Police militarization of the impoverished youth in urban ghettoes

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In our relentless pursuit for social justice and unwavering commitment to the fight against imperialism, we often confront the deeply unsettling issues that plague our criminal justice system. This system, bereft of justice, perpetuates the dangerous militarization of the apparatus of the neo-colonial state which relentlessly persecutes the most vulnerable in our society.

The tragic fate of Felix Omondi

On the night of June 8, 2019, at 11 p.m., 15-year-old Felix Omondi’s life was tragically cut short. Felix, a familiar face in Kayole community had just finished supper at his uncle’s house before heading to their family-owned kiosk, where they jointly prepared and sold mandazi, local delicacies in Kenya that are similar to doughnuts. It was routine for Felix to spend the night at their kiosk. He was a teenager with promising prospects, eagerly anticipating the end-of-year primary school exams.

Sadly, within minutes of leaving his uncle’s house, Felix’s life took a harrowing turn. He was accosted at gunpoint by police officers who were patrolling the neighborhood. The police were from Kayole police station. Shots rang out and Felix was brutally murdered at close range. The following morning, Felix’s uncle was devastated to find his nephew missing from the kiosk. To his shock, the police visited the kiosk at 7 a.m. the following day only to inform him that Felix’s lifeless body had been sent to the morgue.

Adding to the family’s grief and anguish, the police issued a statement falsely claiming that Felix was armed and in the company of five other gangsters who had fled the scene of a robbery. To compound their suffering, the family’s request for a permit which would allow them to raise funds for Felix’s burial was callously denied by the local chief. In their quest for justice and accountability, the family turned to the Kayole Community Justice Center for support. However, the family, fearing intimidation from the police, ultimately withdrew from pursuing the case.

This heartbreaking incident is just one of many savage excesses perpetrated by rogue police daily in Kenya’s informal settlements. Shockingly, records from the Independent Police Oversight Authority (IPOA) and human rights organisations reveal an alarming escalation of police brutality over the years in Kenya. In 2019, 73 cases were reported of torture, killings, disappearances, and related violations by the police. During the Covid–19 pandemic in 2020, that number surged to 136, and in 2021, it reached a staggering 210 cases. By October 2022, the records indicated a shocking 232 violations, mostly affecting the youth. At the time of writing this article, documentation has uncovered 482 cases of torture and related violations since the Kenya Kwanza regime under President Ruto assumed power in Kenya.

Targeting of youth in urban ghettos

Tragically, this dehumanizing and reckless use of lethal force by the police is disproportionately directed to the densely populated urban ghettos, specifically targeting the youth. It is a distressing reflection of the stark class divisions within the structures of power in the neo- colonial state. During a peaceful demonstration by activists in April 2022 at Mwiki Police Station in which we demanded the release of activists who had been illegally arrested and brutally assaulted for protesting against the rising cost of living, the Officer Commanding the station openly revealed a deeply troubling perspective.

He asserted that officers are trained to perceive people from the ghetto as uncivil, inherently suspicious, and prone to causing disorder. Thus, the use of ‘considerable’ force in enforcing the law was deemed necessary by the authorities. In the eyes of state machinery, the urban poor are viewed as potential risks to social stability, marked as suspects, and even potential criminals. When the government engages in blatant illegalities, imposing heavy taxes on its citizens or brutally suppressing those resisting state violence through the use of lethal force, these actions are often portrayed as a necessary means in the enforcement of the law and the restoration of order. This narrative is often backed up by pro-establishment media.

The roots of police militarization in Kenya, like in many countries in Africa and in global South, can be traced back to the colonial era when foreign powers engaged in the scramble for the continent and subsequent colonization. The sinister process and execution of this colonial project have left indelible and grievous scars on our society, particularly on the criminal justice system which was imposed on us. The consequence has been a chilling disconnect between the police and the citizens they are supposed to “protect and serve.”

Since the state of emergency in 1952, Kenya has witnessed a distressing escalation in the use of force and brutality by the police, especially in their response to civil unrest and issues of crime and violence within our communities. While the police are entrusted with the responsibility to maintain security, their actions have often strayed far from the code of conduct they are supposed to adhere to. Instead, the Kenyan police have been consistently accused of being the primary perpetrators of extrajudicial executions and human rights abuses. It is a given fact that the militarization of the police in Kenya thrives on terror, criminalizes our youth, and leaves a trail of tragedy in its wake.

