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Brute Forces

Dispatches on police violence from around the world

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police on May 25, mass protests against racism and police brutality materialized in two thousand cities and towns across the United States—as well as in over sixty countries worldwide. While the latter were certainly displays of solidarity, they were also something more. 

The persistence of black protest against American police brutality has led, in turn, to the growing recognition of a problem with truly international dimensions. There is scarcely a country where a particular demographic—whether religious minorities, refugees, descendants of the enslaved, or the urban poor—is not disproportionately subjected to surveillance and state violence. What we have witnessed over the past two months, then, is a condemnation of police terror in all its international guises. In country after country, people have taken to the streets to proclaim: “What happened to George Floyd happens here, too!” On occasion, they have even pointed to the ways the United States is complicit in producing police terror outside its borders.

In an attempt to explore the origins of these uprisings, we asked six writers residing in different countries to reflect on the state of police brutality there. Edna Bonhomme casts light on a history of state-abetted violence against African and Asian migrants in Germany that has yet to be reckoned with. Dalia Hatuqa reports on the recent killing of a disabled Palestinian man and the deadly collaboration between Israeli and American police forces. Manisha Sethi analyzes how the Indian police have systematically targeted Muslims and members of other minority groups, effectively serving as a standing army for the forces of Hindu fascism. Nara Roberta Silva looks back at the militarization of Brazil’s police under the 1964–85 dictatorship—a process that was not reversed under civilian rule. Gaby Del Valle writes about the cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration agents, which moves the United States’ borders ever more inward. And April Zhu examines the criminalization of poverty in Kenya, where dozens have been killed by the police for violating pandemic lockdown curfew laws. 

As xenophobia and nationalist revanchism grip the world, it is becoming clear how internal crackdowns—on migrants, minorities, and other “undesirable” populations—can drive displacement, even war. We hope these pieces allow readers to draw connections between apparently disparate regimes of policing. 

You can scroll down to read all of the dispatches here, or click the links below to view them separately.

—Ratik Asokan & Jess Bergman





A German police officer stands guard at a neo-Nazi march. He holds back a German Shepherd by its collar.
A German police officer stands guard at a neo-Nazi march. | Hossam el-Hamalawy

Fear of a White Riot

In Germany, policing and xenophobia go hand in hand

By Edna Bonhomme

As Aminata Touré, a Green Party member of the Schleswig-Holstein regional parliament, recently said, it is as if we are being told, “Be glad to be here. In the U.S.A., Black people are shot, but not here!” Germany has dealt with its past, unlike the United States.  This is what many white Germans—and many white Americans living in Berlin—tell me. They often argue that violent racism and police violence are uniquely American problems, something alien to mainstream German society. In this sense, the United States is a funhouse mirror that German society holds up in order to convince itself that all is well here: a comforting fiction that rests upon amnesia and ignorance, not only about Germany’s past, but its present.

Some of the same racial fictions have taken hold across the Atlantic, too, with Americans looking to Germany as a positive model for a country trying to deal with a horrific past. In her book Learning from the Germans, philosopher Susan Neiman paints a favorable portrait of Germany’s postwar project of commemorating the Holocaust, manifested most visibly in its erection of memorials for victims, of which there over four hundred in Berlin alone. As Neiman rightly notes, this culture of memory made physically present is incomparable to the ways in which slavery, Jim Crow, and racist violence are commemorated in America. The German “success” story has also been heralded by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who in his seminal article “The Case for Reparations,” commented, “When West Germany began the process of making amends for the Holocaust, it did so under conditions that should be instructive to us.”

Memorials and material compensation for Holocaust victims are, and should be, part of the German state and society’s restitution for past crimes. However, it would be a mistake to believe that these actions have freed German society from bigotry, or that their effects extend to all people who suffer from discrimination in the country. Germany’s history of racism did not end in 1945. Whether they came from Turkey to West Germany, or from Mozambique or Vietnam to East Germany, postwar migrants suffered (and continue to suffer) discrimination in the workplace, in housing, and in German society at large. In the years immediately after the Berlin Wall fell, supposedly a moment of great triumph for forward-looking civic nationalism, the country was rocked by waves of neo-Nazi violence.

Skinheads clubbing migrants and expelling them from entire towns left an indelible and loud message—African and Asian people are not welcome here, and the German state will not protect them.

Over several days in September 1991, hundreds of residents of the small Saxon town of Hoyerswerda besieged the accommodation housing of more than two hundred African and Asian migrants, eventually expelling them from the town of seventy thousand. After this modern-day pogrom, the perpetrators boldly and proudly proclaimed their town “foreigner free.” The following year, hundreds of neo-Nazi skinheads from both East and West Germany attacked asylum-seekers in the East German city of Rostock, where they were cheered on by thousands of local residents. Hoyerswerda and Rostock were not exceptions: in 1991 alone, there were 2,386 racist and xenophobic attacks across Germany, according to the Commission of the European Communities. A Mozambican man was murdered in Dresden, and the same fate befell a Ghanaian man in Saarlouis, just a few miles from the French border.

This violence did not come out of thin air. For nearly a year leading up to the riots in Hoyerswerda, German police did very little to challenge an obvious rise in skinhead activity. As Roger Karapin opines in Protest Politics in Germany, “Skinheads gained visibility and public acceptance through vigilante activities that were tolerated by the police and welcomed by many Germans.” The neo-Nazi group Deutsche Alternative, which bares more than a titular resemblance to the current far-right nationalist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), garnered the support of the local community in Hoyerswerda. On the first night of the riots there, the police did not intervene to stop the skinheads; occasionally, they even worked with them. Police waited until the fourth night of rioting to cordon off the workers’ housing that was under attack. Ultimately, the German police showed themselves uninterested in protecting foreigners. And rather than trying to decisively thwart this xenophobic violence, German politicians and police coordinated the forced evacuation of the majority of African and Asian people from Hoyerswerda, assuaging rising neo-Nazi sentiment and cementing their complicity in racist violence.

The organized racial violence of the early 1990s may have waned, but skinheads clubbing migrants and expelling them from entire towns left an indelible and loud message—African and Asian people are not welcome here, and the German state will not protect them. Unlike with the Holocaust, this outpouring of racist violence has been under-examined, and German society has never dealt with its effects or considered its significance.

The early nineties might seem like long ago, but the three years that I have lived in Germany have seen several new incidents of white German mobs terrorizing non-white people. In 2018, after a man was stabbed in a brawl in the East German town Chemnitz, residents organized rallies for several days against migrants or those who were perceived to be migrants. Several were attacked, there and elsewhere in the country. In February 2020, in the city of Hanau, a far right extremist went on a shooting spree, killing nine people (as well as his mother and himself) and injuring six. Though the gunman seems to have planned his attack alone, the violence was, as Ozgur Ozvatan wrote in Al Jazeera, a “direct result of German society’s growing acceptance of racist, discriminatory and exclusionist views.” The recent litany of white supremacist violence chronicles growing xenophobic sentiments in Germany, but these extreme acts are rooted in documented accounts of everyday discrimination and structural policies.

