Ebony G. Patterson's Of 72 on display in Jamaica. ANNIE PAUL

This week in The Stranger, I interview the artist Ebony G. Patterson, who made a memorial to the victims of the 2010 attack on Tivoli Gardens. Your piece in the New Yorker called the event “A Massacre in Jamaica.” Your reporting represents a full turnaround from the first press reports of what happened. The Associated Press first described the events as a fight between Jamaican authorities and “heavily armed gang members.” But within a matter of days, the New York Times was reporting that crime don Christopher “Dudus” Coke had not been caught and civilian casualties seemed to be mounting, and that the Obama administration still expressed support for the operation. How did you get on the story to begin with?

I wanted to take a random trip for fun. Someone recommended I go to Kingston, Jamaica. And then I was in Kingston and didn’t know what to do—I wasn’t a very good traveler. I’m still not very good. I was wandering around the tourist area, and some guy wanted me to buy him beers, and I said, “Sure, man,” and then he told me an account of what happened in Tivoli Gardens. He wasn’t there, it was just stuff he’d heard. He said, basically, that a great number of innocent, unarmed people had been slaughtered. I thought that if a tenth of what this guy was saying was true, it would be a very important story. I went back and looked at what the New York Times reported—that it was a pitched battle between the Jamaican security forces and Coke’s men. Then I started walking around the neighborhood to try to get a sense of what people there saw.

Sponsored
Experience Tukwila's vibrant, global food scene during Seattle Restaurant Week
From Oct 24th - Nov 6th enjoy diverse culinary menus at great prices in Tukwila!

You started doing that right away, while you were there on vacation.

The lesson would be that it’s good to go places with no particular schedule or agenda in mind. At that point, I was thinking I was writing about it. But no one had sent me there or anything. I don’t think anyone would have.

Why?

It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. In order to obtain the facts that would convince my editor at the New Yorker that it was worth sending me there—and this was my first assignment at the New Yorker—I would have had to go there. It was very cool of the New Yorker to assign me a piece when I’d never worked with them before. They put a lot of trust in me. I was saying, “These people are credible,” and the New Yorker was bold enough to take my word on that.

You’re there for this aimless trip. How long were you there? Did you go back? What was the reporting process like?

Let’s see, this was a few years ago now. I think I went back three times, and I think it was eight weeks total, spread out over the different trips. And then I went back sometimes, later on, after the story came out, just to see people.

When in your mind do you decide, “Okay, this is credible. These people are credible. I have to follow up on this.” What’s the moment when that happens?

It’s not hard when 20 or 30 people are giving me their first name, last name, and home address, and are all telling me the Jamaican government did this. Young people are telling me this, old people are telling me this, community leaders are telling me this, church leaders are telling me this, politicians are telling me this, people in the media are telling me this, and there’s this old decrepit cemetery where bodies are buried in disarray—it’s not a cryptic situation. There was a lot of evidence indicating that this had been a very one-sided incident.

The casualties that day were seventy-some to one, or seventy-some to zero, depending on how you count. The security forces found only six guns in the immediate aftermath. There was just a vast surplus of evidence suggesting that a massacre had occurred. The military and the police—I tried to give them every opportunity to provide a convincing alternate narrative. They didn’t do it in the beginning, and they didn’t do it at the end.

In West Kingston, the story that I wrote was not a hard story to get. It’s just the story you would get from talking to anyone who was there. It’s not a story you would have gotten from the newspapers in Jamaica because they—well, I’ll just leave it there.

I guess the PR campaign [by the authorities] for this rollout—they succeeded in getting their message out. And that’s how the unrest was portrayed in the media at the time.

But if you go back and look at one of the first stories in the New York Times, it was written by Kareem Fahim, who was only there for a short time. I admire him tremendously. He writes about Errol Spence, one of the guys who was killed. He writes about allegations that he was forced up against a wall, unarmed, and shot. I’ve never met Kareem, but just reading it, I could tell he had come across things at the time that he had found troubling, even if those didn’t quite make it into the headline.

