Voices From a Jamaican Incursion

Penn Museum exhibit examines four days of state-involved violence

(Photo Left) Orando's story is part of the “Bearing Witness” exhibit at Penn Museum through July 15, 2018. Photo by Varun Baker.

At first glance, the May 2010 incident at Jamaica’s Tivoli Gardens — the subject of a new Penn Museum exhibit titled “Bearing Witness: Four Days in West Kingston” — isn’t easily compared to state-involved violence in the United States.

Tivoli was a four-day “incursion” that left 75 people dead in a single public housing area and that involved Jamaican security forces seeking to extradite to the U.S. a resident wanted for drug- and gun-trafficking.

But consider police actions in Ferguson 2014, Baltimore 2015, and even Philadelphia 1964, where three days of unrest along North Philadelphia’s Columbia Avenue involved 1,800 officers, two deaths and the destruction of 700 buildings. All were incidents involving heavy state responses against citizens.

Then there was Philadelphia 1978, when a bomb was dropped on a compound destroying 61 homes and killing eleven members of the MOVE organization, including five children.

It reminds us that such incidents often grow from seeds of public neglect and abuse of power in places where poverty and oppression are the norm.

“… it was not the first time that we had seen this sort of thing,” offers the “Bearing Witness” audio of 31-year-old Orando, who worked with his mother in a shop and who screened movies for children in the community. His younger brother had been killed execution-style. “The only thing is this time, this time, it’s more like they ripped out the peoples’ heart in Tivoli Gardens,” Orando says.

Before it was Tivoli Gardens, the area of West Kingston was a slum with minimal facilities being shared by over 5,000 people. When redeveloped and modernized, it still was a repository for unwanted projects and activity: the area’s largest sewage treatment plant, the area’s largest power plant, the area’s morgue and the base of heavy drug trafficking with the United States. Police confrontations sparked in 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2008.

Deborah A. Thomas, a professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania; Junior Wedderburn of AV Productions; and Deanne M. Bell, a senior lecturer in psychology at the  University of East London co-curate the exhibit. Aside from voices like those of Orando offered through video, the exhibit features photography and written biographies. Penn Museum calls it “part art installation, part memorial, and part call to action.”

One meaningful feature is an exhibit of numbers such as 1655, the year when the father of William Penn played a role in winning Jamaica from Spain, and 1,516, the number of rounds of ammunition fired from the Jamaica Constabulary Force during the insurgency.

It also features a “Feasting Table,” which is part of a Jamaican spiritual tradition termed Revival. According to a Penn news release, in celebrations and memorials the Table is “a window into understanding the spiritual practices that sustain Jamaican communities in good times and bad.”

Because as oppressed communities the world over knows, belief in a better life is the only way to survive.



Voices From a Jamaican Incursion
Sheila Simmons - Contributor

Sheila Simmons brings many years of writing and communications experience to her work for Liberty City Press. She began her professional writing career at the Philadelphia Daily News, where she covered Business, City Hall and Education.


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