There are no lone wolves when packs of racists have entered government and law enforcement. Recent white supremacist violence has not occurred in isolation but alongside the rise of hate groups, increased discrimination, and the legitimization of the far-right, anti-immigrant nationalists of AfD, who in the 2017 general election became the third largest political party in federal parliament. Just as in the early 1990s, the German police are often part of the problem when it comes to contemporary racism and discrimination against people with migrant backgrounds. As Gouri Sharma has noted, racism and far-right politics are rampant in the police and other institutions; in recent cases, German police officers have been directly linked to neo-Nazi groups. Even some political officials, such as the Social Democrat Party chairperson Saskia Esken, have observed that there is latent racism in the country’s security forces.

At least 269 police shootings have occurred in Germany since 1990, and there have been 138 documented deaths in police custody since 1993. One of the most egregious cases was that of the Sierra Leonean asylum seeker Oury Jalloh, who burned to death in a jail cell in 2005. As of today, the police claim that the fire was set by Jalloh himself. But anti-racist activists in Germany are not convinced and continue to demand a transparent investigation.

There are no lone wolves when packs of racists have entered government and law enforcement.

Recent international protests to challenge structural racism have forced Germany to begin address its own police brutality, with activists pointing out the everyday profiling that people of color in Germany face. The city of Berlin has even gone as far as to pass a new anti-discrimination law which bars authorities, including the police, from discriminating people based on skin color and other identities. But it’s hard to believe that radical change will be forthcoming, considering the attitudes of some in high levels of the German government and the growth of excessive police force against demonstrators, such as during the 2017 Hamburg G20 protests, or June’s recent Black Lives Matter demonstration. In Germany, as in the United States, policing is a reflection of the principles of a society, one in which, as the Black American writer Joe von Hutch argues “anti-immigrant bias and support for racial profiling” reproduces existing inequalities.

To the people who continue to insist that racism is not as bad in Germany as it is in the United States, I ask: Who is this comparison supposed to reassure? Last year, Herbert Reul, the Minister of Interior for the North Rhine Westphalia Region and a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, claimed that shisha bars are hotbeds of gang crime. This is a popular trope of German right-wing politics, one which may have influenced the Hanau attacker’s decision to target such venues back in February 2020. Last year, the European Commission reported that there were 7,913 hate crime cases in Germany in 2017. The Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (ISD) suspects that the numbers are higher.

Germany “needs to end its strategy of denial and stop with its narrow understanding of structural racism,” Tahir Della, a leading member of ISD, recently told an interviewer. Della was echoed by the Berlin-based Black Austrian journalist Kemi Fatoba in her recent column “Schwarz mit großem S” (Black with a Capital B) for German Vogue: “It is more important than ever that white people don’t just look at racism in the United States, but deal with what is happening in Germany . . . [That] means voluntarily engaging with internalized racism and having tough, unpleasant conversations with work colleagues, friends, and family members.” With police violence in Germany underreported, and racial profiling seemingly gaining government approval despite what recent legislation might suggest, it is impossible to see the criminal justice system in Germany as free of bigotry. The racism of the German state, along with that of other European nations, also operates at arm’s length in the Mediterranean, where thousands of desperate migrants are allowed to drown every year.

None of this is not to claim that racism in Germany is identical to the United States, or that it manifests in exactly the same ways. Clearly, there are differences between the two countries. But, as Aminata Touré wrote, “We are not satisfied with not being shot. We demand the same respect and treatment that white people experience.” Ultimately, we need to move beyond the instinct to compare and rank countries against one another when it comes to racism and recognize instead how, in the case of Germany and the United States, they contribute to a shared, international project of white supremacy.



A mural depicting Eyad Hallaq in Bethlehem.
A mural depicting Eyad Hallaq in Bethlehem. | Seka Hamed

Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

Palestinians know not to expect justice from Israeli police

By Dalia Hatuqa

On May 30, Eyad Hallaq, a thirty-two-year-old Palestinian man with autism, was on his way to his special needs school in East Jerusalem when he was shot and killed by Israeli police. In the moments before his death, his caregiver, Warda Abu Hadid, repeatedly told the officers that Hallaq was disabled; he also told them “I’m with her,” but to no avail. They opened fire.

Hallaq’s killing sparked protests across the West Bank and inside Israel, and many Palestinians and their supporters have drawn parallels between his death and that of George Floyd in Minneapolis—as well as between Israeli and American policing.

According to his caregiver and family, Hallaq was confused when a group of Israeli border police started shouting at him, ordering him to stop. He did not make eye contact or engage with the officers. He was on the low-functioning end of the autism spectrum and had trouble communicating with others, said his mother, Rana. The shouts sent Hallaq running, and he eventually hid behind a garbage dumpster in an alley, where he was shot. Israeli border police— a kind of gendarmerie known to Palestinians for its brutality—said that officers mistakenly thought Hallaq had a gun.

Abu Hadid told officers that Hallaq did not comprehend their calls. She asked them to check his ID, given to him by his school, which explained his disability. Still, they shot several rounds, two of which hit Hallaq in the chest. According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, at least eleven unarmed Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in 2018 and 2019 as they fled.

Policing practices in the United States and Israel are connected by more than just images.

Hallaq’s killing prompted a rare apology from the Israeli government. Benny Gantz, the country’s defense minister and alternate prime minister under a power-sharing deal, said there would be a swift investigation into his death. Amir Ohana, Israel’s public security minister, said the Hallaq family “deserves a hug” and that the process by which officers recognize and deal with disabled people would be reviewed, but he stressed that he did not want to see the protests in Minneapolis “imported” to Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was sitting near Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting where he announced the investigation into Hallaq’s death, made no mention of it at all in his opening remarks. He later called the incident a tragedy but stopped short of apologizing.

Palestinians and their supporters have compared Hallaq’s killing to recent police violence exercised against Black communities in the United States while also drawing larger similarities between the structural disregard for Palestinian lives by Israel and the lives of Black Americans. Saeb Erakat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), called Hallaq’s killing a “crime that will be met with impunity unless the world stops treating Israel as a state above the law.” He also made reference to “I can’t breathe,” the last words uttered by Eric Garner, an unarmed Black man killed by New York City police in 2014. The phrase, now synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement, was also spoken by Floyd as he gasped for air under Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee.

Black organizers like Angela Davis, in her book Freedom is a Constant Struggle and other writings, have long called for solidarity with Palestinians. In 2016, the Movement for Black Lives formally declared its support for Palestinians; while acknowledging their differences, both the Palestinian rights movement and Black organizers in the United States have pointed out that they continue to struggle against similar oppressive power structures. Palestinian flags are often raised at protests in solidarity with Black communities and against police violence. Similarly, during protests across the West Bank and Israel condemning Hallaq’s killing, demonstrators held signs that read “I can’t breathe,” “Justice For Eyad, Justice for George,” and “Palestinian lives matter,” paralleling the slogans used in U.S. protests against police brutality. They also carried pictures of Israeli soldiers pressing down on the necks of Palestinians with their knees: a direct reference to the technique used to kill Floyd.