But there’s something the people in Jamaica say, and that’s, “No one in that neighborhood is innocent.” Which sort of implies that whoever died got what they deserved. That’s what a lot of people in Jamaica said to me, the people who aren’t in Tivoli Gardens. And in a certain way, there’s a lot of confused and messed-up truth in that—that Dudus’s organization was so powerful that it was impossible for anyone to live there without coming to some sort of accommodation with them. Does that mean people should be rounded up and shot by their own army? Absolutely not.

Can you describe how the politics of the neighborhood worked and how they connected to the national powers in Jamaica at the time?

There are a lot of different theories about this. I interviewed Bruce Golding about this; he was the prime minister at the time. I went to his house on a different trip. But there are a lot of different theories about it, and there’s a clear chronology about what happened.

We know that Golding was from West Kingston. We know he was a member of the JLP [Jamaica Labour Party]. We know Tivoli Gardens was a key base for the JLP, that [Tivoli Gardens] was originally created to reward JLP stalwarts, to almost to be a factory that would produce JLP votes. That plan existed before Bruce Golding. But he wound up being the beneficiary of it. So there was always a relationship between the member of parliament from West Kingston [as Golding was] and the gang that controlled Tivoli Gardens.

The first head of state who visited Ronald Reagan’s White House—who was considered an important piece of ballast on the right to counter Castro’s Cuba—was [Jamaican] Prime Minister Edward Seaga, and he marched in the funeral of Dudus’s father [Lester “Jim Brown” Coke, founder of the ongoing Shower Posse drug gang], who was even more powerful [than Dudus].

So this relationship between the politicians and the dons, it didn’t start with Bruce Golding, and it didn’t even start with Tivoli Gardens. This is just how things are done there, in a way. But it came to a stop because someone from the Southern District of New York decided to indict Christopher Coke, because Christopher Coke, they believed, had some involvement in drug matters in the Bronx.

The extradition was the result of long-standing corruption in Jamaica colliding with the increasingly global reach of US law enforcement, particularly the DEA. The DEA has a large budget, a big capacity, and there’s an ongoing demand for bad guys. They need to collar international drug lords in order to justify their budget, even though it’s a pretty well-established fact that putting these guys away does little or nothing to change the volume of drugs that reach US shores.

I don’t know exactly what happened with Bruce Golding and the extradition, why he wouldn’t process it in the beginning, and why he changed his mind about it later on. Did the US have something on him? There’s been tons of speculation about it. I don’t know the answer. I don’t want to apologize for Golding’s line of action entirely, but I’m just trying to show that nothing he did is outside the lines of the way things have worked in Jamaica for some years, and often with US acquiescence. Nothing’s been established, but there have been a lot of accusations of the CIA supporting JLP gangs during Seaga’s time, when Jamaica was more of a Cold War hot spot [Seaga became JLP leader in 1974 and was prime minister from 1980 to 1989]. That’s somewhere between urban legend and historical fact, but it’s been said for a long time. And you’ll see that in Marlon James’s new book [the novel A Brief History of Seven Killings]—there’s any number of places you can find people alleging that.

In May 2013, you wrote a piece for the New Yorker online called “Traces of a Massacre” after obtaining video taken from US Department of Homeland Security surveillance plane that flew overhead and relayed information to the Jamaican authorities during the attack. You wrote, “The question of how to extract a dangerous man from a residential neighborhood is one of the fundamental problems of our time, happening everywhere from Gaza to Rio to Abbottabad.” The video seemed as if it might provide some answers, but most of the killings happened after the time period shown on the video. Has anything more come out? Where do things stand now with the Jamaican investigation into the civilian deaths, or any investigation into the American role in supporting the killings?

I got that video through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. In Jamaica, there have been a series of hearings [called the Dudus/Manatt Commission of Enquiry]. I think they’re between them now, and they’ll pick them back up. I’d like to get down there and report on the hearings, but it’s just not something I’ve had time to do yet. And then, yeah, Coke is in jail here in the United States—if I’m not mistaken, he’s in South Carolina. He’s never told his side of the story, and that would be really interesting to hear.

