Thomas Discusses Violence In Jamaica

The Coral Gardens Incident, the Green Bay Massacre, and the extradition of Christopher Coke are just some of the violent political incidents that have occurred in Jamaica over the last half-century.

Last Thursday, as part of a lecture series sponsored by the department of African and African diaspora studies, professor Deborah Thomas of the University of Pennsylvania gave a lecture to shed light on her research of these events.

Regine Jean-Charles, an assistant professor of French within the Romance languages department, introduced Thomas to the audience. Thomas began her speech with preliminaries about her field of study.

“Archive-making is really important for African and African diaspora studies because it’s a means through which we unsettle colonial notions about what it means to be human,” she said.

She continued by saying that violence can open doors analytically even as it is devastating to communities worldwide. Thomas went deeper into this by focusing on one particular piece of history in Jamaica, the Coral Gardens Incident of 1963, in which hundreds of Rastafari were jailed and tortured by Jamaican police.

Thomas first learned about the incident as a graduate student at New York University. She decided that the events might be a compelling subject for her book Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica and later decided to turn that research into a film, Bad Friday: Rastafari After Coral Gardens.

Thomas’ work in Jamaica involved interviewing survivors of the incident. Although many now associate Rastafarians with universalism, according to Thomas, attitudes of fear and disdain directed toward them were more prevalent in the ’60s.

“They were seen as a threat to the consolidation of the new nation because they did not accept the authority of the Jamaican political leadership, instead seeing Africa as home,” she said.

Thomas also discussed how the once maligned Rasta identity has become the most well-known symbol of Jamaican identity throughout the postcolonial world.

While in Jamaica researching her film, she interviewed Rastafari about how they came to the faith, what happened as a result of Coral Gardens, and about English injustice. The documentary has already had an official run.

“Our primary agenda with the film was to create awareness of this history and, through doing so, to support the community in their efforts toward whatever reparative goals they identified,” Thomas said. “We’ve been satisfied that these sorts of intergenerational dialogue have been fostered.”

She then focused on another incident on May 24, 2010, in which Jamaican forces launched an operation in Tivoli Gardens, West Kingston to fulfill the U.S. Department of State’s extradition order for drug lord Christopher Coke, resulting in an unknown number of causalities by the Jamaican army and police.

“Today I want to concern myself with how these narratives cause us to experience temporality,” she said. “What I want to focus on in particular is how narrations of the state of emergency always contain the sediments of what has happened before.”

Thomas continued her speech by playing audio from oral histories she conducted on Jamaicans who lived in Tivoli Gardens in 2010, such as Nadine Sutherland, whose son died during an incident in 2008 and whose nephews died in 2010.

“The extreme violence of the state’s actions in 2010 produces a multiplicity in which the loss of Nadine’s son and the loss of her nephews become simultaneous events,” Thomas said. “By this I mean to suggest something different from the stories that many psychologists would tell [about post-traumatic stress].”

Thomas also briefly alluded to the Green Bay Massacre of 1978, which led to an extended discussion of garrison politics in Jamaica.
In response to an audience question, Thomas refined her motivation for making the film. “Our agenda with this is to make people uncomfortable and to squirm about their own complicity,” she said. “A mirror needs to be put back to the community.”