Policing practices in the United States and Israel are connected by more than just images. In 2018, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), an organization calling for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, and Researching the American Israeli Alliance (RAIA), a research group focused on Israeli-American affairs, pointed to problematic joint training sessions held between police officers in the United States and their Israeli counterparts. They reported that over the past two decades, hundreds of U.S. law enforcement officials have traveled to Israel on police exchange trips. (Amnesty International puts the figure in the thousands.) There, they’ve learned and brought home tactics like racial profiling, crowd control, and surveillance that Israel employs against the millions of Palestinians it controls under its military occupation. The chokeholds used to kill Garner and Floyd, for example, are frequently used by Israeli forces on Palestinians.

Security forces have also been criticized for using excessive force, often leaving individuals they’ve shot to bleed out while denying them medical access.

Of course, U.S. police have been brutalizing communities of color and repressing their freedoms long before the existence of Israel, using documented practices rooted in preserving slavery and protecting private property. But now it seems they are reaching beyond their own history and learning from a state that exercises brutal military control over Palestinians. “American police already have a terrible track record on civil rights and racism—and then they go to Israel and train with Israeli police and security agencies that are documented human rights violators!” said Jewish Voice for Peace director Stefanie Fox. “We should be investing in our communities, not militarizing our police.”

Much like Black communities in the United States, Palestinians have little faith that investigations into the deaths of their loved ones will result in any accountability. B’Tselem cites probes into the killing of some two hundred Palestinians by the Israeli army and police between April 2011 and May 2020, which resulted in the conviction of only five soldiers, as evidence that justice is an unlikely outcome.

Rights groups—both Palestinian and Israeli—have long accused Israeli police of being quick to shoot suspects first and ask questions later. Security forces have also been criticized for using excessive force, often leaving individuals they’ve shot to bleed out while denying them medical access. Both occurred in the case of Hallaq, whose father called his slain son “child-like” and said that he had no conception of the danger around him. “He was thirty-two, but he had the mind of an eight- or nine-year-old child. He never recognized people as Arab or Jew or Christian or Muslim,” said Khairy Hallaq, who added that Eyad was not, and could never be, a security threat to officers.

“Eyad was a victim of Israel’s long-standing shoot-to-kill policy in which any Palestinian can be killed on the spot without reason,” said Diana Buttu, a political analyst who visited and spoke to the Hallaq family. “This shoot-to-kill policy has been condemned universally whether by the United Nations through the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, and by numerous Palestinian human rights organizations.”

Buttu continued: “His killing highlighted, perhaps for some for the first time, what it means to be caught in the cross-fire of the Israeli system, where soldiers are given shoot-to-kill orders, where Palestinians are automatically presumed guilty, and where Israelis presume that all Palestinians, and in particular Palestinian men, are able-bodied targets.”

In May alone, three other Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli forces. Israeli authorities said two of them were perpetrators of car-ramming attacks. In at least one case, family members refuted the claims. None of their deaths have so far been investigated.



Photograph of Indian police walking through a neighborhood in Delhi
Security forces walk through a Muslim neighborhood in Delhi, in the wake of a Hindu mob attack. | Asad Ashraf

Handmaidens of Hindutva

The Indian police harass, torture, and kill Muslims with impunity

By Manisha Sethi

It is an oft-repeated complaint that there are more police stations than schools in India’s Muslim neighborhoods, a suggestion of how Muslims apprehend and experience the state. Over seventy years after independence, they remain more familiar with the heavy hand of police machinery than with institutions of welfare and care.

To understand the relationship between Muslims and the police today, it is necessary to return to the force’s origins in the colonial period. Modeled on the Irish constabulary, the Indian police force was set up by the British in 1861 to control and surveil a recalcitrant subject population. The quelling of political protest and detection of potential offenders trumped the prevention and detection of crime. At the same time, “offenses against the state” were privileged over crimes against persons and property in the Indian Penal Code. Police work in India, then, has never been primarily about everyday crime solving. From the outset, the police have been a coercive force, backed by a harsh legal regime that viewed citizens with suspicion.

Neither the exit of the British nor the inauguration of the Constitution transformed the police into a “service.” It continued to operate under the logic that the people were to be governed by force. Violence was normalized, even legalized. Though Indian law expressly prohibits the admission of custodial confessions into evidence to prevent coercion, Section 27 of the Indian Evidence Act effectively sidesteps this rule by allowing the entry of incriminating items recovered on the basis of confessions, even if they were made before the police. This has virtually rendered custodial torture the primary investigative technique. And it is near impossible to hold the police accountable for these crimes. Section 197 of Criminal Procedure Code requires government sanction for the prosecution of public servants for offenses such as murder, or causing grievous injuries, committed in the “discharge of their official duties.” If cases of police violence proceed at all beyond the filing of complaints, sanction is rarely granted.

By ascribing guilt to the deceased, by gesturing to their religious and caste affiliations, the Indian police connect certain social groups with criminality.

In 1961, Anand Mulla, a judge of the Allahabad High Court, was moved to call the Indian police an organization “whose record of crime” remained unmatched by any “lawless group in the whole of the country.” The Indian police have continued to provide frequent occasions to justify Mulla’s remarks (which were later expunged by the Supreme Court). Marginalized groups bear the brunt of police lawlessness. Study after study has shown that for religious minorities, Adivasis, and so-called lower caste groups, law and its enforcers are a source of terror. Overrepresented in prisons, Muslims remain vulnerable to custodial assault and risk humiliating brutalization for seeking their rights. Muslim representation in police hovers below 4 percent even as they make up 14 percent of the Indian population. Since 2014, when the present regime first came to power, the National Crime Records Bureau has discontinued even the practice of publishing these figures. 

In 2013, the Director Generals of Police in three states—Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu—submitted a report to the Central Government on the relationship between the police and minority communities, mainly Muslims. The report was never made public, but it concluded that a wide chasm existed between the community and the police, and that the relationship was marred by the former’s perception of the latter as biased.

These findings would have come as no surprise to anyone who had bothered to read the reports of various commissions established over the decades to inquire into the causes of communal violence, which has plagued India more or less continuously since independence. Without fail, these commissions have indicted the police for their partisan role in handling outbreaks of sectarian conflict: ignoring mounting tensions and communal sloganeering, turning a blind eye to the gathering of arms and open provocations made by Hindus, as well as refusing to protect vulnerable minorities. Yeh andar ki baat hai / police hamaare saath hai, “it is an open secret that the police sides with us,” was the taunt that roving Hindu mobs raised when plundering, raping, and burning their way through Muslim neighborhoods in Gujarat in 2002. The most charitable accusation that one could make against the Indian police would be laxity or dereliction of duty. In truth, it is difficult to ignore their criminal complicity with the rioters.

