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Double Trauma in Minneapolis: An Eyewitness Account of the Protests That Shook America

15 min read.

ALEX ROBERTS walks through the smouldering debris of Minneapolis, and discovers that in a country where anything can be bought, hate can also be funded.

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Mayhem in Minneapolis: An Eyewitness Account of the Protests That Shook America
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The assessment that all the trouble started after George Floyd had his life squeezed out, cuffed and pleading, is inaccurate. In the Midwest region, the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) flew relatively below the radar of police brutality, especially compared with the notorious corruption of the Chicago Police Department, or the daily racial profiling put forth by the Milwaukee Police Department in Wisconsin.

In 2016, in neighbouring St. Paul, the murder of another unarmed black man, Philando Castile, who was shot five times by a policeman as he was reaching for his driving licence (even after announcing his intention to do so) pulled back the façade. The death of Castile was not forgotten, but it went unpunished and was left festering.

One such figure who has stood as an obstacle to progress towards a more equitable and just police department is Bob Kroll, the President of the Minneapolis Police Union. Kroll is an avid Donald Trump surrogate (even appearing on stage with the president at rallies), and has been accused of open bias in favour of police action by any means, and of having close ties to white supremacist groups. Kroll is a microcosm of the split within Minneapolis.

What is unclear now is how much of a hand the “Bob Krolls” of the city played in the last several days However, nearly every resident of the area believes the police helped stir up the situation.

The timeline of events went roughly as follows:

On the Monday Memorial Day holiday, George Floyd was murdered.

Tuesday saw primarily peaceful protests around the 3rd Precinct on Lake Street and at the site of the murder; but also on Tuesday there seemed to be some sort of instigation, although the exact “who threw down first” question is impossible to say, but in one instance a suspected officer was filmed breaking glass with a hammer at an auto shop while carrying an umbrella.

On Wednesday, the protests escalated as the officer had not been arrested yet and police actions began to intensify.

Thursday split into two protests: a more peaceful one outside the murder scene at Cup Foods (where George Floyd was killed); and a rowdier one at the 3rd Police Precinct. The latter one spiraled, although there are multiple reports of overzealous and violent police actions, as well as outside instigation. By late night Thursday, Lake Street for several blocks on either side of the precinct had devolved into chaos and fires had been lit, most notably destroying the police station itself, forcing police into a hasty retreat.

The situation continued on Friday as police initially stayed out of the area entirely, letting it burn and allowing residents to fend for themselves. They then went in with no mercy in the evening hours. (All or nothing for the MPD.)

With the police department dead set on “enforcing order” instead of calming the situation, the riot police were widely reported to be enacting a policy of violent action first, consequences be damned. Authority in America truly does despise any pushback.

Thursday split into two protests: a more peaceful one outside the murder scene at Cup Foods (where George Floyd was killed); and a rowdier one at the 3rd Police Precinct. The latter one spiraled, although there are multiple reports of overzealous and violent police actions, as well as outside instigation.

Instigators began to come out at night, both from inside the community and many from outside of it. There were multiple reports of white supremacists taking action and clashing in the area, as well as ANTIFA instigators, undercover cops, random out of state people, white kids in from the suburbs to kick up some shit and loot, Minneapolis citizens venting rage and Lake Street residents fighting the would-be instigators. All this, not to mention undercover cops stirring the pot and marked police cracking down on the crowd.

One man, a resident of the area, said of the previous night: “I was at the precinct last night. It was not what you want; people were walking up behind protesters and putting big ass fireworks at the feet of protesters. I watched Wells Fargo burn down. Now you see people who live here out here and cleaning? You know at night it’s a different thing. I think it is hired people. I don’t know who or from where but it is a coordinated effort. I’m hoping there’s just not much less to destroy down here.”

The fire-setters were of particular concern, as random Molotov cocktails were seemingly accompanied by more organised elements. The fires had ripped through seemingly dozens of businesses; large and small alike were not spared. Cars, burned down to white-hot ashy metal dotted parking lots in the surrounding area, particularly in the parking lots of bigger stores like the Target at the corner of Lake and 26th. Graffiti was everywhere, tagged in red and black. Slogans of “Fuck 12” (meaning police), “Death to Pigs”, “No Justice”, “Say His Name” were becoming ubiquitous across exposed brick and hastily thrown up plywood covering shop windows.

The area is the hub of the Twin Cities Somali community, a group of immigrants that has thrived in Minnesota over the last quarter century. Families from all over East Africa and beyond have made these leafy avenues one of the major centres of the diaspora, and now their shops were facing down a situation far outside of their control.

Some of the plywood had desperate pleas to be spared: “Don’t Burn: We Live Upstairs” and “No Fire: This is A BLACK OWNED BUSINESS.” Even stores that seemed to have managed to protect themselves were not spared on closer inspection; in several stores, water poured out from the cracks underneath the sheets of spray paint covered boarding. The low buzz of alarms was everywhere, some gurgling last chirps through the damage of flames, baseball bats and fire system flooding.

As a retired gardener named Madeline who lived off Lake Street said of the situation: “There is a criminal element looking to set fires. We just took a fire bomb out of a cooler outside the Precision Tune store. There’s no sense to this. The criminal elements are coming in on the coat-tails of the protesters and taking up the opportunity. They are very organised. Get your block club organised, coz it is up to us now.”

Now on Saturday, all of this served as an absolutely bizarre tableau. Empty hulking shells of businesses stood wobbly on pillars, surrounding ash and smoldering ruin within.

In front of one building, fluorescent yellow caution tape circled the structure, and a sign read, “Do NOT pass! Building WILL Collapse!”

Streaming past were brooms. Lone people at first, then twos and threes, and looking down Lake Street, a constant stream running up for miles, thousands of people, carrying brooms, shovels, dustpans, snow shovels – all making their way in to clean and salvage.

So many were willing to help their city, and so thorough a job they did that many commented that Lake Street was in fact cleaner than it had ever been. The result gave the impression of a Hollywood movie set – smouldering ruins of structures scattered around spotless asphalt.

In front of one building, fluorescent yellow caution tape circled the structure, and a sign read, “Do NOT pass! Building WILL Collapse!”

