Who: Laurie Gunst is the author of Born Fi’ Dead: A Journey Through The Jamaican Posse Underworld — a history/memoir of Kingston’s outlaw “posse” ranks before and during her visits to Jamaica’s capital city during the 1970′s, ’80s and ’90s. Though still not available in Jamaica, due to accusations of being libelous against former-Prime Minister Edward Seaga, a new French edition of Born Fi’ Dead was recently released in Europe by former-Natty Dread Magazine chief editor Thibault Ehrengardt. The New York City-based Gunst is currently pursuing a masters degree in narrative medicine at Columbia University and talked to Camera in the Sun about the portrayal of Kingston’s posse violence in both Jamaican and American media — the latest being the June arrest (and extradition to the U.S.) of West Kingston “Shower Posse” leader Christopher “Dudus” Coke — and the critical role of gunslinger heroes in both American and “Spaghetti” Western films as a model for the island’s modern day gunmen.
Why did Kingston’s gunmen begin referring to themselves as “posses” instead of “gangs?”
The Wild West theme was huge in Jamaica back in the ’60′s with The Wild Bunch and Peckinpah. You can go back to Randolph Scott, you know, Ride The High Country. Jamaicans have always loved Westerns, as have Americans. And the gunslinger ethos of maybe he’s not a bad guy, maybe he’s a good guy who’s just run afoul of the law for whatever reason — and has to go up against the police or the sheriff or whatever — is a very moving thing to Jamaicans and any country who sees it’s people outfoxed, outmanned, outgunned by law enforcement. They have, in fact, often been Robin Hood heroes to the people. So, that thread runs straight through. In the ’60s and ’70s, you got Spaghetti Westerns with Clint Eastwood, Sergio Leone movies, and it took a darker turn, where it wasn’t necessarily the “white hat” who got framed by the bad guys. Now, it was the bad guy. And that was running parallel to what Jamaicans were seeing in their own lives, as far as the bad guys really had become the Robin Hood heroes in the ghettos. So, when you have movies like High Plains Drifter or A Fist Full of Dollars — all of that sort of stuff where there was sort of a dark avenger — even if you look at playful things, like 1969′s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, you’re still looking at a culture that has begun to see the bad guy as the good guy. So, when that begins to echo the reality of Jamaica’s life, when the bad guys are really the politicians who were supposed to be the legal guys, and the real good guys — the benefactors of the ghettos, the Robin Hood poor, who are robbing from the rich and dispensing some of their bounty in the downtown neighborhoods, those are viewed as the bad guys by the establishment. But guess what? The rank and file sees them as real heroes. So, why “posse,” instead of “gang?” Because if you’re echoing that sheriff’s posse idea, and you’re really identifying with being a good guy, even though you’re an outlaw, it turns it on i’s head to call it a posse. And Jamaicans love inverting things. I mean that’s a big thrill, to take what everybody else thinks is the paradigm, and instead to turn it on it’s head. So, rather than affiliate with gangs, which has a negative connotation. The posse was kind of the good guys — the sheriff’s posse.
What’s the connection between Kingston’s posses and local housing projects like Tivoli Gardens?
New York’s housing projects are not politically aligned. In other words, if you live in Washington Houses, or the Jefferson Houses, or Garvey Houses or any of the areas uptown in Manhattan, nobody cares what your politics are. You could be Republican. You could be Democrat. You could be unaffiliated. In Jamaica, what began to happen in the early-1960s, right as independence was coming in, was that Jamaican politicians figured out that if they cleared slum areas (basically bulldozed residents out of their homes) and erected government-financed housing in certain areas that they wanted to develop garrison constituencies (that is to say, party strongholds) and pack those housing developments, of which Tivoli Gardens was a prime example, full of their own political supporters — in a very real sense the housing was payback for political support. So, you would never find a PNP supporter in Tivoli Gardens. You would only find a JLP supporter. Although, the Rasta settlement called Backawall, which was a longstanding Rastafarian encampment and housing area where people had — yes, squatted — but they had also built zinc houses and scrap board dwellings, and there was a very loyal to the PNP area. Well, in the early ’60s the JLP, which was then in power, simply bulldozed Backawall and destroyed that neighborhood in order to build Tivoli Gardens. So, from the get go, from the early ’60s when Tivoli was completed, it was built and intended as a Jamaica Labor Party stronghold. And that is what it has always been.
