Prepare for Pushback If You Call Jamaica Violent (Even Though It Can Be)

A vulnerable community in Jamaica where there is great insecurity. Photo by the author, used with permission.

A vulnerable community in Jamaica with high unemployment and security concerns. Photo by the author, used with permission.

The recent deaths of two American missionaries in rural Jamaica and the ensuing negative media coverage in the United States have jolted Jamaicans into examining the problem of crime and violence that continues to haunt their country.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the murder rate in Jamaica was 42.9 per 100,000 population in 2013 — the sixth highest in the world. The double murder reawakened the debate on capital punishment in Jamaica (hanging has not taken place on the island since 1988), but what Jamaicans were even more acutely aware of was the negative reporting from overseas press. As the country was already agonizing over the killings and their deeper implications, the local reaction to the coverage has followed a predictable pattern of hurt feelings, denial and a painful struggle with reality.

Two comments ignited something of a firestorm of commentary on social media in particular. First, Ashleigh Banfield, an anchor for the US-based news channel CNN, said on her program while reporting the case, “It's astounding to think that a lot of people think that Jamaica is a paradise but it is an extraordinarily violent country with a remarkable murder rate.”

Then well-known broadcaster and lecturer Fae Ellington tweeted, quoting the Rev. Astor Carlyle, “Jamaica has pockets of violence. We are not generally known to get up with machine guns & walk into schools& theatres & shoot up people” — a reference to the mass shootings that happen on a regular basis in the United States:

Journalist Earl Moxam supported this position, pointing the finger at the United States:

With guns being so easily available in America, it is no wonder that thousands of these deadly weapons are spirited out of that country into other jurisdictions which lack the capacity to detect many of them at their porous borders. That is the story of Mexico; that is the story of Jamaica. It is a story of criminal destabilization, directly fueled by the inflow of American guns. It is a tragedy for which America is not being held accountable…Yes, I do acknowledge that Jamaica has a ‘remarkable murder rate’, but perhaps because I know the lay of the land and have a better understanding of our culture than Ashleigh Banfield, I remain far more comfortable living in Jamaica than I ever would in the United States. I still do not shiver at the thought of going to a shopping mall or the cinema in Jamaica. In America, I would probably grow dizzy looking around every 30 seconds for the next potential mass killer, exercising his right to bear arms.

The response to Ellington and Moxam’s assertions was decidedly mixed, reflecting many Jamaicans’ conflicted approach. Many were perturbed by the CNN anchor's comment — including blogger and journalist Kate Chappell — who commented:

It is yet another instance of the nation being stereotyped by outdated and inaccurate beliefs, and another instance of the responsibility the media has, especially when you have an audience of millions.

‘All-pervasive’ denial

Not everyone agreed that Jamaica’s reputation is being unfairly besmirched. Social worker and activist Damien Williams blogged:

These pockets of violence that Ms. Ellington refers to are not as insignificant as we think and perhaps we have not begun to uncover the various forms of violence that are expressed in our society through road rage; domestic violence; turf war; sexual violence […] abuse of children (often disguised as discipline); economic violence (systems of inequity); the cruel and hurtful things we say to each other and a host of other ways we are violent to each other. Violence is pervasive. What we do have pockets of is privilege – a sort of privilege that insulates us from the harsh realities that the majority of Jamaicans face because they have no access to privilege, power, or prestige.

Young blogger AK Dixon wrote:

Following the murder of two missionaries in Jamaica, social media erupted, mostly with condemnation, after Ashleigh Banfield, CNN Anchor, dared to call us an extremely violent country! How could this American who knows nothing of our struggles and our reasons for being murderous call us a violent nation! I too raised eyebrows and I fumed at 75 degrees for just 3 minutes because before I got to boiling point, I realized something — she said nothing wrong, the statement could not be more truthful, Ashleigh Banfield was right! We are an extremely violent country. And no comparison with mass killings in the United States or Pakistan or Afghanistan or West Bank will change that fact. We are very violent as a country and the value of life has been diminished. How is our target for murders every year ‘below 1000'? It should be below 100! It should be below 50!

Two influential commentators also begged to differ. University of the West Indies-based blogger Annie Paul castigated what she called “cultural nationalists”:

Surely the lack of fear you feel in Jamaica is connected to the fact that you belong to a class of people rarely troubled by police or murderers. As Cultural Nationalist #1 had observed, there are “pockets” of violence here, and, it’s necessary to add, the literati and glitterati are insulated from it. But ask anyone living in those pockets whether they agreed with the American anchor’s statement, and what do you think they’d say? […] We prefer to think of ourselves as highly cultured, civilised, law-abiding, English-speaking citizens who do not curse or act violent. This is the image we want to project; let no foreign anchor tell you otherwise. The level of denial and self-delusion is all-pervasive. […] I do wish, though, that the cultural nationalists were as zealous about eradicating the conditions that provoke violence in Jamaica as they are about protecting its image.