How little things have changed, and how consistent the Indian police’s modus operandi has remained, can be gauged from two events, set fifty years apart. In 1970, the Madon Commission, instituted to investigate the anti-Muslim violence that broke out in Bhiwandi in Maharashtra, recorded that police attitudes “encouraged the processionists in their misbehavior and led them to believe that either the police were powerless to stop them or were on their side.” More acerbic still were the Commission’s observation that the Special Investigation Squad, which had been set up to investigate riot cases, partnered with Hindu groups to concoct charges of criminal conspiracy against leaders and ordinary members of the Muslim community. The “working of the Special Investigation Squad, Bhiwandi, is a study in communal discrimination,” the report concluded. 

Something eerily similar happened late last year, when protests against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act began in New Delhi. On December 15, Delhi Police stormed the campus of Jamia Millia Islamia—a university with a predominantly Muslim student population—beating, brutalizing, maiming, and even blinding students. As the anti-CAA movement consolidated, refusing to cower to these police clampdowns, leaders of the running right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party leaders openly goaded violence against the protestors, often on public television. Their campaign culminated in the pogrom in Northeast Delhi in late February, which unfolded as Donald Trump was enjoying state hospitality during an official visit.

The fragile roots of the rule of law in India’s institutions are equally matched by a strong popular approval for vigilantism and summary justice.

The brunt of the violence was borne by the Muslim community: over 75 percent of those killed were Muslim, schools and trading establishments destroyed were overwhelmingly Muslim, and religious structures razed to the ground were wholly Islamic. Yet again, complaints filed by Muslims have been disappeared, or sanitized to protect the Hindutva leaders. Worse still, young Muslim activists and students involved in the protests have been arrested for allegedly conspiring and executing the attacks, often under the draconian terror law. Once again, the victims have been transformed into perpetrators—and perpetrators rendered victims.

These pernicious terror charges are in keeping with the long legacy of frame-ups, unjust arrests, and wrongful and protracted incarceration of Muslims in independent India. By defining “unlawfulness” and “terrorism” imprecisely, terror laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) have given wide latitude to the police to harass and frame along sectarian lines. Muslims, subaltern caste groups, and tribal groups (the latter two are invariably lumped together as Maoists) have been routinely harassed under the UAPA. Their trials may result in acquittal—indeed, the conviction rates in terror cases have been paltry—but the continued invocation of terrorism in relation to certain groups marks them out as “enemies of the state.”

While other groups have been victimized in the past—India witnessed an anti-Sikh pogrom in the 1980s—it is Muslims who are today’s designated “other,” as indigenous communalism and global Islamophobia conjoined in the post-9/11 world. The past two decades or so have seen a spurt in so-called “special operations” in the war against “jihadi terror.” India’s credulous national media—and the public—do not question security agencies when they claim to have nabbed operatives and masterminds of terror groups, as long as those arrested fit the profile. The willful fabrication of evidence in these cases is often patently obvious; bulk of the arrests are not connected to any actual incident of violence. As in the United States, police officers and intelligence officials follow slippery, unfulfilled conspiracies, passing off the recovery of Urdu or Arabic literature as “Jihadi material.”

As for Hindutva terrorism, that is deemed not to exist. A former police commissioner of Mumbai, confronted on television about the existence of Hindutva terror groups, flatly responded, that “[terrorism] just does not exist in the Hindu pantheon.” It should hardly be a surprise, then, that when a series of bomb blasts were carried out between 2006–2008—in the Maharashtrian town of Malegaon on the Muslim holy day of Shab-e-Baraat, at a mosque in Hyderabad, and at a sufi shrine in Ajmer—investigators arrested and even extracted confessions out of Muslim men. One can well imagine the techniques that might have persuaded innocent men to incriminate themselves when the evidence all along pointed toward Hindutva groups.

A survey last year revealed that one out of two policemen believe that Muslims are “naturally prone” to committing crimes. This attitude is not limited to the lower echelons of the hierarchy. When confronted by the disproportionately high numbers of Muslims lodged in jails, here is what retired DGP Prakash Singh had to say: “In cases of terror attacks or communal riots, if the police goes after the perpetrators of the violence, and they happen to be mostly Muslim, you cannot in the name of secularism, expect the police to act in proportion to their population.” 

Prakash Singh is no ordinary police officer; in fact, he is seen as the torchbearer of “police reforms.” His idea of “reform” is to free police from the fetters of political control, rather than make the organization more accountable. Singh and others have repeatedly mocked human rights concerns, dismissing as “extreme” the National Human Rights Commission and Supreme Court’s call for investigations into fatalities resulting from police shootings. He claimed these were producing a “chilling effect” on the police, who were apparently now fearful of being “faulted” for the use of force. It is hardly a secret that these guidelines are followed only in their breach. 

In a society as hierarchical and divided as ours, the pathologization and othering of some social groups renders them more expendable.

Some police officers suavely argue that encounter killings—really, staged, extrajudicial murders—are justified in cases of terrorism and extremism, and therefore should lie beyond the pale of judicial scrutiny. Singh has gone so far as to hail the Uttar Pradesh state government’s policy of eliminating suspects and alleged criminals without so much as an arrest or trial by arguing that “certain sections”—a dog-whistle for Muslims—which were allowed to run amok during previous regimes are now being reined in. It is revealing that Singh, who has campaigned for the depoliticization of police, should mimic the of rhetoric of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who has effectively turned his state into a laboratory of toxic Hindutva. By ascribing guilt to the deceased, by gesturing to their religious and caste affiliations, cops like Singh are connecting certain social groups with criminality. This is how we have come to distinguish a genuine encounter from a fake one. 

The bitter truth is that the fragile roots of the rule of law in our institutions are equally matched by a strong popular approval for vigilantism and summary justice. When he was chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi would often turn to crowds at his rallies to ask what the fate of “terrorists” should be. The crowd would jubilantly scream back: “kill them, kill them.” And it is not only terrorism but any crime that causes widespread moral revulsion which leads to demands for blood—often aired on prime-time television.

Last year, for instance, the brutal rape and murder of a young veterinarian in Hyderabad sparked public outrage. In the days that followed the crime, a member of Parliament demanded that rapists be lynched in public; meanwhile, communal hate was openly expressed on social as well as regular media, when it was leaked that one of the accused was a Muslim. The accused were apprehended promptly, but instead of going through the judicial motions, the police shot them to death just days after their arrest. They then trotted out a tired and rehearsed story of the accused capturing police arms in an attempt to flee while being taken to the crime site. A large number of celebrities and politicians—extending far beyond the BJP—tweeted their appreciation of the police action; ordinary people burst firecrackers and distributed sweets. It wasn’t that they were persuaded by the police story of the exchange of gunfire. It was the naked brazenness of the killings that they were celebrating.

