I did not watch news reports the first time the tragic death of George Floyd was reported. My son brought the matter to my attention, with a strong complaint about the nature of the brutality and the lack of humanity on the part of the police officers.
Since then, the case has become a priority in our daily family conversations. One may ask, why an event that occurred in the US would be so important for young children in Kenya as to the form the basis of discussions with their parents for more than one day.
The event was not just a national occurrence of death at the hands of the police. It raised fundamental issues about the safety of children, the kind of society we live in, the nature of democracy and the quality of policing. These are global issues.
From the reports, George Floyd’s crime was to purchase a pack of cigarette allegedly using a fake 20 Dollar note. This is what led to a series of events culminating in a policeman putting his leg on Floyd’s neck suffocating him to death. The reaction to the events demonstrate the magnitude of the time bomb in the US but also a pointer to the entire world about injustice in society.
First, the question of police brutality is a concern for many societies. Here in the country, it was a point of discussion with the Police spokesman the same week that Floyd’s death occurred in the US. The 2007 and 2017 elections in Kenya were also accompanied by massive complaints about police brutality. One of the dark spots in the Government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been the level of force with which the police have enforced the curfew and the resultant injuries and deaths. Although police in any society are an important tool for maintaining law and order, their relationships with citizens is always tenuous. To be fair majority of police officers do a good job mostly under difficult circumstances. But there is a policing philosophy that is still ingrained in their approach to work. A philosophy that when activated forgets the concept of presumption of innocence, one that focusses on force as the basis of enforcing laws and one that forgets that human beings are rational creatures.
This is what is annoying about the police conduct in the death of Floyd. What is even worse is the predicable response of the political class. An attempt to divert attention from the misdeeds of the police and instead blame the victims. The resultant demonstrations and destruction of property, while unfortunate, must be traced to failure by the authorities to deal with the rogue elements in the police force and seek to punish them for the death of George Floyd. There are many such cases, including in Kenya.
In addition, the events demonstrate the levels of inequality and divisions in society. In the US case it is about racial divides, a blot on the country for years. In Kenya on the other hand, the divisions take tribal lines. In both these countries these fissures are exploited for political ends making politics toxic and dangerous. The rhetoric of political maturity and democracy does not deliver for members of tribal and racial minorities in most countries. However, as the demonstrations in the US confirm, it is not possible to ignore such discrimination and still hope to have a peaceful and progressive society.
It is essential, therefore, that every country seek to build a more inclusive society. Inclusivity is about providing all citizens with a fair chance, ensuring that government services are accessed based on clear and well laid down procedures by all in the country and not based on political persuasions or tribal or ethnic affiliations.
In addition, public service must be about respect to rules and inspirational leadership. The era of using brute force to subdue the citizenry is long gone. Any efforts to apply such tools to govern not only offends all international norms but also endangers the lives of all citizens including the innocent public servants who are compelled to use such force against their fellow citizens.
The world is faced with many challenges, some long-standing, others contemporary. As the global coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated, these challenges are no respecter of social or economic status. They defy the levels of development and cannot be solved through isolation or brute force. They require more humane and long-lasting solutions. Ones that recognize that societies are built and problems in them resolved through consultative, respectful, and sustainable solutions. At the basis of these efforts must be an approach that realizes that when human beings when given a fair chance and involved in decision-making the ensuing decisions will receive their support and lead to peaceful and democratic societies. The opposite is chaos.