Social Good

How in Jamaica do you leave a gang?

kingston jamaica automatic weapons gangs

A gang member here in Kingston. Photo: Peter Dean Rickards

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…

“I have met a lot of gunmen and I have never met a gunman who wanted their children to be like them, never!”

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.

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4 thoughts on “How in Jamaica do you leave a gang?

  1. “…as Allan Bernard from the Flanker Peace and Justice Centre puts it… “I have met a lot of gunmen and I have never met a gunman who wanted their children to be like them, never!””

    That’s the gold right there.

    I’d love to see anecdotal evidence of factors contributing to gang cohesion. Maybe in the form of a photo-census. Jamaican gang culture may yet be more complex than we think it.

  2. Mario James says:

    Gangs, I think, come about because of gang elements’ need to belong to a family with structure. Gangs are structured societal organs that provide income, love, camaraderie, protection and ‘respect’ for those in it. It is construed as a wholistically negative force but is actually a womb one crawls into that takes from the ‘infant’, or like a family with dues. It is the gang dynamic that needs to be changed, not really the gang itself, I think. Spanglers and Showa posses are examples of gangs with a political seeds…I’m showcasing them as an example of gangs with an external locus. They were CONTROLLED,to some extent. I don’t see why that principle can’t be applied today. Thoughts?

    • Ross Sheil says:

      Thanks for your comment and observations Mario. You’re on point. The PMI’s observation that we have a sub-culture that society needs to address is that the conditions that give rise to and sustain the gangs need to be met with alternatives. And as you observe, the gangs have become their own structures and long since pulled away from being controlled to where they themselves are controlling – so what has become its own system needs a systematic solution. Just the other day a community worker colleague was telling me about a former gang member he worked with who has got out, got his grades and looking to build his career. Which just goes to show that nobody is irredeemable! http://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/news/20151115/pmi-pushes-peace-counterculture-group-identifies-best-practices-reduce

  3. Years ago at the U.S. Embassy we brought over an “anti-gang” man (actually husband and wife team) from San Diego, who worked alongside the Mayor’s office on specific strategies. They were very dedicated, they weren’t law enforcement people and they had some successes. They had former gang members who spoke out and did PSAs etc. talking to young people in their own language…But Jamaica is very small. Gangs seem to be ingrained, whoever the government is. The issue needs to be separated out from a general law enforcement problem.

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