Social justice – and how victims and survivors of police violence intend to get it
The last half of October 2021 was especially difficult for Mama Victor, Mama Effa, Mama Kevin and other members of the Mothers of Victims and Survivors Network (MVSN), a group of women (and a few men) from a number of Nairobi settlements who’ve lost loved ones to suspected police killings and enforced disappearances. Instead of resigning to their individual and collective fates, this particular collective has instead chosen to fiercely resist systemic violence, leading the way to healing and justice.
A Case of Double Bereavement
As October drew to a close, about a dozen of these women took a van and traveled one hundred and fifty kilometers to Kianjokoma village in Embu County, as a show of solidarity and to grieve with the family of Benson Njiru (22) and Emmanuel Mutura (19) – the now renowned Kianjokoma brothers, who were battered by six officers for violating curfew orders, a case of extrajudicial killings over which the Kenyan media has been in a frenzy.
Due to immense pressure occasioned by the consequent publicity, six police officers suspected to be involved in the murders have since been charged and granted a Kshs 300,000 cash bail, and with that received a barring order from entering Embu County.
While a majority of the Kenyans debated on whether or not the officers should be allowed to make bail, the family in Embu, particularly the boys’ mother, Catherine Wawira struggled to navigate severe trauma. By the time the mothers from Nairobi arrived in her home, deep sorrow was written all over her face. Sudden tears continuously interrupted her attempts at speaking, so Mr. Kamunyoti – her husband – weighed in every once in a while as the mothers shared their journeys of healing and restoration.
Through this visit, what the formidable women scrambled to explain to the Kenyan public was why the authorities should find them so dangerous.
“For an oppressive system, victims with conviction are an affront, and those defiant ones who cannot be bought or intimidated are mortal enemies,’’ Mama Victor said. “The killings suggest a state that is now more predator than protector. A poor woman whose son has been killed, of course, is more likely to go mum. Even if she knows her rights, she may hesitate to call attention to the problem, since poor people often can’t afford to fight in court, much less against the government!”
Like Catherine, Mama Victor also lost two sons, Victor Okoth (24) and Bernard Okoth (22) to police bullets at the height of the 2017 post election skirmishes in Mathare’s Area 4A.
“It’s such a deep blow that your body kind of goes into a stop,” Mama Victor continued, detailing how she made her way into the life of human rights advocacy, now acting as the MVSN lead convener.
It’s Darkest Before Dawn
After a whole day of listening and interacting with fellow mothers who’ve lost the fruits of their wombs to police bullets, Mr. Kamunyoti informed the group that since the killing of their two sons, he hadn’t seen his wife Catherine in better spirits than she was on the day the Nairobi mothers visited.
Possibly feeling she had finally met a lot that could not only sympathize but empathize with her, Catherine shared funny stories about her slain sons, teased her dog and gifted the guests with fresh cabbages and lettuce from her little garden. “I am done stuffing down my disappointment and swallowing my anger. I suddenly feel like I have an army behind me,’ she told the women who promised to walk with her and turn up during court hearings.
They Were Us
On Sunday, 24 October 2021 – two weeks later – MVSN launched ‘They Were Us’, a book chronicling sixteen stories of eighteen families impacted by police violence in Nairobi and their transformation from victims to defenders of human rights, through startlingly candid interviews and lean, eloquent narrations. The book launch, held a few meters away from State House Nairobi, was tailored to hold the state accountable on violent policing in poor communities, share testimonies from perspectives of the victims’ mothers and call people to action.
“This event is an opportunity for those of us with strong and loud voices to use them on behalf of all,” Mama Effa said before she sat on the panel which had four members from MVSN, a duty-bearer from the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) and a psychologist. Mama Effa, who is now left a mother of only one child out of eight (six of whom perished under various circumstances), has had to learn forbearance over the time, after wrestling with her feelings for years. “Once you lose your child, what are you supposed to do? Do you quit, live with it, or try to act?” she wondered, “Kenya is, with casual contempt, waging a crushing war on its citizens.”
The mothers imagined that, once they share their stories and pointed out what the law is, they can begin to challenge the humiliation and shame of feeling like second class citizens, because stories that seem simple aren’t always so. The number of lives lost in police custody often gets lost in statistics which can make your eyes glaze over, even when you care about the issue.
At the backdrop of the panel discussion was a list of names of victims of police brutality, colorfully sewn on a large black cloth. For this the goal was to constantly remind the audience that these were real people, most of them brilliant young men who lived with us, who were us, and who we must always remember by saying their names.
Is Lady Justice Blind?
Mama Effa has short, well kempt hair, and a stern gaze. As she recounted the journey she has been through, her eyes welled up uncharacteristically. During the panel discussion, duty-bearer representatives took questions, or, rather, largely evaded them with careful politeness. Asked directly about the delays in arresting rogue officers, the representative from the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) proclaimed that there is ‘a significant difference in the scope and scale’ of what IPOA and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) are mandated to do.
Living to Tell the Tale
In recent years, the movement to tackle police excesses has been gaining momentum. With this has come a growing awareness that the violence is not an individual misfortune but a social problem with far-reaching life-ending and life-altering consequences. Most of the women in the network said they are the primary breadwinners of their families, which brought about another aspect that curiously doesn’t feature in most human rights conversations – economic justice.
