Some of the comments in response to the article titled “Police siege on Kisumu and Kibera fuelling ethnic hate” written by Otieno Otieno in the April 20 issue of the Daily Nation reflect an ethnic chauvinism that is reminiscent of the racial animus and stereotyping common amongst conservative white Americans towards African-Americans and Latinos here in the US. Comments by bloggers such as Magu Wa Maitha, Mtadao, Frankyzilla, Njanemuiruri, Pikipiki, Zeki Timona and Oldframe that characterize fellow Kenyans as “stone-throwers” or as “having “genes…that invite rioting” or display “the phenomenon of overreacting emotional characteristic..” are similar to the stereotypes that describe others as “thieves” or “dumb”. It is the same bigotry that contends that Blacks are “lazy” and “like water melons and fried chicken”: The same stereotyping that characterizes whites as “serial killers” who like any one of the one hundred and fifty “stuff” listed in Christian Lander’s book Stuff White People Like! To put it bluntly, stereotyping is ugly and idiotic. The behavior should have no place in any discourse – public or private – and those promoting such views should be called out by those of us who want a society where people are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin nor the tribe from which they hail.
The bloggers making the argument that the heavy-handed approach to law enforcement by the police, General Service Unit (GSU) and other presidential security personnel is to be expected during “preparation for a presidential visit” or in response to the unlawful behavior of a small section of the population are part of the “law and order” crowd in the mold of William Bratton, Bernard Kerik, Benjamin Hinga, John Michuki, Darryl Gates, Patrick Shaw etc. The strong-arm approach to law enforcement by these law enforcement professionals may have garnered them short-term positive results in New York, Nairobi, or Los Angeles. The same tactics however alienated the very communities they were supposed to be ridding of the crime and illicit activities; the very communities whose inhabitants ended up bearing the brunt of said tactics. I abhor violence and do not condone the culture of “No Snitching” i.e. the unspoken rule amongst some communities to avoid giving law enforcement any information that may help them during investigation of a crime. On the other hand, I can see how police brutality, not to mention fear of retaliation by the perpetrators would foster such counter-productive behavior. It is my opinion that the onus is on those with the power, in this case the police, to break the cycle of brutality and abuse of power so that those they are sworn to serve and protect see them not as enemies, but as friends. The evidence in favor of community policing – systematic use of partnerships and policing techniques that proactively involve the community in addressing conditions that create crime/public safety issues – is overwhelmingly favorable.
I have been within a couple of feet of the “rope line” as former President Clinton “pressed the flesh” in Washington DC i.e. shook hands with the public just before boarding Marine One then Airforce One on his way to Morocco for the July 1999 funeral of King Hassan. In fact, my partner at the time, being from DC, was blasé about the presence of POTUS and inadvertently crossed the security line thereby “contaminating” the previously “sterile” security zone. The ever-present and alert Secret Service personnel hardly flinched or panicked when my friend entered the “sterile zone.” The agent closest to us lifted his left wrist to his mouth and said something into a microphone hidden under his sleeve. He continued to monitor the crowd paying extra attention on me, my partner and her five-year old nephew. I told my friend that she had crossed the security line just as the agent firmly but politely told her to “get back behind the rope ma’am” while simultaneously instructing all within earshot alternately to “keep both hands in front of you and visible please” and “let me see both your hands please.” The agent was calm, professional and efficient. He was also courteous. Needless to say, we all complied, quickly putting our hands in full view of the agent as instructed. I was also impressed with the cool and efficient manner in which the agent handled the breach. Granted not all security breaches go down as I observed on that day but the point is the manner in which this particular episode was handled by the Secret Service (law enforcement personnel) and the indelible and positive impression their professionalism left on me.
The history of acrimony between African-Americans and Latinos on one side and the predominantly white police/law enforcement establishment here in the US on the other side did not happen in a vacuum. The anti-police/anti-authority mind-set that Black American and Latino male have towards the “men in blue’ was caused by the well-documented history of racist behavior and racism within those institutions. Google “Rodney King,” Darryl Gates” and “LAPD” and see what pops up. These same institutions have also made great strides in improving relationships with the communities they serve, not by sweeping their sordid past under the rug, but by opening themselves up to criticism, objective and otherwise from those who were victimized by their brutality and resultant cover-ups. I would also argue that the animus that some communities in Kenya have towards law enforcement and the institutions therein did not happen in a vacuum. Kenya Police, GSU, CID/Special Branch, Nyayo House are law enforcement institutions in Kenya that have a long, sordid and terrifying history of botched and disproportionate responses to peaceful or boisterous and tense gatherings, shoddy and non-investigations of corruption, torture and assassinations not to mention the rampant acceptance of “kitu kidogo” or bribes that one would have to be wilfully naïve and ignorant to disregard said history in any analysis of law enforcement in Kenya.
And before I get mail accusing me of peddling racist, tribal or anti-police views, let me state categorically that the point of this piece is not whether or not Kenya’s law enforcement can do its work by investigating and arresting law-breakers or “stone-throwers” as Luos are derisively called by some commenters. The main point of this piece is to highlight the manner in which the police/authorities have discharged said responsibilities over the years and the consistency with which enforcement has been exacted from one group to the next. Evidence, while sketchy and not as well-documented as it is stateside points to a Kenyan law enforcement establishment that over the years, has been over-bearing, punitive, selective in enforcing the law, corrupt, and a “matundu-ya-uhuru” to be doled out to cronies and tribesmen/women of those in power. The resulting politicization of these institutions is evidenced in the afore-mentioned shoddy investigations of corruption, torture and assassinations not to mention the rampant acceptance of “kitu kidogo” or bribes and a recent addition – extra-judicial killings.
Until ALL Kenyans feel that law enforcement and those who oversee those institutions are impartial arbiters of law and order determined to serve and protect them without discrimination, the anti-police sentiment that is all too common among some communities in Kenya will continue unabated.