“Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians.” – Nelson Mandela
Bethlehem, 2013: On Christmas Eve, I was among the crowds flocking to Bethlehem, the Palestinian city known as the birthplace of Jesus. Following festivities in the city’s famous Manger Square, I embarked to see how the Israeli occupation is still alive, away from the throngs of tourists. I headed to the separation wall, which encloses the West Bank in concrete, and is covered with vivid graffiti in protest. This segment of the wall houses some of Banksy’s famous works of art, and in 2018, a mural of Ahed Tamimi, the Palestinian teen who has become the face of resistance to the Israeli occupation, also cemented its place on it.
Nairobi, 2018: Wandering around the Bizarre Bazaar craft fair in Nairobi’s Karura Forest, one particular vendor caught my attention: Baraka Israel. Their booth was teeming with people sampling wines against a bold backdrop that read “Golan Heights Winery”. The sourcing of wines from a region under illegal occupation by Israel wasn’t new to me – my graduate work focused on the history and politics of the Middle East– but seeing these grapes being sold in my backyard was disturbing. And it didn’t stop there; Eliad olive oil was also being sold. Christmas was soon approaching and in keeping with the spirit and Biblical symbolism, wine and olives “from the holy land” were intended to entice. Barely holding my breath while pondering which olive groves this oil was sourced from, I was transported to a passage from Susan Abulhawa’s novel, Mornings in Jenin:
“As the dark sky gave way to light, the sounds of reaping that noble fruit rose from the sun-bleached hills of Palestine. The thumps of farmers’ sticks striking branches, the shuddering of the leaves, the plop of fruit falling onto the old tarps and blankets that had been lain beneath the trees. As they toiled, women sang the ballads of centuries past and small children played and were chided by their mothers when they got in the way.”
My foraging revealed that Eliad olive oil also originates from the occupied Golan Heights. This becomes more unsettling in the context of the occupied territories, where violence by Israeli settlers increasingly includes attacks on olive groves and farmers. In 2016, more than 1,500 Palestinian olive trees in the West Bank were damaged or uprooted by settlers; this was in addition to the 2.5 million trees uprooted since 1967.
Research carried out by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) uncovered a shift towards agricultural and price tag attacks by settlers that involve destroying property and vandalism, including racist graffiti. An Israeli soldier’s 2013 testimony from Hebron, recorded by the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, uncovered how these attacks are carried out:
“There was one incident where already the night prior, they said a ‘price tag’ action was going to be carried out. And the next morning, a whole grove of olive trees was discovered chopped down. To chop down 60 trees you’d need something like eight hours of work and three saws…I don’t believe that the military, with all its observation points on an olive grove located on the main road, didn’t see that taking place.”
The decision to buy unethically sourced products, which are increasingly making their way to our shelves, is a topic worth discussing as a nation. The Profiteers, the investigative documentary unearthing Kenya’s role in contributing to the conflict in South Sudan, jumpstarted conversations about how Kenya was being used to commit atrocities beyond its borders. A segment of activists and concerned citizens took to the streets, calling for greater accountability in how the Kenyan government and financial institutions facilitate the transfer of arms and resources used to wage war on civilians.
My foraging revealed that Eliad olive oil also originates from the occupied Golan Heights. This becomes more unsettling in the context of the occupied territories, where violence by Israeli settlers increasingly includes attacks on olive groves and farmers. In 2016, more than 1,500 Palestinian olive trees in the West Bank were damaged or uprooted by settlers; this was in addition to the 2.5 million trees uprooted since 1967.
And the support of many Kenyan activists, writers, and well-wishers to the Ugandan musician-turned-politician, Bobi Wine, during his detention is another example of conditions being ripe for a discussion on what it takes for Kenyans to be on the right side of history. The consciousness to do better by all peoples, regardless of nationality, is critical. We can no longer pretend that events outside our borders have no bearing on our lives or are unworthy of our attention and solidarity. Edward Said captured this well when he said, “Humanism is the only – I would go so far as saying the final— resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.”
Resisting the force of politics of money from outweighing principles of humanity and justice needs to be sustained. Our government may be succumbing easily to foreign money, but we need to safeguard our interests and public assets, and ensure that our moral compass is not lost. This may be a struggle when also faced with the large military-industrial complexes of today. And you don’t have to look far to see how big money is behind war. Despite its size, Israel is believed to be the eighth biggest arms exporter in the world and the largest one per capita. Kenya is among the growing African nations using Israeli-manufactured weapons, especially aircraft, artillery, and communications equipment.
Settler colonialism is not dead
2017 marked half a century of Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian Territories, including the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as the Golan Heights, which was grabbed from Syria. Much light has been shed on the expansion of Israeli settlements— the cities, towns, and villages built on occupied land. In 2017, Israel began building the first new settlements in two decades, moving further into the heart of what is legally Palestine. At least 160 government-approved settlements and 100 unofficial outposts are home to more than half a million Israelis living in colonies beyond the recognised borders of their state. And the population of Jewish settlers in the West Bank has grown four times faster than Israel’s itself since 1995. Although settlements violate international humanitarian law (under the Fourth Geneva Convention, an occupying power cannot transfer parts of its own population into the territory it occupies), they are authorised and subsidised by the Israeli Government.
This disturbing development has historic parallels closer to home: Advertisements by the British colonial government also sought to entice settlers to move to Kenya, and thousands responded.
“Settle in Kenya, Britain’s youngest and most attractive colony. Low prices at present for fertile areas. Its valuable crops give high yields due to the high fertility of the soil, adequate rainfall, and abundant sunshine. Secure the advantage of native labour to supplement your own effort.” – From Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya by Caroline Elkins
While Israeli settlers live in fenced and gated communities, Palestinians are effectively barred from staying in them. Palestinians’ movement is further restricted by roadblocks, checkpoints, and settler-only roads. Some of these discriminatory policies, as well as the exploitation of land and resources by a settler movement, are reminiscent of Kenya’s experiences under British colonial rule. Kenyans moving around segregated cities were required to wear an identity pass around their necks, which were designed to keep Africans out of European and Asian areas. Fast forward today and Palestinians in the occupied territories must carry their ID cards for internal travel between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and into East Jerusalem and Israel. These ID cards are colour-coded depending on where Palestinians reside and they affect everything from freedom of movement to family unity.
