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

The property destruction and looting which followed the demonstrations in the afternoon suited the purposes of the Government admirably. For it helped subsequently to associate the students and Rodney himself with a general image of arson, anarchy and riot. It may well be that this was the reason for the police provocation of the public in George VI Park, followed by their total absence when most of the acts of retaliation and general hostility took place. In any event, by Wednesday evening the Government’s counter-offensive had been well prepared.

The stage was set by the Prime Minister’ s broadcast to the nation, in which the first elements of the propagandistic strategy began to be revealed.

The chief tactic was to associate the University with the looting and destruction and to identify non-Jamaican students in particular as being responsible. At the same time an atmosphere of impending revelation of grave plots against the security of the state was evoked by the announcement that the Prime Minister would speak to Parliament on the following day.

The meeting of the entire University community, which followed the Prime Minister’s first broadcast exposed the almost total confusion in the minds of the formal leadership of the students and University administration about the objectives and form of the protest- there were some for whom the basic demand was the lifting of the ban on Rodney, most knew or sensed that this was politically unrealistic. The political costs to the Government of reversing its decision would be too great, in any case the University simply does not command the kind of political weight to force concessions from the Government in any such confrontation. But since the momentum of the protest had clearly not spent itself, the question was how best could it be directed. The chief issue was whether or not to have a second demonstration, in open defiance of the Government and its armed agencies. The case for another demonstration had the inherent weakness that it would invite the full weight of Government repression without any corresponding political gains. On the other hand no clear alternative means of protest was presented: the proposal that the Scope press be mobilised to present the University’s case to the public was not seized upon by the student leaders. The smaller meeting at the Union which followed, attended by what might be called the “activists”, also revealed a lack of any clear conception of the objectives of further protest.

Thursday morning the 17th thus found the University community in a state of almost complete paralysis, in striking  contrast to the day before. The Government, moreover, had already surrounded the campus with police and military, and was preparing the nation for the drama of the Prime Minister’s speech to the House in the afternoon. The students in general and those of the Eastern Caribbean in particular, were bewildered and frightened by the audacity of the Prime Ministers allegations that they had been involved in looting and destruction.

It was during, this time that two independent initiatives began to take place which were to have great importance to the development of the protest. A group of students and staff set up machinery for writing publications and distribution of University versions of the events so far. At the same time the leadership in Mary Seacole Hall arranged for a meeting of the members of the Hall at which the events of Wednesday would be discussed, especially for the benefit of the young girl students.

This meeting, which took place after lunch, was held in an atmosphere of high drama, as it began with a viewing of the Prime Minister’s statement to the House which was being telecast live. Shearer’s speech was in many ways a propagandistic masterpiece. It created a colourful and richly illustrated picture of plot, centred around Rodney and based within the University to carry out a violent revolution in which white and brown people would be slaughtered. It gave the impression that this had the support of clandestine cells throughout the country while skilfully suggesting that its leadership constituted non-Jamaicans at the University. It confirmed the fears of the propertied and light skinned segments of the society which had been frightened by the violence of the preceding day. It did not occur to the Opposition Party replete with the allegedly best legal minds in the country, to question the reliability of police evidence which the accused had no opportunity of answering, the courts no chance of testing, and which had been presented under cover of Parliamentary privilege. To many, if not most, of the public, the Government had acted to save the nation and had won the day.