Police exist to protect interests of rich people against the poor

General Service Unit (GSU) officers mount a guard of honour during past pass-out parade. [File, Standard]

Does Kenya have a police brutality problem? To answer that question, one would need to understand the history of policing globally.

On the face of it – and in many cases this is true – it is generally understood currently that the function of the police is to protect and serve. We are taught that the police exist in a State to ensure that security is maintained, crime is curbed or prevented, and the citizenry feels safe. But the truth behind policing is far more different than that and, like most nefarious systems, begins with a history of slavery and colonialism.

Modern-day policing draws its origins from the slave patrols of North America and Europe. In order to surveil and control the movement of enslaved people, particularly in cities, patrolling systems made up of sentinels who worked to ensure that nobody escaped slavery, and that those who did were quickly found were set up.

Centuries later, with the marking of the end of slavery, policing took on a new face, capturing black people who were found either committing major crimes or even minor ones such as loitering. Whether one was loitering or idling was at the discretion of the police, and upon arrest and sentencing, the convict would be joined to a chain gang, performing labour for free, much like an enslaved person would.

In Kenya, one can draw parallels between this and the kipande system, which policed the movement of the natives, particularly in towns like Nairobi that had a large white population. For the safety of peace of mind of the white minority, it was important that the black majority carry a pass to enable some level of unrestricted movement.

From their history then, the police exist to protect the interests and properties of the wealthy against the poor and, where the divide is also racial, to protect the colonising minority from the racial majority. In Kenya, this primary function of policing today manifests itself in the penal laws and the petty crimes that one can be arrested for. Loitering and idling continue to be offences that many have been taken to prison for. When it comes to trades that are exclusively connected to the lower classes, hawking and begging have also landed many in jail.

The need to control the majority and protect the minority can again be witnessed in how the middle classes approach civil unrest and the destruction of property as the ultimate crime. The recent protests by Azimio against the government in power are proof of this.

Protests that involve the destruction of property – even where these protests target the cost of living and the difficulty of surviving – are viewed as being imperfect; barbaric. The retaliation by police to this destruction of property by utilising force is viewed by some as being justified in light of what is viewed as hooliganism. The property of the wealthy thus takes precedence over the lives of the poor.

The use of the police as a tool of imperial force is further established by the fact that Kenya has been in talks with the United States to send its troops to Haiti. Haiti, the first black country to gain independence and abolish slavery, has had a long history of political interference from Western powers and, subsequently, political unrest.

For the United States to meddle in the affairs of Haiti is grossly neocolonial, but even the United States recognises that it would be a stretch too far to send its own force to restore order. That Kenya is willing to volunteer its own forces to bring Haitians to heel shows a lack of solidarity against imperialism that can only continue to spell doom for the black diaspora.

And so, with the brutal extrajudicial killings of 12 people during last year’s protests, as well as the heinous murders of Baby Samantha Pendo and many others in recent years; and knowing that, inherently, the purpose of the police force (and by extension, the prison) is to discipline and punish the poor, can we really question the existence of brutality in our police? If anything, the brutality is a feature, not a bug, in the system.

-Ms Gitahi is a researcher and PhD candidate