In a society as hierarchical and divided as ours, the pathologization and othering of some social groups renders them more expendable. A coercive police machinery backed by draconian laws and a culture of impunity feeds and plumps itself on societal bigotry, producing incarcerable, encounter-able, and lyncable Muslim bodies.



A photograph showing security forces occupy the Complexo do Alemão favela in Rio de Janerio.
Security forces occupy the Complexo do Alemão favela in Rio de Janerio. | DHS

Internal Enemies

In Brazil, a militarized police force targets black and brown populations like enemy combatants.

By Nara Roberta Silva

Fourteen-year-old João Pedro was shot while playing indoors with his cousins. But his body, mysteriously removed from the house, could not be located by the family until the next day. Carlos, Cleiton, Wilton, and Wesley were riding back home after a night out with Roberto, who was celebrating his first paycheck at a new job; their car was shot at 111 times and the five young men died. Ten-year-old Eduardo was shot when playing with a cellphone on his doorstep; his mother confronted the shooter, who allegedly replied: “Just as I killed your son, I could easily kill you.” Claudia, a thirty-eight-year-old mother, was shot and had her body dragged on the road for nearly a quarter of a mile after it fell out of the car trunk. Seventeen-year-old Douglas was on his way to a kite flying championship when he was shot in the chest; witnesses say that his last words were “Sir, why did you shoot me?”

What do the above stories have in common? In each case, the killers were the Brazilian police. While homicide by guns and other weapons is hardly uncommon in the country, law enforcement is responsible for a staggering number of these fatalities—and has been for decades. Brazil’s police force has the distinction of being the deadliest in the world in absolute numbers. In 2018, Brazilian officers killed over five thousand seven hundred people. While 2019 was the year in which civilian homicides reached their lowest point in over a decade, deaths at the hands of police officers rose to five thousand eight hundred. Not even coronavirus has stalled the trend. According to the Public Security Institute, police killings in the state of Rio de Janeiro this April—when the pandemic really exploded in Brazil—were 43 percent higher than for the same month last year. These statistics make clear what everyone already knows: police violence is endemic in Brazil, especially in the country’s state capitals. (Gallingly, no one has precise police homicide numbers; statistics processing varies by state, and of course many killings are never reported).  

Why do Brazil’s police kill so much? This is partly a legacy of militarization. Brazil’s independence struggle from Portugal was led by the army; it has suffered under several dictators since. In 1969, in one of the harshest episodes of a twenty-one-year dictatorship, the military seized all law enforcement bodies to coordinate the repression of political dissent. With that, the militaries could more efficiently respond to disruptions, torture and violate human rights to their hearts’ content, and run a secret surveillance apparatus to identify “agitators.” The police system that emerged from the dictatorship inherited this punitive vision of public safety.

Effectively, Brazil today has two main police corps—the military police and the civil police. The former are responsible for street patrolling and crime prevention, while the latter investigate criminal offenses. This bifurcated system, with its “division of labor,” allows the military police to act violently and with impunity, as they are not responsible for investigating their own actions.

Brazil promulgated a notably progressive Constitution on its return to democracy in the mid-to-late 1980s. Yet it failed to dismantle the policing structure built by the militaries. This is because the transition to “democracy” was shaped by negotiations between the country’s elites and military authorities—however relevant popular resistance and demonstrations against the regime were. There was no clean break from the authoritarian past.

In a country where few crimes are investigated, police misconduct especially has near total impunity.

Today, the military police force is formally considered a backup Army. Officers are trained to be soldiers, rather than individuals who enforce and abide by the law. As they stand to protect the country against dangerous enemies—rather than protect civilians—their brutal tactics, however ugly, are justified as necessary. Like Army soldiers, military police officers are schooled in a rigid hierarchy, and they are ultimately beholden to their superiors (and the military code), not the public they are meant to serve. This approach is obviously not conducive to de-escalation. Assessment, dialogue, and autonomous decision-making—the basis of community-oriented police work—are rendered all but impossible when you treat the streets as a war zone. Instead, harassment, physical force, and humiliation by cops are the order of the day. It is not a coincidence that protests in Brazil are often met with brutality, that demonstrators have to deal with rubber bullets, tear gas, and injuries. Shoot to kill, as the above stories suggest, is something like a motto.

The two-pronged model inherited by the dictatorship is also a management disaster. The two forces scarcely share information with one another, rendering the process of investigation and prosecution extremely ineffective. In São Paulo State, for example, only 4 percent of crimes committed in 2018 have been solved. Discretionary decisions, bribes, and general corruption are rampant, given that public oversight is restricted. More seriously, this model also promotes stop-and-frisk practices and felony arrests. Since the military police is not required to follow up on offenses—that is the civil police’s job—they can detain whichever individuals they want when patrolling, knowing that the burden of furnishing proof, or even dealing with the investigation, falls on someone else. It is as if they have a free pass to oppress.  

In a country where few crimes are investigated, police misconduct has near total impunity. For one thing, crimes committed by military police officers in the line of duty are judged internally—by a military tribunal—rather than in a criminal court, except in the case of homicide. But even when it comes to killings, there is specific legislation mechanism in place to protect Brazil’s police. Auto de resistência, or “resistance followed by death,” is the formal classification of homicides by police officers that are legitimized on the grounds of self-defense. In such cases, the murders are registered in administrative reports in the civil police records. These reports are sent to the public prosecution office, which may propose criminal proceedings or decide to shelve the case. The offending officer almost always walks away scot free because police killings are rarely judged. Analyses of cases classified as auto de resistência reveal that the police have resorted to lethal force in such life-threatening situations as when confronting individuals who had surrendered, or had been wounded, or were running away.

Under the dictatorship, leftists and other political “subversives” were the targets of state violence. But the arrival of neoliberal democracy to Brazil in the 1990s necessitated the creation of new enemies. Around this time, the ruling class turned its attention to those on the margins of society: mainly, the residents of favelas and underserved neighborhoods, who are overwhelmingly black and brown (that is, of mixed race). These neighborhoods were ravaged by state withdrawal and disinvestment since the 1980s—known as “the lost decade” in Brazil and other Latin America countries—and a network of illicit activities, mainly drug-trafficking, bloomed in the social vacuum created. Neoliberal policies meant community investment was out of the question. Instead, conservative officials and the mainstream media colluded to drum up fears about a “crime crisis” among the poor, which in turn gave the green light to truculent and even punitive police actions. It is a vicious circle that will be familiar to American readers.

State spending on law enforcement has been rising since the 1990s; unsurprisingly, this investment has done little to reduce the country’s homicide and other crime rates. The pattern did not waver even during the long tenure of the Workers’ Party. Lula and Rousseff’s administrations expanded social programs for vulnerable populations and also pushed through modest police reforms unequally adopted by the states (for example, proposing professional development and education opportunities of police officers). Yet they did not succeed in changing the paradigm of public safety still in place in Brazil, for this would require a shift from continuous spending on law enforcement, and a total rethinking of the current policing model.

