Rodney King, an African American, a famous victim of police brutality in the US was found drowned in his pool. Mr. King was thrust into the limelight for all the wrong reasons. It was the year 1991 in Los Angeles, when a passing motorist captured explosive footage of LAPD officers, beating the hell out of a man on the ground. It became a sore point for race relations in the US and stirred an emotive national debate. Eventually the police officers involved were acquitted by an all-white jury, which triggered off the vicious L.A riots. 52 lives were lost and an estimated billion dollars worth of property destroyed.
As I watched the old clip of police officers viciously assaulting King, I was struck by how common a sight that was in Kenya of the 80s through to 90s. At the height of the clamor for multi democracy, opposition rallies were always broken up with tear gas and riot police clubbing protestors senseless. It was such a regular occurrence that people went to those opposition rallies prepared. One wore running shoes, carried some water because when the cops descended it would be mayhem for everyone including the press. A beating was a standard occupational hazard of pro democracy activism.
Today we call it police brutality. In the old days it is just what you expected the police to do and all one had to do was to be in the right place at the wrong time. The police operated like zombies and when they struck, they beat people up indiscriminately. No one was above a good clobbering. The official policy was christened FFU, Fanya Fujo Uone (make trouble and you will see) and the public had a very clear understanding of whose patience one never tested. Among the dreaded corps were the Presidential Escort, the G.S.U ( General Service Unit) and overzealous Kanu youth wingers. It was this policy of equal opportunity beating that partly pushed up Rev. Timothy Njoya’s credentials as a reformist. The famous footage of his whipping outside the Parliament building and his ability to forgive his tormentors painted the picture of a man who walked the talk. He entered the reform books as a man of God who had put his limb on line for the good of many. Prof. Wangari Maathai also suffered the same fate when police crossed the line and clobbered a group of elderly women at Uhuru Park. Both incidents were widely circulated by international press and as the more prominent victims of police excesses, Rev. Njoya and Proff. Maathai unconsciously played a big part in securing the freedom to protest that commercial sex workers now enjoy.
These days our society is developing a low tolerance for sanctioned violence. Deputy Chief Justice Nancy Barasa found that the landscape has vastly changed and the seemingly minor incident where she was caught in a scuffle with a subordinate has become like an albatross around her neck. With an enlightened public, a justice system with teeth and diligent human rights activists on the prowl, times have really changed for the police force.
The underlining lesson here is that we must not forget that many of the privileges and freedoms that we enjoy came at a great price to a few. Rodney King may not have been in the league of Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King but his beating would save thousands in the future from police brutality and brought about some measure of reform. Like Rodney King, our past is filled with silent heroes and heroines, accidental victims of history for whose sacrifices we have much to be thankful for.
Image source: diasporadical.com