Experience of arbitrary arrest

On 14th July, 2021, at around midday, I was with comrade Maryanne Kasina waiting at a bus stop in Kayole, Nairobi’s Central Business District (CBD), completely unaware of the ordeal that awaited us. A Probox car, white in colour, suddenly pulled up behind us. We soon became aware of the passenger seated next to the driver, catcalling and hurling derogatory remarks at us. At first, we ignored his taunts, but the persistent calls of ‘wewe Rasta, mrass’ demanded our attention. As we cautiously walked towards the police vehicle, a barrage of questions, laden with hostility, followed. “Why didn’t you hurry when the officer called you? Are you two married? Are you a Police Officer? Why are you wearing military attire?” Instantly, the two occupants of the police car alighted and moved as if to arrest comrade sister Maryanne Kasina by force. She was shocked by this move and held my hand. They ordered her to accompany them, even after refusing to identify themselves or mention where they wanted to take her.

The two individuals who were claiming to be officers but dressed in civilian clothes did not even disclose the police station they were from. They insisted on taking Maryanne alone, but we stood our ground, demanding that both of us would go together. Our queries about the reason for our arrest were met with threats of additional charges. Eventually, they decided to take both of us, all the while menacingly claiming they were going to increase our charges to include impersonation, public disturbance, and resisting arrest.

They drove us to Kayole Police Station, handed us over to the station officers at the reception and left without telling us the cause of our arrest. At the police station, we were swiftly frisked and ordered to surrender our valuables, belts, and to remove one shoe. Our belongings were then tied up with white tapes and our names scribbled on them. When we requested to be formally booked, our pleas were met with warnings of physical violence, forcing us to squat on the floor.

Inside the cells – account by Maryanne Kasina

Comrade Okaka and I were subsequently thrown into separate cells where we encountered dire conditions. The washrooms were deplorable, with a septic and foul-smelling floor, rendering them inaccessible for menstruating women. Requests for tissue paper to aid the women in our menstrual flow were met with verbal abuse from the police officers. Inside the cells, we were subjected to injustices with every passing second.

As I engaged with my fellow inmates, I witnessed firsthand the brutality of our police and justice system. Mothers like me were locked up, completely cut off from communication, and filled with worry for their lactating babies. I even observed a female police officer subjecting a cellmate to physical violence, so severe that other inmates had to plead for her to stop. The physical and psychological torture endured by inmates in these cells is nothing short of dehumanizing. We were released later that evening without conditions, but the misconduct of the police was evident when I could not recover my necklaces, a bag and a jacket that was deemed to be part of military fatigues. I’m grateful for the spirited efforts and quick response by comrades and well-wishers, online and offline, who rallied for our release.

Injustices and class disparities as seen by Okakah Onyango

After I was arrested with Comrade Kasina, I was slapped with charges of impersonation, resisting arrest and public disturbances – all for just asking questions and insisting to accompany my fellow comrade to the police station. I would later be thrown into a world of disarray. Our prison system is supposed to be a correctional facility that aspires to rehabilitate its occupants, or so I thought. Instead, I found that numerous youths were incarcerated on trumped-up charges. Violence pervaded the cells, stemming from poor sanitation, verbal abuse, inadequate food, drug abuse, sickness, bullying, and even physical violence, sometimes inflicted by some inmates and the police. For those who denied criminal charges when inspections were being conducted, they were set upon by ‘jail prefects’ and some roughnecks to either coerce them into submitting to the crime or beat them into accepting their demands.

At one time, we were forcefully kicked into a small cell. About 40 of us were cramped in the cell with very poor ventilation that was not fit for more than five people. I noted that on weekends, Kayole Police Station received over 300 individuals who had been arrested indiscriminately. By Sunday morning, 95% of them were usually released after paying bribes to the police. It was disheartening to hear a friend say as he recounted his ordeal the popular phrase in police cells that “Wananchi ni shamba ya Polisi” (Literary translated: Citizens are farms for the police). Class disproportionality was evident in the cells, with the majority of inmates hailing from informal settlements.

Inside the cells, I met many friends. Others had stayed there for weeks without contacting their families. One of them narrated to me his ordeal. He was brought in, in an injured and unconscious state. He told me that two weeks ago, as they were coming from a place that sells local brew, they were accosted by plain-clothed police officers in a Probox car. To evade arrest by the police, the motorcyclist violently ejected him from the speeding motorcycle, occasioning him serious bodily injuries. Instead of being taken to hospital for medical attention, he was presented before a virtual court inside the police station. To his surprise, he was read his charges by the same police officer who had arrested him, now seated on the other side of the laptop donning a suit and tie. The presiding judge never even bothered about his health or his capacity to represent himself. “I was unconscious,” he narrated, “I didn’t even understand what they were saying. There wasn’t even a public defender as dictated by the constitution to offer help. They call it “instant justice” here,” he added.