Tivoli is a typical housing scheme. The buildings are attached. They are not separate houses. And they are two — and some of them go up to three — stories. And they’re just in rows, almost like an army barracks. I mean the idea behind Tivoli was to house as many people as possible. So, they don’t have tremendous amenities, but they do have electricity and running water. In downtown Kingston that counts for a lot. Because the old tenement yards that sprang up in downtown Kingston in the 1950s, when the rural-to-urban migration really began, many were without running water. And residents would go to a stand pipe at the end of a lane or up the street and carry water in buckets. So, when you have running water in downtown Kingston that’s very wonderful, and you can imagine what it’s like in a very hot and dirty city to be able to wash yourself and have water for cooking and cleaning. I’ll never forget when I got to know [Born Fi' Dead dedicatee] Brambles, his tenement yard in Central Kingston had a shower and a flush latrine that all of the residents shared. And I was never unaware of how wonderful it was for him to be able to keep himself clean, and wash his clothes, and have a flush toilet, and not have to defecate somewhere and throw feces over a fence. I mean, that’s what it’s like in slums all around the world. And when you have running water, like the JLP brought to it’s supporters in Tivoli, that’s a big deal.
What set Dudus Coke’s Tivoli Gardens-based Shower Posse apart from other Kingston gunmen?
What distinguished the Shower was it’s top-ranking allegiance to the Jamaica Labor Party, and to Seaga. We have to go back way further than Dudus Coke. We have to go back to “Jim Brown” — [who was] his father, Lester Coke — who was killed in a mysterious fire in his prison cell in Kingston General Penitentiary in February of 1992 when he was awaiting extradition to the United States. It has always been assumed that the JLP had him incinerated because they did not want him to come and testify in the United States. But back even before Jim Brown, Eddie Seaga had his minions coming up in Tivoli, and one of them was Claudie Massop, who was the guy before Jim Brown. And Claudie Massop was killed by the police in 1978 after he began to exhibit independent signs from the JLP hierarchy, and to be sort of a loose canon. He made a very famous truce with Bucky Marshall of the PNP in 1978. This was the occasion for Bob Marley’s famous concert in April of 1978, the One Love Peace Concert. And Bucky Marshall was very involved with Claudie Massop in engineering that concert, and both of them were trying to engineer a gang truce, which the politicians did not want. Because if these men stopped being loyal to their political patrons, who were at the time Michael Manley and Edward Seaga — who was gonna control the downtown ghetto neighborhoods for these rival politicians? So, politicians didn’t want the truce to hold, and they quickly began to undermine it. And when Claudie Massop died, Lester Coke, Dudus’ daddy, stepped into his shoes, and there were no questions ever asked as far as where his loyalties lay. They lay with Tivoli and they lay with Seaga.
How did posse gunmen present themselves fashion-wise? Did any have Rastafarian dreadlocks?
Interestingly enough, I never knew one. When I knew them, it was jheri curled fade haircuts. That was it. I didn’t know anybody who wore dreads. They did not identify with that, and neither did Lester Coke or his son. They were close cut. I mean, I think that the Rastas certainly did not want to be identified with gang culture. And I suppose the gangs sort of returned the favor, and they did not want to be identified with Rasta either — which is very interesting that this is a cultural paradigm. You might think that they would, but they didn’t.
They certainly loved to dress well. Clothing styles change, and everybody was into silk and linen and really nice shirts. You know, the denim styles change. Back then, it was before the pants that sort of sat around your kneecaps. That was not in yet, the low baggies. Style is just tremendously important to Jamaicans, because it’s a way of setting yourself apart, and it’s a way of declaring that you can keep up a certain profile. That even though you are in the ghetto, you’re not of the ghetto — that you’re able to distinguish yourself. And of course, the funds that come from drug-dealing, the crazy money that the posse dons were able to get into, meant that they could afford to dress really beautifully and drive flashy cars. And so, that was hugely important.
In an earlier era, when I was first coming to know Jamaica in the ’70s, there was a proletarian kind of chic. I’ll never forget Beverly Manley urging the sisters in the ghetto to stitch up clothes made from flower bags, which went over real big, let me tell you. It was so naive, as if she thought that her ghetto sisters were gonna be happy running around in dresses made from… I mean, it was like telling people to wear a gunny sack, basically. And then, of course, by the time the posses came in, it was fresh and ready. The style was to really look good, and gone was any idea of changing the life of the ghetto. The idea was just to look good yourself. So, I guess in my own lifetime, it’s making me review the move from the black power ethos of solidarity of the ’60s and ’70s to the “me decade” of the ’80′s — in which in both this country and in Jamaica, politics went sort of by the by, and it was just about looking good and driving a flashy car, or whatever.
