Memory, Urban Violence and Performance in Jamaica

Over the last ten years, there has been an explosion of interest in inner city violence internationally. Governments operating in places as varied as Kingston, Jamaica; Bogota, Colombia; London, England and Toronto, Canada have created instruments to measure, surveil and intervene in the problem. There are growing financial investments in addressing the problem (as in the case of Plan Colombia) and in developing transnational approaches to its management.

This study is about the side of inner city violence that escapes the official reports.  How I ask, do victims of violence from different social and political locations in Jamaican communities mourn, remember and forget the losses inflicted by violence?  I look for answers to this question in the tensions and conflicts underlying performances such as protests against violence, vigils, elite social spectacles, dance and drama. What might we learn from these shifting and embodied images about how communities and individuals simultaneously justify and resist the reproduction of inner city violence and how might this inform efforts to address the social injustices underlying it in the contemporary context?

In 2005 Jamaica reported a murder rate of 62 per 100,000, the highest in the world. Though the rate has fallen somewhat, in 2007, Amnesty International condemned the Jamaican record on homophobic violence and police killings, and expressed concern about rampant violence against women ( The US state department human rights report in 2006 echoed Amnesty’s concerns and expanded the list of abuses to include mob violence and vigilante killings (  Jamaicans are extremely anxious about crime and violence which is mainly confined to inner cities that have expanded within the spatial legacies of colonization that Fanon (1963) long ago analyzed as alienating (Kipfer, 2007).


Much scholarship on violence in Jamaica is highly empirical. Violence is presented as an obstacle to social development (Ayres 1998; Moser and Holland, 1997), cohesiveness, progress and citizen health (Ward et al, 2002). It is seen as a problem which can be solved through the implementation of prescriptive reforms that address poverty reduction, the reform of policing and the justice system at the level of the nation state. Political studies and ethnographies are less optimistic. They point to the legacies of colonial disempowerment, political clientelism, political violence, homophobic violence, extreme poverty, cold war struggles and gender inequities each of which add another layer to the problematic (Figueroa and Sives, 2002; Gunst, 1995; Tafari Ama, 2006). Obika Gray (2004) applies the notion of the predatory state (Fatton, 1992) to the relationship between state and inner city residents and elaborates the ways in which marginalized groups resist this through the enactment of a value system he calls “badness-honour.” After 40 years violence may be in danger of becoming normalized for it seems to be developing a dynamic of its own which may not be responsive to local solutions to its origins (Harriott, 2003). One scholar argues that unless memories of past violence are not worked through publicly and laid to rest, the society will remain haunted by specters of violence (Meeks, 2003).

Feminists scholars, as well as artists and activists have been critically engaged with how memory and commemorative practices contribute to the resistance and reproduction of racial, social and political injustices and violence in former colonized societies (see for example Butalia, 2000; Trotz, 2010; Thomas, forthcoming, De Alwis and Simpson, 2008; Riano Alcala, 2003). There are numerous examples of publicly performed commemorative projects from the much discussed truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa to more recent efforts in Central America and Sri Lanka as well as “Rest in Peace” murals created by ‘inner city’ youth in the Caribbean and the USA, and photographs of the disappeared carried in protest in Colombia and Argentina. These memorials are social objects, products of historical moments, institutions, movements and events but they are never essences or copies of the truth. Simpson and de Alwis (2008) argue that memorials exist as a form of politics in which knowledge and power are brought together in unpredictable and unstable ways. Such memorials do not transparently represent the truth. Often people represent what they believe it is permissible to say. They remain silent - unable to represent what is simply too terrible to articulate or express.