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

Instead, he chose the authoritarian way out and simply announced that teaching would resume on Wednesday.

To be sure, this was preceded by a lengthy discussion on the role of intellectual and the University. Others are analysing the content of this speech; politically, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the bulk of it was merely designed to sweeten the pill for the exercise of what was in effect, a royal prerogative. A decision based on formally constituted authority, was taken; no reason was given. The comparison of Mr. Sherlook with Mr. Shearer was favourable to the latter, at least the Prime Minister had made his case in the House.

On one level, the Vice-Chancellor might have been responding to the concealed demands of the Government and the Gleaner; or to his own private assessment of what the Government might do if the University remained closed. On another, his action merely reflected the inherited traditions of the colonial experience. Colonial Government does not reason, it decides; its decisions are based on authority, not consensus. This tradition has moulded not only the behaviour of Governments but also the institutions within the society.

Had the student leadership used the student assembly as the basis for arriving at consensus and unanimity of action for the student body, it would then have been possible for the student body to conduct its own reasoned discussion as to when to resume attendance of classes. But the lack of close communication between the leadership and the rank and file made it almost inevitable that the students position would be either for or against the Vice-Chancellor’s decree rather than arriving at consensus as to what to do. Discussing the question in the framework of British Parliamentary practice by putting a resolution before the House, as happened at the Guild Meeting on Tuesday, made certain that, whatever the majority vote, a divided student body would emerge. The students did of course; succeed in demonstrating that their will is independent of royal decree by voting not to return to classes until their case was presented to the public. The situation which then arose with some faculties and some students respecting the decision of the Vice-Chancellor, while some faculties and some students respected the decision of the student’s vote, constituted an anti-climax and exposed a divided University community in the face of the public pressure. Precious opportunities to weld the academic community together had been lost at a time when its very existence had been threatened.

Nonetheless, the events of the week have now become part of the permanent political experience of a large number of students and staff.

They have been politically educated in a direct and unforgettable way into the arbitrary use of executive power, the naked use of physical force, and the mobilisation of the media of communication behind this power to justify its use and encourage its repeated use. The near-total political isolation of the University, and the intolerance of dissent by the established organs of public opinion have been luridly exposed. The academic community will not forget this.

The question now is whether the lessons will be learnt in a way which suggests constructive activity. The following are the chief conclusions which it is possible to draw:

 

  1. The questioning of the policies of the Government in power, and of the social system as a whole, is a legitimate function of the University. But the exercise of this function in the present context has certain political implications which the academic community would do well to face.
  2. In Jamaica, the social system is oppressive. It therefore gives rise to large numbers of disaffected people on the one hand, and a repressive Government on the other. Therein lies the political significance and political vulnerability of the University.
  3. Its political significance is that in the exercise of its legitimate functions it is likely to become a focal point for the articulation of dissent in the society. The underprivileged look to the University as a means of legitimising their disaffection. This constitutes a threat to the Government and establishment; hence the institution become a target for their attack.
  4. Clearly, the University will have to find articulate support in the remainder of the society if its legitimate academic function are not to be subverted. The most immediate and legitimate way for this to be done is by forging organic links with other educational institutions on area of common educational and professional interest. Specific ways of doing this could be: (i) The Teaching departments of the University could form associations of teachers in their subject. Thus, the Department of History could form an association of History Teacher with the object of finding and helping to fill the needs of History Teachers in Secondary and Primary Schools, for textbooks, refresher courses, and so on. (ii)The Staff Association of the University could seek some form of Association with the Jamaica Teachers Association to promote discussions on areas of common professional interest. (iii)The Guild of Undergraduate could take the initiative in the formation of a National Students Alliance to organise and co-ordinate the contribution of students to Jamaican Society. Students should for example explore the possibility of organising a student’s “Peace Corps” particularly in the long Summer vacation.

In other words the academic community must work towards a situation where an arbitrary intervention against one component of the educational system is perceived as an attack on the system as a whole. University teachers must see their interests as coincidental with those of primary school teachers, and vice versa. In such a context, the educational institutions will be better equipped to play their full part in contributing to social change, while the community’s defences against arbitrary actions will be strengthened.

  1. Students and staff at the University must continue to inform themselves and the society in depth on the nature of con-temporary Caribbean society. This presumes the initiation of an open lecture discussion series on and off the campus, and the establishment of a written medium of communication in which the views of members of the academic community and of the remainder of the public will be expressed.
  2. Students and staff at the University must be tactically prepared for new assaults against the institution. It is clear that the Government relies on two weapons in its efforts to intimidate dissent and prevent the formation of new political philosophies. These are the armed forces, and public opinion. A knowledge of the law and the constitution and of the techniques of passive resistance can clearly be useful in limiting the Government’s use of armed force. More relevantly, the peculiar skills in writing and formulating ideas on social issues possessed by the academic community can be put to invaluable use, if the organizational requirements of an effective medium of communication can be met.

 

November 1968.