In the end, the poor are dehumanized to preserve the false sense of security sought by the ascendant rich and the middle class. While cheering belligerent police actions in poor communities, the well-off conveniently turn a blind eye to police corruption and human rights violations. Despite the alarming rates of police killings, they demand more policing and tougher policing. “A good crook is a dead crook,” as a local saying goes. This thirst for punitive action among those least likely to suffer it partly explains the popularity of jingoistic right-wing politicians, including Jair Bolsonaro, who has openly declared the military dictatorship should have shot thirty thousand opponents.

Brazil’s police forces serve to enforce lasting racial and economic inequalities, and they thrive in a culture that tolerates institutional violence and terror against people of color.

The criminalization of poverty must also be understood against the backdrop of Brazil’s fraught racial history. Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery in the Americas; since then, the state has continually failed to provide a path to prosperity for its black and brown populations. Today, black and brown people make up the majority of the poorest, unemployed, and underemployed in Brazil. They also receive lower wages in comparison to whites—although affirmative action policies have modestly expanded their access to education in recent years. But the need for these affirmative actions also unveils the issue of representation in the country. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, intellectuals contended that Brazil would become a modern nation only by getting rid of its black past. Interracial births and the immigration of Europeans—a “superior” race—were promoted in an attempt to whiten the population. At the same time, black and brown people were symbolically encoded as “lazy,” “delinquent,” “criminals,” and unworthy of respect; these ideas spread through popular discourse. Such connotations of inferiority, especially associated to blackness, remain finely ingrained in Brazil’s ordinary cultural representations—from books and soap operas to proverbs and images—even as the state peddled a dubious ideology of “racial democracy” and “racial harmony” from the 1930s on.

Young black and brown men are particularly affected by racial profiling and police intervention. Black and brown men between fifteen and twenty-nine are killed at a disturbing rate: a death every twenty-three minutes, many at the hands of police officers, according to a Senate’s Special Committee from 2016. In turn, it is women who bear the burden of proving the innocence of loved ones lost to police violence. They must showcase their suffering in an attempt to rescue the men’s worth and demand justice: presenting the deceased as hardworking fathers, beloved sons, dedicated husbands, bright students. Indeed, one of the most prominent movements against police brutality in Brazil is made up of mothers: the May Mothers—in Portuguese, Mães de Maio.

In recent years, progressive intellectuals, activists, and local communities have called further attention to the structural racism plaguing policing in Brazil. Cries of “black lives matter” (vidas negras importam) and “stop killing us” (parem de nos matar) are growing stronger in street protests and on social media as part of a wider reckoning of the country’s racial past. Such discussions are necessary if we are to fine-tune the left’s long-standing demand that the police be demilitarized. Anti-racist activism may even lead to more radical political frameworks, like police abolition. For the truth is that the survival of the dictatorship’s policing arrangement is not a historical accident. Brazil’s police forces serve to enforce lasting racial and economic inequalities, and they thrive in a culture that tolerates institutional violence and terror against people of color. The end of police violence in Brazil cannot disregard the institution’s racist practices and motivations. Without that, the list of names and tragic fates of black and brown Brazilians will keep growing.



ICE agents take someone into custody during “Operation Cross Check.”
ICE agents take someone into custody during “Operation Cross Check.” | DHS

The Invisible Border

When local law enforcement cooperates with ICE

By Gaby Del Valle

For the last thirteen years, immigrants booked in Prince William County, Virginia, have had to worry about more than posting bail. There was always the possibility that even after coming up with enough money to secure their release, they’d remain locked up so that the sheriff’s office could hand them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The jail board’s collaboration with federal immigration authorities has long been a point of contention for Prince William County’s rapidly growing immigrant community—and just last month, after a decade of public outcry, officials finally decided to end the county’s contract with ICE.

One day before that decision and one thousand three hundred miles away, commissioners in Tarrant County, Texas, voted to renew the county’s contract with ICE, despite opposition from dozens of residents who testified—in person, in the middle of a pandemic—against the extension. “My students should not have to live in fear that families will be ripped apart and they will be left to fend for themselves because their parent or guardian was pulled over for a minor traffic violation that then result[ed] in their arrest,” Felicia Hernandez, a teacher, told the five commissioners. Not enough of them were swayed. In a 3–2 vote, the panel decided to extend Tarrant County’s three-year-old agreement with ICE. Public pressure may have weakened the agency’s reach in suburban Virginia, but it wasn’t enough to change things in Fort Worth.

Similar debates over cops’ collaboration with ICE have played out across the country over the last four years. Activists say these cooperation contracts, known as 287(g) agreements, separate families via deportations and erode immigrant communities’ trust in law enforcement. Meanwhile, local officials eager to cast all unauthorized immigrants as hardened criminals claim the program keeps their communities safe. Sometimes the decision of whether to collaborate with ICE comes down to a single person: the county sheriff. In 2018, voters in North Carolina elected a spate of insurgent Black sheriffs who campaigned on reducing cooperation with ICE. Some North Carolina counties ended their 287(g) agreements, but this isn’t necessarily characteristic. Rockwall County, Texas, entered into a new 287(g) agreement that same year. “The 287(g) program is a critical partnership,” an ICE official said at the time. “This helps us identify aliens in county jails who we wouldn’t have been able to identify before.”

Immigration law is federal. There’s a single set of legal provisions—sprawling and opaque—that regulate immigration. Immigration law is also civil. Migrants can face criminal charges for entering the country without authorization or using a fake Social Security number to work, but deportation cases don’t come down to a question of innocence versus guilt: an immigrant can be found guilty of a crime and spared from deportation by an immigration judge, or they can be cleared of all charges and deported anyway. Practically speaking, though, where and whether an immigrant comes into contact with the criminal punishment system can affect whether they’ll be able to stay in the United States or be deported. And although immigration judges ultimately decide the fate of immigrants in removal proceedings, local law enforcement departments like the Rockwall County Sheriff’s Office often put immigrants in those proceedings in the first place.

Under 287(g), specially trained sheriff’s deputies can ask anyone booked into the Rockwall County Jail whether they’re U.S. citizens or have permission to be in the United States; the deputies can flag potential non-citizens for ICE, which can in turn request that the jail hold them even after they’ve posted bond. (These requests are known as “ICE detainers.”) ICE also issues detainer requests to local sheriff’s offices and police departments that don’t participate in 287(g), many of which comply anyway, and the agency has taken to publicly shaming jurisdictions that don’t honor the detainer requests. In the view of ICE and its allies, counties that refuse to hold people so ICE can pick them up—a practice that, according to some federal judges, violates the Fourth Amendment—are enabling crimes like rape and murder.

Ultimately, 287(g) gives every county sheriff the power to turn his deputies into more boots on the ground for ICE.

