50 years later, Rastafarians receive justice

The Rastafarian community of Coral Gardens, Jamaica, finally received received recognition of and an apology for the trauma suffered during a 1963 crack-down that left eight dead. The UN Human Rights Office was there to help the community advocate for justice.

Protests during a recent rally recalling the “Coral Gardens atrocity”. Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness apologized for the events this past April. Photo courtesy of the Rastafari Coral Gardens Benevolent Society.

More than half a century seems a long time to wait for justice.

But for Ika wani Tafara, chair of the Rastarfari Coral Gardens Benevolent Society (RCGBS), the wait — while difficult, brutal and sometimes out and out discriminatory — was worth it. The wait eventually brought recognition of wrong doing; it ultimately will bring compensation. The wait finally brought justice.

“Justice had to be sought for because we are living constantly with the direct survivors of this atrocity that took place. It has started the process of redress from the government…for what we knew was a justified cause and we were confident of victory of good over evil in the prevailing situation,” he said.

Between 11 and 12 April 1963, violence flared at Coral Gardens, a town 10 miles outside Montego Bay, Jamaica, which led to the death of civilians and police, prosecution, ill-treatment and detention of Rastafari, along with numerous personal injuries and property destruction.

But, a review of the events by the Jamaican Public Defenders Office published in 2015, declared what happened at Coral Gardens a violation of the human rights of Rastafarians, which had far reaching effects.

“The events at Coral Gardens in April 1963 marked a significant watershed in the relationship between the Rastafari community and the State. The discrimination against that community was inflicted by the citizenry as well. Indeed Rastafari had to contend with hostility from many quarters,” the report stated.

On 4 April 2017 the Rastafari community organized a march in Kingston to demand the accomplishment of the recommendations. The same day Prime Minister Andrew Holness apologized in Parliament to those unfairly targeted in the Coral Gardens event more than 50 years ago.

“Today, without equivocation, we apologise for what occurred in Coral Gardens,” he said. “We express our regret and sorrow for this chapter in our national life that was characterised by brutality, injustice and repression, which was wrong and should never be repeated.”

UN Senior Human Rights Adviser Birgit Gerstenberg joined the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the local NGO Jamaicans For Justice (JFJ)to meet with RCGBS. They offered to support the community’s claims for development as well as raising awareness on human rights concerns. The recommendations made in the Public Defender’s report are an invaluable opportunity to look at the history and present claims of Rastafari from a human rights perspective, Gerstenberg said.

“The events of 1963 were a far reaching, incisive moment of long years of discrimination, marginalisation and persecution,” she said. “[They were ] important in the history of human rights in Jamaica since the killing, arrest, torture and degrading treatment of Rastafari in Coral Gardens marked a before unseen violence against them and the pending apology and reparation were unfinished business of the governments for a long time.”

A history of repression

Rastafari movement emerged in Jamaica in the 1930s, out of the social, political, economic and religious conditions of colonial Jamaica and the world. It followed a prophecy made by black political leader Marcus Garvey, who stated: “Look to Africa where a black king shall be crowned, he shall be your Redeemer.”

This prophecy was followed by the crowning of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, who was seen as its fulfillment. Rastafarians regard the emperor as a figure of salvation, and it’s believed that he would redeem blacks from white suppressors, reuniting them with their homeland, Africa.

However, soon after the first Rastafari appeared in Jamaica, they were subject to persecution. The Public Defender’s report laid out systematic abuse and discrimination against the community starting in the 1930s. Actions included confiscation of property owned by Rastafarians, harassment, imprisonment, even the forced shaving of heads and beards (Rastafari men and women did not cut their hair on their heads resulting in the famous dreadlock.)

The general public, egged on by reports in newspapers and pronouncements by politicians, were afraid of Rastafari, and often subjected them to scorn or stoning. By the 1960s, many lived their lives underground in the forests or in small, tight-knit communities, avoiding public places, streets, and transportation.

“It was a time of being an innocent, but being [seen] as guilty for being who you are; you do right and you are [still] judged wrong,” said Tafara of the RCGBS. “Having a vision of redemption for a people coming out of slavery and being treated as rejects from your own people, it was a dreadful and fearful time being Rastafari.”

Coral Gardens Events

The events in Coral Gardens had a profound effect on the relationship between the Rastafarian community, the police and the general public, the Public Defender’s report stated. Photo EPA/Nic Bothma.

According to the 2015 Public Defender’s report, a group of Rastafarians set a petrol station in Coral Gardens on fire. The police, responding to the fire report went to Coral Gardens, where they found a group of Rastafarians waving spears, hatchets and machetes. A scuffled between the police and the group ensued, and eight people were killed, including three police officers.

A subsequent police search party arrested the six men involved in the gas station fire and the attacks. But the round up didn’t stop there. It was reported in press reports that more than 160 Rastafari were arrested and imprisoned in week after the event. The arrest operation continued for several weeks and the report states that it is reasonable to estimate that many hundreds were rounded up and imprisoned.

“Those persons were also victims of the Coral Gardens incident, having been forced by unlawful threats, fear and intimidation, to cut their locks and shave their beards against their free will,” the report stated. “Many of them, however, remain unknown or forgotten, having died some time ago or no longer remembered as a result of the ide of history.”

Reparations, recompense, regret

The Public Defender’s Office revisited the case, after repeated requests from members of the Rastafari community. In 2015, the results were reported to Parliament, and found that following the incident, the Rastafarians suffered “discrimination, denigration and scorn.”

Protester at recent rally on Coral Gardens events. Photo courtesy of Rastafari Coral Gardens Benevolent Society.

The report made recommendations, including an apology to those where directly involved in the Coral Gardens events, the establishment of a Rastafari cultural centre and trust fund of J$ 10-million to pay reparations to the survivors of the incident.

However, the Government’s response took time. A committee was set up to study the report and make recommendations to Cabinet about the implementation of the reports’s recommendations. A representative of the UN Human Rights Office, along with UNDP and JFJ, contacted the Coral Gardens group in September to provide support for RCGBS.

“We offered human rights awareness training and [We] provided assistance to advocate with the Prime Minister for the implementation of the recommendations of the report,” Gerstenberg of the UN Human Rights Office said.

In addition to the apology this year, Prime Minster Holness announced that the government would make compensation to those who had been victims in the Coral Gardens events.

For Tafara and others, the apology, while welcome, does not lessen the desire to see true integration and justice for the Rastafari.

“It makes me feel good, dignified and validated in the years of heartical, spiritual and material efforts that were manifested in faith to denounce past injustices and looking toward a victorious future, especially for the reparations to be received by the survivors and the community,” he said. “It strengthens my resolve that from generation to generation we must not give up on the fight for what is truth and right, and that might can only beat right for a moment in time.”

Interested in standing up for someone’s human rights? Check out Stand Up, a UN Human Rights Office campaign.