Did you ever see foreign portrayals of Jamaican criminals in a Kingston cinema?
Going to a movie in Jamaica is quite an experience. People talk to the screen. They yell at the actors. I mean, they’re right there in the movie, so it’s very immediate. They don’t observe that sort of cinema decorum we do. I saw New Jack City — the scene where the Rasta guy gets his brains blown out in front of Graham Court — and I saw that in Kingston. And of course everybody there totally identified with the Rasta drug dealer that the American murdered in order to prove that it was his turf now. And the Jamaicans were not happy at seeing a dreadlocks gunned down in front of the apartment house in Harlem.
What was the “Green Bay Massacre,” and do you think PNP leadership was culpable in it?
Well, much of it’s background has never been, and may never be, fully known. Although, politicians like Dudley Thompson have actually in recent years apologized for it. It was an attempt on the part of rogue elements in the Jamaican army — the Jamaica Defense Force — to express support for the then-beleaguered Michael Manley (the island’s prime minister) in a neighborhood of Southside Kingston that was nominally Michael Manley’s own constituency, but was harboring a nest of disaffected youth, who were pro-Seaga, who were pro-JLP, it was thought. And the army, either acting on it’s own initiative, or with the suggestion of politicians in the PNP — and I would suggest it was the latter — decided to mount a punitive action, and round up some of these suspected gang members and execute them. And did round them up, did transport them under cover of saying they were gonna be given guns — to an army firing range called Green Bay outside of Kingston. And there in the pre-dawn hours in January 1978, these hidden sharpshooters from the army opened fire on them, and five men died instantly, and five escaped. And the ones who escaped miraculously made their way back to Southside, and were kept alive, were hidden and protected by a formidable Franciscan nun by the name of Sister Benedict, who was at a Catholic school and church in the neighborhood and who had extraordinary ties to the neighborhood’s dispossessed. And if Sister Benedict had not taken these men in, they would have been found by the army and picked off one by one. And if they had been, the massacre would never have come to light. So, it did come to light and it prompted quite an outcry. Dudley Thompson, who was then the PNP Minister of National Security, made the famous remark, “no angels died at Green Bay. ” As if to say, these young men got what they deserved. And that then prompted an outcry. The massacre quickly became a political football for the Jamaica Labor Party, because it made Manley look very bad, and Eddie Seaga used it to the ultimate that he could to discredit the PNP. It was a sorry affair, and it is doubtful to me that it was mounted without the planning from the PNP. I don’t think it was just rogue officers in the army. The PNP tried to make it look that way to distance itself from the event, but I think it marked the first time that the Jamaica Defence Force had ever been used in tribal warfare in Jamaica. And it was a very frightening thing for the society, because Jamaicans had always felt that their army was above politics.
Jimmy Cliff battled the JDF in The Harder They Come – when did you first hear about that film?
It was a funny story, because we knew a wonderful filmmaker by the name of George Butler, who was a friend of the family. He did the movie Pumping Iron with Arnold Schwarzenegger. And George grew up in Jamaica, and I think he helped back The Harder They Come. He was involved with it in some way. Then, the night it premiered in Cambridge in 1972, he called me. I was busy doing something else that night, and I never really thought about Jamaica. You know, Jamaica was not on my radar in 1972. And he said, “I hope you will come and see this film. I had something to do with the making of it, and it stars Jimmy Cliff and it’s called The Harder They Come.” And I just remember thinking, “Jamaica? I’m not interested in Jamaica, George.” Prophetic utterances, you know. And I wasn’t into reggae. I’d never heard reggae music. And the first time I saw the movie, of course, I was absolutely captivated. So, Jamaica got to me by slow degrees.
My favorite story about the title, by the way, happened years later when I was in Wyoming. And this wonderful old cowpoke friend came over to the house, and I had the video of the film on my coffee table. He looked at the title and he said, “Oh, The Harder They Come… you into porn flicks?” Well, I just thought, “Oh my God.” My two worlds, you know, Wyoming and Jamaica.
[Cliff] came to a party at my apartment in Cambridge in 1979, and he had given a concert in Boston that night, and it was just one of the most amazing events that I think I had ever hosted. I never believed that he would actually come, but that actually goes back to the dreadlock thing, because I asked him that night why he never had dreads. And his response was so beautiful and so classically Cliff. He threw back his head, and he laughed, and he said, “Daughta, me dreads so long, ye can’t even see them. They’re invisible.” Which was so true, because he was such an amazing human being that he didn’t need to worry about styles and dreads and whatever. And then after he laughed, he got serious and he said, “You must check for the dread in the heart, and not for locks on the head.” And I never forgot that, because in my time I’ve certainly known many, many people who might not have worn dreadlocks, but they certainly wore dreads in their heart. And he’s one of them, no doubt about it.
