Ab­solv­ing heroes

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY -

IT IS broadly as­sumed that pro­posed leg­is­la­tion to erase crim­i­nal records of scores of Ja­maican ‘free­dom fight­ers’, in­clud­ing four na­tional heroes, has its cur­rency, at this point, in the Gov­ern­ment’s re­cent fail­ure to en­er­get­i­cally rally sup­port for a pe­ti­tion that would have forced United States Pres­i­dent Barack Obama to state a po­si­tion on the de­mand for a par­don for Mar­cus Gar­vey. We, nonethe­less, sup­port the idea.

Gar­vey, a black con­scious­ness leader who built out a global move­ment with mil­lions of fol­low­ers, is a Ja­maican na­tional hero. But in 1923, he was con­victed in the United States for mail fraud, on what many aca­demics have long con­cluded were trumped-up charges and an un­fair trial in an ef­fort to si­lence a trou­ble­some Afro-cen­tric leader.

There have been many, up to now un­suc­cess­ful, at­tempts to have the Amer­i­can par­don Gar­vey, in­clud­ing last month’s on­line pe­ti­tion to the White House that re­quired 100,000 sig­na­tures in 30 days to oblige Mr Obama to im­me­di­ately respond to the re­quest. In the end, the pe­ti­tion fell short by more than 84,000 sig­na­tures. The Ja­maican Gov­ern­ment, which, in the past, has cham­pi­oned an Amer­i­can par­don for Gar­vey, and was pre­sumed to have been a crit­i­cal stake­holder in the ini­tia­tive, can­not, in ret­ro­spect, be proud of its ef­fort to have peo­ple em­brace the ef­fort.

Iron­i­cally, Gar­vey car­ries a crim­i­nal record in Ja­maica for a 1929 con­vic­tion for con­tempt of court. So, too, do two other na­tional heroes, Paul Bogle and Ge­orge Wil­liam Gor­don, who were hanged for the 1865 Mo­rant Bay Re­bel­lion in St Thomas. The fourth na­tional hero who would be sub­ject to the pro­posed par­lia­men­tary clean­ing of the record is Sam Sharpe, who was hanged in 1832 for the slave re­bel­lion he led in Christ­mas 1831 in the parish of St James.

What­ever the Gov­ern­ment’s mo­ti­va­tion for act­ing now, there is logic in the pro­posal. Many peo­ple will, of course, in­sist that heroes such as those named and the thou­sands of oth­ers who were ac­tively in­volved in the strug­gles for the lib­er­a­tion from servi­tude of the ma­jor­ity of Ja­maicans, and the broad ap­pli­ca­tion of jus­tice, don’t need the kind of le­gal­is­tic vin­di­ca­tion im­plied by par­dons or even acts of Par­lia­ment. The ex­cul­pa­tion rests on some­thing larger: the moral­ity of their action.

THE TWO PRIN­CI­PLES

We don’t dis­agree, ex­cept that action of the type pro­posed by Par­lia­ment em­braces two things. One is the ac­cep­tance by an evolved state that its pre­de­ces­sor, or its un­demo­cratic em­bry­onic self, was wrong in the pre­cepts and prin­ci­ples of its or­gan­i­sa­tion, which al­lowed it to di­min­ish the value of, and to act in­hu­manely against, some of its in­hab­i­tants and cit­i­zens. This, there­fore, is atone­ment. In the event, as the min­is­ter for cul­ture, Olivia Grange, said, what­ever acts the heroes committed were nei­ther crim­i­nal nor trea­sonous “but acts of lib­er­a­tion”.

Then there is the prin­ci­ple of jus­tice. Gar­vey’s con­vic­tion for con­tempt was largely over his dec­la­ra­tion that the Ja­maican jus­tice sys­tem is op­pres­sive, a charge still be­ing laid against it nearly nine decades after Gar­vey made it and 76 years after his death. More­over, it is hardly in dis­pute that, as Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment Ron­ald Th­waites puts it, the ev­i­dence in­di­cate that con­vic­tions of Bogle and Gor­don “rep­re­sent pal­pa­ble in­jus­tice even at the time”.

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