There was also the deliberate use of fear mongers and informers in the cell. They knew which cases attracted severe punishment or huge bail terms and their job was to instill fear into inmates so that they could submit to pay lump-sum bribes to the police for their freedom. Juveniles also mixed freely with other inmates, including hardcore criminals, including one who was being held in relation to a case of murder. There was not any confidentiality in handling detainees. During inspection, officers did not call you by your name, but with the crimes you were accused of committing. Some detainees even strengthened their criminal characters through exposure to experienced offenders.

Attempts at Extortion:

One time I was approached by an officer manning the cells. He was accompanied by a lady police officer. The police officer brazenly suggested to me that I could secure my release by paying a bribe. He claimed that they had no issues with me and were only interested in the female comrade who was accompanying me. When I asked for access to my phone to make calls, I was told that the time for calls had passed, but if I gave a little ‘token’ I could be allowed to make a quick call. The lady officer inquired from her partner about my crimes. He responded that I was the one who fighting with police officers while resisting arrest. I was shocked. I declined their offer and returned to the cell, prompting the officers to hurl insults and threats at me. They even lamented how I was lucky that I was not dead. “Probox police officers are no joke!” they warned me.

The Struggle Continues

Our release was a bittersweet moment. While surrounded by jubilant comrades celebrating our freedom, my heart remained heavy for those left behind. Many friends were still trapped inside, facing weeks, months, or even years of unjust incarceration on trumped-up charges—criminal charges which had been imposed simply because they lived in poverty or lacked the means to bribe their way out.

During this period, arrests of human rights defenders were sharply on the rise. Before our ordeal, fellow activists who had participated in the July 7, 2021 protest popularly known as; “Saba Saba March for Our Lives”, had been threatened and assaulted by militarized police force, some in civilian clothes. The state deployed armored vehicles supplied by imperialist nations which were marshalled in the streets to intimidate protestors. Some protestors had been trailed from their homes. Neighbours were harassed to reveal the whereabouts of the activists and of the places they frequent. Other arrests against activists had been made a day before our tribulation. The intensive crackdown and brutality by the police was mainly conducted in various informal settlements. A day after our release, I was stopped by another plain-clothed police officer on my way to work. He wanted to frisk the contents of my bag on allegations that dreadlocks and Rasta men are known as smokers of bhang. These are still vestiges of colonialism in our country.

Police brutality must end!

As an activist, I stand witness to the increasing crackdown on the poor and human rights defenders in Kenya today. The arrest of my comrade and I is just one instance of the challenges we face as we fight for human dignity, equality and social justice. The shocking murder of environmental rights defender Joannah Stutchbury on July 15, 2021, Caroline Mwatha, Karimi Nduthu, and many others serve as a grim reminder of the dangers that activists are confronted with daily.

Issues on the criminal justice system in this country must be addressed comprehensively. The constitution must be implemented in its entirety, with its articles on human rights, ethics, dignity, and integrity serving as guiding principles in the formulation and enforcement of policies and regulations. The government must listen to what the people are asking for, including their demands for basic needs to uplift their material conditions that would enable them to lead dignified lives. Human dignity includes access to food, jobs, water, healthcare, social amenities and playgrounds for our kids. We do not need to keep on wasting our taxes to fund violence against the poor and human rights defenders.

Above all, the senseless crackdown on human rights activists must come to an end, including practices on neo-colonialism, imperialism, and militarization of the criminal justice system. For the country to develop properly, we do not need imperialist bullies on our backs dictating the politics and the direction of the country. Foreign military bases in the country must be shut down! The arming and training on counterterrorism of the Kenyan police by imperialist nations and by the Zionist state of Israel that has only led to terror in poor communities must stop! This cycle of violence that is sanctioned by the state and imperialism should not be allowed to continue. The deployment of Kenyan police to subvert democracies in countries such as Haiti in the interests of imperialist countries must come to an end! The polarizing our politics through ethnic baronial politics at home and in the diaspora should be rebelled against. Only when justice is accessible to all, regardless of one’s social or economic status, can we claim that we are truly free not only for our generation, but also for the future of our children.

Aluta continua!

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