Outside an Ethiopian restaurant burned to a husk, with only the sign seeming to survive wholly intact, hundreds of people swept and shoveled up bricks and glass, some even tossing pieces of rubble into wheelbarrows. Inside, not even the floor had survived; it was now a smouldering plank looking down into the cellar of twisted beams intermingling with cracked and leaking water pipes.

Down the road, two doors down from the Kismayo Bakery, they continued, picking up glass by hand, scrubbing at graffiti with sponges, serving as fire brigades and throwing buckets of water onto embers.

In those initial hours of the afternoon, there was an eerie absence of voices; only the scrap of shovels and the swish of brooms broke the silence. The closest historical resemblance was that of Londoners removing rubble after Nazi bombing runs during the Blitz. As most were wearing masks, the eyes spoke of shell shock in the blocks around the Third Police precinct.

An older Somali man stood at the corner, looking at the ruins of a four-storey building about to collapse. He never stopped shaking his head, “This is not good, it is useless. This? You hurt people like this? No…no…no.” He didn’t say this to anyone in particular. Tears were welling up in his eyes. He turned and walked, defeated, up a side street.

Outside a half burned dentists’ office block on Chicago Avenue, a fire truck finally made an appearance, pouring down water that subsequently spilled out onto the street, washing chunks of charred debris around the feet of volunteers who stood in line waiting for the Afro Cafe workers to hand them packed samosas and veggie pilau.

It seemed like every half a block, people — the real representatives of Longfellow – offered up food, bottled water, and sunscreen. Some just asked the passersby if they needed to talk, whether they were holding up alright. The US media, somehow, managed to not highlight any of these organised efforts, though they stood in multitude in solidarity together – masked up and wearing T-shirts painted with “JUSTICE FOR GEORGE”. They took up the mantle of helping their neighboruhood, even as the police abandoned them, the overriding sentiment being “Let them burn each other down”. Instead, the people of Lake Street collected food, redistributed it, and did their damnedest to save every business on the block, even risking their necks to clean the inside of a giant burned-out Target superstore that surely never raised the minimum wage.

As often rings true, those most at risk do the most work. Perhaps this is why it was first- generation immigrants, many from the African diaspora, who spearheaded efforts to galvanise the community towards rebuilding, even as the fires smouldered around them, and the smell of chemical spray paint and the sickly sweet remains of tear gas intermingled with smoke from torched cars. In the midst of the fumes, they painted the word “Love” on the outside of a boarded-up grocery store.

On the nightly news, anchors feigned shock that convenience stores got robbed by three white teenagers in balaclavas, but there was no mention of the thousands who faced down the pandemic together for change and then took up brooms instead of bricks.

Two local teachers barked out this order to a waiting contingent of volunteers: “Get the chalk! Draw lines around this block so it is not hit!”

One of the women stopped to pause a second, murmuring to a random lady on the sidewalk, “Those people aren’t from Minneapolis, the ones burning? They’re not. All of us are here with this COVID? This is a double trauma. This is a great city. I can’t believe this would happen here. People live in some of the buildings being burned. Why would we do that to ourselves?”

A major question rings through: If anger is rightfully centred on the MPD, where were other first responders? If the city truly supported the cause for change, then where were the crews of medical workers handing out PPE?

This was failure at every level: an already stretched thin city abandoned, an already marginalised community threatened; the looming spectre of COVID hanging over it all.

Indeed, if it is possible to be simultaneously aggressive and passive, the emergency systems of Minneapolis managed to achieve both, threading the needle of uselessness. The city government isn’t entirely blameless either; while it may be convenient to blame only the Bob Kroll cop-fetishist types, the city’s “openly progressive” mayor, Jacob Frey, rightfully deserves criticism for his decision to let the protests continue unabated even as they became volatile into the nights of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. While instigators set up fire bombs, the police, dressed to kill, stayed on the sidelines, seeming only to break their holding pattern to beat, arrest and pepper spray the wrong (non-white) people, often pulling from the peaceful crowd to do so.

“Hands Up!” at the Fifth Precinct

Then there were the dressed-to-kill cops. They were huddled, half a dozen or so, behind trash cans and barricades on the roof of the 5th Precinct. Across the street, the Wells Fargo bank branch was in ruins; a car burned down to the rims lay next to a drive-through ATM machine.

Fences surrounded the station, and as the protesters moved closer, the officers silently put on bulky blue plastic riot helmets.

This initial reaction of gearing up to do battle seemed strange, particularly as how this same group of protesters, minutes before, was in the Uptown district of Lake Street, blocking off an entire intersection, taking a knee and chanting, “SAY HIS NAME! GEORGE FLOYD!” With signs they came in, perhaps six thousand of them, crowding in around the fences, chanting in unison.

Not a stone was thrown and the cops kept gearing up.

“What do we want? ALL FOUR!” the crowd chanted incessantly. It was led by a tiny teenage girl in a “HANDS UP! DON’T SHOOT!” shirt, yelling into a megaphone while steadying herself on top of a concrete barricade.

“All four” means arresting, trying and convicting all four cops that were present when George Floyd died. The sentiment is clear, there are no halfway measures to justice this time. All or nothing and f**k compromise. That road just leads back to this point.

The sentiment of the real South Minneapolis is that this killing truly was the last straw and now there is a need for systemic change or he died for nothing. They believe that George Floyd’s murder was premeditated because for nearly nine minutes, the pressure on his neck was unrelenting. He died cruelly, needlessly, helplessly, and three other cops let it happen; they were complicit in a daylight murder on Chicago Avenue. Not even a live cell phone camera recording and pleas of onlookers could change Floyd’s fate.

“These are the people that really live here,” one man said as he pushed an overloaded dumpster out of the road to help ease traffic. “This is actually us.”

Non-violence seemed the overall sentiment; anger definitely, but not a violent energy that wasn’t the centre of this movement. Even the non-violent were met with brutal police response, however, seemingly unprovoked in many instances.

Even some of the shop owners who had their shops burned still stood in solidarity, with the mantra of “possessions can be replaced but justice needs to be permanent”.

A man on a bicycle wearing a lime green Nigerian national squad football jersey elaborated on what he’d seen. He’d driven all the way from New York City and was quickly lumped in with the rowdier elements, as the police opened up on all of them: “I was there last night man, I was just there, not doing shit, not holding shit. I got shot in the leg with a rubber bullet, anything that could be burned was, from my eyes. My leg is swollen as shit man.”

The sentiment of the real South Minneapolis is that this killing truly was the last straw and now there is a need for systemic change or he died for nothing. They believe that George Floyd’s murder was premeditated because for nearly nine minutes, the pressure on his neck was unrelenting.

There has been a lot said about the outside elements, and the truth seems murky at best, but where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

At the corner of Wells Fargo, a fifty-something black woman, N-95 mask dangling around her neck, gathered a crowd around her, rebuking the destructive elements and calling on the crowd to do the same: “We gotta get some control in this, we really, really do. Don’t sit here and try to blame the cops, the only thing they’re to blame for is not standing their ground. They left us. Do the peaceful protests man But if you go out and tear up the stores? Don’t go into that! I told my sons that! They pulled guns on my sons and I told them not to be out here. Don’t tell me how to feel!”

Even more to the core than “outside elements” the common theme always circles back to how the police cracked down to such an extreme that people were forced into a corner, thinking that they were suddenly facing down a deadly circumstance with a riot gear-laden officer representing a department that just asphyxiated an unarmed, handcuffed black man in broad daylight and now were in their face swinging clubs and firing tear gas canisters with the intention of hurting people.

When forced into such circumstances, can it really be expected to never swing back?

Three men in their late twenties, Sam, Marvin and Anish (Marvin had moved to Minneapolis from Eldoret, Kenya, years ago), who all live north of the metro line in Minneapolis, attested to the conditions that primed the city’s protests.

“I don’t think they take the precautions they need to when it comes to black folks,” Marvin said, stone-faced.

Sam weighed in. “As black men we go out our way to say ‘hi’ to people, just to make them feel comfortable. Now Trump calling people thugs and shit, now saying ‘hi’ to you might not be valid anymore. F**k him man. That’s his first tweet, why not George Floyd? Why not the protests? We’ve been quiet for too long. This is exactly what happens when you don’t think about change. What do you want us to do, sit back and be quiet?”

There has been a lot said about the outside elements, and the truth seems murky at best, but where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

“Exactly!” Anish exclaimed, while holding a sign that read “Where’s Justice For George? No Justice For Us?” and shifting the sign onto the handles of his bike before continuing, “Everybody’s frustrated. Enough is enough It’s a cycle though. Same as Baltimore and St. Louis. Rodney King was when? We don’t have to do this, we don’t have to get to this point. This woulda been another closed case. People in Minnesota avoid these issues. Things get swept in this city man.”

A few blocks away, the echoes of “Say His NAME! GEORGE FLOYD” reverberated around store fronts. All up and down the block, countless hands worked furiously, scrubbing away, and screwing in more plywood barricades to stave off the inevitable.

In the adjacent alley, four tactical police units, shaved heads and wrap-around reflective sunglasses, buckled up their flak jackets.

A cocktail of volatility stirred

“When the looting starts, the shooting starts!” There, in small Twitter font, Trump quoted a white supremacist police chief from Miami back in the 60s, and the reaction on the ground was a sarcastic, “Tell us how you really feel”.

Much has been made of the fermenting of some uglier sentiments of American culture, old ghosts bubbling back up to prominence in the age of Trumpism. On Sunday, May 31st, the right-wing talking heads made little mention of the white supremacist who attempted to mirror the truck attack in the French city of Nice by plowing a petrol tanker into the peaceful protesters marching down interstate 35. He missed them, and in his panic that he hadn’t committed mass murder, slowed down, only to be swarmed by people jumping onto the hood and the sides, kicking out the windshield and dragging him out, ensuring he wasn’t beaten so badly that he couldn’t be handed over roughly to the police, who promptly tried to detain one of the would-be-terrorist’s captors.

When the “looting” starts, the shooting starts…clearly. For this administration, all black faces are looters and all those who demand justice for George Floyd are violent ANTIFA thugs. It matters not that they hold signs that read “I Can’t Breathe!”, and that they walk in solidarity with hands up and that there are young people, even children, in the crowds demanding change. This peaceful movement, for the Trump administration, is terrifying and they’re desperately grasping at straws to paint it only through negativity, and further drown out the growing voices who see the obvious realities of inequity.

The disconnect of political ideologies is clearer than ever within the age of COVID and Trumpism, but during the opening salvo of what seems to be a movement, it rings all the starker.

Now, across the US, the simmering has begun to boil over. Protests are breaking out in dozens of cities. Peaceful marchers are revealing that the callousness of the Minneapolis police is not a Minnesota problem, but an institutional system of brutality. It feels as though a moment has arrived, and that true change may, finally, at last, be possible.

The unfortunate part for Minneapolis is how heavily the movement got hijacked.

Sitting out in her lawn ten blocks from the 3rd Precinct, Amy Froiland Parada, a social worker focusing on health services for lower income families from a St. Paul high school, reflects on the last few days.

“People are stirring up all kinds of fear. On my block, (she points around at houses) those guys all fled. I didn’t feel scared until this morning, when I heard that the fire bombs could be organised. When I heard the helicopters, when I heard about the precinct burning down, I thought, you know what? We need a change here. And now…now we’re texting our neighbours and telling them to hide their propane tanks, keep hoses and buckets handy.”

Now, across the US, the simmering has begun to boil over. Protests are breaking out in dozens of cities. Peaceful marchers are revealing that the callousness of the Minneapolis police is not a Minnesota problem, but an institutional system of brutality. It feels as though a moment has arrived, and that true change may, finally, at last, be possible.

Parada has made inroads into the community here through her work and through neighbourhood meetings with members of local predominantly black churches. Now those very same neighbours are under threat. “Tonight, there are people taking shifts to guard the black church around the corner. There’s that fear, the fear it could be targeted. I just truly, truly don’t believe that it is people from this neighbourhood doing all of this.” Her primary concern is how organised the violence seems.

There is truly an element of the Lake Street protests that doesn’t make sense, namely, why Lake Street? Sure the 3rd Precinct is there, but that doesn’t answer the riddle of why the street has been the focal point of the conflict.

In a primed America, however, it might. As coronavirus has brought the world’s “most powerful nation” and “best economy” to its knees, ugly truths have been revealed. Cops are shooting journalists with rubber bullets at point blank range on live television. Young people of colour are so frustrated that they are willing to put up with brutalisation just to be heard – and brutalised they are.

All of this, during the greatest global pandemic in a century, and the desperate clinging to bullshit ideals of “normalcy” from the political class and the controlling interests of the economy. America was never for everyone; African Americans have known this all along. And now, as the financial stability of everyone has cratered through unreachable floor after unreachable floor, such sentiment is spreading. People are risking brutalisation on their heads from clubs while risking brutalisation of their lungs and lives from COVID-19.

There is truly a severe anger right now- the altruistic tendencies that marked the early weeks of the COVID pandemic have been replaced with people who have been left behind and told by their leader that “the White House has handled everything perfectly”.

The young people are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Black America is tired of seeing the movie on repeat, an endless loop.

As one man said of the issue in Minneapolis: “I ain’t burned shit yet, but I am. They put their knee on us too much, it isn’t like a typical way, it’s like a system way. A lot of people feeling the same way, it was bound to happen sooner or later.”

Now, with money running thin and the crises deepening, the marginalised are gaining a voice that’s becoming a deepening bellow. But for every action, there’s a reaction. Those who would quell those voices, the elements on the other side of the divide mobilised too.

All those elements hit Lake Street like a cyclone; the anger fermented in a desperate and politically divided America poured out into the fires set to Longfellow shops.

The melting pot of the upper Midwest became a cauldron in the days since George Floyd, and as things stand economically, who can say if it’ll ever return to prominence. All of those immigrant-owned businesses, generations of work, gone in a fire bomb.

As Parada describes the situation, “It is almost like someone is trying to come in and stir up a race war up here.”

It is that concern that encapsulates the darkest thoughts that creep in – that in a country where anything can be bought, hate can also be funded. Through this lens, is it truly an act of chance that all of these minority and immigrant-run shops and restaurants started being targeted early on?

In the winding streets of the wealthy lakeside homes south of Lake Street, no less than 20 police SUVs, lined up in a row: they were calming the situation down by guarding the rich miles away from the problem. It was then that the class segregation parallels between a city like Nairobi and Minneapolis become crystal clear: when the chips are down, keep the masses away from true wealth.

To that end, if South Minneapolis is truly ahead of its time, is it so hard to believe that there are elements within America that seek to drag it backwards?

Indeed, the George Floyd protests have been a litmus test for the progress of the neighbourhood. But if the last few days are any indication, residents of Lake Street will come out with brooms, and together they’ll sweep up America’s mess.

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Alex is a journalist and social media expert based in Nairobi, Kenya

Politics

Stealth Game: “Community” Conservancies and Dispossession in Northern Kenya

The fortress conservation model, created with support from some of the world’s biggest environmental groups and western donors, has led to land dispossession, militarization, and widespread human rights abuses.

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Stealth Game: “Community” Conservancies and Dispossession in Northern Kenya
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With its vast expanses and diversity of wildlife, Kenya – Africa’s original safari destination – attracts over two million foreign visitors annually. The development of wildlife tourism and conservation, a major economic resource for the country, has however been at the cost of local communities who have been fenced off from their ancestral lands. Indigenous communities have been evicted from their territories and excluded from the tourist dollars that flow into high-end lodges and safari companies.

Protected areas with wildlife are patrolled and guarded by anti-poaching rangers and are accessible only to tourists who can afford to stay in the luxury safari lodges and resorts. This model of “fortress conservation” – one that militarizes and privatizes the commons – has come under severe criticism for its exclusionary practices and for being less effective than the models where local communities lead and manage conservation activities.

One such controversial model of conservation in Kenya is the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT). Set up in 2004, the NRT’s stated goal is “changing the game” on conservation by supporting communities to govern their lands through the establishment of community conservancies.

Created by Ian Craig, whose family was part of the elite white minority during British colonialism, the NRT’s origins date back to the 1980s when his family-owned 62,000-acre cattle ranch was transformed into the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Since its founding, the NRT has set up 39 conservancies on 42,000 square kilometres (10,378,426 acres) of land in northern and coastal Kenya – nearly 8 per cent of the country’s total land area.

The communities that live on these lands are predominantly pastoralists who raise livestock for their livelihoods and have faced decades of marginalization by successive Kenyan governments. The NRT claims that its goal is to “transform people’s lives, secure peace and conserve natural resources.”

However, where the NRT is active, local communities allege that the organization has dispossessed them of their lands and deployed armed security units that have been responsible for serious human rights abuses. Whereas the NRT employs around 870 uniformed scouts, the organization’s anti-poaching mobile units, called ‘9’ teams, face allegations of extrajudicial killings and disappearances, among other abuses. These rangers are equipped with military weapons and receive paramilitary training from the Kenyan Wildlife Service Law Enforcement Academy and from 51 Degrees, a private security company run by Ian Craig’s son, Batian Craig, as well as from other private security firms. Whereas the mandate of NRT’s rangers is supposed to be anti-poaching, they are routinely involved in policing matters that go beyond that remit.

Locals allege that the NRT compels communities to set aside their best lands for the exclusive use of wildlife.

Locals have alleged the NRT’s direct involvement in conflicts between different ethnic groups, related to territorial issues and/or cattle raids. Multiple sources within the impacted communities, including members of councils of community elders, informed the Oakland Institute that as many as 76 people were killed in the Biliqo Bulesa Conservancy during inter-ethnic clashes, allegedly with the involvement of the NRT. Interviews conducted by the Institute established that 11 people have been killed in circumstances involving the conservation body. Dozens more appear to have been killed by the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) and other government agencies, which have been accused of abducting, disappearing, and torturing people in the name of conservation.

Over the years, conflicts over land and resources in Kenya have been exacerbated by the establishment of large ranches and conservation areas. For instance, 40 per cent of Laikipia County’s land is occupied by large ranches, controlled by just 48 individuals – most of them white landowners who own tens of thousands of acres for ranching or wildlife conservancies, which attract tourism business as well as conservation funding from international organizations.

Similarly, several game reserves and conservancies occupy over a million acres of land in the nearby Isiolo County. Land pressure was especially evident in 2017 when clashes broke out between private, mostly white ranchers, and Samburu and Pokot herders over pasture during a particularly dry spell.

But as demonstrated in the Oakland Institute’s report Stealth Game, the events of 2017 highlighted a situation that has been rampant for many years. Local communities report paying a high price for the NRT’s privatized, neo-colonial conservation model in Kenya. The loss of grazing land for pastoralists is a major challenge caused by the creation of community conservancies. Locals allege that the NRT compels communities to set aside their best lands for the exclusive use of wildlife in the name of community conservancies, and to subsequently lease it to set up tourist facilities.

Although terms like “community-driven”, “participatory”, and “local empowerment” are extensively used by the NRT and its partners, the conservancies have been allegedly set up by outside parties rather than the pastoralists themselves, who have a very limited role in negotiating the terms of these partnerships. According to several testimonies, leverage over communities occurs through corruption and co-optation of local leaders and personalities as well as the local administration.

A number of interviewees allege intimidation, including arrests and interrogation of local community members and leaders, as tactics routinely used by the NRT security personnel. Furthermore, the NRT is involved not just in conservation but also in security, management of pastureland, and livestock marketing, which according to the local communities, gives it a level of control over the region that surpasses even that of the Kenyan government. The NRT claims that these activities support communities, development projects, and help build sustainable economies, but its role is criticized by local communities and leaders.

In recent years, hundreds of locals have held protests and signed petitions against the presence of the NRT. The Turkana County Government expelled the NRT from Turkana in 2016; Isiolo’s Borana Council of Elders (BCE) and communities in Isiolo County and in Chari Ward in the Biliqo Bulesa Conservancy continue to challenge the NRT. In January 2021, the community of Gafarsa protested the NRT’s expansion into the Gafarsa rangelands of Garbatulla sub-county. And in April 2021, the Samburu Council of Elders Association, a registered institution representing the Samburu Community in four counties (Isiolo, Laikipia, Marsabit and Samburu), wrote to international NGOs and donors asking them to cease further funding and to audit the NRT’s donor-funded programmes.

A number of interviewees allege intimidation, including arrests and interrogation of local community members and leaders, as tactics routinely used by the NRT security personnel.

At the time of the writing of the report, the Oakland Institute reported that protests against the NRT were growing across the region. The organization works closely with the KWS, a state corporation under the Ministry of Wildlife and Tourism whose mandate is to conserve and manage wildlife in Kenya. In July 2018, Tourism and Wildlife Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala, appointed Ian Craig and Jochen Zeitz to the KWS Board of Trustees. The inclusion of Zeitz and Craig, who actively lobby for the privatization of wildlife reserves, has been met with consternation by local environmentalists. In the case of the NRT, the relationship is mutually beneficial – several high-ranking members of the KWS have served on the NRT’s Board of Trustees.

Both the NRT and the KWS receive substantial funding from donors such as USAID, the European Union, and other Western agencies, and champion corporate partnerships in conservation. The KWS and the NRT also partner with some of the largest environmental NGOs, including The Nature Conservancy (TNC), whose corporate associates have included major polluters and firms known for their negative human rights and environmental records, such as Shell, Ford, BP, and Monsanto among others. In turn, TNC’s Regional Managing Director for Africa, Matt Brown, enjoys a seat at the table of the NRT’s Board of Directors.

Stealth Game also reveals how the NRT has allegedly participated in the exploitation of fossil fuels in Kenya. In 2015, the NRT formed a five-year, US$12 million agreement with two oil companies active in the country – British Tullow Oil and Canadian Africa Oil Corp – to establish and operate six community conservancies in Turkana and West Pokot Counties.

The NRT’s stated goal was to “help communities to understand and benefit” from the “commercialisation of oil resources”. Local communities allege that it put a positive spin on the activities of these companies to mask concerns and outstanding questions over their environmental and human rights records.

The NRT, in collaboration with big environmental organizations, epitomizes a Western-led approach to conservation that creates a profitable business but marginalizes local communities who have lived on these lands for centuries.

Despite its claims to the contrary, the NRT is yet another example of how fortress conservation, under the guise of “community-based conservation”, is dispossessing the very pastoralist communities it claims to be helping – destroying their traditional grazing patterns, their autonomy, and their lives.

The  Constitution of Kenyan  2010 and the 2016 Community Land Act recognize community land as a category of land holding and pastoralism as a legitimate livelihood system. The Act enables communities to legally register, own, and manage their communal lands. For the first three years, however, not a single community in Kenya was able to apply to have their land rights legally recognized. On 24 July 2019, over 50 representatives from 11 communities in Isiolo, Kajiado, Laikipia, Tana River, and Turkana counties were the first to attempt to register their land with the government on the basis of the Community Land Act. The communities were promised by the Ministry of Land that their applications would be processed within four months. In late 2020, the Ministry of Lands registered the land titles of II Ngwesi and Musul communities in Laikipia.

The others are still waiting to have their land registered. In October 2020, the Lands Cabinet Secretary was reported saying that only 12 counties have submitted inventories of their respective unregistered community lands in readiness for the registration process as enshrined in the law.

Community members interviewed by the Oakland Institute in the course of its research repeatedly asked for justice after years of being ignored by the Kenyan government and by the police when reporting human rights abuses and even killings of family members. The findings reported in Stealth Game require an independent investigation into the land-related grievances around all of the NRT’s community conservancies, the allegations of involvement of the NRT’s rapid response units in inter-ethnic conflict, as well as the alleged abuses and extrajudicial killings.

Pastoralists have been the custodians of wildlife for centuries – long before any NGO or conservation professionals came along. While this report focuses on the plight of the Indigenous communities in Northern Kenya, it is a reality that is all too familiar to indigenous communities the world over. In far too many places, national governments, private corporations, and large conservation groups collude in the name of conservation, not just to force Indigenous groups off their land, but to force them out of existence altogether.

Pastoralists have been the custodians of wildlife for centuries – long before any NGO or conservation professionals came along.

The latest threat comes from the so-called “30×30 initiative”, a plan under the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity that calls for 30 per cent of the planet to be placed in protected areas – or for other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs) –  by 2030.

The Oakland Institute’s report, Stealth Game, makes it clear that fortress conservation must be replaced by Indigenous-led conservation efforts in order to preserve the remaining biodiversity of the planet while respecting the interests, rights, and dignity of the local communities.

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Nashulai – A Community Conservancy With a Difference

Before Nashulai, Maasai communities around the Mara triangle were selling off their rights to live and work on their land, becoming “conservation refugees”.

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Nashulai – A Community Conservancy With a Difference
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The Sekenani River underwent a mammoth cleanup in May 2020, undertaken by over 100 women living in the Nashulai Conservancy area. Ten of the 18 kilometres of fresh water were cleaned of plastic waste, clothing, organic material and other rubbish that presented a real threat to the health of this life source for the community and wildlife. The river forms part of the Mara Basin and goes on to flow into Lake Victoria, which in turn feeds the River Nile.

The initiative was spearheaded by the Nashulai Conservancy — the first community-owned conservancy in the Maasai Mara that was founded in 2015 — which also provided a daily stipend to all participants and introduced them to better waste management and regeneration practices. After the cleanup, bamboo trees were planted along the banks of the river to curb soil erosion.

You could call it a classic case of “nature healing” that only the forced stillness caused by a global pandemic could bring about. Livelihoods dependent on tourism and raising cattle had all but come to a standstill and people now had the time to ponder how unpredictable life can be.

“I worry that when tourism picks up again many people will forget about all the conservation efforts of the past year,” says project officer Evelyn Kamau. “That’s why we put a focus on working with the youth in the community on the various projects and education. They’ll be the key to continuation.”

Continuation in the broader sense is what Nashulai and several other community-focused projects in Kenya are working towards — a shift away from conservation practices that push indigenous people further and further out of their homelands for profit in the name of protecting and celebrating the very nature for which these communities have provided stewardship over generations.

A reckoning

Given the past year’s global and regional conversations about racial injustice, and the pandemic that has left tourism everywhere on its knees, ordinary people in countries like Kenya have had the chance to learn, to speak out and to act on changes.

Players in the tourism industry in the country that have in the past privileged foreign visitors over Kenyans have been challenged. In mid-2020, a poorly worded social media post stating that a bucket-list boutique hotel in Nairobi was “now open to Kenyans” set off a backlash from fed-up Kenyans online.

The post referred to the easing of COVID-19 regulations that allowed the hotel to re-open to anyone already in the country. Although the hotel tried to undertake damage control, the harm was already done and the wounds reopened. Kenyans recounted stories of discrimination experienced at this particular hotel including multiple instances of the booking office responding to enquiries from Kenyan guests that rooms were fully booked, only for their European or American companions to call minutes later and miraculously find there were in fact vacancies. Many observed how rare it was to see non-white faces in the marketing of certain establishments, except in service roles.

Another conversation that has gained traction is the question of who is really benefiting from the conservation business and why the beneficiaries are generally not the local communities.

Kenyan conservationist and author Dr Mordecai Ogada has been vocal about this issue, both in his work and on social media, frequently calling out institutions and individuals who perpetuate the profit-driven system that has proven to be detrimental to local communities. In The Big Conservation Lie, his searing 2016 book co-authored with conservation journalist John Mbaria, Ogada observes, “The importance of wildlife to Kenya and the communities here has been reduced to the dollar value that foreign tourists will pay to see it.” Ogada details the use of coercion tactics to push communities to divide up or vacate their lands and abandon their identities and lifestyles for little more than donor subsidies that are not always paid in full or within the agreed time.

A colonial hangover

It is important to note that these attitudes, organizations and by extension the structure of safari tourism, did not spring up out of nowhere. At the origin of wildlife safaris on the savannahs of East Africa were the colonial-era hunting parties organised for European aristocracy and royalty and the odd American president or Hollywood actor.

Theodore Roosevelt’s year-long hunting expedition in 1909 resulted in over 500 animals being shot by his party in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, many of which were taken back to be displayed at the Smithsonian Institute and in various other natural history museums across the US. Roosevelt later recounted his experiences in a book and a series of lectures, not without mentioning the “savage” native people he had encountered and expressing support for the European colonization project throughout Africa.

Much of this private entertaining was made possible through “gifts” of large parcels of Kenyan land by the colonial power to high-ranking military officials for their service in the other British colonies, without much regard as to the ancestral ownership of the confiscated lands.

At the origin of wildlife safaris on the savannahs of East Africa were the colonial-era hunting parties organised for European aristocracy and royalty.

On the foundation of national parks in the country by the colonial government in the 1940s, Ogada points out the similarities with the Yellowstone National Park, “which was created by violence and disenfranchisement, but is still used as a template for fortress conservation over a century later.” In the case of Kenya, just add trophy hunting to the original model.

Today, when it isn’t the descendants of those settlers who own and run the many private nature reserves in the country, it is a party with much economic or political power tying local communities down with unfair leases and sectioning them off from their ancestral land, harsh penalties being applied when they graze their cattle on the confiscated land.

This history must be acknowledged and the facts recognised so that the real work of establishing a sustainable future for the affected communities can begin. A future that does not disenfranchise entire communities and exclude them or leave their economies dangerously dependent on tourism.

The work it will take to achieve this in both the conservation and the wider travel industry involves everyone, from the service providers to the media to the very people deciding where and how to spend their tourism money and their time.

Here’s who’s doing the work

There are many who are leading initiatives that place local communities at the centre of their efforts to curb environmental degradation and to secure a future in which these communities are not excluded. Some, like Dr Ogada, spread the word about the holes in the model adopted by the global conservation industry. Others are training and educating tourism businesses in sustainable practices.

There are many who are leading initiatives that place local communities at the centre of their efforts to curb environmental degradation.

The Sustainable Travel and Tourism Agenda, or STTA, is a leading Kenyan-owned consultancy that works with tourism businesses and associations to provide training and strategies for sustainability in the sector in East Africa and beyond. Team leader Judy Kepher Gona expresses her optimism in the organization’s position as the local experts in the field, evidenced by the industry players’ uptake of the STTA’s training programmes and services to learn how best to manage their tourism businesses responsibly.

Gona notes, “Today there are almost 100 community-owned private conservancies in Kenya which has increased the inclusion of communities in conservation and in tourism” — which is a step in the right direction.

The community conservancy

Back to Nashulai, a strong example of a community-owned conservancy. Director and co-founder Nelson Ole Reiya who grew up in the area began to notice the rate at which Maasai communities around the Mara triangle were selling or leasing off their land and often their rights to live and work on it as they did before, becoming what he refers to as “conservation refugees”.