Lameck Otieno, who survived a stray bullet from a military officer’s firearm in 2017, has so far endured eight expensive surgeries on his leg and counting, a situation that has shaken the economic foundations of his entire family. He is now forced to rely on friends and well wishers to make ends meet. Worse still, government institutions that should assist him in his quest for justice have abandoned him and ceased to respond to his calls. The mothers’ network has therefore become his new community, as has been the case for Mama Victor, Mama Effa, and the fifty other members present during the book launch.
While making his remarks at the event, Lameck clarified that one does not necessarily need to be a mother of a victim – or even a mother, or a victim – to care. That we all must push this issue to the front of conversations so that policy-makers, middle and upper classes across the country can truly understand that all citizens must be treated equally. Not close. Not almost the same – equally.
What the Mothers Want
Through the panel discussion, members of the network opened up about the particulars of their situations and then crowd-sourced solutions. Some best practices emerged. The launch now doubled as a formal grievance, which manifested itself through a list of demands, framed in a cheerily righteous tone, as a form of tough love.
“We demand 1. Police officers to be operating in marked cars and uniforms that state their badge numbers. 2. Police terms are limited to a maximum of three years in each station. 3. Immediate investigation into the Pangani-7 ‘killer cops’ who operate in Mathare and immediate arrest of all known killer police officers until investigations are complete. 4. The implementation of the 2017 Coroner’s Service Act, so an independent coroner will investigate any cases of suspected police killings. Right now, perpetrators are investigating their own crimes while tempering and planting evidence. 5. Increased capacity of the Witness Protection Agency so it is able to effectively protect vulnerable witnesses and human rights defenders from intimidation, harassment, threats or elimination. 6. State to issue reparations for victims and survivors of police brutality. 7. Media highlights all cases of police killings and enforced disappearances irrespective of the socio-economic background of the victim,” read the list.
A Call to Solidarity
The Mothers of Victims and Survivors Network (MVSN) embodies the hope that a few determined women might be able to beat the system some of the time. One of the major revelations of the reckonings of the past years is that isolation is not only a consequence of inequality but also a root cause of the disparity. The reason why the police think they can get away with their murders is that they haven’t factored in the multiplier effect of solidarity. Yet, increasingly, the most effective fights, like that of the mothers’ network, owe their success to coming together and sharing – information, risk, the emotional burden of public scrutiny and internal backlash.
When Argentina fell under a military dictatorship in 1976, government death squads hunted down anyone suspected of political dissidence. Up to 30,000 people were disappeared by the state in what would be termed as the ‘Dirty War’. The government disposed of their bodies and pretended they never existed, making no effort to identify or document them. But the friends and family members of the disappeared knew they had existed and they searched desperately for traces of their loved ones. The following year, a group of mothers began to protest by gathering at the Plaza de Mayo and marching every week. Government officials would in turn marginalize and trivialize them by calling them ‘Las Locas’, the mad women, and then later raining on them with the same violence they had visited on their children. Several of the group founders were kidnapped and presumably killed, but the women didn’t stop. They protested in spite of state threats until their activism helped turn the public against the junta and reinforce awareness of a policy that relied on silence and intimidation to victimize dissidents.
Similarly, it was the mothers, as much as anything, who exercised political power to eventually kick out the dictator Pinochet in Chile. Back at home, during the KANU regime, six defiant mothers of political prisoners camped at Uhuru Park’s ‘Freedom Corner’ in a hunger strike, following unsuccessful attempts to petition then Attorney General Amos Wako to free their sons. The police were unleashed to disperse them with batons and teargas, forcing the mothers to retaliate by stripping naked. Because it is regarded as a curse when an old woman strips in anger, the cops were forced to flee. By using nudity as a political tool, these mothers displayed elaborately the power of female militancy in political activism. And so on, and so forth.
Kill the Child, Harass the Mother
The work of the MVSN comes at a significant risk. So much that it requires them not only to deal with harassment, but also evade surveillance. About two days after the book launch, Mama Victor’s one-room house in Mradi was broken into and vandalized. Nothing was stolen, but everything was broken and turned upside down. It was a warning and there was no doubt about who did it. Within the same week, Police officers stormed into Effa’s house in Dandora and left with all the money earned from her shop that day, after harassing her husband. Luckily, she had walked out using a back route when she suspected their car, which was parked outside longer than usual. Mama Kevin, also one of the panelists had to move out of her house in Eastleigh, owing to a nondescript Probox car that is persistently parking outside her house. She is now living in fear for her life.
This ending is unsatisfying, worrisome, poetic, and true. The mothers are aware that by going against a violent system so publicly, they risk a backlash, and are sensitive to the fact that change is never linear, that humans are ever complex, and answers are rarely easy. However, standing up for themselves and for others in the face of violence is the purest and most radical show of courage. They are hell bent on earning our compassion and vigilance and we must support them. “For whom is there benefit in trying and failing? We don’t want future generations to have to fight this battle tomorrow because my generation failed to win it now,” Mama Victor tells me. “I don’t think, in twenty years’ time, that anyone on the other side of the argument will feel proud of themselves. We’ll look back and say, how did anybody think it was okay?” She adds. “The bulk of the cases are literally just sitting on people’s desks. Meanwhile, in Kenya’s low-income neighborhoods, years pass; children die.”