While Israeli settlers live in fenced and gated communities, Palestinians are effectively barred from staying in them. Palestinians’ movement is further restricted by roadblocks, checkpoints, and settler-only roads. Some of these discriminatory policies, as well as the exploitation of land and resources by a settler movement, are reminiscent of Kenya’s experiences under British colonial rule.
In colonial Kenya, many Africans were moved to free up fertile land for colonial plantations. The Jordan Valley and the northern part of the Dead Sea are among the most fertile areas in the West Bank; 40 per cent of the dates produced in the occupied Jordan Valley settlements are exported to the European Union, and Israeli companies generate around $3 billion annually from the sale of Dead Sea minerals. Contrast this with the discrimination leveled against Palestinians in the provision of water and other resources: More than 70 per cent of Palestinian villages in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli civilian and security control and home to most of the settlements, are not connected to the water network.
In Kenya, as explained by Caroline Elkins in her book Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, the British settlers’ self-interest was “based on a perception of profound racial superiority, and the foundation of the settler community was the alienation of African land. Seeking to expand their numbers and increase the value of their land, they pushed for continued immigration into the colony.” Today, Israel continues to fund Birthright tours and to encourage the immigration of Jews into the country. However, the initial refusal to allow a group of Ugandan Abayudaya Jews to visit Israel on a Birthright tour showcased that not all Jews are equal in Israel’s eyes. Examples of the racial prejudice documented against Africans by the state of Israel are ubiquitous. In 2018, Israel was forced to backtrack on a plan to expel thousands of African migrants to Rwanda and Uganda. And ironically, though rejected, Britain’s proposal in 1903 allocated land for a Jewish state in the British East African Protectorate.
Colonisation in connection to wine
The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, a non-violent movement founded in 2005 to pressure Israel to comply with international law and end its occupation and human rights abuses, was inspired by international sanctions imposed on the apartheid regime in South Africa. Given that settlements thrive on economic exploitation at the expense of the natives, the movement calls for a global boycott on settlement products. Airbnb, bowing to pressure, recently announced that it would remove properties in Israeli settlements built on occupied Palestinian territories in the West Bank.
Unsurprisingly, there is a countermovement that includes Israeli wineries “proudly” displaying the Israeli flag on their products. The BDS Wine Club, for instance, features wines from “Judea and Samaria” (what we know as the occupied West Bank) and their retail selection also includes wines from the Golan Heights Winery—the source of wines imported and sold in Kenya by Baraka Israel. The company brazenly markets this winery and its products as “Israel’s finest”. They have a noticeable presence at Nairobi’s wine-tasting events, as well as in restaurants and bars. Yummy magazine, Nairobi’s food and drink guide, featured Baraka Israel’s entry into the Kenyan market in 2017. It announced that “Israel has been a wine-making country over the last 3,000 years…and the diversity of Israel’s terroir makes it suitable to grow a variety of grapes.” Any further elaboration or exploration of the origins of their wines was conveniently or perhaps unknowingly omitted.
According to a 2015 UN General Assembly resolution, Syrians in the occupied Golan, the majority of whom are Druze, depend heavily on agricultural income but are disadvantaged by restricted water supplies and fewer economic opportunities. They also face throttled land access, building restrictions, and property destruction. The UN’s displeasure has not stopped Israel from building settlements, wineries, and even a ski resort in this territory. The region is strategically significant, agriculturally rich, and draws millions of tourists. And the Israeli wine industry, which benefits from accessible land, tax benefits, and other government incentives, is catching on. Settlers have discovered that the wine industry is a tourist magnet, bringing in additional income while normalising the settlement enterprise.
Over ten Israeli wineries, mostly founded between the late 1990s and early 2000s, are based in settlements in the occupied Syrian Golan and produce their wine from grapes grown in the occupied territory. In Kenya, the most common wines from this region are those produced by the Golan Heights Winery under the labels Yarden, Gamla, and Golan. The oldest of the wineries based in the occupied Golan, the Golan Heights Winery, was founded in 1983 in the settlement of Katzerin where it operates to this day. Owned by four kibbutzim and moshavim (agricultural and cooperative communities), it produces around 5.4 million bottles of wine annually.
Over ten Israeli wineries, mostly founded between the late 1990s and early 2000s, are based in settlements in the occupied Syrian Golan and produce their wine from grapes grown in the occupied territory. In Kenya, the most common wines from this region are those produced by the Golan Heights Winery under the labels Yarden, Gamla, and Golan.
Planting the seeds of BDS
The BDS movement made headlines again after Ilhan Omar, the recently elected U.S. Congresswoman who spent some of her childhood in a refugee camp in Kenya, voiced her support for the movement. On home soil, although BDS campaigns have yet to be established, there is a solidarity movement, Kenya na Palestine, which raises awareness of the movement and promotes educational activities during the global Israeli Apartheid Week.
They may seem innocuous, but profits from millions of dollars’ worth of settlement products exported internationally, including to Kenya, sustain the discriminatory policy of settlements, which also unlawfully appropriate natural resources. Common exports from Israeli settlements include cosmetics, fruits and vegetables, honey, olive oil, and wine. Israel’s wine industry is part and parcel of the settlement and colonisation project, and this is raising eyebrows worldwide: Yarden, Gamla, and Golan wines featured on lists of products boycotted by student groups at UK universities, for instance, and a major department store in Japan cancelled the participation of an importer specialising in wine from the Golan Heights at a wine fair last year.
Israel continues to face censure from its trading partners. For instance, while short of a boycott, European Union members can mark products coming from Israeli settlements. South Africa also adopted regulations to prevent the labelling of goods from settlements as being produced in Israel given that this misleads consumers. Thus, there is a growing sentiment that business activity in settlements entrenches discriminatory systems. If the Government of Kenya won’t ban settlement products for fear of jeopardising bilateral relationships, as citizens we should boycott these products and advocate that they be labeled correctly. Israeli wine, olive oil, and other such products being sold by Baraka Israel are highly substitutable by the Kenyan consumer even when it comes to quality. Further, these products are not integrated into value chains in the country and can be easily replaced.
Israel continues to face censure from its trading partners. For instance, while short of a boycott, European Union members can mark products coming from Israeli settlements. South Africa also adopted regulations to prevent the labelling of goods from settlements as being produced in Israel given that this misleads consumers.
Israel is joining the scramble for Africa
From a diplomatic perspective, Israeli-Kenyan ties have been growing stronger over recent years and are centred on security, religious and development cooperation. Two recent visits by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu represent a push to improve ties with Kenya, among other African countries, and to open up markets to Israeli products.
