Anarchy is the word on Jamaican streets
Sunday 25 April 1999
The gang had burned his yard on Kingston's middle-class Red Hills Road the night before, throwing Molotov cocktails over the 20ft wall. Mr Thomas, 39, saw it all from his home on a hill above, unable to get there because anti-government protesters had blocked Kingston's roads with hijacked cars and burning tyres.
With police involved in gunfights elsewhere, he finally made his way down alone in the morning to find close to pounds 1m in damage to his yard, known locally as the place to buy anything necessary to build a small house. Most of his wares were burnt to cinders.
It was then that the gunmen and looters came back for more, to salvage the scattered cement from burnt bags, out-of-shape plumbing pipes and blackened kitchen sinks. "I hid over there," a shaken Mr Thomas told me yesterday, pointing to a pile of burnt out timber and corrugated iron in a corner. "I had this, and four magazines with 10 bullets each," he said, fingering the automatic pistol tucked into the front of his trousers. "But there were 40 of them. I thought, I have 40 bullets. If they find me, I could take out maybe two or three, but ..."
Mr Thomas's yard, known simply as Lloyd's, was one of the worst hit during three days of violence last week after the government of Percival Patterson imposed a 30 per cent rice rise on petrol. Nine people were killed in the worst incidents here in 20 years, mainly in shoot-outs between police and armed residents of working-class suburbs. Damage was widely described as worse than that from Hurricane Gilbert in 1988.
The violence led airlines and cruise ships to cancel visits to the former British Caribbean colony, but they have now resumed after calm returned towards the weekend. An unknown number of Britons, North Americans and others cancelled holidays to Jamaica, prompting the government to launch a campaign to lure them back. It is true that despite the worst week in 20 years, there was little danger to tourists: cocooned in secure beach resorts, their chances of being harmed appeared minimal.
But in the shanty towns of Kingston, things got so bad that Jamaicans spoke ominously of anarchy and quite seriously about a return to colonial rule. The protests were clearly about more than just petrol prices. They were, essentially, about increasing poverty and hunger.
Looters were seen carrying refrigerators, taking care not to empty the contents. Women grabbed only sanitary napkins, stuffing them inside their clothing out of embarrassment. The fact that wooden beams, plumbing pipes and kitchen sinks were stolen from Mr Thomas's yard seemed symbolic of the government's inability to provide adequate housing or facilities.
Only in areas controlled by the traditional "dons" - wealthy businessmen often involved in narcotics and controlling "posses" of heavily armed young men to police their areas - was there no looting. Downtown Kingston, a commercial area under the undisputed control of a businessman known only as Zeke, was untouched during the week's riots.
Mr Thomas, the looted hardware millionaire, appeared to concur that private, not official, self-protection had become the answer here, raising real fears of anarchy. "I'm a Jamaican," he said, "but I wouldn't invest here again. The authorities did nothing to protect me. The mall next door was untouched because they had security. Whoever can manage this country I'll support, but I'm thinking of migrating.
"I hate to talk bad about my government, but it is a jackass government. Just because I got rich, I became a target. This was about grudge, hate, malice."
Mr Patterson asked the nation to await a report, due today, by a crisis committee he appointed after the riots to review his price rises. The committee was expected to roll back the rises by at least half, if not completely, but there was much doubt as to whether such a move would maintain order for long.
"It's like putting a sticking plaster on cancer," said Clive Dobson, a trade union leader. "We have a deformed political system under which a government can commit the country to enormous debt without any public debate. This crisis is the most severe of my lifetime."
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