In Nairobi or Alabama, if you’re a young black man, you have a target on your back

Wednesday January 9 2019

Extrajudicial killing

We have normalised the killing of people as long as they are said to be criminals. FOTOSEARCH 

By NERIMA WAKO-OJIWA
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Living in the US can change a lot about a person, but when you happen to live in the Deep South for a long period of time, specifically Alabama, a state where race hate is not always first hand and direct, the feeling of being a victim of racism can be dismissed as illusion.

I remember when my younger brother moved to the state for further studies. I had already been living there for some years, so I had to have a conversation with him, which was basically:

You are a black young male, and here you are nowhere close to equal. In fact, your life is not valuable, whatever you do, always keep a low profile, and do not disturb the peace.

I remember him giving me a baffled stare. But years later, he understood.

The United States has enduring problems with law enforcement and profiling young black males. About two weeks ago, Carilton Maina, a student based in the UK who had come home to Kenya for the December holiday, was cut down by four shots from a policeman’s gun.

A demonstration demanding answers to Carilton Maina’s death was met with teargas that could empty a stadium. Cases such as Maina’s are so numerous that they go unnoticed.

Carilton’s case was different in a sense: Yes, he was from a slum, but he was a student in the UK and also a mentor in the community. Two weeks on and no one has been arrested.

According to the police, he was part of a local gang that was terrorising the community; the case is still under investigation.

In 2016, Maina had done a TED talk on how poverty was killing dreams in the slum. He was a young man of promise, he wanted to build a future for himself and his community.

But why would the police find it important to allege that Maina was part of a gang? Because they think they have the right to murder thieves and criminals, is this their way of covering up?

This takes me back to the US, where every time the police shot a black man, they and the media said he was a thug, or used to be in prison, or was on drugs, basically a criminal and a nuisance to society, so his life did not matter.

During the holidays, I noticed a tweet that was trending: A man was talking about being robbed by a high school classmate from his village where he had gone for the holidays.

Also, in my own village, the security seemed to have become worse; cases of grandmothers being attacked by young men and robbed in broad daylight had become the norm. Shooting in broad daylight is not unheard of, and crime has been on the rise.

A few months earlier, I had seen a video of a robbery that occurred in an M-Pesa shop, and the next day images of the robbers circulated, blood oozing from their bodies lying on the ground lifeless.

The comments only demonstrated how happy people were with the police force for gunning down these suspects.

Having random conversations, the most common response is, “They were criminals” as if that is supposed to water down the fact that those people were killed with no access to legal process.

We have normalised the killing of people as long as they are said to be criminals. Our police are the judge, jury, and executioner, meaning they are in charge of every decision made, and they have the power to get rid of whomever they choose.

Lately there has been an increase of reports of extrajudicial killings. Walking in the streets of Nairobi late at night could cost you your life. Several times, people that I know have been stopped by the police and questioned while some have been tossed in jail for no apparent reason. These stories are common to many young men from the slums, especially between the ages of 15 and 24.

What does that mean for young people who grow up in these areas? That even those trying to build a future are gunned down and called criminals.

Nerima Wako-Ojiwa is executive director of Siasa Place. Twitter: @NerimaW

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