But in reality, most of the people ICE tries to arrest via detainers are in jail because of minor offenses. In Georgia and Maryland, for example, local police and sheriff’s deputies often pulled over suspected immigrants for traffic violations and arrested them for driving without a license, a 2011 report by the Migration Policy Institute found. According to federal data analyzed by researchers at Syracuse University, the most common conviction found on detainers issued between October 2011 and January 2013 was driving under the influence. Almost half of all detainers were issued for people who had no recorded conviction at all. Once immigrants are taken into criminal custody for any reason, they can end up on ICE’s radar.

Nearly one hundred jurisdictions participated in 287(g) as of June 2020, according to the American Immigration Council. Sixty-five of them cooperate with ICE through its Warrant Service Officer program, which launched in 2019 and gives local law enforcement offices the “flexibility to make immigration arrests.” A previous 287(g) program known as the “task force” model let local cops make immigration arrests in the field; it was phased out in 2012 due to concerns over racial profiling.

Ultimately, 287(g) gives every county sheriff the power to turn his deputies into more boots on the ground for ICE. But that doesn’t mean immigrants in jurisdictions that have opted out of the program are shielded from deportation. In his first week in office, Trump revived the Bush-era Secure Communities program, which automatically sends data on every single arrest made in the country to federal immigration authorities. (The Obama administration both expanded and ultimately ended this program.) Like 287(g), Secure Communities has put immigrants arrested for minor offenses on ICE’s radar. Every time a non-citizen is arrested for any reason, be it hopping a subway turnstile or smoking a joint in public, ICE can find them—even if they live in a sanctuary city, even if they’ve never been arrested before, and even if they’re ultimately cleared of all charges. For undocumented immigrants in particular, any criminal charge, no matter how mundane, can trigger a deportation case. If local officers refuse to detain immigrants for ICE, the agency will put considerable resources into tracking them down, using a combination of surveillance technology and social media spying to find its targets. It may take more work on ICE’s part, but once the agency has someone’s name, fingerprints, and address, arresting an undocumented immigrant is a matter of catching them in the right place at the right time.

ICE may no longer be able to rely on roving bands of sheriff’s deputies to arrest people for merely looking like immigrants—whatever that means—but it doesn’t really need to either. The jail model is just as effective as the since-abandoned task force model. It mostly functions out of sight and ensnares a group of people already cordoned off as inferior: those with criminal charges. The stakes are particularly high for Black immigrants, for whom racist policing practices mean that even the most banal interaction with a cop can lead not only to deportation, but death. According to a 2016 report by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and the NYU Law School Immigrants Rights Clinic, Black immigrants make up about 5.4 percent of the total non-citizen population, but more than one-fifth of immigrants facing deportation on criminal grounds are Black.

Once an immigrant is charged with a crime—regardless of the circumstances, and regardless of whether they’re eventually convicted—ICE and its allies can claim their presence in the United States is a threat to public safety. In the administration’s eyes, every immigrant is already a criminal alien, or at the very least, a regular alien waiting to commit a criminal act. Even Obama, who deported more immigrants than any of his predecessors, wasn’t above implying that while there are some good immigrants, there are plenty of bad ones who need to be rooted out. “Felons, not families,” he said in a 2014 speech, announcing ICE’s new enforcement priorities. “Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids. We’ll prioritize, just like law enforcement does every day.”

Those distinctions meant little to the sheriff’s deputies in Georgia who pulled immigrants over for traffic infractions only to arrest them for driving without a license. They mean even less now that every immigrant has a target on their back.

Immigration enforcement, especially under the Trump administration, thrives on spectacle: the chaos at airports after the Muslim ban came down, the family separation crisis at the border, the ICE raids in Mississippi chicken plants that left dozens of kids alone at the beginning of the school year. But 287(g)’s success lies in its ability to operate out of sight. It’s not a raid; it’s just paperwork.



A National Youth Service officer is seen standing close by a painting mural representing police brutality.
Mural depicting George Floyd in Nairobi’s Kibera neighborhood. | Donwilson Odhiambo

A Death Penalty for the Poor

Kenya’s police train their guns on the slums of Nairobi

By April Zhu

On the night of June 1, demonstrators took to the streets in Bondeni—a subsection of Mathare, one of Nairobi’s informal settlements—to protest the killing of James Mureithi Njeru, a homeless man known to many as “Vaite.” Mureithi’s bullet-ridden body had been found by the road in the place where he usually slept; the protestors alleged that he was killed by police enforcing the curfew implemented to curb the spread of Covid-19. They streamed into the streets, shouting, and lit tires on fire. Demonstrations in Mathare often begin in Bondeni; here the tarmac is permanently blackened, charred with marks of burnt rubber.

Kenya has reported 325 deaths due to Covid-19, but measures like the dusk-to-dawn curfew—rather, the deadly excess with which police have enforced them—has made the country’s pandemic response among the world’s most violent. The Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), a civilian organization that investigates police misconduct, reported that police officers have killed fifteen people and injured thirty-one since the curfew began.

This official tally, however, is most certainly an underestimate. For one thing, it does not include some deaths that indirectly resulted from police terror. Maurice Ochieng, a carpenter in the city of Kisumu, was severely beaten by police for not wearing a face mask; five days later, he collapsed and died. Christine Aoko, while evading police after curfew, slipped into the rain-bloated Mathare River and drowned. Neither made it to the list. The number of women and infants who have died of childbirth complications at home for fear of going to the hospital after curfew has also spiked.

On that early June night, then, the demonstrators in Bondeni—like those around the world who took to the streets after the murder of George Floyd—were not protesting the slaying of a single man, but rather an entire regime of violence. In one video posted on social media, amid ululations is the repeated imperative: “Angalia.” Look.

The roots of police brutality in Kenya can be traced back to colonialism. The paramilitary Administration Police—one of three divisions in the Kenya National Police Service—was created in 1958, in the last year of the state of emergency declared by the British administration to violently repress the anti-colonial Mau Mau movement. Taken over with little reform by the independent Kenyan government, it is alive and well today, and its colonial functions of torture and terror are very much unreformed.

If you were to map Nairobi by police violence, you would see the shapes of its old colonial borders.

In the early aughts, the brutal policing of urban areas evolved in parallel with organized crime. Mungiki, a Kikuyu ethno-religious movement from central Kenya, had reached Nairobi in the 1990s, gaining territorial and economic control of certain parts of the city and effectively turning itself into a criminal vigilante group. In response to public anxiety about Mungiki’s activities, the police force institutionalized brutal, extralegal tactics such as “death squads” within the formal policing structure. Though these purported to eliminate high-profile criminal leaders outside of the justice system, they were and continue to be responsible for the executions of dozens, if not hundreds of young men each year.

The issue was notably brought to international attention in 2009, when UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston conducted a special investigation. He concluded that police in Kenya “frequently execute individuals and that a climate of impunity prevails.” Without accountability mechanisms, he wrote, such “carte blanche killing by the police” would continue unabated.

