Unstylish Ejection From VIP Seat

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It all started with an email from our MP to the citizens’ association offering tickets to a StyleWeek event last Sunday. Gifts from politicians usually come with lots of strings attached. The exchange often goes like this: I’ll give you $5,000 wrapped up in a designer T-shirt and you’d better vote for me. Or else! But this wasn’t election season. So I took the MP’s email at face value:

“Complimentary tickets are available for FashionBlock. When: Sunday, May 28th 2017, starting at 8pm. Where: Knutsford Blvd. Please email me to let me know how many tickets you need. Thanks.” I didn’t have anything planned for that evening, so I decided to take up the offer. I was rather surprised to see on the ticket that admission was free.

A complimentary ticket is not quite the same as a free ticket. Usually, a complimentary ticket is given as a courtesy to attend a paid event. Not a free show. Getting a complimentary ticket for a free event from an MP was a lot like feeling obliged to be grateful that politicians are actually doing the job for which they are elected. And for which they are paid!

Anyhow, I put aside my reservations and headed to New Kingston. I parked at the lot at the corner of Barbados and St Lucia avenues, where some young men had a good hustle charging $200 for entry. I firmly pointed out the fact that this was a government parking lot, which should be free on a Sunday evening. They apologised, waved me in, and kept right on charging other patrons.

 

THE MORAL OF THE STORY

 

I went to the closest entrance to the Fashionblock event, at the corner of Knutsford Boulevard and Barbados Avenue. Unfortunately, I hadn’t read my complimentary ticket carefully enough. That entrance was only for VIPs. My free ticket said: “out barrier, restaurant side.” And it was standing room only.

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Now I am not one of those people whose navel string is buried under a VIP tree. But there was no other seating. And I had no intention of standing up to watch “Jamaica’s Biggest Fashion Event Ever”. By the way, that tag line reminds me of Sean Spicer’s ‘covfefe’ declaration that Donald Trump’s inauguration crowd was the biggest ever. Period.

I asked if I could get a VIP ticket, and a nice young man went off to find out. He returned with a young woman who let me in and ushered me to a seat. But she didn’t give me a ticket. About half an hour later, before the show had even started, she came back and told me she was at risk of losing her job. He had broken the rules by putting me in the VIP section. So I had to go “out barrier”.

I asked if there was no one who could allow me to stay. She said no. The lady she would have to ask was not around. Earlier, Dewight Peters, who was putting on the show, had greeted me in passing. I don’t suppose the young woman thought she could ask him to give me a VIP ticket. She escorted me to the exit and I headed straight home.

This story has several morals: 1) beware of ‘freeness’ from politicians; 2) always read the fine print; 3) do not ask for and accept favours from powerless people; 4) know when to retreat; 5) always remember that where bones are not provided, dogs are not invited. In this instance: Where VIP tickets are not provided, certain people are not invited.

 

‘ARTS IN THE PARK’

 

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Earlier that day, I’d gone to Arts in the Park at Devon House. That was an excellent event for which neither a free nor a complimentary ticket was needed. It’s a pity it didn’t seem to have been well advertised. Lots of young artists were exhibiting their work and there was live music. A small exhibition from the JCDC art competition is at one of the shops. The main show is located at the Jamaica Conference Centre.

The National Gallery hosted a panel discussion on the Jamaica Biennial 2017, which closed that day in Kingston. The exhibition at Gallery West in MoBay goes on for another month. A very contentious issue came up. VIP artists are invited to exhibit. Less-important artists have to submit their work for evaluation. If they’re lucky, they get picked. Hopefully, this unfair system will soon be phased out. All artists should have an equal chance to be accepted or rejected.

From Devon House, I went to The Pantry on Dumfries Road, where the artists Philip and Marcia Henry were hosting ‘The Gathering’, an exhibition featuring masters like Alexander Cooper, George Rodney and Ireko Baker, as well as many younger artists. Philip’s Ambokele Vibration drummers and guest artists were in full flight. It was a beautiful marriage of art and music.

There is so much creative energy in Kingston: music, art, literature, fashion and a whole lot more! Last Monday, Jamaica’s first Centre of Gastronomy was launched at Devon House. This Friday, Caribbean Fashionweek starts at Villa Ronai in Stony Hill. With its lush sculpture gardens, the venue was a premier destination for cruise ship passengers coming into Kingston Harbour in the 1960s. In spite of our social and economic challenges, Kingston is a capital city. And not just for VIPs!