These economic efforts are also intended to improve Israel’s diplomatic position by getting African countries to stop voting against Israel in international forums. In late 2018, upon recommendations by the UN’s Special Political and Decolonization Committee, the General Assembly voted in favour of nine resolutions on Palestine and the Syrian Golan Heights, urging an end to settlement construction. Kenya voted in favour of all resolutions and it is this voting record at the UN that Israel is hoping to sway.
However, Kenya did not participate in the UN vote that rejected U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The official reason given was the closure of the Kenyan mission for the holidays, but this may have been tactical given President Donald Trump’s threat to cut aid to countries that voted against the U.S. Despite international condemnation, Kenyan diplomats were among representatives from 33 countries that nonetheless attended the opening of the U.S embassy in Jerusalem in May 2018.
The arms trade
Israel’s weapons trade in 2016 included a 70 per cent jump in sales to Africa. In 2017, its defence exports reached a record $9.2 billion, mostly comprising military hardware, such as missiles and aerial defence weapons.
Though details often remain opaque, it is no secret that security and intelligence cooperation between Israel and Kenya remains strong. This has grown in the aftermath of terror attacks, including the targeting of Israeli tourists at the Paradise Hotel in Mombasa and the attempt to down an Israeli airliner taking off from the coastal city in 2002. And in the wake of the 2013 Westgate mall attack, there were local and foreign media reports of Israeli advisers and security personnel assisting Kenyan security forces in their operation to end the siege.
Israel has been among the top 15 arms exporters for decades, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Arms sales are integral to the Israeli economy, accounting for possibly as much as 8 per cent of GDP. Israel’s occupation has also gone global: Revelations emerged that Israel was sending weapons to Myanmar in defiance of a U.S. and European arms embargo, thereby abetting the persecution and massacre of the Muslim-minority Rohingya, who have also been subjected to “apartheid-like conditions” in Rakhine, as detailed by Amnesty International.
Israel has also been selling weapons and military services to human rights violators on the continent. A 2015 UN report found that Israeli arms were fuelling the civil war in South Sudan, and a retired IDF General was recently found to have used an agricultural company as cover for the sale of weapons to the government. Kenya is not lagging behind: From 2006 onwards, Kenya transferred large quantities of arms, including T-72 tanks from Ukraine, to South Sudan. These transfers only became public when Somali pirates hijacked a ship carrying some of the tanks in 2008. In 2013, the South Sudanese government used the tanks to quell protests and destroy homes.
Israel has been among the top 15 arms exporters for decades, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Arms sales are integral to the Israeli economy, accounting for possibly as much as 8 per cent of GDP.
Netanyahu has now befriended Chadian President Idriss Deby, one of Africa’s longest- serving leaders. Security sources say the country has acquired Israeli equipment to help battle rebels in the country’s north. Kenya too uses Israeli-manufactured weapons and is a recipient of military training and counterterrorism support. Inside Kenya’s Death Squads, an investigative film by Al Jazeera, found Israel complicit in the perpetration of extrajudicial killings in Kenya by counterterrorism police through its intelligence and training of the General Service Unit to eliminate suspects. And in keeping with its approach of building walls and barriers in the name of security, Israel has pledged to help Kenya speed up the construction of a wall along its border with Somalia.
A growing tribe: The ethically-conscious consumer
The rise of a consumerism culture in Kenya may present economic opportunities but it is also fraught with challenges. There is a market in Kenya for fair-trade products, as well as ethically and sustainably sourced products, including those that don’t harm the environment, animals, and I would add to this list, human beings. Consumers are rightly demanding more transparency from businesses and companies, and the latter are slowly responding. Green Spoon, the online store in Kenya targeting consumers “who care about what they eat”, stocks products and brands supporting local producers and communities. These include unadulterated pork from farms near Mount Kenya, free-range chickens from the highlands of Tigoni, and craft-beer made from 100 per cent spring water. Their philosophy emanates from the need to no longer worry about the “source of the food, how it was made, who made it, and what went into it”. It may come as a surprise that Baraka Israel is among their featured producers, “bringing Israel’s finest quality products to Kenya”. Whether this is aligned with their philosophy is a question they and their consumers need to contend with.
Information about supply chains can be an inspiring part of a brand, but this information can also be hidden and spun. Yesterday Romans made slaves crush grapes by foot; today Baraka Israel will selectively educate you about their ancient wine-making culture, playing to the ignorance of many. As citizens we have voiced our indignation about the mercury-laden sugar we have been consuming and the poor quality tilapia imported from China. As we advocate for quality products that don’t poison us, we should likewise refuse to consume products that explicitly harm others.
Mandela’s words, alluding to the collective importance of achieving freedom for the Palestinians, serve as a reminder to fight discriminatory and unjust systems at home and abroad. And this resistance can begin in the pantry or cellar. Wine and food lovers may have revelled in the innocence of consuming these products but these products’ sinister history and continued tainting is inching upwards from the vines, blossoming, and will soon be harvesting on your tongue. Will you be ready?
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From Shifta to Terrorist: A Shifting Narrative Of Northern Kenya
A section of Kenyan citizens has been labelled dangerous to the main body of the country and denied a national identity and equal status with their fellow citizens.
As Kenya was celebrating her independence in 1963, the people of the Northern Frontier District were mourning the death of their dream of self-governance under British rule. In the spring of 1962, at the Lancaster House Conference, the region’s delegation had demanded self-determination for the NFD. The colonial government appointed an independent commission to look into the question and a referendum to determine the region’s future was subsequently held. The results of the plebiscite were however cancelled under suspicious circumstances even though they indicated that the overwhelming majority supported self-determination. The people felt cheated, and the north exploded in rebellion.
Northerners, especially those from the northeast, accuse the British colonial government of craftily handing over the region to Kenyatta. The colonialists had promised the separatists’ leaders that they would delay independence for the region to facilitate the orderly transition from colonial rule to self-rule.
The British played both sides after the Northern Frontier District delegation rejected the terms of independence and demanded a different path for the district. The colonial government decided to disregard the wishes of most of the inhabitants and handed over the region to the post-independence Kenyan government. Somalia protested the move, which further complicated the north’s struggle for independence.
What had been a people’s quest for self-rule became a political tussle between Kenya and Somalia. This issue has yet to be settled six decades later, and the north has become a victim of unending sabre-rattling. Kenya became independent on the 12th of December 1963 with Jomo Kenyatta as its Prime Minister. A State of Emergency was declared for the north-eastern region on the 27th of December 1963.