Are you pursuing that?

Not in any active way. I do daydream about it.

Tell me about the video. Has the case gone cold, or what do you think will shake loose? In June 2012, when Coke was sentenced to 23 years in American prison, you wrote about some of the remaining questions for us domestically: “What was the DHS doing in Jamaica, hundreds of miles from US shores, passing on intelligence to Jamaican forces as they stormed Tivoli Gardens? Was intelligence-sharing the full extent of our government’s involvement with the operation? If US forces saw evidence of the massacre as it was unfolding, did they make any attempt to intervene? And given that we were the ones who insisted on Coke’s arrest, what are our obligations to the families of innocent people killed in the process?” Do we have answers to any of those questions you posed in 2012? Will more video come out of your lawsuit?

Support The Stranger

No. And the lawsuit is over. It would be interesting to hear from the police and military who went in that day, to hear in their own words what they did and saw and what their orders were regarding the use of force. I don’t know if we’ll get that from the commission, but I think we’ll hear from them in the fullness of time. That’s another side that hasn’t really been given a voice yet.

When you look at the history of My Lai, and the more formative history of Guantanamo—when you have different histories of military actions that were clearly outside the bounds of international law in some atrocious way—it’s easy to just blame the soldiers and the police. But in a way, they’re the victims too. It’s important to hear from them in order to understand the institutional imperatives that made them feel they were authorized, or that it was in their interest, or what were the other factors that might have caused them to do this.

When I talked to Ebony G. Patterson, the artist who made the memorial installation Of 72 that’s now showing at Seattle Art Museum, she was pretty heartbroken about the fact that five years on, an official list of names hasn’t even been released.

Yeah, I have a list of names. But what did she say?

She mentioned there was a report on 18 Degrees North.

The military has periodically gone into Tivoli Gardens on these sorties, and each time a lot of people die. The last time was, I think, in 2003, and the names of those who died are up on a building with a cross near the market. There is nothing like that for [the killings of 2010], and it would be good to have something like that. Patterson’s project sounds like a good start. [Pause] There’s been a lot of talk in the commission that the number may be considerably higher than 72.

Like 150, right?

Like 150. 18 Degrees North talked to a gravedigger who suggested as much. It was a very good interview. He was saying that the number was higher.

What do you think of that? Do you think the numbers are that high?

I have no idea. I wasn’t there. I just work with whatever’s in front of me. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was. It wouldn’t surprise me if it wasn’t.

It is very striking that five years on, there’s this much uncertainty. And that in the autopsies, the ballistic tests were never performed on the weapons. There was never a thorough investigation undertaken. I guess the public defender’s office in Jamaica said this was because of a lack of money, but there were autopsies on the bodies and there were bullets recovered. There were serial numbers on the guns from the army and police, and they were all cataloged, but they never did a full test of the weapons to try and make a match, not to my knowledge. They never did what they would have to do to make a match between the individual weapons and the individual bullet fragments.

Wow. Uh, so when was the last time you were there?

It’s been a while now. Maybe a couple of years?

Did you go to Tivoli Gardens?

Yeah.

What was it like there?

I’m trying to remember. This last [military attack] was cataclysmic. It was the worst one ever. There are bullet holes all over everything. There are people who haven’t gotten any compensation or even an apology. There’s one mother who saw both her sons shot right in front of her. There are a lot of people who saw things that they’re never going to recover from. But apparently that’s what passes for normal in Jamaica.

They opened a new police station and closed a military barracks they’d put in Tivoli Gardens, so it seemed to be passing to a more civilian-type rule when I was there. One important thing that happened was the electricity company went into the neighborhood. Now residents have to pay for their electricity, whereas most were pirating it before.

Was Coke the one getting them the electricity hookup before?

