Grand Theft Auto (and Grand Theft Property)

Kingston Be Wise

There’s fewer degrees of separation between Grand Theft Auto Five and the foundation Rasta village of Pinnacle in Sligoville than you might think.

One wonders what Leonard Howell, founder of the Pinnacle, would have thought of the story of his famous experiment showing up on one of the 21st century’s most famous computer games. As an historian, I never fail to be amazed by the extent to which history is arranged, re-arranged, manipulated, covered up or denied. Of course, it’s also simply forgotten or ignored, depending on who is doing the storytelling. Yet the best stories have a way of bubbling back to the surface, and Pinnacle, Jamaica, is certainly one of those.

A couple of weeks ago we saw the release of the new version of the madly popular game Grand Theft Auto. Players can switch to Blue Ark FM while tooling around town and the playlist for the reggae station includes not only such perfectly-judged tunes as Yellowman’s ‘Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt’ but also a handful of reggae revival artists such as Chronixx and Protoje. Reggae revive is a term that comes around regularly – the previous one was about 20 years ago when artists like Sizzla and Buju started into conscious lyrics … well, anyhow…. But back to the point, and Protoje’s ‘Kingston Be Wise’ features as one of the tracks in the new game. It’s unlikely that many listeners will grasp the full meaning of the song but who knows. One hears songs many times over in the life of a computer game. The song, says Protoje, deals with the events of May 2010 when the Jamaican military took over Tivoli Gardens at the behest of the US in their search for Christopher Dudus Coke, the reputed gang leader of the Shower Posse.

 

Days of desperate violence followed the invasion, and by the time the military forces left Tivoli Gardens, 73 civilians were dead. At the time, the military claimed that they were gunmen, but the military only found six guns. Anger raged through Kingston at the military’s impunity. Yet, as Protoje sings, this story goes back a lot further.

“Leonard Howell, Pinnacle and them land deh,
Subdivision, them deal it underhand deh”

The older residents of Tivoli Gardens had seen their areas destroyed before – in some cases many times. Some of them saw their homes destroyed at Pinnacle, and were moved on to Back O’Wall, only to see that destroyed to make way for Tivoli Gardens. Tivoli Gardens was built under the supervision of Edward Seaga, former leader of the Jamaican Labour Party, back in the mid-1960s. Back O’Wall on the edge of Kingston had been until that point one of the poorest urban areas in the Caribbean, with thousands of people living in shanty town conditions, arriving from the countryside in search of work. When the Jamaican government – at that time still a colonial force – destroyed the Pinnacle settlement in the late 1950s, it was into Back O’Wall that the unfortunate residents of the Pinnacle were unceremoniously dumped. Over the last years, the land at Pinnacle has been sold off to investors and the descendants of the Pinnacle residents claim that they were never compensated for the confiscation of their land. The land has been subdivided for private developments.

Pinnacle was famous in its day, known throughout Jamaica as a free nation within the colonised island. No doubt alarmed that the last survivors were dying off, the French journalist Helene Lee spent a few years making a documentary about the survivors and the influence of Jamaica, putting the commune into an historical perspective that spans the twentieth century. The film itself is based on Lee’s 1999 book Le Premier Rasta and with the financial “crisis” of the last few years, the philosophy of the protagonists has added resonance. Not all Jamaicans – nor all Rastas – received the film favourably but it’s definitely worth a watch and we can all make up our own minds. For my few cents worth, it’s a tremendous piece of social documentary work.

One wonders what Leonard Howell, founder of the Pinnacle, would have thought of the story of his famous experiment showing up on one of the 21st century’s most famous computer games. As an historian, I never fail to be amazed by the extent to which history is arranged, re-arranged, manipulated, covered up or denied. Of course, it’s also simply forgotten or ignored, depending on who is doing the storytelling. Yet the best stories have a way of bubbling back to the surface, and Pinnacle, Jamaica, is certainly one of those.

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