THE FORMATION OF JAMAICANS FOR JUSTICE (JFJ)
It quickly came to be called the ‘Gas Riots’. It had started on April 16, 1999, simply enough with a few protesters in Half-Way-Tree when the government announced an increase in the tax on gasoline effective immediately. By the next morning there were more protesters, a few scattered attempts at roadblocks and the streets were ominously quiet. By midday , the country was grinding to a halt as protests spread and roadblocks multiplied. For three days, the protests continued with looting and the deaths of several protesters amidst the widespread anarchy.
In the gas station at the foot of Jacks Hill and Barbican Roads, there were no ‘riots’. The roads were blocked with the usual detritus of Jamaican protest, old fridge carcasses, stones, old tires set on fire and odd bits of cars. Demonstrators initially stood on either side of Barbican Road, which served as an apt metaphor for a country divided by race, class and history. On one side, the ‘uptown brownings’ on the other, the ‘inner city masses’. Yet the placards on either side of the road said the same things. Eventually a few brave souls crossed the road to talk. By the end of the day, it was a party.
At the end of the ‘riots’ and after the government withdrew the additional gas tax, some concerned persons who had been at the gas station, called a meeting to discuss what had happened during the disturbances and to try and understand what it meant.
The early discussions centered on the frustrations of the Jamaican people. These frustrations included corruption in the public sphere, miscarriages of justice in the judicial system and imbalances in the socio-economic system. People spoke about crime, violence, social inequality and the need to work for a better Jamaica. Most importantly there was a sense of an absence of ‘justice’ in Jamaica, justice in the sense of fairness and equality. It was felt that Jamaica did not deal equally with all her citizens and did not provide equal opportunity for everyone to realize their full potential.
At the end of the first meeting nothing much was decided except that the group wanted to keep talking. A small steering committee was asked to prepare for another meeting and Monsignor Richard Albert, then pastor at Stella Maris, who was at the meeting offered the Palm Court at Stella Maris Church as a venue. Though they did not know it yet, the twenty-plus persons who gathered at Anna Kay Harrison’s home in Jacks Hill and talked earnestly for hours, had founded Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ).
The group began holding meetings at Stella Maris Church hall. Lively, contentious and wide ranging Church hall. Lively, contentious and wide ranging discussions led to the choosing of a name and slowly a way forward began to be outlined. Meetings were held once a week and the numbers at the meetings fluctuated widely but Monsignor Albert was always encouraging. “Keep talking, a way will open, the path will become clear”, he kept saying.
The group decided to register as a limited liability company and on August 9, 1999, four months after the riots, JFJ came into being. A Board of Directors was chosen and met regularly to plan activities. The first Chairperson was Carolyn Gomes, Michelle Smith was selected to become the first Secretary and Simon Mortimer its first Treasurer. Other board members included: Cheryl-Ann Dunstan, Michael Muirhead, Gregory Mair, Yolande Lloyd, Derrick Lowe, Veronica Comrie, Richard Gomes, Carolyn Hayle, Keith Russell-Brown and Peter Couch. On October 15, JFJ was officially a legal entity.