The Shifta war
The rebellion that followed the declaration of independence was, to the separatists, a struggle for self-determination. To the Kenyan government, the separatists were Shifta, the name used to reduce the separatists and the NFD population to bandits, outlaws, thieves, criminals, and murderers.
The Shifta label has stuck, although the events surrounding the coining of the term have been carefully erased from the history books. The Shifta narrative was meant to unite the rest of Kenya against the menace of the separatists. The media effectively adopted the new term as a standard reference to the rebels. Newspaper headlines reported shifta attacks almost daily throughout the period of the conflict.
The “war” was mainly skirmishing between the ill-equipped ragtag army of northern rebels and the Kenya military backed by British planes and tanks. It is the population in the north that bore the brunt of the fighting. The nomads had to sustain the fighters in their midst with their meagre resources while dodging the military operations and bombings.
The conflict began on the 22nd of November 1963 when NFD rebels burnt down a camp in Garissa. The rebellion took its toll on the inhabitants, forcing them to flee in droves to the neighbouring countries of Somalia and Ethiopia. Kenyan security forces considered everyone a rebel and the Shifta label was liberally applied without discrimination to men and boys from the region. Villagisation and shooting of camel herds were used extensively by the government to force the nomadic pastoralists to settle.
The secessionists expected to receive arms and ammunitions from Somalia, but Somalia’s loud noises were more bark than a bite. Nothing of material import came from Somalia in the four years of the war.
While fanning the conflict through declarations and radio broadcasts, Somalia was unwilling to train, arm and fight alongside the secessionists. The significant material support provided to the Kenya government by the British and the superior training of the military forces eventually turned the tide of the war in Kenya’s favour.
The end of the war began in 1966 with the exodus of the nomadic population. By 1967, the secessionists were out of arms and had no resources to rely on as the nomads crossed the border into Somalia in droves in what is known as John kacarar (escaping John). The secessionists surrendered in groups throughout 1967.
Realising that the rebels were at the end of their tether, Somalia accepted peace terms with Kenya mediated by Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda. An agreement to end their differences and restore diplomatic relations was signed on the 14th of September 1967. The secessionist war effectively ended without any agreement with the secessionists themselves, without demobilisation, without any concession to the suffering population of the north and on terms that were never declared public to the residents of the NFD. Four years of bombings, shootings and plunder had left the northeastern region — where the fighting was concentrated — destitute.
Once the war was over, reconstruction failed to begin. The schism remained in place. The military went on with operations aimed at clearing the region of “shifta elements”. The cost of the war was never enumerated. The hopelessness that descended on a defeated community required leadership, which never came.
A new narrative of bandits roaming in the unsafe wild north began to take shape. Collective punishment was the modus operandi during this period. Whenever armed criminals committed a crime, the nearest settlements were decimated by the soldiers.
In the late 1970s, an incident occurred along the Kenya-Ethiopia border where a military vehicle was burnt. The locals claimed the action was perpetrated by armed Ethiopian militia. In what came to be known as the Malka Mari Massacre, the Kenyan military detained over two hundred men and stoned them to death. None of the men was armed, and the military did not fire a shot.
In the period that followed, poaching became rampant as the stockpiles of small arms fell into the hands of poachers. Overnight, the “Somali Poacher” was born. The parks were now under threat from a new breed of armed men motivated by nothing more than money, and allegedly backed by influential people close to the government. Throughout the 1970s, the Somali poacher terrorised Kenyan elephants, rhinos, and cheetahs.
The secessionist war effectively ended without any agreement with the secessionists themselves, without demobilisation, without any concession to the suffering population of the north.
In 1980, the security forces burned down Garissa after detaining and killing many of its inhabitants. This was an incident directly resulting from a disagreement between poachers and their contacts in government. A disgruntled poacher took matters into his own hands and killed several soldiers and other government officials.
The 1980s also saw the infamous Wagalla Massacre of 1984, where thousands were tortured and killed at an airstrip in Wajir, ostensibly during a military operation to curb banditry.
While Shifta and poachers were the competing narratives used by the government to explain its inability to bring the northern region under proper government control, the region suffered wanton neglect and underdevelopment.
The Somali-Ethiopia war ended in 1978, sparking the return of thousands who had fled the region during the war of secession as Somalia descended into clannism and corruption under military dictatorship. That same year, Vice-President Daniel Arap Moi gave a speech that sparked the alien debate when he threatened that the government would register all Somalis and deport anyone found to have allegiance to Somalia. It took 11 years for this policy to be implemented.
But the alienation of Somalis had begun earlier as it is recorded that police had raided Eastleigh and arrested Somali foreigners as early as 1970. Traders from the north-east were deemed vagrants and deported from areas in the Rift Valley and Central Kenya back to their home region.
Citizenship documents were tightly controlled, and a system of verification was put in place to make it impossible for the region’s inhabitants to register as citizens. The police were given orders to stop and ask for IDs from anyone looking like a Cushite, a Somali or other related tribes who were distinctively identifiable.
The pink card
In 1989, the famous Kenya-Somali verification and registration took place. The system was designed to catch anyone who could not be linked to a sub-location and known clan.
People had to state their family tree up to their sub-clans, and a pink card with these details was issued to the successful ones. The system was designed to force out of Kenya those unaffiliated to any of the groups “indigenous” to the country.
It is estimated that at one point hundreds were crossing the border into neighbouring countries daily. People were detained, women with young children appeared in court accused of being in the country illegally. Suspected aliens were loaded on military lorries and dropped off in Liboi across the Kenya-Somali border. Many families, especially those elites with businesses, crossed into Uganda and left for Europe or America. The pink cards eventually became available for a fee, and it is believed registration officials took hefty bribes in the process. The verification and registration were suspended after two harrowing years during which homes were raided, their inhabitants detained, and property was lost when entire families were deported with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
As the “aliens” narrative waxed and waned, a new event triggered the updating of the terminology.
In 1991, the Somalia government of Siad Barre collapsed, spilling hundreds of thousands of refugees into the neighbouring countries. Kenya was grappling with its fear of Somalis and now had to face the eventuality of hosting desperate refugees, including the deposed president.
But the alienation of Somalis had begun earlier as it is recorded that police had raided Eastleigh and arrested Somali foreigners as early as 1970.
The refugees were allowed in and settled in camps where they were fed and housed by the UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies. Throughout the 1990s, Somalia was controlled by warlords who divided the country into green zones, fought viciously among themselves and continued to spill out new refugees.
