The Promise of Tivoli, Jamaica

Basil Wilson's picture

The Commission of Inquiry into events in Western Kingston in May 2010 began slowly to the extent that there was a clamor in some circles to cancel the Inquiry based on the cost of the proceedings.  But with the testimony of former Prime Minister Golding last week and the testimony of former National Security Minister Dwight Nelson, things have begun to heat up.  In the coming weeks, testimonies from former Chief of Staff, Major General Saunders and former Commissioner of Police, Owen Ellington should bring greater clarity to the invasion of Tivoli Gardens in May, 2010.

Events of May, 2010 should not be seen in isolation.  It is indeed a culmination of historical events that damaged the democratic process and has had a negative impact on the social fabric of Jamaica’s fragile society.

Nonetheless, May 24 is by itself an epic event.  The toll of human life, 76 civilians dead and one soldier marks the bloodiest event in the history of independent Jamaica.  Prior to independence, Claudius Henry and his bunch of imported rebels attempted to overthrow of the then colonial government of Jamaica.  The government had infiltrated the group of rascals and they were all convicted in a court of law. 

What happened in the May of 2010 was more ominous and reflected the “Napoleonic complex” of the “Don” in Tivoli Gardens.  Christopher “Dudus” Coke opted to war with the state rather than to turn himself in for extradition to the United States where he was indicted in Federal courts for dealing in cocaine and marijuana and smuggling guns into Jamaica.

Prior to the siege of Tivoli, two police officers were killed in Mountain View, Eastern Kingston.  Police stations in Hannah Town and Darling Street were set ablaze.  Tivoli was barricaded to prevent the Security Forces entering “Dudus” Republic.

The extradition of Jamaicans involved in transnational crime or deported from the United States was fairly common practice beginning in the 1970s.  Beginning in the 1980s, the Federal government in the United States identified and targeted Jamaican Posses as constituting a threat to the American social order.  The drug trade was associated with an excess of robberies, mayhem and brutal murders.

The Posse that they paid most attention to was the Shower Posse which had its origins in Tivoli Gardens.  In a dragnet raid in 1987, the Federal Task Force apprehended 37 alleged members of the Shower Posse.  Many of the principals who were known “shottas” in the early political wars of the 1960s were apprehended.  Many were willing to give testimony against their fellow Posse members and subsequently entered the Federal government’s Witness Protection Program. 

In that raid, both Lester “Jim Brown” Coke and Vivian Blake escaped to Jamaica and were refugees for years.  When they were eventually apprehended, they both hired the best lawyers available and fought extradition to the United States.  Both lost those court battles.  Vivian Blake was extradited to Florida where he “copped” a plea.  “Jim Brown” on the verge of extradition, lost his life in a fire in his cell at Tower Street General Penitentiary in Central Kingston.  Neither of them had the gall to challenge the legitimacy of the state.

Christopher Michael Coke took the business of extradition much further than his father, which is a reflection that some “Dons” presumed they were now bigger than their Party affiliations.  But also with Christopher “Dudus” Coke there were unique differences. 

Blake and “Jim Brown” Coke were up for extradition when Edward Seaga was the Member of Parliament from Western Kingston.  In the case of “Dudus”, when he was indicted in August, 2009, Bruce Golding was the Prime Minister of Jamaica and also served as the Member of Parliament in Western Kingston. Golding was not as grounded in West Kingston as was Eddie Seaga.  He was more a carpetbagger who was given the seat when Seaga was pushed out by money elements in the Jamaica Labour Party.

Golding was far from sure-footed in West Kingston and “Dudus” Coke in his control of Tivoli and Denham Town saw himself as “bigger” than Golding.

The Prime Minister initially opted to fight Mr. Coke’s fight rather than allowing the extradition process to wind its way through the courts.  He locked into the notion that the wiretap evidence that the United States government had obtained was a violation of Mr. Coke’s constitutional rights.  This impasse between the Jamaican government and the United States government went on for nine months until the pressure within and without was too strong for Prime Minister Golding.  He acceded to the extradition of “Dudus” who the United States Government designated as a drug kingpin.

The Inquiry is not about what went awry in Tivoli Gardens.  It is about the excess of force that occurred in Tivoli Gardens and its immediate environs in May, 2010.  Seventy-six lives were lost and the life of a soldier. Just a paltry six guns were seized as a result of the combined operations of soldiers and police.  “Dudus” Coke fled in the midst of what did not amount to be much of a battle.  The Interim Report by Mr. Earl Witter, the retired Public Defender that was published in April, 2013 identifies forty-four persons who were executed through extra-judicial killings.

What is strange about the Tivoli Gardens’ siege is that Tivoli is a residential community and even though residents were warned to leave, most residents chose to stay in their homes.

The forthcoming testimony will reveal the tension and uneasiness of the Prime Minister and his Security Forces. Bruce Golding was the Minister of Defence yet he feared the excessive use of force by the military and the police. His fears were not farfetched.

As a result of the Inquiry it is a reasonable expectation that residents who suffered property damage will receive some compensation.  Those who lost loved ones cannot be adequately compensated. What the Inquiry will not tackle is how the promise of Tivoli born out of the ashes of the shanty town Back-O-Wall failed to fulfill its promise.  Unfortunately, the story of Tivoli is in part the story of Jamaica.

Dr. Basil Wilson is Provost Emeritus of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Executive Director of the King Research Institute, Monroe College, Bronx, New York. He can be reached at: