Silencing Women

On Saturday, September 1, 2012, a young woman, Kayann Lamont was shot and killed by a police officer, Corporal Dwayne Smart. Her unborn child is also dead and her sister injured and hospitalised.

Why did this happen?

It all started with her expressing her frustration about being robbed earlier that day.  She used “indecent language” or “bad words”.  The police attempted to arrest her for this, she resisted and he shot her in the head – twice.  Read the Observer’s accounts here and here.  The Gleaner did a story on the police officer; the Star focused on the family.

Women Protesting the Killing of 27 year-old Kayann Lamont in Yallahs, St. Thomas. Picture courtesy of Jamaica Gleaner (Sept. 3, 2012)

TVJ  news also covered the story.  One viewer shared the coverage:
“the 3rd sister an eye witness was on TVJnews n told the story,according to her; her sister was not speaking to the policeman but he overheard her telling someone ’bout dem BC” while he was righting a ticket,he came to her n told her he was going to arrest her 4 D indecent language, he proceeded to do so n she resisted a strugggle ensue n he fell, people started laughing; they both got up off d ground, he then kicked her foot n she fell he shot her twice in the head the other sister told him”u cant shoot mi sista fi nutten’ he shot her too,the third sister which is the witness came up to him said the same thing and he pointed the gun in her direction san she ran behind a fat woman she said…thats wat TVJ reported.”

Since the story broke, the conversation has shifted with each new report.

First, there was the search for intentions and explanations.

Next in focus was on the seemingly apparent contradiction between the policeman’s religious belief and his behaviour, complete with the insinuation that “demons” must have taken over his head!

In the absence of any legitimate argument that would have shifted the blame from the police to the deceased (i.e. there was no “shots were fired; police returned fire”  scenario), there has been some scurrying by government officials to appear to hold their own accountable: this press release from the Ministry of National Security and staeas well as the Police Commissioner’s statement regarding the responsibility of senior police officers in terms of preventing and reporting “excessive use of force”.

Now that he has been arrested and charged with murder – note, of KayAnn not of her unborn child – new accounts of the deadly shooting incident feature someone who is less than level-headed, and who refused to back down, even pointing his gun at one of his colleagues.

Also introduced into the story is the notion that police officers are stressed and mistreated too, hence their sometimes too-violent responses to civilians.   One article even suggested that most police are suffering from mental disorders which go untreated. The Ministry of National  Security has now given the green light for psychological testing of police officers to occur.

Now, while many are rightfully decrying the inhumanity of killing a pregnant woman and her unborn child (one body per bullet), the [typical yet] unnecessary show of force from police, and the problem of the very existence of a law that criminalises speech, something else crystallized for me as soon as I heard the story.

In my mind, this tragedy didn’t unfold as it did because of the mere expression of “badwud” and the overzealous action of a police officer who was dutifully enforcing the law.  I don’t even have to ask: nuff wud – gud, bad an ugly – didda chip outta Yallahs dah day deh; this is Jamaica, after all.  And the men are usually the loudest and most consistent practitioners of such. So the question is – why her?

I believe that this tragedy occurred because a woman was speaking out of turn, a man in a position of authority told her to stop, she refused and he did what he could to put her in her place.  When he was publicly ridiculed because of by his own stupidity, he decided to take it out on her, and punish her sister too.

In response to Javed Jaghai’s status update on FB: “This has to be some kinda twisted joke. Tell me I’m reading this story in The Onion. Fi baduod?!! Fi raas an bombo? Nuo sa!”

I responded:
“You know what i think happened (just because I’ve seen or been part of this kind of mix-up far too many times). The pregnant woman was cussin’ – and I know how we cuss when we feel wronged. She bun all ki’na fyah pon di teef, i’m modda, di wutlis police wheh shudda did si an prevent her from being robbed. An shi deh talk loud loud.

Police deh roun, look an si ah who deh cus, and said, “a pregnant woman should not be cursing; she is setting a bad example for her child”. What kind of mother is she going to be? So he says to her that “she should not be cursing” (not, it’s against the law to curse).And she says “suh what ef mi waa cuss badwud? look ummuch people deh cuss badwud an yuh n’aa badda dem? Mi can seh anyting mi w’aa seh, afta anno yuh did affi deal wid xyz….” And him get bringle an seh “but ah who dis umman a cum tell mi bout seh shi n’aa tap chat. shi nuh know who mi?” And we know how it all ends.What is or is not law enters the story after the fact. This is a great opportunity to attack the utter injustice of such a law, but that bastard was all about controlling her, and she wasn’t having it. He used his gun because he had one. If he’d had a truncheon he would have bludgeoned her to death; if he didn’t have anything, he would have given har wan rass bax an kick out har what’s it not.”