Apart from participating in efforts at reconciliation and in hosting refugees and facilitating their resettlement in Europe and America, Kenya stayed out of Somalia’s affairs. As the refugees were too many to be housed in the sprawling camps in Dadaab, Dagahaley and Kakuma, some ended up living in towns with the alien cards issued by the UNHCR as identification.
The idea of controlling the movement of refugees soon became fashionable. For the security forces it is difficult to differentiate between locals and refugees and soldiers engaged in random stop-and-searches and nighttime raids in the main towns to flush out illegal aliens.
The controls placed on refugees living in towns illegally sparked lucrative human trafficking where the police and traffickers facilitated the movement of people from the Somali border to the interior. IDs and passports became available for those who could pay but were impossible to acquire for genuine inhabitants of northern Kenya.
While Somalis and their Cushite cousins were getting used to the “alien” idea, a new term landed on Kenya’s shores: terrorism. International terrorists bombed the American embassy in Kenya in 1998. The perpetrators had names similar to those of the northerners and the refugees. The “terrorist” label did not stick for another decade and during this period Somali businesspeople invested heavily in the Eastleigh suburb of Nairobi, creating a vibrant market where initially had been an unremarkable residential estate with a few wholesale and retail shops.
This economic boom coincided with the emergence of piracy on the Somali shores of the Indian Ocean. Suddenly the Kenyan media were reporting that piracy money was flooding the markets and making life costly for the residents. The Somali pirates were real, but this was part of international piracy having its operations on the lawless Somali coast. How the piracy money was siphoned into Kenya was never explained. The piracy issue occasionally crops up when overzealous reporters make disparaging references to piracy and the real estate boom in Kenya.
In 2011 Kenya sent troops into Somalia in an operation dubbed “Linda Nchi” after a tourist was kidnapped at the coast and probably taken across the border. There were other cross-border raids. However, significant Al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya began in 2012 when Kenyan forces were integrated into the forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). As Kenya became embroiled in state-building in Somalia, with the creation of Jubaland floated as the reason for the invasion, Al-Shabaab started bringing its terrorism into Kenya.
In 2013, the Westgate Mall shootings led to the death of 67 people. More than 67 others also died in attacks in Mpeketoni in Lamu in 2014. The attacks on Garissa University attack were the worst, leading to 150 dead, many of them students. These brazen attacks were attributed to Al-Shabaab. Although the terror group had already internationalised and was recruiting with no regard to ethnicity, Kenyan Somalis became the target for blame, name-calling, and arrests.
In 2013, Human Rights Watch released a report titled “You are all terrorists”. The terrorist narrative drives xenophobia, arbitrary arrests, detention, and torture. After the terror attacks in 2014 in Eastleigh and Mpeketoni, the security forces conducted an indiscriminate door-to-door operation targeting anyone who did not have an ID card to hand. This security operation was dubbed Usalama Watch. Those who did not have the document were taken to Kasarani Stadium and held there for two weeks. About 900 people were taken to the stadium, the majority being young people who could not acquire IDs due to discriminatory bureaucratic procedures , and a haphazard and corrupt system that barred genuine citizens from receiving the document.
The verification and registration were suspended after two harrowing years during which homes were raided, their inhabitants detained, and property was lost.
Over half a century of negative portrayals of people from the north means that the official government policy is skewed when it applies to them. The acquisition of a passport is generally a straightforward process. To ensure that aliens from the north do not acquire this critical document, the immigration department and security agencies have an illegal and discriminatory step in place for border communities — vetting. It is not enough that a northerner provides sufficient genuine documentation. The applicant must appear before a group of government officials, security officers and appointed individuals to prove their citizenship. To pass this step, one must know their location chief, the genealogy of ones’ clan and other trivialities that are ordinarily unnecessary in life.
The emergence of one label does not lead to the dropping of the existing labels. Shifta, Poacher, Refugee, Pirate and Terrorist shape the thinking behind public actions. These negative portrayals have an impact on how national matters are debated and resolved.
A section of Kenyan citizens is considered as dangerous to the main body of the country. The secession war that ostensibly ended in 1967 is still being fought; the terms of the agreement that ended the war have never been the subject of a national conversation. Did the agreement include such important matters as citizenship, identity, development, and non-discrimination? The security agencies have not discarded their belligerent attitude towards the population and the civil service retains the policies of the 1960s towards the people of the north.
One must know their location chief, the genealogy of one’s clan and other trivialities that are ordinarily unnecessary in life.
National identity is at stake as those who rejected becoming part of Kenya at independence cannot have equal status with everyone else. They are aliens, and “they all look like”. The most dangerous portrayal is the association with terrorism; poachers and pirates are small fish compared to terrorists. In the last few years, enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings related to the war on terror have become commonplace. It is hard to fight for the rights of one who is labelled a terrorist and is disappeared or killed.
Public association with a terror suspect is a stigma that nobody is willing to be associated with. Crimes are committed under cover of fighting terrorism, and there is nothing the targeted community can do about it. That is the power of a label; it obscures the truth, gives authorities cover to commit genocidal crimes and permits the practice of xenophobia in public.
The End of Abiy-Mania
When he ascended to power in April 2018 Abiy Ahmed elicited goodwill inside and outside Ethiopia but the continuing humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region is losing him friends.
Ethiopia will go to the polls on June 22, buffeted by various crises domestically and abroad. But the upcoming election has many echoes of the May 15 2005 election, whose impact continues to shape Ethiopia’s domestic politics and politics in the Horn of Africa. Central to Ethiopia’s current domestic crisis and the border dispute with Sudan, is the Abiy-Amhara compact.
The 15 May 2005 elections were the third national elections to be held under the 1994 constitution following the ouster of the Marxist-Leninist Derg. In the 1995 and 2000 elections, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government harassed the opposition parties, forcing the influential ones to boycott the polls, with the result that the EPRDF won both elections with over 90 per cent of the seats.
Ahead of the 2005 election, the EPDRF signalled the significant participation of the opposition parties so that Western observers—whose support was critical for Meles—would declare the elections to have been free and fair. The incumbent party acceded to the pre-election demands of some opposition parties, allowing in international election observers and giving the opposition parties a chance to sell their manifestos on the national broadcaster. These conditions were absent in the previous elections. While these were not among the chief demands of the opposition parties prior to the polls, they indicated reasonable good faith on the part of the government compared to previous elections.
