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When Pearnel Charles shot a man to save himself

Death Postponed: Veteran politician talks about the tumultuous times

BY HG HELPS Editor-at-Large helpsh@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, April 01, 2012    

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This is the seventh in a series recounting close encounters with death by Jamaicans, some of them in prominent positions of society.

MANY Jamaicans over a certain age will remember Pearnel Charles spending 283 days in detention during the infamous State of Emergency of 1976.

However, the affable veteran politician and trade unionist's experience in a Jamaican jail pales in comparison to his close shaves with death during the 75 years and seven months he has spent on Earth.

Charles, who up to last December served as minister of labour and social security in the then Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Administration, says, among other things in his eventful life, he was forced to shoot a man to defend himself from possible death during the late 1960s, and also had to stave off an angry JLP mob which threatened him at the National Arena during the party's annual conference 20 years ago.

"The journey has been rough at times, but I think that the most rugged period of my union and political situation was my confrontation and relationship with Michael Manley," Charles said of the former two-time prime minister of Jamaica.

"I was assigned by the BITU (Bustamante Industrial Trade Union) to break into the bauxite industry, and I started at Kaiser in Discovery Bay. Michael Manley was determined that no other union but his NWU (National Workers' Union) must get into the bauxite industry and we both used tactics and strategies," Charles explained.

"Alpart in St Elizabeth was the roughest of them, because I found construction workers working in conditions that I totally opposed, and with my American exposure, I told the management what they were doing wrong.

"A team of men from Central Kingston stopped me one morning and one said: 'Alpart is Michael's territory, so I think it's best you go back and leave here'. I said 'this is Jamaica, and Jamaica is my territory, like yours. I think we still have a right to be where we want to'," Charles said.

"The next morning, two carloads of guys came to the plant after I arrived with my driver called 'Silent'. I was in the back seat and one car came straight before us and stopped, and by the time that one stopped, one got behind our car and blocked us, so we couldn't go forward.

"The guys alighted from both cars and I decided that the safest thing was to get out of my car. So I got out and started to run towards the mining area. I could easily hear one guy say to another, 'shot him', and he said to the other guy, 'why you no shoot him, you have a gun too?'," Charles related.

"He said again 'shoot the b...c.... man nuh!', and the other insisted, 'you shoot him'.

By this time, Charles said, he had reached one of the mining holes, which he assessed to be about 22-feet deep.

"I flung myself against the side of the hole and tried to hold on," he said.

"I had ran in the direction of where the tractors would come into the mine to take up the dirt and go out, so when I heard one coming I managed to crawl out of the hole and run alongside the tractor. I looked back and saw that the men were still standing there with the guns, but nobody could shoot, or didn't shoot.

"My driver, who had driven away, came back around, and while travelling at around 25 to 30 miles per hour, I grabbed the back door, opened it and swung into my car," said Charles, who at the time had returned to Jamaica only a year after he completed studies at New York and City Universities.

A shaken and bruised Charles was taken to the Mandeville Hospital where he spent a few days. The doctor on duty issued strict instructions that he should have no visitors, out of concern for his safety.

But not wanting to be far from the action, Charles took on the Herculean task of going back to Alpart, despite the danger.

"I recalled the morning when I arrived there, one of the guys said to me 'b....c..... Charles, you come back'. And I said to them, 'I am back for good'.

"A few days after that, Michael arrived at Alpart for a meeting at Nain. I was there with some guys and saw a crowd coming with him, but a police jeep was in front, so I wasn't as fearful of the crowd, because the police were there.

"When the police jeep came down and stopped beside me, I heard one of the guys say, 'Charles, you haffi leff ya, you know, because the boss seh a you a cause problems, and as long as you are here we not going get no work'. That's what they said Michael told them," the veteran trade unionist said.

"I thought that the police jeep was the safest place for my rescue, so I jumped into the back of the jeep. The policeman in charge said to me 'come out, this is a police jeep', and he was so serious that I had to jump back out.

"So I stepped out of the jeep and leaned my back against it just as Michael and a few of his guys arrived. A guy named Cookie, whom I knew before, said to Michael, 'him have a gun', and I really had a gun.

"Michael looked at him and said, 'who have a gun here?' And Cookie leaned back, went down and up with his fist and landed it straight in my eye. I had on a pair of glasses and I recalled the glasses splintered, leaving one part of the frame on my face. He broke the glasses in my eye and at that point I pulled my gun and I fired it towards his belly. It didn't catch him in his belly, it went a little lower, because at that time I wasn't good enough at shooting," said Charles.

"I knew that I wasn't going to kill him, because I knew where I should shoot if I was going to kill him. I then looked at Michael Manley, with the gun in my hand, and said, 'is you cause this'.

"Manley said something to me that I would never forget: 'You damn fool, I am trying to save you.'

"By this time, because of the shooting of the guy, everybody scattered, but Michael Manley never took one step back. He stood up beside me with that gun and watched me shoot that guy, and I pointed the gun at him and he never stepped back. I learnt a lot from that," said Charles.

"I ran towards my car that was parked down the bottom and when I jumped in I heard one guy say, 'Lawd Pearnel, no leave me, man. When I stopped I saw hundreds of stones coming on the car. I recalled one dropping on the windshield and it coming right in and back out, and I reversed away," said the father of seven who was born in the rural village of Macedonia in St Ann.

Again, Charles ended up at hospital, this time at the University Hospital of the West Indies where doctors again decided that he should have no visitors, for safety reasons.

A day after he was admitted he received the chilling news that two men had turned up at the hospital around midnight insisting they be allowed to see him.

The nurses on duty managed to convince them that he had been transferred to another hospital earlier in the day, as they did not appear to be men offering him flowers and chocolates.

