Jamaican police probe allegations woman’s dreadlocks were cut in custody
By Kate Chappell,
Photo by Shirley McIntosh Shirley McIntosh
KINGSTON, Jamaica — Police in Jamaica have ordered an internal investigation after a 19-year-old woman claimed an officer forcibly cut off her dreadlocks that she had grown since birth as part of her Rastafarian beliefs.
The alleged incident occurred almost a year after Jamaica’s Supreme Court ruled that a school was within its rights to require a girl cut her dreadlocks to attend classes. The school, however, later said the student could attend without changing her hair.
Jamaica’s Rastafarian culture is known worldwide through reggae music and distinctive trappings such as dreadlocks, but followers on the island nation have often complained of discrimination by authorities.
Shirley McIntosh, 49, said a police officer used scissors to cut the waist-length dreadlocks of her daughter, Nzinga King, after the younger woman was ordered jailed July 22 on charges stemming from an argument with police over enforcement of masking regulations to control the coronavirus.
“I’m so distraught. I’m so confused right now. This situation traumatized me a lot,” Nzinga King said.
The Jamaica Constabulary Force said in a statement that an investigation will take place.
“The claims of human rights abuses made by the young woman and her mother are viewed by the high command as very serious in nature and are, therefore, being treated as such,” the statement said.
The statement said that the “cutting of people’s hair — particularly that of Rastafarians — has NO place in the modern” police force.
Rastafarians are part of a political and religious movement founded in the 1930s in Jamaica that drew from Christian and African faiths. Dreadlocks are a symbol of strength, and Rastafarians take a vow not to cut them.
There is no census data on how many Rastafarians live in Jamaica, but its believed to be more than 1 percent of the population. One of the best-known representatives of Rastafarian culture was the late Jamaican musician Bob Marley.
Rastafarians have often faced persecution and marginalization in Jamaica, and keep alive the memory a 1963 crackdown by authorities known locally as the Coral Gardens massacre that left about 150 people detained and tortured. In 2017, the prime minister, Andrew Holness, apologized and announced a trust fund of $64,000.
King, who lives in Clarendon on Jamaica’s southern coast, was in a shared taxi on June 29 when police questioned passengers who were not wearing masks under Jamaica’s current pandemic-fighting measures, her mother said. Police allegedly used pepper spray on one passenger, and King “came out, took off her mask and an argument developed between her and the police officer,” her mother said.
King was charged with disorderly conduct and on July 22 received a 10-day sentence or a fine equivalent to $40. She could not pay the fine and was taken in to police custody, where a female police officer allegedly cut off King’s hair in a bathroom, the family claims.
“She said when she asked why they cut her locks, she was told they can pose a threat to her or other inmates,” said McIntosh, who said she did not immediately recognize her daughter when she paid the fine on July 26.
“I would like some justice for my daughter and for the Rasta community on a whole, and some form of compensation,” said McIntosh.
Isat Buchanan, the lawyer representing King, said he is considering filing charges against the police officer, calling the alleged act a “breach of human dignity rights and freedom of expressions.”
Buchanan also represents the girl who was told she would have to cut her dreadlocks to attend school. He appealed that Supreme Court decision to the nation’s top appeals court — despite the school relenting to let her attend. A decision by the appeals court is pending.
“This is 2021. It is not like in the 1950s or 60s. This is something that just has to stop,” said Indi Mclymont-Lafayette, a member of the Advocacy Network, a coalition of Jamaicans focused on good governance and gender-based violence. “It is a blatant disrespect of this young lady’s right to her freedom of religion and self expression.”
On Sunday, Jamaica celebrated Emancipation Day, which commemorates the freeing of enslaved people of African descent.