Disaster Capitalism in New Orleans

hurricane-katrina“We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” Those were the¬†damning words of Richard Baker, Republican US representative of Louisiana from 1987 to 2008, in response to the disastrous consequences of Hurricane Katrina. With representatives like that, you don’t need enemies.

As the son of a Methodist minister, Baker probably knew the famous words of that Christian hymn written in 1773 by the English poet, William Cowper:

“God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform;

He plants His footsteps in the sea

And rides upon the storm.”

Even for a politician, it was a callous proposition: to see Hurricane Katrina as God’s mysterious way of riding upon the storm, efficiently cleaning up public housing in New Orleans! No questions asked about those swept away as God performed his wondrous work. It was all divinely ordained.

In 1748, the English clergyman and poet John Newton wrote another very popular hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Newton later collaborated with Cowper in composing Christian hymns. But, first, he traded in enslaved Africans. Wikipedia tells the story of “Amazing Grace”: “In 1748, a violent storm battered his vessel off the coast of County Donegal, Ireland, so severely that he called out to God for mercy, a moment that marked his spiritual conversion. Whilst his boat was being repaired in Lough Swilly, he wrote the first verse of his world famous song.”

Newton’s “spiritual conversion” did not make him immediately abandon his career in human trafficking. He carried on for another five years or so. I suppose God, in his mysterious mercy, had not yet performed the wonderful work of converting Newton from his profitable career. Sometimes, like God, his servants need to plant their footsteps in the sea and ride upon the storm until the right season. Newton eventually turned to the study of theology and was ordained in the Church of England in 1774.

MICHELLE OBAMA’S QUESTION

Ironically, “Amazing Grace” has been completely taken to heart by African-Americans, with no misgivings about its origin. The song is now a dubious ‘traditional’ spiritual. In a defining moment of his political career, when Barack Obama came out unquestionably as African-American, he performed this song in his eulogy at the funeral of the Rev Clementa Pinckey.

In a July 7, 2015 ABC news report on ‘The Story Behind President Obama Singing ‘Amazing Grace’ at Charleston Funeral’, his wife, Michelle, is quoted, asking a sceptical question: “Why on earth would that fit it in?” Obama responded in this way: “I think if I sing, the church will sing with me.” He was right. But Michelle was also right to wonder how “Amazing Grace” could possibly console a congregation battered by racial violence.

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The idea of ‘God’ and the promise of ‘grace’ are often used in mysterious ways to justify acceptance of injustice on Earth, with the expectation of reparations in the hereafter:

“Through many dangers, toils and snares

I have already come;

‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far

and Grace will lead me home.”

Grace was not able to save the nine church members who were gunned down in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church; nor the hundreds of African-Americans who lost their lives in Hurricane Katrina. Grace has not led back home to New Orleans almost 100,000 exiled African-Americans. Parts of the city, especially the 9th Ward, still look like a ghost town. It’s as if the hurricane hit this season, not a decade ago.

TEK BAD TINGS MEK JOKE

Last month, I went to New Orleans to speak at a conference, “Community Uprising: Katrina, Resilience, Resistance & Culture After 10 Years”, hosted by the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies. President and CEO, Dr Denese Shervington, a psychiatrist from Jamaica, asked me to address the role of culture as a source of resistance to oppression, with reference to reggae and dancehall.

I talked about Bob Marley’s vision of reggae as a drumbeat, “playing a rhythm resisting against the system.”¬† I looked at the origins of the limbo dance in the horrific conditions of the Middle Passage. I cited the proverb, “tek bad tings mek joke”, which highlights one of our survival strategies for coping with disaster. And I used Lovindeer’s “Wild Gilbert” to illustrate the point.

But I concluded with the warning that laughter cannot be the only response to oppression. We can take a joke only so far. And too far! We must also take political action to transform dehumanising institutions. And that is what is still needed in New Orleans for full recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

imagesThe African-American community has been gutted by the disaster. Many homeowners have had to sell out. Annual property taxes have moved from $800/$900 to $4,000/$5,000. New Orleans is rapidly being ‘gentrified’, thanks to Hurricane Katrina. God cleaned up public housing, historically occupied by African-Americans. The divinely favoured are reaping the spoils. The way is clear for them to move in.

The Canadian political activist Naomi Klein wrote the book on disaster capitalism: The Shock Doctrine. Communities in a state of shock after disaster – natural, man-made or divine – are vulnerable to economic exploitation. Disaster capitalism moves in and private companies take over. Resistance is futile. No God to perform wonders and save the wretched? That’s no laughing matter.