Wed | Nov 21, 2018

Gordon Robinson | War and rumours of war in Portland

Published:Sunday | October 21, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Valerie Neita-Robertson is vying for the Portland Western seat.
Daryl Vaz
Daryl Vaz (left) with his wife Ann-Marie after voting in 2007.
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There's trouble brewing in the East.

JLP seems to have targeted some 'safe' PNP constituencies for political overthrow and is employing shrewd strategies to that end. In the past, 'safe' constituencies were usually surrendered by the other party with weak candidates and half-hearted campaigning. This time, the JLP seems intent on giving no quarter regardless of geography or candidate.

It began with Daryl Vaz, who was sent to West Portland in 2007 to recapture what was a JLP enclave for the legendary Leopold Lynch, who won six consecutive general elections there from 1944. Before 1989, when that great man of the people, Errol 'Jiggs' Ennis, defeated St Clair Shirley, the JLP had only once lost Western Portland, and that was in the 1976 elections shamefully called during a state of emergency. Jiggs won three elections in a row, increasing his majority each time before retiring in 2007, thus giving the JLP a window of opportunity firmly grabbed by Vaz and then shut and bolted against any possible PNP re-entry.

Now, the JLP has deployed party heavyweight Ruel Reid to North West St Ann, a constituency the PNP has won eight times to the JLP's three, signalling it perceives an exploitable weakness. Back home in Portland, Daryl Vaz's better nine-tenths, Ann-Marie Vaz, is declared to run in PNP bastion East Portland which, save for Ken Jones (1955 and 1962) and Anthony Abrahams (1980), has never voted JLP.

Apparently finally spotting the rake, the PNP retaliated by sending political neophyte, but highly respected attorney-at-law Valerie Neita-Robertson to challenge Daryl Vaz in Portland West. Clearly, as they say, it's ON!

It's in that context that I read an alarming thread on Twitter from Valerie:

"Every event I host in my constituency is followed by violent events days after. I'm raising a lot of questions as to how the series of events have been playing out. As a criminal lawyer, I'm spotting a lot of dots that connect too seamlessly. I have learnt over my years as a lawyer there's no such thing as a coincidence.

"Some weeks ago, I had a very big meeting in Orange Bay, Portland, and, days after, a prominent PNP family was gunned down killing a pregnant woman (seven months pregnant). Police information received by me stated that on the morning of the family's grave digging, they found six men in a house from Tivoli in Orange Bay who had no explanation as to why they were there. These men were escorted to the border and asked not to return.

"On the night of my very successful domino tournament which brought out many members of the community, there was a drive-by shooting injuring people by my office in the constituency. Members of the community expressed their concerns to me, as they stated events like this never occurred till now.

"Last week, I visited a community called the Diamond, which I posted on my Instagram page. I met a young lady who was joyful having never seen a politician come and express their concern for her community. She stated that she would be voting for me and voiced this openly. This young lady had four children and was murdered by masked gunmen on Sunday night."

"Now, as I said, I'm seeing too many of these situations, and as a criminal lawyer I'm trained to spot these PATTERNS. I hope this situation isn't what I think it is. Updates will be coming soon.

"My condolences to this young lady's family."

Valerie Neita-Robertson is, as she says, a lawyer. Because I've known her for her entire career and before, I can add that she's a lawyer of much talent, high-class skill, integrity, and experience. Based on my sources' reports to me and what I've seen for myself, she has approached the political arena in a rational, calm, helpful, almost non-partisan way. So, you'll notice that her thread made no allegation against anyone. It merely stated easily verifiable facts, including that some information came from the police. She expressed concern.

If I was a journalist (which I'm not), I'd be on the phone to the Portland police with at least an initial focus to learn if these alleged shootings actually occurred. Instead, one media house, apparently focused on debunking one aspect of Valerie's tweet, namely the hint of political motive, was very critical; conducted interviews with Daryl and the Portland police commanding officer during which only long hops and full tosses were bowled; and ignored several avenues of enquiry. It was announced that Valerie declined an interview because she had a prior engagement.

On the radio, Daryl Vaz called Valerie's allegations "absolutely absurd, irresponsible" and "baseless".

Instead of trying to verify and probe the shootings, the station, in its call to one Superintendent Wellington, commanding Portland Division officer, focused on reading between Valerie's lines to conclude she thinks the shootings are political. Perhaps she does, but she didn't say so, and it behoves us therefore to take this step by step.

First, did the shootings recorded by Valerie occur? Do the police have any suspects? What do police believe were the motives behind the shootings? Are those hypotheses reliable?

Mr Wellington was asked if the shootings were politically motivated. He replied that some were domestic disputes and others appeared "random". RANDOM? What exactly does that mean? Some psychotic loony-bin just happened to kill a few people because the gun went off? Masked gunmen liquidate a lady and that's "domestic"? Or "random"? Give me a break! At least we can surmise that saying the shootings occurred was neither "absurd" nor "baseless".

But the interviewers were quick to accept this facile "explanation" from Mr Wellington without probing deeper. We don't know if any suspects are in custody or if persons of interest have been identified. The news desk reported:

"Mrs Neita-Robertson also complained that six thugs from Tivoli Gardens attended a grave digging following the murder of one of her female supporters. But Superintendent Wellington says police investigations have revealed that the men are not from Tivoli Gardens and were invited to the grave digging by a family member of the deceased."

Wrong. Valerie did NOT use the word "thugs". She wrote that THE POLICE TOLD HER they found six men from Tivoli in a house and escorted them to the border. Is this true, Mr Wellington? Did the police, in fact, find six men from Tivoli in a house in Orange Bay? Were these men escorted out of Portland? If so, why? What did the police apprehend? It's not a crime to occupy a house in a different parish than your hometown.

There are shortcomings in Valerie's phrasing that leaves ample room for at least some of these shootings to be unconnected to politics. Valerie's thread fails to make any concrete connection between her political events and the shootings. The first shooting occurred "days after" her "very big meeting". How many days? What was the family's role at the meeting? By the way, what's a "PNP family"? It harkens back to old-style politics where people called themselves "born PNP/JLP" like slaves used to be born belonging to slave masters.

The "drive-by" shooting on the night of her domino tournament injured people "by" her office. How close? Were they connected to the office? How far away was the domino game? Why would there be a connection between the shooting and the domino game? Wellington hadn't even heard of this one.

The young lady who promised loudly to vote for Valerie was shot a week later. Which political party would be dumb enough to hire hit men to eliminate one vote? Was the killing to send a message to potential PNP voters? If so, how would PNP voters know it was directed at them? There are myriad other reasons in Jamaica today why this young lady might've been targeted and executed by "masked gunmen" but in my opinion, politics would be very low on that list.

We've come a long way since 1980. Portland, my favourite parish where I spent many of my teenage years, has been a paradise of peace. Let's keep it that way. There's basis for Valerie Neita-Robertson to be concerned without drawing any hard and fast conclusions. If this is in any way connected to political rivalry, all parties, including MP and caretaker, need to work as one to stamp it out before it flourishes and grows.

This is no time for political one-upmanship. Elections are two years away. Imagine what Portland could look like if this turns out to be political violence and isn't immediately arrested.

Peace and love.

- Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.