Remembering Coral Gardens: Rastas Wanted Dead or Alive

04/13/2015 12:01 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

As Spring Break nears an end and university students return to dorms, there will marijuana smoked under the red, green, and gold Bob Marley posters, some with his spliff and guitar, others stamped with the almighty Lion of Judah rearing its head.

American college students will continue rituals of marijuana smoking and listening to dub, performing what they believe to be the full embodiment of a quintessential Jamaican experience. Like all heroes, Marley is venerated as an infallible legend of historical memory, occupying a distinct representation of Jamaican iconography as the peace-loving Rastaman, the dub minstrel of ganja-smoking culture.

Yet in the red, green, and gold posters adorning college dorm rooms and the global image exported about Rastafarianism, a narrative of the horrific incidents of 52 years ago is lost. During the holy week of Easter, a land dispute between bearded men and a gas station owner in Montego Bay resulted in several deaths and opened the floodgates of state-sanctioned violence against the Rastafarian community. Newspaper reports from that Holy Thursday, April 11, 1963, cite Rastafarians armed with machetes and guns who set fire to a gas station, seeking revenge for expulsion from the owner's land. While newspapers for decades cited the initial incident as involving Rastafarians who set the gas station on fire, Rastafarians who experienced the horror of that Easter week attest to the fact their community was wrongly accused and consequently criminalized. Instead, they affirm men with beards were the culprits and the Jamaican government used the opportunity to round up hundreds of Rastafarians in an attempt to suppress the influence of the religious movement.

"Bring in all Rastas, dead or alive," were the words of Prime Minister Bustamante, the first prime minister of Jamaica. Commemorated as Bad Friday, law enforcement rounded up, beat, and arrested Rastafarians. Individuals' dreadlocks were cut as acts of humiliation. Rastafarians were profiled, stopped and frisked, profiled and subject to routine criminalization following the Coral Gardens tragedy. Viewed as a threat to national security, the Rastafarian community was also under surveillance by the Jamaican government.

The disenfranchisement of Rastafarians was not uncommon, since the establishment of their religion was deemed as a cult. Emerging in 1930s Jamaica as an anti-colonial religious movement rooted in philosophies of the Back to Africa movement of Marcus Garvey, centered Black Power, resistance, repatriation and liberation. At the seat of liberation was fighting colonial oppression and evils of the world referred to as the monolithic Babylon. The Afrocentrism of the movement was radical in its declarations of Black Jesus, challenging his depiction from Renaissance artists, and create a religious movement centered around creating consciousness post-slavery. His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I (formerly Ras Tafari Makonnen), was anointed as their god-king, the incarnation of the second-coming of Christ. Selassie was the 225th Emperor of Ethiopia in a line of descendants who traced lineage to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and his ascendance to the throne of Ethiopia fulfilled a prophecy from Garvey that a Black King of Kings would one day come, initiating the Rastafarian movement. While Selassie was ambivalent about his own role as the Messiah, and ambiguous about whether he accepted the god-king status bestowed upon him, the movement sustained after his death. In an address to the United Nations, Selassie called for an end to colonialism and racism, specifically citing the economic roots of oppression and apartheid in South Africa.

Marley adapted lyrics to in his song, "War:"

Until the philosophy which hold one race superior
And another
Is finally
And permanently
And abandoned
Everywhere is war
Me say war

Rastafarianism was not only a spiritual movement but a politically-centered form of colonial resistance, a community viewed as second-class citizens in a global climate of the 1960s that viewed blacks as second-class citizens.

As Jamaica continues its post-colonial economic dependency on tourism, the image of the Rasta continues to be appropriated and fetishized. Rasta iconography is distinguished by the big-mouthed, buck-toothed black man wearing dreadlocks, mouth agape with spliff, the perennial happy-go-lucky icon of the Caribbean. At once commodified and caricatured, the Rasta continues to occupy a place of ridicule. Rasta pasta is sold on menus in Jamaican resorts, tourists want to pose for photographs with Rastas, and red, green and gold posters can appear with "One Love," the universal declaration of a slogan blunting a legacy of colonial resistance and the history of a community targeted by state-sanctioned violence. Eclipsed by the entrance of reggae into popular culture and the megastar legacy of Marley, global Rastafarian iconography is brandished as the global poster child of Jamaican culture, central to Jamaican society; on April 11, 1963, they were anything but.