When boys have toys, they use them whether it is necessary or not. People manhandled, gassed, beaten and arrested over the weekend at a march in Windhoek were victims of police boys with their new toys trying to be macho. These poorly trained law enforcement officers had no idea how to de-escalate a complicated volatile situation. The protests of mostly young women and minors against Gender Based Violence (GBV) could have been managed in many different ways, but the officers involved preferred using their toys. And, of course, they made a mess of it.
We have the suspicion that the police had nice new riot gear and some level of supposed crowd control training provided by a development partner. Maybe a company wishing to sell their police equipment to Namibia gave out free samples. Our poorly trained overly eager officers were just chomping at the bit to use their new toys.
No one was throwing Molotov cocktails or smashing store windows and looting. No one was beating up random white people on the street. No one was shooting guns or burning cars. No one attacked a cop.
The protestors were loud and determined (yes, rowdy) mostly women and girls rightfully angry about rape and GBV. Enough is enough! That message needed affirmation by law enforcement, not a kick in the teeth.
The ridiculous clash between police and protestors is exhibit A for what is wrong in Namibia in terms of GBV. The men wearing Halloween costumes of riot gear did not like women and girls who refused to bow down and kiss their feet. The police didn’t like being asked questions. They did not like women who were not intimidated by their toys. Their reaction: beat up the women. Gas them. Arrest them.
Police forces: Why not talk to the leaders calmly? Ditch the riot gear and set rules for the march – walking alongside the people. Offer free water bottles, masks, and make toilets available. A tactical move could be to bring out celebs, priests, nuns, elderly people and let them walk alongside the young people. Everyone could sing and dance to keep things calm. There are many ideas that could have de-escalated the situation, but there was no imagination or will to do anything else but use the new toys.
The very thought of tear gas used on Namibians by the police unearths ugly memories. The weekend march against rape was not Soweto, forced removals from the Old Location in Windhoek, or the many protests during the struggle against the Boers in Namibia. We must never adopt the tools and methods of our defeated oppressors as a response to political challenges. We were assured that in an independent Namibia the government will work with the people not attack them. And yet, here we are.
Crowd control is not stress-free. Maintaining order in the midst of chaos is a massive challenge. Skills are required for this. Weren’t the police told this in their training classes? Who lied to them and told them that democracy was easy? Who told them that when they say ‘jump’ everyone would ask, ‘how high?’
This latest example of the insufficient training of our police forces has brought shame onto Namibia.
On Monday this week, the lead story on Deutsche Welle news, CNN International and the BBC was, “Namibian police use rubber bullets and tear gas on protestors against Gender Based Violence and rape. Namibia is the rape capital of Southern Africa.” How do we encourage foreign direct investment and lure tourists back with headlines like this?
A police uniform is not a judge’s robes. Police are not the voice of God on earth. Questions can be asked; information can be demanded. People do not have to cast their eyes down or clap hands or bend a knee when talking to police officers. Emotions can run hot during volatile situations. Protestors or accused may call an officer a sonofab*tch or a donkey. Police should be trained from day 1, to let these things roll off their backs. Sticks and stones… Hurling insults does not abrogate the accused’s constitutional rights. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
We can do better in our police/community relationships. We don’t need avoidable problems like those caused by over-armed and macho-minded police officers with new equipment. Law enforcement failed this weekend. Put the toys away before someone else gets hurt.