Someone asked that question the other day. Yet if the crime rate is held by many as our biggest problem in Jamaica and gangs being a major factor then it makes sense that as a country we have a national push to get young people out of gangs. But can we name any such programme or initiative? Me, I scratched my head, as did others I asked in turn.
So in other words if a young gang member asked you, politely of course, ‘Help me get out!’ you wouldn’t know where to direct him or maybe her. Of course, there are places that could help in some way like skills training with Heart Trust NTA and, of course, organisations that deal with gangs in some way as part of a wider remit. But nothing that specifically addresses the personal dilemma as a gang member of being unable to remove oneself from a situation equally dangerous both for you and for others.
While murders reached an 11-year low in 2014 the guns rose up again last year, thanks to harsh economic conditions and the lotto scam gang crime. According to the Jamaica Constabulary Force’s (JCF) the number of active gangs is distributed across Jamaica in a similar pattern to the number of unattached youth.
Sixty per cent of murder victims in 2013 aged 15 to 24 years old were either unemployed or unskilled. Meantime, 60 per cent of murderers were, you guessed it, aged 15 to 24 years old and unemployed. It’s not a question of ‘decapitating the crime monster’ or any other silly soundbite, but dealing with the lives of real people who can be both a victim and a perpetrator.
At a funeral for a murder victim the other day, for a much-loved family man, popular Reverend Al Miller in his sermon protested ‘enough is enough!’ Sitting in the congregation you could feel that while people were receptive, they weren’t equally enthusiastic to hear what is sadly a well-worn theme, at least not without the hope of something new to support it.
The Peace Management Initiative (PMI) has possibly the most proven solution. PMI head Damian Hutchinson will tell you that what we have in Jamaica is not a gang violence problem. And no Hutchinson’s not crazy. His point is that rather we have a community violence problem thanks to a subculture of violence passed down through social and political history; and that gangs don’t grow in isolation, which is actually a far crazier thing to think. PMI has been successful but doesn’t as yet have the resources of a structured, truly national programme.
As for big talk about ‘dismantling gangs’, as commendable as doing that is, what doing that often results in is the displacement and splintering of the problem. The conditions in communities that breed gangs remain the same. Smaller but more gangs spring up and move to other parishes – as happened after the Tivoli Gardens incursion in 2010. A result for the police but unsustainable in isolation. There is an unfair or ignorant expectation upon security forces that crime can be ‘fought’ by them working alone, although in fairness programmes like the Citizen Justice and Security Programme (CJSP) do provide supporting social interventions.
Going back to the PMI, their interventions in high crime communities work in a systematic way to broker peace involving stakeholders from residents to gang members themselves. In the experience of Hutchinson, once trust is built, gang members will welcome positive opportunities for them, their family and their community (granted this takes resources but first of all its about adopting this more joined-up approach). Or as Allan Bernard from the Flanker Peace and Justice Centre puts it…
Anyway, an election is coming soon. The JLP will accuse the PNP of sleeping on the crime problem. And naturally the PNP will defend itself. Meantime they’ll both be campaigning actively in communities, which can involve interaction with gangs whether with work programmes or with voter mobilisation i.e. continuing to legitimise gangs at a community level as part of the democratic process. Great!
Except that’s the reality of the situation. A situation the JLP and PNP will, of course, both decry from the campaign platform in a general sense. But if one of the two parties could actually present a national strategy to enable gang members to get out and become a benefit to society – and better yet rather than layer on another new initiative, instead enable the PMI to operate islandwide in every parish – maybe that’s something worth voting for.