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”.