As a result, for the first time in Ethiopia’s history, a nationwide multiparty competition seemed possible; neither the ruling party nor the opposition had ever faced a competitive election before.
Internal turmoil within the EPRDF preceded the election. The Central Committee of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s core support base—broke up into two rival factions in 2001. With his base in the Tigray heartland at risk, Meles took advantage of his central position within the broader EPRDF coalition and outmanoeuvred his rivals. He sacked several senior officials and successfully weathered the storm, but the fault line remained and emerged during the 2005 elections.
The pre-election period saw the unprecedented participation of the opposition parties and civil society organisations in the campaigns. Election Day went peacefully, and the early results in Addis Ababa and other major urban areas showed the opposition parties making significant electoral gains. According to unofficial preliminary results, the opposition had won 172 parliamentary seats—its most considerable showing yet in the 547-member assembly. On the night of the election, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declared a one-month ban on public demonstrations in the capital and brought the Addis Ababa security forces (which would have come under the opposition’s command had they been sworn in) under the control of the Prime Minister’s office.
Opposition parties boycotted their seats in parliament, alleging rigging by the incumbent. Their refusal to take up their seats in parliament handed Meles Zenawi and his party a third term in office. Meles interpreted his “mandate” as a licence to take the authoritarian path. Hundreds, if not thousands, of political opposition and human rights activists were arbitrarily detained, with some facing the spurious charge of treason. Ethiopian security forces killed almost 200 demonstrators in post-election protests in June and November 2005 and arrested tens of thousands of people.
With the domestic front “sorted”, Meles turned to regional matters. In December 2006, Ethiopia’s military intervened in Somalia to root out the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which had brought stability for the few months they were in charge. The Ethiopian forces captured Mogadishu in less than a week, and the UIC dissolved and surrendered political leadership to clan leaders.
Ethiopia’s ouster of the UIC tapped into a deep historical hostility between Somalia and Ethiopia, something Al Shabaab, the youth wing of the UIC, exploited with a mix of latent Somalia nationalism and anti-imperialism.
Ethiopia’s actions provided Al Shabaab with an opportunity to translate its rhetoric into action. Al Shabaab began targeting the nascent Somalia government, Ethiopian forces, the Transitional Federal Government security, political figures, and any Somalis collaborating with Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s and TFG’s heavy-handed counterinsurgency responses played into the hands of Al Shabaab.
Ethiopia’s incursion into Somalia took place three weeks after General John Abizaid, the commander of US forces from the Middle East to Afghanistan, had met with then Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Sixteen years later, Ethiopia goes into another election whose consequences could transcend Ethiopia.
The limits of Abiy-Mania
When he ascended to power in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed elicited a groundswell of collective goodwill inside and outside Ethiopia. He embarked at breakneck speed on reforms that just a few years earlier would have sounded far-fetched.
At home, Abiy released political prisoners, appointed the country’s first female as the ceremonial president and a cabinet half-filled by women. He nominated a once-jailed opposition leader as the new chairwoman of the electoral board. In the Horn of Africa region, Abiy had a rapprochement with Eritrea, a country with which Ethiopia had fought a bloody war between 1998 and 2000. Abiy also attempted to mediate the Sudan political crisis.
The Nobel Committee awarded Abiy the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize “For his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, particularly for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.”
Federalism vs centralisation
While the trigger for the Abiy-led military operation against the Regional Government of Tigray in the north of the country is the alleged attack of the federal army base by the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the attack was only a symptom and not the actual cause.
The battle between Abiy and the TPLF and other groups is a battle between those who champion the multi-ethnic federalism constitution and those who prefer a centralised state. Abiy favours centralisation to federalism.
The Tigray region is not the first to bear the brunt of the military and federal security forces to achieve Abiy’s centralisation agenda. The Oromia and Sidama regions have also been at the receiving end of the violence of the federal security authorities.
Abiy embarked at breakneck speed on reforms that just a few years earlier would have sounded far-fetched.
Throughout its long history of state formation, Ethiopia was for thousands of years ruled by emperors under a monarchy with a unitary system of government. The last emperor, Haile Selassie, was deposed in 1974 and from then on until 1991, the country came under a dictatorship with a unitary system of government.
The creation of the EPRDF in 1989—an ethnic coalition of the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front, the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM; later Amhara Democratic Party), the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO; later Oromo Democratic Party), and the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM)—had changed that.
Abiy’s shot across the bow was the dissolution of the EPDRF and the launching of the Prosperity Party (PP) on December 1 2019. The OPDO, ANDM, and SEPDM voted overwhelmingly to join the party, while the TPLF rejected the idea as “illegal and reactionary”. The timing of the move was convenient, coming just a few months before the election that was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The EPDRF’s multi-ethnic federalism and the inclusion in the constitution of the right to secede for all “nations and nationalities and peoples” of the country were innovative breakthroughs in a country with 80 different ethnic groups. But the constitution was also a product of ideological foment and political necessity. The leaders who revolted against the Mengistu junta had emerged from the student movement that had adopted the “nationalities and the land question”, redefining Ethiopian statehood.
The Oromia and Sidama regions have also been at the receiving end of the violence of the federal security authorities.
While the multi-ethnic federalism has been imperfect, especially its implementation and the domination of the EPDRF by the TPLF, in a multi-ethnic country with historical and contemporary grievances against the state, federalism has acted as a safety valve against ethnic tension.
Abiy and Amhara expansionism
The Amharas are Abiy’s vociferous supporters at home. They, especially their elites, have an axe to grind with the TPLF for diluting their decades of uninterrupted state power and control. Amhara language and culture are the state’s language and culture, and the language and culture of the Orthodox Church which wields unfettered power. But with its political nous, its deep bureaucracy and know-how, the TPLF was always a challenging prospect for Abiy, a political novice with limited federal-level experience and hardly a political base. The connecting tissue of Abiy-Amhara unity is the lowest common denominator that is the fear and loathing of the TPLF. After dissolving the EPDR, a coalition in which the TPLF was a strong partner, the next step was to defeat the TPLF militarily. Even before the November military incursion into Tigray, Amhara militias were massed at the border with Tigray. If Abiy’s anti-TPLF move was intended to destroy them as a political force, for the Amharas this was an opportunity to regain some of the territories they had lost to Tigray in 1991.
