When “Othering” Turns Violent

By Jessica Ciccarelli

One moment taught me more about relations between youth and police in Kenya than three months of interviews ever could. I was attending a panel discussion on the ways Kenya can rehabilitate its police force. Situated in a large conference room off Kimathi Street several floors above the Thorn Tree Café in Nairobi’s Central Business District, we sipped coffee and tea as we watched presentations by police leaders, internal affairs officials, and security-based NGOs on the best and worst of policing in Kenya.

By the time the presentations had ended and the floor opened for questions the room was bursting. People stood in doorways and listened from the hall. Young people sat on the floor and shared chairs. NGO and government leaders squeezed closer to fit even more people in the suddenly tiny, sagging room. Even as questions began, people pushed in hoping to participate in the increasingly tense conversation, hoping to have their stories heard and to be seen.

I remember the moment I finally got it – the moment I realized how exceptionally broken people really are. The first moment was a story that suddenly and almost imperceptibly changed a session intended for question and answer into tear-stained monologues of abuse, torture, and neglect. The second moment, three words uttered by a deputy police chief – “That didn’t happen.”

Youth and police in Kenya are both “others”. This is a very complicated identity. They are each other’s out-group, but it’s more than that – each is seen by the other as the group without which they would be undeniably safe. Both groups viewed as the single most important obstacle to the other group’s security. According to this “other” category, without the other group, they would be ensured safety and life, not only for themselves, but also for their family and friends.

I learned, though, that their identity is so much more than being someone’s other. Actually, they have a lot in common.

Youth and police alike feel they are seen as bad, an enemy, and people who can do no good. They feel no amount of good they do can change who they are seen to be. In a society defined by tribe (and politics separated by tribe), they are both often placed in a category all their own to be “othered” and excluded from community hierarchies and decision-making.

Each youth and community member stood up and told their story, the atrocities they had undergone at the hands of the police – the police deputy offering denial to each one. By the end of the conference there were more tears than progress, and I had been given the rare opportunity to be broken in observing unhindered the increasingly violent relationship between youth and police.

It was heartbreaking to hear the pain and abuses youth and community members had experienced at the hands of the men and women intended to serve and protect them. Othering is normal, but we should all be concerned when othering turns violent. For youth and police in Kenya, it definitely has.

That said, it is as important to consider the struggles of the police who often go unpaid for months at a time, live in deplorable conditions squeezed together in small rooms with other police families, and, according to interviews, are often expected to fulfill terrible quotas (including bribery and killing quotas) in order to ensure their and their families’ survival.

I can’t fact check these stories for you. What I can tell you, what I know, is that each story has at least a semblance of truth. Thus, it has at some moment, likely with one or more police, been true that some junior police have been expected to fulfill these terrible quotas. It is has been true for some, if not many, youth that they have undergone abuse and torture at the hands of the police. It may not be true for all, but if even a few of these stories are true then Kenya, as a country, as a government, has permitted terrible human rights abuses. With that truth in mind, it is also very likely that the only path to healing the wounds from all of these abuses is honesty – open, truthful, honest conversation. It doesn’t have to be a truth commission, but Kenyans are bursting with the need to tell their truths, and until society gives them that opportunity no healing can be found.

I spent my summer as broken by the tragedies police have experienced as I was by those of the youth. A terrible thing has been permitted to persist. Government, society, and individuals have allowed this festering wound to get infected. I hope to my core that it is still healable. What I will say is that despite all of the pain and abuse, there are beautiful, resilient relationships amongst youth and police. There are good people on both sides fighting to make a difference. Youth feel hated. Police feel hated. Maybe, if we can begin to show them both how very much they have common, things can change. There is hope. Because even a few people dared to believe it was possible. A few youth and police dared to believe they could create a positive, vibrant relationship, and then they did.

Sarah is an exceptional woman. She is a community leader, a mediator, and a women’s and child’s rights activist. Truly, she has dedicated her life to creating change, even if the endeavor is self-funded. One choice to share her mediation skills to help the youth and police bridged an increasingly violent, otherwise irreparable gap, and allowed a truly trusting relationship to flourish.

Joseph is a very special youth.  More man than youth, he leads a local youth group and runs the youth social hall. An incident of arbitrary arrest inspired him to foster a better relationship with police – sparking one of the best youth-police relationships in all of Nairobi’s slums.

At the same time they taught me there was so much brokenness, they also taught me there was so much life. We have so much left to learn, but I move forward believing it is absolutely possible because the Kenyan people showed me it was.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the IPJ or of the University of San Diego.

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