Everybody at this party was, you know, snorting coke left and right. It was 1979 and it was Harvard and that was what a lot of people were doing. And he was the first person I ever saw who refused cocaine, and it was quite something. And when I asked him why, he said, “My voice. I have to protect my voice.” Of course, he’s also a very committed Muslim. And, as we know, Muslims do not do drugs. So, I think that was the larger reason, but he was so gentle about it. You know, he wasn’t judgmental. He didn’t make other people in the room who were all snorting coke feel whatever. He just very politely declined himself, and I thought that was very impressive.
I’ll never forget hearing, oh, about 10 years ago, Perry Henzel came and spoke. It might have even been 2002, and it was the 30th anniversary of The Harder They Come. We screened the film, and someone in the audience said, “It must have been quite something to have made a movie that changed the face of Caribbean cinema,” and Perry laughed. He said, “It didn’t change the face of anything, my man. You know, it was flash in the pan. It was one film. It didn’t change a thing. There’s never been another movie looking at ghetto life as The Harder They Come did.” And he was absolutely right, and he didn’t say it in a mean way. He just said, “I wish it had changed Caribbean cinema, but it didn’t.”
Dudus Coke’s arrest turned West Kingston into a war zone. What was it like when you visited?
I can remember the first trip that I made to Kingston with my then-brother-in-law in 1976. We wanted specifically to see Kingston. We had been on the north coast of the island, and we took a small plane across to Kingston and hired a driver who took us around for a couple of days. And people said to us, “Don’t even go to Kingston.” I mean, they were carrying on as if the minute you landed, you were gonna get shot. It was just nuts. And of course the city itself was not like that at all. I mean, we didn’t go into the ghettos. We drove by the them. The driver who we had would never have taken us there. We had no reason to want to go. But we did go downtown. We went to the National Gallery of Jamaica, which is downtown. You know, nothing untoward happened. It definitely was not a war zone, the way it was depicted. And I think that one of the reasons it was depicted that way was that the CIA really was trying to destabilize Jamaica, and one of the things they were trying to do was to depict it as a dangerous destination. And so, movies like Rockers — or a movie like Rockers — because kind of like The Harder They Come, there weren’t movies like. There was only one. But those were, I think, roots attempts to counteract the propaganda that was coming out from the United States and the whole tourist infrastructure, that Kingston was dangerous, and if you went to Jamaica you should avoid the capital city. And that was something that I instinctively kind of, even then, just knew. I was already becoming very close with a marvelous Kingston-born woman who was at Harvard. And she invited me to Kingston for Christmas in 1977, New Year’s 1978. So, I was there when the Green Bay Massacre happened. And I had already begun going to Kingston by that time and realizing that it was not a war zone. You know, it was not Beirut. There were a lot of peaceful parts of it.
How did violence and poverty affect the popularity of ’70s reggae and ’80s dancehall music?
Well, I think that the best comment on it really — it doesn’t come from me, but comes from Flo O’Connor, who was head of the Jamaican Council for Human Rights at that time. And she famously named dancehall music, “IMF music.” Meaning that the whole dancehall craze, and the whole raising up of demoralization and degradation, and what Jamaicans call “slackness” — meaning, for want of a better word, obscene lyrics and obscene postures — elevating this. It’s sort of similar to American gangsta culture, but Flo O’Connor, by her remark, indicated what she meant was that it was the music that came in when the IMF took Jamaica in it’s grip. And when debt repayment got Jamaica in a stranglehold and made it impossible for any government in the island to do anything for the Jamaican people, because of the debt issue.
Another person would see it very differently, and say that there was in the early ’90s — this is actually right around the time that Born Fi’ Dead was published — there was an attempt to do something called “conscious dancehall” with Capleton and Lady Saw and Garnett Silk. And they were trying to stem the tide of violence and slackness in dancehall lyrics, but ultimately it just didn’t catch on. People liked the slackness.
As far as what the music was in the ’70s — which was much more politicized — it was much more Rasta. It was much more roots. It was “Chant Down Babylon.” It was involved with the early pan-African egalitarian vision of Rasta from the ’60s and the ’70s. And that just completely went by the wayside. And even though there was some dancehall reggae in the ’80s and ’90s that decried violence, slackness nevertheless ruled the day and still does. And as gangsta culture overtook African American music, dancehall was it’s parallel in Jamaica.