Youth violence in and out of schools is symptomatic of our torn social fabric but more so of the deep and extensive poverty that we have allowed to take hold in our society. Where these issues coexist, violence becomes normalised. Sociologists and economists the world over have suggested that these variables must be given greater attention if the effects of violence are to be dealt with. In the words of Deepa Narayan, Raj Patel, Kai Schafft, Anne Rademacher and Sarah Koch-Schulte in their 1999 World Bank published report, Can Anyone Hear Us? Voices From 47 Countries, there are three important consequences to the coincidence of social exclusion and social breakdown: “First, once societies start unraveling, it is difficult to reverse the process. Second, breakdown of social solidarity and social norms that once regulated public behavior leads to increased lawlessness, violence, and crime, against which poor people are the least able to protect themselves. Finally, because poor people lack material assets and depend on the social insurance provided by the strength of their social ties, a breakdown of community solidarity and norms of reciprocity with neighbors and kin affects poor people more than other groups” (p. 9).
As a relatively young Jamaican man I have become increasingly frustrated at my society’s inability to analyse and to begin addressing the underlying causes of violence among our school aged youth. Having lived in dirt poverty for an important chunk of my life, I have the deep sense that Jamaican social and political leaders, instead of committing to assisting those in underprivileged situations, conspire against them. I, for instance, have a number of relatives who have been either the perpetrators or victims of violence. Many of these relatives and I were raised in the same community but with the single difference that we gained access to different kinds of educational opportunities. From violent homes and a violent community, they were dumped onto the socially forgotten pile at schools with other children from violent homes.
What concerns me about the Jamaican social and economic structure is that it places all the children from violent homes and violent communities into the same schools and expects them to grow into model citizens. When they fall through our gaping social holes, agents of the state, having tried them for the crimes they have been induced to commit, find them guilty, pursue them and summarily execute them, initiating the next inevitable phase of the vicious, violent, cycle that is part of life for too many Jamaicans. Having awoken one morning at sixteen—and a ghetto boy at that—to a policeman’s gun in my face, I can hardly come to any other conclusion but that boys and young men in certain communities are guilty until proven innocent. So, from early, they are abandoned by the formal socialising structures of good schools in favour of the rich and the gifted and then targeted for elimination when they end up as non-productive citizens.
I believe that in Jamaica we need a new social and political order that will allow us to find our gentler, more civilised selves; for somewhere in the violent and aggressive rants of the Vybz Kartels, Bounty Killas and Assassins must dwell some desire for us to live together as one blood; somewhere in the vandalism of airconditioned buses lies the ability to appreciate the comforts of modernity; somewhere in the death fields of Kingston, Spanish Town and Canterbury, St. James, dwell angels whose sole desire is to reach out and touch the humanity of others.
If civil society and the business community don’t catch the vision and begin the intervention we will only continue the slippery slide. If the tertiary education sector misses out on “the sign of the times”, evident in the call of the violent young for us to give them the chances they need, then it, too, will continue to fail Jamaica. If we don’t collectively commit to taking action for the change, it is not just the violent young in our schools that we will lose; it is also our entire national soul. That is assuming we haven’t already lost it.
Contributed by: R. Anthony Lewis