Damien Williams confirmed that violence is an everyday reality in the vulnerable communities where he works, tweeting:

What can be done?

So where are the solutions? One Jamaican columnist suggested a version of the broken windows theory, which basically states that preventing petty crimes can send the message that even minor infractions will not be tolerated, thereby acting as a deterrent for more serious crimes. Another suggested using the missionaries’ murders as “a watershed moment to after criminality”.

Despite all this, Jamaicans still know how to “tek serious ting mek laugh” — in other words, to find something humorous even in the grimmest of situations. After the police found a stash of guns in a troubled neighborhood near Spanish Town, this Twitter user tweeted:

Meanwhile, the police, although aided by the FBI, still have no suspects nor have they identified a motive for the two murders — perhaps an example of the need for better policing before the reinstatement of capital punishment can even be considered. Jamaica continues its soul-searching.


  • Scope

    Well written article, Emma Lewis, that lacks perspective. As a Jamaican, we are troubled by things that take place within our country. I think that all of the people above are correct. Let’s up put this into perspective…just a little. There are pockets of violence in Jamaica, and those pockets are getting larger. We have always been a violent country. Ever since the day Europeans set foot on Jamaica, we have been a violent country. They (your ancestors), exterminated the native population. They dragged millions of melinated people across the Atlantic in the hollows of slave-ships, worked them for hundreds of years, and now you expect them to be saints. You destroyed the people, robbed them of them name, identity and culture. That is what you call total destruction. Untold amounts of people were worked to death…and we, their children, have nothing to show for it. You and your fathers will be judged for for every blood that is spilled there. Until every cent that the British and Spanish drained from the veins and hearts of our ancestors are returned.

    Our people are set for self destruction.. thanks to you, Europeans. Your hands are all over this, and you will be judged. If you believe in the bible, read Revelation 13:10 to find out what will happen to our oppressors. We are the Hebrews of the bible. Just as how it was prophesied that we we going to be sent on slave-ships as punishment (Deuteronomy 28:68).

    You and your ancestors will not be held blameless…just as how those murderers will not be held blameless.

    • Damien Williams

      The pockets of violence in Jamaica have always been larger than the insulated pockets of security. Let us not fool ourselves. In fact, I wish to submit to you that violence is more pervasive than it is expressed in the “pockets” of which you speak. We can only conquer what we confront.

      • Scope

        Jamaica was created under violent circumstances. There is no way to hide that fact. We are left with fatherless monsters to deal with.. they are just running wild. It would be a good starting point to give equal recognition to all the victims. if those two red people that were killed were brown, they probably would be nameless today.

    • consumer1

      The anger in this post is impressively, well violent. Lingering with faith that hangs between european christianity, apathy and voodoo can keep this type of mindset afloat for several more generations. We have a saying in our faith, you are put here on earth with any number of circumstances set for failure, it is up to you to move beyond these circumstances. Nothing is guaranteed. More plainly put, the nut never falls far from the tree until a squirrel picks it up. God bless this person known as Scope!

      • Scope

        YOU better believe it. The blood of our ancestors will be avenged by the Most High Yah himself. Vengance belongs to him. SO as he destroyed the firstborn of the Egyptians in Egypt who held our ancestors in hard bandabe, likewise will he destroy ALL those who hate us and held our ancestors in hard bondage. Revelation 13:10

        “He that leadeth into captivity shall go into captivity: he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword. Here is the patience and the faith of the saints.”

  • […] comments about Jamaica being ‘extraordinarily violent.’ My friend Emma has now compiled the many varied responses for Global Voices, including my own. Upon further contemplation, I added […]

  • But the fact remains that as an older white man living in a small midwestern US city, Jamaica is a far more dangerous place for ME than my own home town or neighborhood. Frankly, there are SAFER places for me to take a holiday..

    • Scope

      We do not want you on our land. Keep it moving heathen. The average Jamaican, read average poor black Jamaican benefits zilch from you bringing your garbage to our land. Keep it stepping devil. I am sure that the Native people of the land would be better off today, if you and your ancestors had the same mentality about destroying them from the land.

      • Point proven, I guess

      • 334578

        “Keep it moving heathen.” “Keep it stepping devil.” “…you and your ancestors…”

        What a kind and thoughtful post. Good luck with your life and your country.

        • Scope

          We do not believe in luck. We yield all things to the the KING of the Hebrews, Yahushua Ha-mashiach. As punishment we were delivered into the hands of the enemy. All praises to the King of all Kings.

  • […] to drag on in social media, please take a look at my latest article for Global Voices here:…  My deepest condolences to all the families of these Jamaicans who have […]

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