He probably had something to do with it. Electricity in Jamaica costs 8 to 10 times as much as in the United States. Most of their energy comes from petroleum. So a lot of people can’t afford to keep the lights on or have a fridge. There are people who work for the Jamaican government, who wind up going to the universities in the US, or even joining the US armed forces from Tivoli Gardens. I know a guy from Tivoli Gardens who has played for a major-league soccer team in the United States. So there are all kinds of people. But the income is still very low, and there are still a lot of people with nothing to do. You can find people who are happy that Dudus is gone and a lot of people who say they should bring him back. But there are people connected to Coke around, and people don’t like to be seen speaking ill of him, especially to an outsider. I’ve put in a lot of time there, but I’m still definitely an outsider. There are still a lot of things I’ll never be able to find out about the neighborhood because so much of it is still closed off to me.

I sent you the website for Of 72, Patterson’s art installation, and you said you’ve looked at it. What strikes you about the work?

I like the way she combined the bandannas and the doilies, which points to this ambiguity in the status of those who were killed. That derives from the fact that there was never any kind of investigation, or a full investigation. So I like that ambiguity, and I like her focus on the number, and I liked that she put it up in the neighborhood so that people there could see it. That was very cool.

She’s using that number as almost a kind of fiction, since there is no agreed-upon number of the dead. Which number would you use?

I don’t know. I might have even used 76 in the New Yorker story. I’d have to go back and look. Any number you might give isn’t so different from Wikipedia. With repetition, hearsay becomes gospel. This particular piece of hearsay probably started with the Jamaican government—the public defender’s office and the mortuary that was receiving the bodies putting out a number. Each of the bodies received a serial number. Each body was marked with “GZ” and then a number. “GZ” stood for Ground Zero, to give you an idea of what things were like in West Kingston at the time.

Make of it what you will, but to me it suggests that this was an extremely traumatic and unprecedented event in the entire country’s history. This was the greatest civil unrest that Jamaica had experienced since the Morant Bay rebellion of the 19th century, just in terms of numbers of dead.

But there were a lot of bodies rotting in the sun. A lot of bodies lying out in piles. A lot of bodies thrown into the back of trucks, and many of them buried quite hastily. It was a military operation, and whether this kind of treatment of the bodies was planned or sloppiness, I don’t know. But it’s easy to see how that kind of mass killing and mass burial would lead to confusion about numbers.

You wrote about the cemetery. Can you tell me about it?

It’s at the beginning of the New Yorker piece. It’s overgrown and it’s huge. The place where the Tivoli bodies are buried, or one of the places, is way in the back. A bunch of metal disks are on the ground with numbers and letters stenciled on there, but it’s unclear how many bodies are underneath there. The disks are all over the place. There are heaps of earth with these things sticking out in random places. So it’s pretty macabre and it’s pretty disordered. Again, I wasn’t there when these burials were done, I only came a few months afterward. But it seems like it was all done in a hurry.

You’ve written that the attack on Tivoli Gardens demonstrates a disturbing change in the last 10 to 20 years in the way the United States wages war.

I think it’s part of an overarching trend, where the US has loosened its standards for killing during the war on terror, especially internationally. I think it’s connected, in some ways, to drone strikes and renditions and things like that.

Increasingly, whether you’re killable doesn’t depend on who you are or what you’ve done or what’s known about you or what can be proven. Really, you’re killed not for who you are, but for where you are.

If you’re in an area that’s presumed to be a quote-unquote ungoverned space, you can generally be killed. In Tivoli Gardens, they told people to leave. In other places, like the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military will drop leaflets and say they’re coming into a certain area and people need to leave by a certain time—but all this leads to taking civilian spaces, where there is no official war taking place, and nevertheless indiscriminately and disproportionately killing people. And not in a way that’s accidental. It’s not clear that all the civilians are targets, exactly, but nor is it accidental. It’s collateral. Or it’s an accepted cost of achieving a strategic goal in civilian space. recommended

Sponsored
Annual Seattle Erotic Art Festival and Halloween party returns to Seattle Center October 29 –31!
A weekend of art, performance, readings, & more! Festival ends at Seattle's sexiest Halloween party.