"They came for me," Charles reflected, as he leaned back in his chair at his swanky St Andrew home during the interview with the Jamaica Observer.

The man who later went on to become vice-president of the BITU, was charged days later with shooting with intent, but was acquitted by an 11-member jury in the Supreme Court — a trial in which Manley also testified.

"The Alpart incident was the closest I had come to feeling danger. I had always travelled by myself to Alpart, leaving Kingston at four o'clock in the morning in a Buick, flying past anything on the road and at that time you had to move like a bird to catch me," Charles said.

Charles also felt the fury of Winston Blake, alias 'Burry Boy', an infamous PNP bad man who traversed sections of Central Kingston, East Kingston and Arnett Gardens in South St Andrew.

Burry Boy, whose funeral was attended by Manley, amid much outcry by political critics, fired at a vehicle driven by Charles, as he headed to a JLP meeting in the PNP-dominated Central Kingston during the 1970s.

"I was driving the car with Mr (Edward) Seaga beside me, and when we got to Potters Row, we came under attack," said Charles.

"I knew Burry Boy. When I drove up I saw him sitting on top of a Zephyr 6 motor car with a long gun and as we drove in, he started firing. Seaga shouted to me, 'let's turn around', and when I was driving off, a guy said, 'Pearnel, no lef we', and two JLP supporters jumped into the car.

"We left unhurt, drove along Windward Road where we saw police stopping us, but I slowed and drove off fast again and only stopped when I reached Tivoli, where the police caught up with us," said Charles, who also spent time in the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation as a two-time councillor for the Denham Town Division.

Charles, who has served as member of parliament for St Thomas East where he still runs a large sugar cane plantation, has been caught in the middle of several political clashes over the years, including a by-election in St Mary during the 1970s in which he, while travelling with Seaga again, came under a sustained stone-throwing attack.

But those rank second to the reception that he received years later when he turned up at the National Arena for a confab in 1992.

The much-publicised 'Gang of Five' affair was in the air, with allegations that five members of the JLP hierarchy, which included Charles, were trying to get rid of Seaga, the party leader.

Charles insisted that it was elements of the party's system that they wanted to change and not its leader.

"Mr Seaga arranged for Enid Bennett to run against me for deputy leader and when I went to the Arena the day, there were four guys who drove up in a car. I knew three of them, and they had guns. One of them came up to me and said, 'Pearnel, no go in deh yu nuh. We nuh want yu go inna di Arena today, go home a yu yard'," he recalled.

"I said to myself, I don't even know these guys as Labourites and they are going to tell me that I can't go to a JLP conference. So I said, 'I going in, you know brethren'.

"So I left them and went straight in and came back out soon after. When I came back out, one of the guys that I knew said to me 'Pearnel, a know yu long time. The boss say yu nuh fi go in deh, and I a tell yu, just go home, just go home.'

"I said to him, 'you are mad, I am not leaving my people'. "They started flinging bottles and stones at me and I remember ducking behind a woman's pot and turned over her pot of soup. Daryl Vaz and myself were there. He was right beside me and I remember him saying to me, 'Pearnel, it's time to go. The temperature is too high'," Charles recounted.

Charles left the scene emotionally hurt, but not physically battered, although he was hit in the head by an empty Heineken bottle. Within a few months, the three men whom he had seen with guns had died in separate violent incidents in the Corporate Area.

The controversial detention of Charles and other JLP officials, including Olivia 'Babsy' Grange occurred at a time when it was widely felt that the PNP was charting an insecure course and wanted to silence some people who could possibly help the JLP to regain power, which the party lost four years earlier.

Among the charges laid against him was that he had been seen distributing 26 guns at a school in South West St Andrew, evidence that was presented before a tribunal, but which was discredited following a spirited defence led by top lawyer Winston Spaulding.

The man laying the claim said that of 27 people who were in the schoolyard, he was the only man whom Charles had not given a gun, and that he was upset about it.

"That wasn't true," Charles maintains. "Winston Spaulding turned him into a joke in the courthouse and the judge ran him out. It was organised for him to be a witness. His mother came and told me who organised it, but I don't know if I believed it," he said.

"In 1976, I was designated to run in South West (St Andrew) and they detained me. All of my election team was cleaned up and thrown into detention. I was detained three days after the State of Emergency was declared and spent nine months at a section of camp called Wire Fence," he recalled.

"I wasn't scared, because of the revolutionary spirit of an African and the campus revolutionary spirit that took me into the NAACP, marching through Harlem and in a part of America when we thought that (Martin Luther) King was too soft, when Malcolm X and these guys were firing; that made students want to follow them.

"When I was in detention a man told me that 'boss, a whole heap a time man send we fi you and when we come yu not there, and one time a man say him come fi yu and him see yu with a gun pointing at him'. That, too, was not true."

However, Charles's biggest challenge was not being able to visit his wife and daughter who met in a motor vehicle accident in the United States, as the Manley Administration would not allow him to leave the island.

"While I was in detention, my wife met in a terrible accident in the States. That was one of the most painful periods. I got a telegram that my wife was likely to die," said Charles.

"I sent the telegram to a high-ranking PNP man who was close to Manley and asked him to see what he could do for me because my wife was dying. She was working three jobs and had fallen asleep coming home. Patrece (daughter) was in the vehicle with her and she was also seriously injured," Charles recounted.

"The man read the telegram and urged me to apply for permission to leave the country and the Government said no. He even went to Jamaica House to speak with Manley, but it did not work. Luckily, my wife never died," said Charles, who has since chronicled most of his exûperiences in four books — Detained, Jamaica and the People's Struggle for Survival, The Politics of Power, and A Cry from the Grassroots.

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