In the decade-plus since Alston’s report was published, reforms have been attempted. Between 2011–2012, Parliament passed a series of reform acts that changed law enforcement’s internal command structure and merged two police units to turn the “Kenya Police Force” into the “Kenya Police Service.” The new legislation also formed two regulatory bodies for handling police misconduct—one internal, the Internal Affairs Unit, and one external, the IPOA. But since its establishment in 2012, the IPOA has convicted only seven officers, despite having undertaken more than one thousand five hundred investigations. Just this year, one hundred people have been killed or disappeared by the police, according to Missing Voices Kenya, a consortium of human rights organizations tracking extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances throughout the country.  

In the wake of uprisings after George Floyd’s murder, global attention has turned towards oppressive policing. This may have been responsible for one of the few glimmers of progress in the fight against police brutality in Kenya. On June 4, the police officer Duncan Ndiema Ndiwa was charged with murder for shooting and killing the thirteen-year-old Yassin Hussein Moyo, who was standing on the balcony of his family’s home in Kiamaiko, a district within Mathare. For an organization that normally takes years to bring cases to court—if at all—the unprecedented expediency warrants cautious optimism.

However, larger trends still point to the government leaning on punitive measures to solve social problems. Days after Covid-19 reached Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta formed the Nairobi Metropolitan Service, a military-led unit that took over key powers and resources from the county government. (On June 18, the High Court deemed this action unlawful, though not much has changed.) One of its first actions, according to urban ethnographer Wangui Kimari, was to enforce the eviction of seven thousand families in the Kariobangi Sewerage Farmers Slum, another informal settlement only a few kilometers from Mathare, by the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company. Residents presented their title deeds, proof that they had been paying taxes on that land, and a court order from the Environment and Land Court to halt the eviction. But NCWSC representatives tore up the court order, residents say, and bulldozers arrived the next day to demolish homes. Residents were left without shelter, many having just forked out enough to pay rent for that month—all in the middle of a pandemic.  

Every push toward futuristic urbanity in Nairobi comes with an equal and opposite force of violence on the city’s poor.

The Kariobangi evictions and police brutality are two manifestations of the same problem, Kimari argues. In a recent essay titled “Outlaw Nairobi versus the Pandemics,” she analyzes how the city’s lower-class, unwelcome majority—over half of Nairobi’s population lives in informal settlements—is subjected to what she describes to me as the “dual violence of neglect and force.” On one hand, people who live in places that have intentionally been underdeveloped by the state are denied the most basic rights enshrined in the Constitution—water, sanitation, housing, safety—and thus fall “outside” the law’s provisions. What results is a feedback loop, where the fetid, toxic environment in which people live is projected onto them, feeding into vicious narratives about the urban poor as disposable, criminal, and, perhaps most importantly, not sufficiently “citizen” because of the precarious conditions under which they live. It is precisely this logic of disposability that allows these people to be systematically criminalized. “Those who don’t have water,” Kimari concludes in her paper, “are the same ones who are being killed by the police.”

This is a narrative many affluent Kenyans have accepted; with some notable exceptions, extrajudicial killings hardly even make headlines in the country. Society turns away more easily when the phrase “suspected criminal” is used, or an incriminating weapon are planted alongside the body, as is common police practice. These prejudices against the urban poor are also the key to understanding why extrajudicial killings in Kenya have persisted despite repeated attempts at reform, often to the tune of millions of dollars poured in from foreign governments and multilateral organizations. According to Kimari, places like Mathare are seen as dead ends, undesirable anti-cities holding Nairobi back from becoming the cosmopolitan metropolis its affluent neighborhoods point towards.

This is the paradox of a modern Nairobi. Every push toward futuristic urbanity comes with an equal and opposite force of violence on the city’s poor, which it cannot eliminate, only attempt to cordon off. The problem has a clear genealogy: if you were to map Nairobi by police violence, you would see the shapes of its old colonial borders. Since modern Nairobi originated at the turn of the twentieth century as a depot for the British colonial railroad project, it has been organized under a de facto regime of apartheid. Under colonial administration, the city’s eastern half—poorly draining, low-lying floodplains that include Mathare and Kariobangi—were relegated, through mobility and racial zoning laws, to Africans, and later to “public works” like sewage treatment plants. Elevated territories were for whites. The Indians who were brought into Kenya as railroad labor served as a buffer in between. After independence, the city transitioned smoothly from segregation along race lines to class lines. How Nairobi’s undesirable zones have been governed has changed very little since.

Mathare is a river valley. But if you didn’t know there was a dark, groaning body of water at its core, walking through it would feel like a long and winding descent. Here, everything feels like one long exhale, one large exhaust cloud: trash burned into noxious gas, putrid effluent carried down the river from a more affluent upstream, fires from distilling illegal home brew, fires from power line accidents, fires from protests that send smoke signals of political exhaustion.

Much of the land in Mathare is public, which, practically speaking, really only means that it can be grabbed—and those squatting on it evicted—with little consequence. Basic utilities like water and electricity, publicly provided in other parts of the city, are here controlled by cartels in informal settlements, leaving Nairobi’s poorest to pay painful premiums just to survive: ten shillings for a jerry can of water, five shillings to use a public toilet, thirty shillings to take a bus.

It is these matigari who are moving the needle on police brutality in Kenya.

But this river valley also has a long history of resistance. Mathare was the Nairobi headquarters of the Mau Mau insurgency; in some ways, it remains a liberation front. Mathare has produced many of the country’s frontline human rights defenders. One such group is the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC), an alliance of community organizers who document structural violence and police brutality, especially extrajudicial killings. When MSJC first began hosting community dialogues in 2015, people were largely terrified to speak publicly, not only doubting that the state could be held to account, but for fear of  retribution. “Let the kid go,” MSJC member Brian Otieno remembers one mother of police killing victim telling him, “God will fight for me.” But MSJC has been persistent. “God won’t fight for you until you fight for yourself,” Otieno reflects. “We have to turn up. We’re being oppressed by the system because we’re so silent.” (Of late, MSJC has been collecting evidence about Mureithi’s killing.) And surely enough, public discourse has shifted over time. “Now people know where they can report,” Kimari told me. “They know they have some form of redress, and they assert it defiantly.”

In 2016, MSJC released a landmark report, drawing on the careful fact-finding of grassroots activists, that collated years of evidence of extrajudicial killings in Mathare. Titled “Who Is Next?,” it proved beyond doubt that serial killer cops had been protected systemically.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s novel Matigari tells the story of Matigari ma Njirũũngi, a freedom fighter who, after slaying white imperialists, emerges from the forest after years, only to find another class of oppressors—this time, Kenyan capitalists—exploiting the people. Otieno claims the title of matigari for himself and his fellow human rights defenders, almost all of whom are regularly arrested, threatened, and driven into hiding by police for their work. It is these matigari who are moving the needle on police brutality in Kenya.