Ethiopia also has a boundary dispute with Sudan. The dispute centres on the al-Fashaga region, Sudan’s fertile breadbasket located in Gedaref State, which borders Ethiopia’s Amhara region in the north-west. According to the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1902 the area belongs to Sudan and, unlike the regime of Omar al-Bashir, for the transitional government of Prime Minister Abdulla Hamdok, settling this dispute is a priority. However, the Abiy-Amhara alliance has made resolving the dispute complicated.
Sudan is also a critical factor in resolving the Tigray crisis; the country is the only remaining supply route for the TPLF as Eritrea is closed to them and bringing in supplies and fuel through other routes is risky. Sudan could also determine how the GERD dam conflict will be resolved. Unlike Egypt, Sudan could benefit from cheap electricity if the dam is filled, but the country will not countenance losing al-Fashaga. Abiy faces difficult choices: cede al-Fashaga to Sudan and gain a partner in the dam negotiations while also denying the TPLF a supply route or keep al-Fashaga and lose Sudan in the GERD dam discussions, leaving the TPLF to use the Sudan border for supplies.
The Tigray conflict, which Abiy initially promised would be a straightforward law enforcement operation, has instead metastasised into a slow-grinding counterinsurgency operation. The continuing humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region is losing Abiy friends.
On May 23, the US State Department announced visa restrictions for any current or former Ethiopian or Eritrean government officials, members of the security forces, or other individuals—including Amhara regional and irregular forces and members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the resolution of the crisis in Tigray.
In a multi-ethnic country with historical and contemporary grievances against the state, federalism has acted as a safety valve against ethnic tension.
America’s sanctions came on the heels of the European Union’s suspension of budgetary support worth €88 million (US$107 million) until humanitarian agencies are granted access to people in need of aid in the northern Tigray region.
On the 7th of June 2021, Representatives Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Michael McCaul (R-TX), who is also Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, together with Karen Bass (D-CA) and Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), respectively Chairwoman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Global Human Rights, issued a joint statement after tabling a resolution condemning violence and human rights abuses in Ethiopia.
The sanctions come as Ethiopia awards its first telecom licence for US$850 million to a consortium that includes the UK’s Vodafone in what could herald the opening up of Ethiopia’s closed economy.
Before the EPDRF came into power, Ethiopia was a posterchild of famine and incessant conflict, especially under the Derg regime. Abiy and Amhara nationalism is bringing back the echoes of the Derg era and the upcoming June election is unlikely to resolve current crises; if anything, it will exacerbate them.
We Still Can’t Breathe: Chauvin’s Conviction Maintains the Status Quo
Chauvin is simply a cop who committed an action so ugly that he had to be made an example of so that America could get back to normal.
Sometimes even the “biggest” victories can ring hollow. That especially seems to be the case several months into 2021, and 11 odd months after George Floyd had his life snuffed out in front of a red-brick grocery store in South Minneapolis, around the corner from the “Little East Africa” neighbourhood. That Derek Chauvin, the cop who laid his blatancy in the form of a knee across Floyd’s neck in a gutter finally faced some form of consequence in the form of a guilty verdict, may, in and of itself be of little consequence in the grandest of schemes.
Yes, right now it seems as though the verdict that has come down harshly on Chauvin is a rebuke of all things heinous, nothing less than a massive moral victory for racial progress, black America and global equality.
Indeed, rainbows shall now shine through and if you listen to many pundits within the American (and for that matter, Western) broadcast media, racism against Black America has been solved once and for all — à la the presidential election of Barack Obama way back in those heady days of 2008.
Chauvin will be sentenced on June 25th of this year. Much of Black America is already lowering their expectations away from the 40-year maximum prison sentence.
Life is full of disappointments.
In itself, the Chauvin verdict is not one of them; it is just another opportunity for a larger collective sadness, another opportunity for an eventual letdown, a reminder of the global system of injustice that is, frankly, far as hell from ever being permanently resolved.
I haven’t been in Minneapolis since the end of May 2020, the Saturday following the Floyd killing, when the very landscape and fabric of the “Twin Cities” of Minnesota and Saint Paul were irrevocably changed. Walking around that day, the sense of despair was palpable. All of Lake Street — all seven kilometers of it — seemed to have been hit by varying degrees of madness. Some buildings were completely burnt out, husks of their former selves; others had smashed windows or had “BLACK OWNED BUSINESS: DON’T BURN!” scrawled in graffiti across the boarded-up doors. Thousands of people trudged around with shovels, cleaning up debris ahead of the inevitable next night of chaos.
In the weeks that followed, the protests spread across the United States, and even took root on a global scale, spreading as far as Nairobi, London, Kampala, Rome and dozens of other cities. In Minneapolis, all the tension of a tense superpower seemingly dying of its own hubris during the chaotic early months of the COVID-19 pandemic descended on an idyllic neighbourhood. By the day I arrived, May 30th, the United States National Guard was being deployed to put down any form of violence with their own forms of violence. But the damage had been done and the rest of the country was experiencing its own varying levels of chaos. At least two people were killed in Minneapolis alone (and at least 19 across the rest of the US, though this number seems to be low). Dozens of people were injured in Minneapolis alone (although the exact numbers are hard to confirm; personally I talked to at least three people who had sustained non-lethal injuries during the protests, so the real number could be much higher).
Thousands were injured across the US, with hundreds more incidents of police brutality filmed and shared widely. In Minneapolis there was approximately KSh 53 billion worth of damage related to the unrest. Bob Kroll, the president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis who allegedly had white supremacist ties retired at the beginning of 2021. The Minneapolis Police Department was defunded following the reckoning that fell upon the Twin Cities in those warm early summer weeks.
Among pundit across America, talk of alliance and “listening” rapidly became the norm. Many leading neo-liberals put out statements, Republicans and Democrats alike. Trump ordered the beating up of peaceful protesters in front the White House and goodhearted liberals were shocked and appalled. Everyone said it was a “sea change” in American race-relations.
Less than three months after the George Floyd protests kicked off there was a “monumental change” — Jacob Blake was shot in the back by police in the city of Kenosha, in my home state of Wisconsin. The NBA boycotted games, more conversations were had and the world kept right on turning, same as it ever has.
When it comes down to issues of inequality, racism and oppression the status quo is always maintained, especially in America. Two steps forward and three steps back seems to be the pattern, one that is only reinforced by the pattern of police getting away with the murder of Black Americans — whether on tape or merely under “suspicious” circumstances in which “the officer felt their life was threatened and required a response of lethal force”.
