POLITICAL SITUATIONS: AFTER RODNEY :- THE POLITICS OF STUDENT PROTEST IN JAMAICA

The “black power” movement so far was merely a loose coalescing of organisations, groups and individuals in different parts of the country. The general nature of its threat to the established order was made specific, to the Government, through the success of the activities of Claudius Henry in the Prime Minister’s own constituency. By preventing Rodney’s re-entry, and by raiding persons and premises loosely associated with the “black power” movement, the Government hopes to neutralise the emergent movement. The failure of the Opposition to convincingly oppose the Government’s action is a reflection of their recognition that their real interest, in this affair, coincides with that of the Government. It goes without saying that the Government cannot succeed. For so long as the masses remain depressed, there will be black power movements or movements of a similar kind.

Moreover the Government has chosen to meet the threat to its political position, not by the democratic method of persuading the population that its policies are beneficial and those of its opponents inimical, but rather by employing the full weight of the repressive machinery of the state.

This is an ominous sign for the future of politics in Jamaica. Given its basic objectives, the Government used the opportunity afforded by the banning of Rodney to carry out two further exercises. One was to intimidate the University community in its role as source of dissent in the society. The other was to divert public attention from pressing domestic problems, such as electric power, telephones and industrial unrest, which had become embarrassing for the Government. In both of these it had the active co-operation of the country’s only newspaper, the Daily Gleaner. But the actions, though successful within the Governments own terms, constitute a permanent political experience for the Jamaican population, and created what could become a new political force on the Jamaican scene.

The immediate result of the ban on Rodney was the rapid mobilization of the University student body. The traditional indifference of the students in general, and specifically to similar questions in the past such as the withdrawal of the passport of Drs. Beckford and Taylor, (1965- 1966), the deportation of Mandie (1966) and the non-renewal of Davis’ passport (1967) have led many to seek reasons for the immediacy and enormity of the student response on October 15th and 16th. The cause which Rodney had exposed, the eloquence and dynamism with which he had espoused it, and his close relationships with students, go a long way in explanation. There was, too, the example set by the wave of student demonstrations abroad during this year, and the fact that the student leadership at Mona was already preparing for a confrontation with the University Administration on the question of student power. Finally, there was the awareness that this was only the most recent of arbitrary government actions directed against dissent in the society emanating from the University.

The students, were thus psychologically prepared for the physical demonstrations, they had a cause, and they had a personality who dramatically -and eloquently personalised the cause.

Whether the Government itself was politically prepared to handle the demonstration which began early in the morning of the 16th is a matter for speculation. Certainly, the early appearance of the riot =police in full battle regalia indicates that the authorities were alerted and physically prepared. As it was, the teargassing and batoning of the marchers without actually arresting them or stopping the march as a whole incurred the political costs of police brutality without any of its benefits. The students attracted not only the attention of the public but also their support and encouragement, the brutalities only enhanced their sense of self-righteousness. When the marchers reassembled at Duke Street in the sanctuary of St. George’s School there was a sense of exhilaration at having come thus far in spite of police harassment. But what began to come clear at this time was the uncertainty of the student leadership as to what precisely were the objectives of the demonstration at this point and how best the physical occupation of the road in front of the Ministry of Home Affairs could be used. This was clearly evidenced in the failure to keep informed the mass of the student demonstrators, the failure to line up a good panel of speakers for the brief public meeting at a time when public attention was focused on the students and the proceedings were being broadcast live, and the lack of a clear conception as to what the demonstration should do next. Thus by the time the students left the Ministry of Home Affairs, and were split into two parts by the BITU intervention on upper Duke Street, the political initiative had already slipped from their hands.