Last night I went to see a movie with a friend (Star Trek Beyond if you’re curious). There was some weird mix up at IMAX and we ended up at a later showing than we had intended. When we left the theatre, it was around midnight.
When I think of scary places at night, the image that often comes to mind is full of darkness, shifty strangers and narrow alleyways. That’s not what this night was like. We were on a wide street, it was perfectly lit and while we didn’t know the people on the street, most of them were policemen on patrol; recognizable figures. Perhaps in some places in the world that means you’re safe — Nairobi is not one of those places.
We weren’t really panicked or anything. We only had one street to cross after all. A minute or so and we’d be on our way home. We just acted casual and walked. That’s the thing with situations like this, you see the police and you want to believe that these are the good ones. There’s always that little bit of hope that things will turn out well this time. You’re not doing anything wrong and so they won’t bother you, right?
One of them stepped right in front of us and asked to see our IDs.
When I was telling this story to my boss today, he stopped me before I got to that part to ask “Police? Did you have your IDs?” He asked because he knows what most of us know. There’s a kind of step by step to an encounter like this with the police and this is where it usually begins. They don’t want the ID to identify you, they’re just probing. They’re looking for a mistake, an error on your part. Your ID is a bit of a shield. Having it won’t protect you exactly, but it will likely determine how far they’re going to push you, how much they feel they can squeeze. If you don’t have it, you’re likely in for a long and terrible night.
We pulled out our IDs and he didn’t even pretend to look at them. When an ID is only interesting in its absence, you know what kind of story this is going to be. What happened next might as well be part of a script or a handbook.
There was the leading question: “What are you doing walking around at this time of night?”
The false incredulity: “A movie!? What kind of movie shows at this time? No no no. I don’t believe it. Let me see the receipt.”
The first hint: “Oh, I see, you have a lot of money to be spending on movies.”
The handcuffs on my wrists followed by the threat: “Lorry yetu iko pale. Mtalala cell.”
The I’m-doing-this-to-teach-you-a-lesson speech: “You people make our work very hard, you know that? Your friend here, if she were to be walking at this time and she got raped, you know we will be blamed? When you report, will you say you were coming from a movie, eh?”
A mix of threats and meandering speeches suggesting that some great crime was committed, though never specifying exactly what it is, all leading to the finale. The ask for a bribe. “If you want to go…you have to pay a fine.”
At this point I started getting angry. Not because we were getting robbed by police but how familiar it all was. I knew this, all of it. I’ve heard of and seen and gone through so many variations of this scene that I know the steps. I’ve been robbed more times like this by policemen than I have by what we normally call thieves. It’s just how it is. And surely, how can that be normal? How can that possibly be so normal that I was getting impatient for him to get to the punch? To just ask for his bribe and then leave us alone?
So, I thought about calling his bluff. Seeing what happens if you don’t capitulate. I wanted to fight, to push back, to do something other than the usual song and dance. But a quick look around told me to do none of that. First, there were a lot of them. I think there were 10 on that street alone, and we had seen others walking around. There was almost no one else. Second, they were in military garb with no identifying number or anything I could see. I don’t know what that means and I didn’t want to find out just then. Third, My friend was somewhere to the side surrounded by about 4 of them. I don’t know what they were telling her but I figured maybe today was not the day to be testing boundaries. Best to end this as quickly as possible and leave.
I paid, he gave me a stern warning about this vague crime I should never repeat and uncuffed me.
I’ve heard people say that the police get a bad rap. That people only report the negative, never the good they do. This is probably true. But I know that my image of the police is not just from the media, it’s from experience. It’s from how I, and the people I know, have interacted with them. Because, when you think about it, what happened last night was a robbery wasn’t it? It was a shake down … and it was business as usual. Even as we talked with the policeman, he knew I knew what this was and he expected me to act accordingly. It was a role he was familiar with and he accepted it easily.
Just this Friday, a friend’s workmate was stopped by the police in Westlands. He and his friends were leaving a club going to look for some food. It was pretty much the same story but he didn’t pay up and so they locked him up for being drunk and disorderly. He doesn’t drink.
One of my friends has been in the same situation twice recently. Once he got arrested for running to the police because he was being chased by thieves.
None of this is new. We have all heard and seen things like this. But for some reason, last night actually got me thinking. Not of solutions, I have none. It made me wonder the last time I didn’t at least in the back of my mind think of the police as some kind of danger to be avoided. When it became so commonplace that I stopped noticing how crazy all of this is. And most of all, it made me wonder if I can even imagine this country when the police not only feel safe, but like they’re the people protecting us. Wouldn’t that be something.