Perhaps it is this constant pattern of impunity that has caused the most damage, a pattern that in the US can be traced to well before the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, California. The riots were sparked off by the acquittal of cops who had been caught on film beating and kicking King senseless on the shoulder of a freeway.
It’s the same as it ever was.
Over the years since, especially in this age of social media ubiquity, incidents police violence against Black men, women and children have been caught on camera with horrifying regularity.
Horrifying, but not at all surprising. Everyone within the Black community in the US has long known the score. “Officers under threat” deaths, cases failing to be investigated, rumours of pistols being planted, delays in emergency responder times, ties to white supremacy, “warrior cops” getting more military equipment, stop-and-frisk policies, higher incarceration rates among Blacks, continual harassment, talking to children about keeping hands visible when dealing with police, media bias, fetishisation of police, the “Blue Lives Matter” movement — the list of systemic issues within US police forces could fill the remainder of this article.
In this age of social media ubiquity, incidents of police violence against Black men, women and children have been caught on camera with horrifying regularity.
The American judicial system itself is inherently flawed. The narrative among much of the “upstanding” upper middle-class elements of society is that somehow race relations were, if not solved outright, repaired with a sustained “upward” trajectory somewhere around the funeral of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination in 1968.
They paint a rosy picture of race-relations in the US in which all segregationist judges were replaced with forward thinking progressives, where all cops with KKK ties were unceremoniously fired, where the ghosts of “Jim Crow” laws (designed to suppress, segregate and subjugate post-slavery Black America) simply faded into the distant memories of a bygone era. The result was a sort of racial Cold War, where proxy wars were fought through the war on drugs, mass incarceration, neoliberalism and police impunity.
“At least segregation is illegal now”, says White America when pressed, as if cities, schools, hospitals and police actions were not still segregated sans overt painted signs.
Such sentiments bled into the politics of the US’s two major parties, Republicans spearheading the “War on Drugs” under the Reagan presidency of the 1980s and the Clinton administration cutting social programmes and accelerating mass incarceration during the 90s under the all-American ideal of “pulling oneself up by your bootstraps”. Such proponents of America’s neo-liberal ethos cared little whether there were any boots to begin with.
Slowly the technology caught up with the reality, and the anger felt across the marginalised communities in America had a focal point on which to pour out their frustrations. The images were there on film, little snippets sent into cyberspace by countless onlookers. The anger was in the bloody and lifeless body of Michael Brown lying for hours in a Missouri street. It was in Eric Garner pleading that he couldn’t breathe while being choked to death by cops in New York City. It was in Philando Castille being shot and killed in his car seconds after telling the officer who had pulled him over that he had a licensed gun in the car and reached for his wallet. (This shooting also happened in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.) It was in Breonna Taylor being shot dead on a no-knock warrant in Louisville, Kentucky only for the officers to be charged with “wanton endangerment” for firing bullets into a neighbouring apartment.
None of the officers in the above incidents were convicted. Some were never even brought into a courtroom.
On April 11th 2021, Daunte Wright was shot and killed by a cop during a traffic stop in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Details and footage of the incident are scant. The officer involved has been charged with second-degree manslaughter (a lesser charge than homicide in the US court system). Protests have sprung up around the US, youth wearing surgical masks — the hallmark of the smoldering COVID-19 pandemic — clashing with police and facing arrest, and “non-lethal weapons being deployed by officers to quell pockets of unrest”. This killing occurred at the epicentre of the “defund the police” movement — Minneapolis.
The cycle continues same as ever, two steps forward and three steps back in Black America’s quest for equitable treatment.
The police are just the visible agents of the systemic suppression of Black people that stretches far beyond the shores of the US.
If COVID-19 has shown up anything, it is the brutality of police worldwide. Most times their actions go on with impunity. Cops in Kenya beat up people without mercy and enforce curfew by leaving motorists stranded on highways. In Uganda cops extort commuters under threat of jail. In Rwanda the stranglehold on the nation continues to tighten under threat of harsh penalties.
There is no equality when it comes to the Global South, particularly for much of Africa whose suffering at the hands of the police echoes the oppression faced by the Black community in the US.
The cycle continues same as ever, two steps forward and three steps back in Black America’s quest for equitable treatment.
Through this lens of warranted cynicism, the “guilty” verdict handed down to Derek Chauvin by a jury in Minnesota is not a massive turning point. The very pundits stating that the verdict is such a monumental moment of change inherently prove that it is nothing remotely close to such a trend. There will be other failed indictments, other cops walking away, more cases of mysteriously “lost” body-cam footage. More will die, protests will spring up and be quelled with extreme prejudice.
Chauvin, the smirking killer that he is, did prove one thing and one thing only: where the “line” truly is, where the grey areas that the police hide behind blur over into black and white, from a “justified act of lethal self-defense from a frightened officer” into outright murder. His actions were so unquestionably heinous that they had to be dealt with. What Chauvin did derives directly from an ugly history; he lynched that man and at the time thought he would get away with it, hands in pockets, cocky half-smile on his face while his bodyweight cut off George Floyd’s air supply in that street gutter. Bystanders begged him to stop as the other officers watched in idle complicity. Paramedics were not allowed to give medical aid and Chauvin continued to apply pressure for minutes after Floyd had become non-responsive.
The systems, after all, stay much as they are in America. Profit margins must be maintained and “order” by way of the status quo must be upheld. The Twin Cities, of which Minneapolis is the more visible twin, would have simply exploded if the verdict had come back anything less than guilty. After a year of protests, COVID-19 lockdowns, electoral strangeness, Trumpian policies, political divisions, economic challenges and continued incidents of police violence, the tinderbox that was Minneapolis could not have handled Chauvin walking free out of the courthouse to appear on Fox News to “thank God”.
If that had happened the resulting violence would have dwarfed any incidents of unrest in America’s past. It is likely that weeks later clashes with police would be continuing on a nightly basis in dozens of cities across America. Minneapolis, where major corporates are headquartered, would have been engulfed in flames so huge the smoke would have been seen in the neighbouring state of Wisconsin.
The tinderbox that was Minneapolis could not have handled Chauvin walking free out of the courthouse to appear on Fox News to “thank God”.
Chauvin’s true legacy is that of an outlier, the ultimate talking-head example that “things are different now”, that something has truly been accomplished on a systemic level when it comes to police treatment of Black America.
In reality, Chauvin is simply a cop who committed an action so ugly that he had to be made an example of so that America could “get back to normal”.
For Black America in 2021 however, normal life is chockful of disappointments.
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