoodlums.
Here, crime is the offspring of corrupt politicians who carve out garrisons or fiefdoms, doling out cash, contracts and even guns for enduring political support. It is an internecine quid pro quo that germinated in the 1970s and grew to incorrigible proportions in the 1980s and 1990s. The “Dons” collected taxes and supposedly maintained law and order.
With crime on the decline over the last two years and concerted efforts made to weed out crooked cops, we must ask if civility will return to Jamaica, especially with the downfall of the island’s biggest “Don” and the return of the PNP? This is the $64,000 question. The writer is not overly hopeful. Jamaica is a violent society and crime is systemic and institutionalised, he argues. In the 1980s, it had spread like a deadly virus, destabilizing the inner cities of the US with the proliferation of drugs and guns, courtesy of the Gulleymen, the Yardies and Vivian Blake’s Shower Posse.
“The Gangs of Jamaica” chronicles a society turned on its head. Poverty, despair, greed, drugs, prostitution and murder create a social catacomb. Crooked cops and politicians add to an asphyxiating crisis – one that will take years to remedy. Not that law enforcement isn’t trying. The Major Organized Crime and Anti Corruption unit has nabbed scores of “dirty” cops and PNP’s political brass has vowed to clean house. But skepticism persists.
The Constabulary Force is hamstrung by a shortage of advanced technology in intelligence gathering, logistical problems, corrupt personnel and officers who have psychologically unraveled under the pressures of an unforgiving profession. But there are officers who are worth their salt. The reader is introduced to hard working officers such as, Sasha and Sergeants Adams and McKenzie of the Mobile Reserve. And the legend of Trinity and Renato Adams – the ‘Schwarzeneggers’ of law enforcement in earlier years are juxtaposed with Rico, Ricardo Hilton, Duane Waxteen and ‘Dudus,’ some of the most notorious gangsters. And in a twisted way, in this business of gangsterism, “until you are known as a monster you are not a star.” In this battle of wills, we hear all sides including the views of National Security Minister, Peter Bunting and those of Commissioner Owen Ellington.
After decades of strife, the Jamaican is psychologically scarred. When law enforcement personnel and “Dons” collide, M16s, Glocks, MP 5s and AK 47 blaze ammo with abandon. The outcome is predictable. Blood.
Urban Jamaica has become a laboratory for the criminal psychologist, the child psychologist and the sociologist.
Ehrengardth wrestles with the burgeoning of Jamaica’s violence. Political power, greed and nepotism have led to the creation of uncontrollable monsters, but “when you create a monster you don’t whine when it stumps on a few buildings.”
As politicians lose control of their garrisons the pitch battles among gangs shed their political carapace and violence is now fueled by pure greed. Guns, drug trafficking, and extortion are rife. Even rabid homophobia propelled by pop culture is embraced by supposedly enlightened politicians who must dance to the hooliganism of the streets. It is a sickening, revolting degradation of office.
The author is clearly bent on exploring the root of this deadly social malaise. His qualitative research pays dividends. He is told of Trenchtown’s fabled past, the Machiavellian politics of Edward Seaga, whose purported dance with the occult conjures flashes of Haiti’s Papa Doc.
The famous truce and peace concert, the attempted assassination of Bob Marley and the defiance of Peter Tosh who described any peace overtures as “hypocrisy,” are detailed. In many ways the latter Wailer proved to be a visionary.
Interestingly, violence cannot be divorced from the island’s musical culture.
“Bob Marley himself beat up his manager while a friend was holding his victim at gunpoint,” and “the late musical Don, Gregory Isaacs who went to prison several times for possession of coke and guns and who was feared by the bravest….was a close friend of Lester ‘Jim Brown’ Coke, Dudus’ father.”
The reader peels through the emergence of reggae, a musical gem that was twisted and layered with a violent streak, against a backdrop of a counter cultural Rastafarian movement that lost its messianic and apocalyptic appeal.
Unfortunately, dance hall music has added a markedly perverse element to the mix.
Throughout, the dehumanization and hopelessness of Jamaica’s youth glares at you. You are troubled, your soul perturbed, but you are helpless. Children are swooped up in a perpetual cycle of violence and preyed upon by gang leaders who were themselves errant and intrepid youths ripe for plucking.
Crime may have been smothered in Tivoli Gardens but Spanish Town, the home of One Order and the Clansmen, still poses a threat to peace. And Montego Bay is now the nerve centre of professional scam artists.
Jamaica Gangs is a literary juggernaut. It is riveting, grabbing and holding the attention of the reader. Alas, it leaves a trail of uncertainty and trepidation. If only Ehrengardt’s social prognosis was more hopeful.
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The Gangs of Jamaica by Thibault Ehrengardt
Publisher: Dread Editions 2013
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