Resurrecting the assassination attempt on Bob Marley


Resurrecting the assassination attempt on Bob Marley


Sunday, May 31, 2020

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Netflix has brought to life the assassination attempt of Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley that occurred on December 3, 1976 — 44 years ago.

It is a tribute to Marley's staying power. Although Marley transitioned at the tender age of 36, his music, his lyrics and his purpose in life continue to capture the imagination of a worldwide audience. As a personality, Marley was always larger than life and in death, he remains an immortal musical icon, a legendary fighter for social justice.

Netflix has included in its arsenal of documentaries the story of Marley's assassination attempt titled Who Shot the Sheriff, written by Jeff Zimbalist and directed by Kief Davidson. The documentary was completed in October 2018 and recently aired on Netflix to coincide with 39 years of Marley's passing.

The narrative is riveting as it uses many of the principal figures surrounding Marley's attempted assassination and much of the scenes and footages constitute the original drama from the 1970s.

Although the author's main focus is on the Smile Jamaica concert, the documentary also covers the 1978 Peace Concert when Marley returned to Jamaica two years after the attempt to end his life.

The documentary includes footage with Prime Minister Michael Manley and Leader of the Opposition Edward Seaga. There are interviews with minister of state Arnold Bertram; Paul Burke, former secretary of the People's National Party (PN); Diane Jobson, Marley's lawyer; Jimmy Cliff, a musical icon; Michael Witter, an economist of The University of the West Indies; Nancy Burke, a friend of Bob Marley, etc. Roger Steffens and Laurie Gunst are featured with commentary throughout the documentary.

The documentary reveals some new information that was not widely known. It is mentioned that when Marley approached the Jamaica Government to do a free concert in Race Course that is now National Heroes' Park, the date of the general election was not yet established. Manley called the election for December 15, 1976 and Marley's free concert for the people of Jamaica was slated for December 5, 1976. The calendar juxtaposition placed the musical troubadour in a precarious position.

Long before the general election date or the announcement of the concert, political violence was raging on the streets of “sufferer” communities in Jamaica to the extent that Prime Minister Michael Manley invoked a state of public emergency and a number of political gunfighters were detained.

Political violence erupted on the streets of Kingston and St Andrew leading up to the 1967 General Election. The violence was fuelled by political victimisation, particularly in the distribution of contracts and low-income housing. The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) won the general election of 1967, lost general elections back-to-back in 1972 and 1976 and regained the keys to Jamaica House in 1980. Those years were characterised by inflammatory rhetoric, the distribution of guns to political posses that resulted in mayhem in the streets and a tottering of the democratic process.

Marley articulated in the documentary that once the concert was announced, threats were directed at him. The documentary stipulates that People's National Party security men were protecting Marley's Hope Road residence, but the night when the assassins came, the security detail surfaced after the gunfighters had “shot up” the place. Rita Marley was injured. Don Taylor saved Bob Marley's life as the bullets meant for Bob were lodged in Don Taylor's back. Taylor, Marley's manager, was the most seriously injured. The question in the aftermath of the assassination attempt was Marley willing to proceed with the tribute to the Jamaican people under such perilous circumstances. Marley knew the danger he faced but he found the courage to perform at the concert. The Jamaican people came out in their thousands as Robert Nesta Marley paid homage to them and they paid homage to him.

Marley was disturbed by the fratricidal killings of the 1970s but made it clear that he was neither PNP or JLP but was a Rastafarian who had become a transcendental figure in Jamaica and urged peace among the warring factions.

After the concert, Chris Blackwell provided the means to get Bob Marley out of Jamaica and began his two-year exile in London. The documentary mentions how Claudie Massop, the don in Tivoli Gardens and a JLP supporter, and Buckie Marshall, a PNP don from Matthews Lane, and their incarceration was instrumental in the blossoming of the peace movement. But there were other precipitating factors. The Green Bay Massacre of five youth from Southside in central Kingston that was orchestrated by the Jamaica Defence Force convinced a number of politically protected gunfighters that their lives were expendable.

After the Green Bay Massacre in January 1978, the peace movement spread like wildfire. Arnett Gardens had reservations but the grass root sentiment for peace was overwhelming.

Claudie Massop, and Tony Welch from Arnett Gardens went as ghetto ambassadors to persuade Marley to return home. The Peace Concert was held at the National Stadium in April 1978. Bob Marley, in the midst of the concert, called up Michael Manley and Seaga to hold hands aloft as a symbol of peace.

The pressures of the general election were too much and the peace movement collapsed and the political violence of 1980 was the worst in the history of the country. Political tribalism and the subculture of violence were too deeply entrenched and the yearning for peace rapidly evaporated.

The principals in the peace movement used the peace to embark on robberies as the criminality had deeper roots than any genuine commitment for peace. The documentary raises questions as to who shot Bob Marley. There was never a serious state inquiry. What is known is that everyone who invaded Hope Road that night of December 3, 1976 was eventually removed from the earth. Their deaths were not related to Marley's attempted assassination but “badness” is a perilous undertaking in Jamaica and wanton killers invariably are overcome by their dastardly careers of criminality.

Marley's life was cut short on May 11, 1981. He did everything possible to end the intra-class killings in Jamaica. The political violence continued in the 1980s but that lumpen proletariat underworld became more involved with drug markets that were more lucrative than siphoning off politically based contracts. There was also the grass roots understanding that political violence had become counter-productive and destructive to poor communities.

Political violence like some viruses has burnt itself out and elections in Jamaica are basically free of political violence. Nonetheless, the high homicide rates continue to plague Jamaican society. In the same way that Marley was unafraid to speak truth to power and through his music raise the level of consciousness of the Jamaican people, there is the need for a new generation of musicians to beat back the culture of dehumanisation and to advance the culture signifying the sacrosanct nature of human life, irrespective of class.

Professor Basil “Bagga” Wilson is Provost Emeritus of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. He represented Kingston College at Manning Cup football and cricket during the 1960s.

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