In 2016, Ole Reiya set out to bring together his community in an effort to eliminate poverty, regenerate the ecosystems and preserve the indigenous culture of the Maasai by employing a commons model on the 5,000 acres on which the conservancy sits. Families here could have sold their ancestral land and moved away, but they have instead come together and in a few short years have done away with the fencing separating their homesteads from the open savannah. They keep smaller herds of indigenous cattle and they have seen the return of wildlife such as zebras, giraffes and wildebeest to this part of their ancient migratory route. Elephants have returned to an old elephant nursery site.

In contrast to many other nature reserves and conservancies that offer employment to the locals as hotel staff, safari guides or dancers and singers, Nashulai’s way of empowering the community goes further to diversify the economy by providing skills and education to the residents, as well as preserving the culture by passing on knowledge about environmental awareness. This can be seen in the bee-keeping project that is producing honey for sale, the kitchen gardens outside the family homes, a ranger training programme and even a storytelling project to record and preserve all the knowledge and history passed down by the elders.

They keep smaller herds of indigenous cattle and they have seen the return of wildlife such as zebras, giraffes and wildebeest to this part of their ancient migratory route.

The conservancy only hires people from within the community for its various projects, and all plans must be submitted to a community liaison officer for discussion and a vote before any work can begin.

Tourism activities within the conservancy such as stays at Oldarpoi (the conservancy’s first tented camp; more are planned), game drives and day visits to the conservation and community projects are still an important part of the story. The revenue generated by tourists and the awareness created regarding this model of conservation are key in securing Nashulai’s future. Volunteer travellers are even welcomed to participate in the less technical projects such as tree planting and river clean-ups.

Expressing his hopes for a paradigm shift in the tourism industry, Ole Reiya stresses, “I would encourage visitors to go beyond the superficial and experience the nuances of a people beyond being seen as artefacts and naked children to be photographed, [but] rather as communities whose connection to the land and wildlife has been key to their survival over time.”

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Battery Arms Race: Global Capital and the Scramble for Cobalt in the Congo

In the context of the climate emergency and the need for renewable energy sources, competition over the supply of cobalt is growing. This competition is most intense in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nick Bernards argues that the scramble for cobalt is a capitalist scramble, and that there can be no ‘just’ transition without overthrowing capitalism on a global scale.

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With growing attention to climate breakdown and the need for expanded use of renewable energy sources, the mineral resources needed to make batteries are emerging as a key site of conflict. In this context, cobalt – traditionally mined as a by-product of copper and nickel – has become a subject of major interest in its own right.

Competition over supplies of cobalt is intensifying. Some reports suggest that demand for cobalt is likely to exceed known reserves if projected shifts to renewable energy sources are realized. Much of this competition is playing out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The south-eastern regions of the DRC hold about half of proven global cobalt reserves, and account for an even higher proportion of global cobalt production (roughly 70 percent) because known reserves in the DRC are relatively shallow and easier to extract.

Recent high profile articles in outlets including the New York Times and the Guardian have highlighted a growing ‘battery arms race’ supposedly playing out between the West (mostly the US) and China over battery metals, especially cobalt.

These pieces suggest, with some alarm, that China is ‘winning’ this race. They highlight how Chinese dominance in battery supply chains might inhibit energy transitions in the West. They also link growing Chinese mining operations to a range of labour and environmental abuses in the DRC, where the vast majority of the world’s available cobalt reserves are located.

Both articles are right that the hazards and costs of the cobalt boom have been disproportionately borne by Congolese people and landscapes, while few of the benefits have reached them. But by subsuming these problems into narratives of geopolitical competition between the US and China and zooming in on the supposedly pernicious effects of Chinese-owned operations in particular, the ‘arms race’ narrative ultimately obscures more than it reveals.

There is unquestionably a scramble for cobalt going on. It is centered in the DRC but spans much of the globe, working through tangled transnational networks of production and finance that link mines in the South-Eastern DRC to refiners and battery manufacturers scattered across China’s industrializing cities, to financiers in London, Toronto, and Hong Kong, to vast transnational corporations ranging from mineral rentiers (Glencore), to automotive companies (Volkswagen, Ford), to electronics and tech firms (Apple). This loose network is governed primarily through an increasingly amorphous and uneven patchwork of public and private ‘sustainability’ standards. And, it plays out against the backdrop of both long-running depredations of imperialism and the more recent devastation of structural adjustment.

In a word, the scramble for cobalt is a thoroughly capitalist scramble.

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Chinese firms do unquestionably play a major role in global battery production in general and in cobalt extraction and refining in particular. Roughly 50 percent of global cobalt refining now takes place in China. The considerable majority of DRC cobalt exports do go to China, and Chinese firms have expanded interests in mining and trading ventures in the DRC.

However, although the Chinese state has certainly fostered the development of cobalt and other battery minerals, there is as much a scramble for control over cobalt going on within China as between China and the ‘west’. There has, notably, been a wave of concentration and consolidation among Chinese cobalt refiners since about 2010. The Chinese firms operating in the DRC are capitalist firms competing with each other in important ways. They often have radically different business models. Jinchuan Group Co. Ltd and China Molybdenum, for instance, are Hong Kong Stock Exchange-listed firms with ownership shares in scattered global refining and mining operations. Jinchuan’s major mine holdings in the DRC were acquired from South African miner Metorex in 2012; China Molybdenum recently acquired the DRC mines owned by US-based Freeport-McMoRan (as the New York Times article linked above notes with concern). A significant portion of both Jinchuan Group and China Molybdenum’s revenues, though, come from speculative metals trading rather than from production. Yantai Cash, on the other hand, is a specialized refiner which does not own mining operations. Yantai is likely the destination for a good deal of ‘artisanal’ mined cobalt via an elaborate network of traders and brokers.

These large Chinese firms also are thoroughly plugged in to global networks of battery production ultimately destined, in many cases, for widely known consumer brands. They are also able to take advantage of links to global marketing and financing operations. The four largest Chinese refiners, for instance, are all listed brands on the London Metal Exchange (LME).

