The Culture of Activism in Jamaica

When Vanessa Kirkland died the Jamaica Gleaner, a national newspaper, reported the cries of her mother. “Woe be unto the one who fire the shot and kill my daughter! God nah sleep  (is not sleeping), and God is a good God! Please God, don’t mek mi (make my) daughter death go in vain!” On March 16, 2012 Dianna Gordon was shot in the head and killed by police. A few days later on March 21, 2012, 17 year old Vanessa Kirkland was murdered by police in an inner city community. The next week 25 year old Kavorn Shue was shot and killed by police at his home. The police say Kavorn’s death occurred in a “shoot-out” with the police. But residents contend he was taken from his bed and shot in cold blood. All these deaths occurred at the hand of State, within a one month period in the country’s capital city, Kingston. In the last 7 years Jamaica’s murder rate peaked at 58 per 100,000 people (UN Office on Drugs & Crime, 2007)
Alarmingly high levels of violence have persisted in Jamaica for over 30 years and affect all sectors of society. Weak governance structures, a tribal political culture, lack of political will and leadership facilitate conditions for such violence to endure, particularly violence such as the extra-judicial killings described. Analysis of the gender dimensions of violence in Jamaica are also critical to any anti-violent change since social norms reinforce gender inequality, discourage vulnerable populations such as women from seeking help, and
downplay the duty of bystanders to intervene in situations of abuse. The Inter‐American Commission on Human Rights says of Jamaica’s human rights situation, that “although the Jamaican government has undertaken certain constructive efforts to address the problem, these remain insufficient. They are hampered by inadequate resources, a failure to sufficiently address the severe shortcomings of the security forces and
the judicial process, and the lack of integral effective policies to ameliorate the social conditions that generate violence (IACHR, 2012).”
Jamaica has a history of resistance, rebellion and revolution from Slavery to emancipation to independence. Yet in the country’s recent history we see increasing public disengagement with deep socio-economic inequality, injustice, unbridled neo-liberalization and inherently patriarchal structures which foster the very social conditions which generate varied manifestations of violence. Though incidents may be followed by sporadic public demonstrations currently no authentic drive towards social organizing has given rise to any
social movements. Social movements are forms of collective action that emerge in response to situations of inequality, oppression and/or unmet social, political, economic or cultural demands. They are comprised of an organised set of constituents pursuing a common political agenda of change through collective action’ (Batliwala, 2012).

Movements are thus formed out of the active and deliberate investment of labour, thought and resources over time to develop movement consciousness, grow and retain membership and nourish movement structures, while also having external environments conducive enough to enable them to begin and develop. In their practice, movements create activist and organising cultures, typically performing the emancipatory power relations and forms of relationship and expression that they seek to instigate in the broader world (Horn/IDS, 2013).

Activism is therefore the means by which we challenge and confront injustices in our communities and cultivate leadership that is committed to gender, socio-economic equality and equity. Citizen-based, participation powered movements for democracy and political transformation in North Africa and the Middle East from late 2010, resulted in the overthrow of enduring repressive political regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. These events serve as a reminder of how social movements can be a significant force for challenging inequalities and exclusions in society and for proposing new models and visions for more egalitarian and just

social, economic and political power relations (Horn/IDS, 2013). Mass-based citizen action seem to hold power and potential to transform societies and create new forms of political participation and political voice, including in the domain of governance, in ways that foreign policy or development interventions have been unable to do (Sholkamy, 2012).


In understanding social movements it is vital to remember that they are dynamic, historical phenomena and as such ‘are shaped by circumstance; they are contingent things, which grow or shrink in response to factors that enable or constrain them’ (Dütting and Sogge, 2010). Theories of space and place highlight the relevance and role of geographic and spatial locations in inspiring and guiding social movements. They explore how movements develop around concepts such as the ‘local’ or ‘global’, are linked to spatial locations such as
the body, physical environment or the economy, choose and form networks across geographies (e.g. South–South, regional and transnational networking) including through the use of communication technologies, and invest these actions across space and place with political meaning (Harcourt and Escobar, 2005).
The SO((U))L HQ was founded in 2012, on the outskirts of Kingston to host music events, art exhibitions, discussions and film screenings as a way to build community and promote engagement around social issues and use art for activism. Building on 2 years of work to create this alternative space this Culture of Activism project will systematically document the continued process of creating models of activism that are spatially anchored. The project will explore how a physical space, the Institute for Social Leadership can be used to grow and enrich citizen led initiatives which challenge inequality and injustice. Limited national scholarship on activism or movement building and increased NGOization (non-governmental organizations) over mass organizing, mean few contextually relevant frameworks are available to understand the artist as activist and few historically grounded references exist to help people learn from and gain insight for the creation of their own campaigns or movements. The work of groups such as Sistren Theatre Collective, poets such as Mikey Smith or the music of Peter Tosh are not woven together and archived or documented in ways that they can be readily engaged as integral elements of an activist culture which fed social movements. The Culture of Activism project was conceived in response to this gap. It will use action research to understand and document the culture of activism in Jamaica by looking at the history and strategies of social movement building and activist leadership from 1962 to the present. In addition to establishing historical context the project will produce resources to support artists, individuals and communities to organize, advocate and engage in relevant activist projects. Understanding how strategies change over time is critical for any action that can create a better future. This project seeks to provide a record and a framework for learning and doing that integrates women’s rights and gender justice into the creation of progressive social movements that have a base of common politics which affirm inclusion, rights and the equitable redistribution of power.

Planned Activities & Participants

1. A Zine which will be distributed throughout Kingston. Zines are independent publications like newspapers or magazines. They have been associated with social movements and activism as a means of stimulating public conversation around contemporary critical ideas. The development of the Zine will be collaborative and participatory involving the urban community surrounding the Institute for Social Leadership.

Other community groups will be invited as contributors, writers and illustrators. With only 2 major national newspapers a Zine would provide a resource for critical ideas and discussion. We will aim to make the Zine a bi-monthly publication.

2. A documentary on the history and culture of activism and social movements in Jamaica. The documentary will capture footage, photographs, research and commentary of significant periods of citizen based organizing in Jamaican history. It will also include interviews with living activist leaders of social movements in Jamaica between 1962 to present. The documentary will also examine the roles of communities in activist organizing.

3. A series of five (3-day) workshops which will explore the history and culture of activism in Jamaica including leadership, strategies for organizing and mobilizing people and creating effective campaigns. Each workshop series will engage intergenerational groupings of women and men (representing a cross-section of populations and socio-economic groups) interested in or have been engaged in social movement building. The courses/workshops will be offered at the Institute for Social Leadership. The topics/areas covered will include, for example, women and activism, the role of art in movement building, broad-based/multi-sectoral organizing etc.


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