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Reflections on Rodney riots and Peter Tosh

BY SHARLENE HENDRICKS
Staff reporter
hendrickss@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, October 21, 2018

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Confronting issues of oppression and inequality, and delineating the struggle for black liberation in Caribbean societies was the collective effort of attendees on Friday at a conference held in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Walter Rodney riots in 1968.

Dubbed Confrontations: UWI Student Protests and the Rodney disturbance of 1968, the conference was a joint venture between the UWI Mona's Department of History and Archaeology and UWI Museum, and featured eye-witness accounts and reflections on the historic event.

Fifty years after the riots surrounding the banning of history lecturer Walter Rodney and the subsequent government-sanctioned lockdown of the university campus, eyewitness and then student of Rodney, Jackie Bertram shared her recollections of the event.

“When I reflect on what we did that day, I realise that an activist must have reason and intelligence. We decided, they banned Walter, we were going to march. It was chaotic. We were tear-gassed. We ran. I don't think it occurred to any of us that because he had been declared persona non grata we were actually seen as agents working against the State. But that didn't matter. We were defending our history lecturer, a calm, quiet man who had never tried to teach us anything subversive,” Bertram said.

Bertram, who later became an educator herself, said that it was Rodney's talks that lit the fuse to her own awakening as a black woman in the 1960s.

“It was his talks at the union that ignited me, particularly when he talked about how we wore our hair. It hit me, and from then my hair has been natural till now because what Walter said resonated to me. Walter planted a seed which has grown into a consciousness of what it is to be black. It was implanted in us a seed that whenever something is anti- the people, you have to find a way to let the powers that be know that you're not accepting it. Physical protest which is dangerous actually shows the powers that be that you're serious,” Bertram continued.

Gender specialist Linnette Vassell also shared her memories of the event, pulling meanings from the experience as an activist herself.

“Remembering 50 years ago is a memory about choices; the choices that we make as to who we will stand with and what we will stand for. I remember the march, and running frantically around and confronting barbed wire because I think there was a lot of confusion. But what was important for me as I recollect is that we were in our red gowns, which was a signifier of privilege, and people really recognised that. As university students we were moving out of this space which creates privilege and we were standing with the interest of the people. And for me that is the meaning of activism that I have held for myself,” Vassell said.

“He spoke a lot about the sacrifices that the working people made for us to come to the university and how often many of us forget where we are coming from and turn our back against the people and against our very parents. So hearing Walter kept me connected with my mother and who she represented,” Vassell continued.

Organisers of the event described the student-led protest as “a pivotal moment for the UWI community and the wider Jamaican society, explaining that the Jamaica of the 1960s was faced with issues of governmental authority, intellectual freedom, citizenship challenges, justice and insularity.race and colour, among others, were starkly revealed in the development and aftermath of what took place in October 1968. Student activism after 1968 reflected changes created by that era”.

“The 50th anniversary of what happened in October 1968 provides a useful vantage point from which we can give fresh analysis to student protest in the Caribbean, the banning of Walter Rodney, the reactions to it, and the legacy of youth-led movements in the Caribbean — while acknowledging the global wave to which these regional actions were connected,” organisers said.

Peter Tosh: Bush doctor and musical prophet

Holding equal space with the Walter Rodney conference, and scheduled as one of the items on the UWI's list of activities to highlight National Heroes' Day, was the annual Peter Tosh Symposium, also held on Friday.

Special guest speakers included former minister of finance, Omar Davies who is considered an aficionado of Tosh's music, as well as prolific roots reggae artiste Jah 9, who spoke about the social activism of Peter Tosh through his music.

Davies highlighted some of the same issues that would have been revealed during the Rodney riots, in particular police brutality.

“One of the outstanding features about Tosh was that here was someone who took serious social issues, gave incisive commentary, and then packaged it for a popular music medium. Tosh wrote and sang about our educational system. He wrote about the police brutality”, referring to Tosh's songs Can't blame the youth and Mark of the beast”.

“Who could have thought that Mark of the beat in terms of the condemnation of police brutality could not only still be relevant in Jamaica but in the US in a sense? the treatment of blacks and racial profiling reflects the same issues Tosh was singing about 30 years ago. And then there is the issue of marijuana, some who was abused for his use and public defence of herb. He sang about marijuana. There is no one else you can think of who consistently spoke this,” Davies said.

Jah 9 who is hot off her tour in the US, did not mince words when addressing issues of women's rights and medical marijuana, and declared Tosh her “favourite Wailer”.

“Peter Tosh was a folk story -teller. I could connect with him more than I could connect with the fullness of that group. To me, Peter Tosh, even though he was not speaking to women's rights in particular, I could take from it that which I needed to empower myself, to be unapologetic. He was able to do that,” Jah 9 said.

“I as a reggae artiste going out into the world, I benefit greatly from his legacy and all my elders that went before. I stand here as kindred to him. It is hard sometimes as an artiste to be fearless and to speak your truth. And I can only imagine at that time, 30 years ago, how seriously dangerous it might have been to speak truth. So I give thanks for those who had the courage, in particular our brother Peter Tosh,” the reggae artiste said.

Other events held as part of the UWI's celebration of National Heroes Day was the annual Walter Rodney Lecture that was on Thursday, October 20, and the Jamaican premiere of the documentary on Leonard Howell, The First Rasta also on Friday, as a second National Heritage Month Lecture to be held on Friday October 28.

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