Kayann Lamont was silenced because she was committing an even greater sin than cursing.  As a pregnant woman, she was not aware that she had been given a special responsibility to represent herself as being above reproach.  Belly umman, or pregnant women are seen as “real women” in Jamaica in a way that non-pregnant women are not.  Carrying a belly is a sign of one’s fecundity and heterosexuality.  It is a sign that one is worthy of being with a man, and that a man has chosen to be with her.  Pregnancy is a major achievement that moves both men and women up a few notches on the gender scale (and of course, she’s supposed to have more than one, because as I have heard often, wan pikni anno pikni).

Being angry AND cursing in public was doubly unbecoming of her because she is a mother.   Remember, this is the country where there are signs barring women from entry into public buildings if they are wearing sleeveless tops, and where the newspaper provides coverage of preachers complaining about the attire that women wear to church.  Don’t forget the ongoing hissy fits that are regularly thrown about dancehall couture, bashment funerals, and the spectacle created by women’s unruly bodies and behaviour therein.

This is not the first Jamaican woman to be silenced for cussin’ badwud.

In fact, it is worth taking a little step backward  to recognise that this tragic moment is historically charged.   The history of the antipathy towards “badwud” has particular resonance for working-class Afro-Jamaican women.

”In this man world you got to take yuh mouth and make a gun!”  In 1983, Paule Marshall used her column in the New York Times to recount her memories of growing up as a girl in Brooklyn New York.  In particular, she talks about how the informal segregation of Barbadian immigrant women into household spaces like the kitchen also allowed her to learn how they used words to talk back and to resist the invisibility and oppressive conditions that they encountered. It is how they claimed a sense of self that was fully autonomous in a setting that conferred only un-freedom.

Black working-class women in Jamaica, particularly the non-religious ones, often flout elite rules of public conduct.  There’s a small but substantive body of work that documents how verbal abuse figures into the gender performances of black women in public: whether enslaved women living under plantation slavery (Diana Paton‘s work on language and violence and Marlon James‘ novel The Book of Night Women come to mind) or black and brown women in post-emancipation Jamaica (e.g. Louise Bennett’s Cuss-Cuss and South Parade Peddler, Gina Ulysse‘s Downtown Ladies and Winnifred Brown-Glaude‘s work on women selling on the streets of Kingston).  Such women (as distinct from ladies) include the “madda lacy”, the women who walk with a certain swagger and whose active tongues evoke fear in others – “mi nuh w’aa shi cuss mi atall” –  and who can lay out a few lengths of cloth (a polite euphemism for Jamaican patwa epithets – blood claat, bumbo claat, raas claat, pussy claat, or any combination thereof) to artfully suffocate any opponents.   Women with “light tongues” are forces to be contended with in Jamaica.  They know it.  The ones who fear them or try to contain them also know it.   Portia Simpson Miller was roundly chastised for saying “don’t draw mi tongue”, a phrase that is typically issued as a warning by “those” women to provocateurs, lest the storm of words and lengths of cloth unfurl.   To use this phrase was to remind listeners that she did know how to chrace, testament to her working-class background and a hint that she possessed a vocabulary that she should have been trying to hide.  No ‘respectable’ woman chraces, because chracing happens in patwa, and, well, that certainly isn’t the language of  respectable women either.   Men of all statuses curse and tell others, including women, about dem claat – that is to be expected and even applauded.  Women doing that, not so  much.

The ethos of female respectability in Jamaica says that Kayann should not have been “behaving that way” in public or “talking like that” in public.  It seems as if this policeman felt that if no one was going to be brave enough to tell her that she was contaminating the airwaves at Yallahs, he certainly had the duty and authority – social, moral and legal – as a lawman, to do something about her behaviour.

So here it is – she has contaminated her child’s moral future; she has shamed motherhood, declared herself free enough to speak her mind and told all of Yallahs what kind of woman she really was, what kind of mother she would be.  Who knows? Her child – whose sex was not known – might enter the world chippin’ a few claats itself!  And he was a god-fearing Christian who should not have to listen to people “talking like that”.   Jamaicans lack discipline, we are often told, and here was a clear example of indiscipline.  And by a pregnant women.  Indiscipline knows no bounds, apparently.  Discipline her – put her in bounds, in her place.

What was worse, he fell while he was dragging her away.  So, she cussed him, and I’m sure others got in on the situation, and when he was further humiliated in his attempt to humiliate her, he shot her.  Then he shot her sister who, instead of cowering to the man with the gun, reacted in defense of her sister, now lying dead on the ground.

The masculine calculus operating at the moment gave him little choice.  This gun was how he would rescue his position within Jamaican patriarchy.  He, after all, is a police officer, a lawman.  No other man is higher than him.  Women are supposed to defer to him, listen to him.  He had a gun.  Didn’t she notice? He had never been more powerful than he was in that moment.  It was her mouth against his might, and finally, his gun.  The ultimate silencer.

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