In the midst of increased concentration at the refining stage and concerns over supplies, several major end users including Apple, Volkswagen, and BMW have sought to establish long-term contracts directly with mining operations since early 2018. Tesla signed a major agreement with Glencore to supply cobalt for its new battery ‘gigafactories’ in 2020. Not unrelatedly, they have also developed integrated supply chain tracing systems, often dressed up in the language of ‘sustainability’ and transparency. One notable example is the Responsible Sourcing Blockchain Initiative (RSBI). This initiative between the blockchain division of tech giant IBM, supply chain audit firm RCS Global, and several mining houses, mineral traders, and automotive end users of battery materials including Ford, Volvo, Volkswagen Group, and Fiat-Chrysler Automotive Group was announced in 2019. RSBI conducted a pilot test tracing 1.5 tons of Congolese cobalt across three different continents over five months of refinement.

Major end users including automotive and electronics brands have, in short, developed increasingly direct contacts extending across the whole battery production network.

There are also a range of financial actors trying to get in on the scramble (though, as both Jinchuan and China Molybdenum demonstrate, the line between ‘productive’ and ‘financial’ capital here can be blurry). Since 2010, benchmark cobalt prices are set through speculative trading on the LME. A number of specialized trading funds have been established in the last five years, seeking to profit from volatile prices for cobalt. One of the largest global stockpiles of cobalt in 2017, for instance, was held by Cobalt 27, a Canadian firm established expressly to buy and hold physical cobalt stocks. Cobalt 27 raised CAD 200 million through a public listing on the Toronto Stock Exchange in June of 2017, and subsequently purchased 2160.9 metric tons of cobalt held in LME warehouses. There are also a growing number of exchange traded funds (ETF) targeting cobalt. Most of these ETFs seek ‘exposure’ to cobalt and battery components more generally, for instance, through holding shares in mining houses or what are called ‘royalty bearing interests’ in specific mining operations rather than trading in physical cobalt or futures. Indeed, by mid-2019, Cobalt-27 was forced to sell off its cobalt stockpile at a loss. It was subsequently bought out by its largest shareholder (a Swiss-registered investment firm) and restructured into ‘Conic’, an investment fund holding a portfolio of royalty-bearing interests in battery metals operations rather than physical metals.

Or, to put it another way, there is as much competition going on within ‘China’ and the ‘West’ between different firms to establish control over limited supplies of cobalt, and to capture a share of the profits, as between China and the ‘West’ as unitary entities.

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Thus far, workers and communities in the Congolese Copperbelt have suffered the consequences of this scramble. They have seen few of the benefits. Indeed, this is reflective of much longer-run processes, documented in ROAPE, wherein local capital formation and local development in Congolese mining have been systematically repressed on behalf of transnational capital for decades.

The current boom takes place against the backdrop of the collapse, and subsequent privatization, of the copper mining industry in the 1990s and 2000s. In 1988, state-owned copper mining firm Gécamines produced roughly 450 000 tons of copper, and employed 30 000 people, by 2003, production had fallen to 8 000 tons and workers were owed up to 36 months of back pay. As part of the restructuring and privatization of the company, more than 10 000 workers were offered severance payments financed by the World Bank, the company was privatized, and mining rights were increasingly marketized. By most measures, mining communities in the Congolese Copperbelt are marked by widespread poverty. A 2017 survey found mean and median monthly household incomes of $USD 34.50 and $USD 14, respectively, in the region.

In the context of widespread dispossession, the DRC’s relatively shallow cobalt deposits have been an important source of livelihood activities. Estimates based on survey research suggest that roughly 60 percent of households in the region derived some income from mining, of which 90 percent worked in some form of artisanal mining. Recent research has linked the rise of industrial mining installations owned by multinational conglomerates to deepening inequality, driven in no small part by those firms’ preference for expatriate workers in higher paid roles. Where Congolese workers are employed, this is often through abusive systems of outsourcing through labour brokers.

Cobalt mining has also been linked to substantial forms of social and ecological degradation in surrounding areas, including significant health risks from breathing dust (not only to miners but also to local communities), ecological disruption and pollution from acid, dust, and tailings, and violent displacement of local communities.

The limited benefits and high costs of the cobalt boom for local people in the Congolese copperbelt, in short, are linked to conditions of widespread dispossession predating the arrival of Chinese firms and are certainly not limited to Chinese firms.

To be clear, none of this is to deny that Chinese firms have been implicated in abuses of labour rights and ecologically destructive practices in the DRC, nor that the Chinese state has clearly made strategic priorities of cobalt mining, refining, and battery manufacturing. It does not excuse the very real abuses linked to Chinese firms that European-owned ones have done many of the same things. Nor does the fact that those Chinese firms are often ultimately vendors to major US and European auto and electronic brands.

However, all of this does suggest that any diagnosis of the developmental ills, violence, ecological damage and labour abuses surrounding cobalt in the DRC that focuses specifically on the character of Chinese firms or on inter-state competition is limited at best. It gets Glencore, Apple, Tesla, and myriad financial speculators, to say nothing of capitalist relations of production generally, off the hook.

If we want to get to grips with the unfolding scramble for cobalt and its consequences for the people in the south-east DRC, we need to keep in view how the present-day scramble reflects wider patterns of uneven development under capitalist relations of production.

We should note that such narratives of a ‘new scramble for Africa’ prompted by a rapacious Chinese appetite for natural resources are not new. As Alison Ayers argued nearly a decade ago of narratives about the role of China in a ‘new scramble for Africa’, a focus on Chinese abuses means that ‘the West’s relations with Africa are construed as essentially beneficent, in contrast to the putatively opportunistic, exploitative and deleterious role of the emerging powers, thereby obfuscating the West’s ongoing neocolonial relationship with Africa’. Likewise, such accounts neglect ‘profound changes in the global political economy within which the “new scramble for Africa” is to be more adequately located’. These interventions are profoundly political, providing important forms of ideological cover for both neoliberal capitalism and for longer-run structures of imperialism.

In short, the barrier to a just transition to sustainable energy sources is not a unitary ‘China’ bent on the domination of emerging industries as a means to global hegemony. It is capitalism. Or, more precisely, it is the fact that responses to the climate crisis have thus far worked through and exacerbated the contradictions of existing imperialism and capitalist relations of production. The scramble for cobalt is a capitalist scramble, and one of many signs that there can be no ‘just’ transition without overturning capitalism and imperialism on a global scale.

This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

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