Editor’s note: On his first day of a monthlong fellowship in Tucson, Kenyan journalist Patrick Nzioka attended Friday’s Operation Streamline protest, during which people chained themselves to a bus to prevent detainees from being sentenced and deported for being in the U.S. illegally. Below are his observations on the differences between citizen protests here and in his country.
As a journalist from Kenya who has covered several protests on the streets of Nairobi, the capital city, and other parts of the country, I was taken aback by the restraint on the part of the police here in Tucson.
The police came out in large numbers to break up the protest by a movement opposed to the arrest, prosecution and eventual deportation of immigrants under Operation Streamline.
The handful of shouting protesters was far outweighed by officers from the U.S. Marshals Service, the Tucson Police Department and the U.S. Border Patrol, all with their equipment and in lots of vehicles. Even the Fire Department was not left behind as it also sent trucks displaying the same extravagance.
Protesters pulled a fast one on the police by chaining themselves to the tires of two buses ferrying about 70 suspects to the court. In Kenya, it would be surprising if no protester who tried such a stunt ended up in the mortuary or in the hospital with broken bones after being run over by the buses.
Stopping buses would take vast numbers of protesters — it would require a mob to keep the driver from speeding away. Those who try to stop it would do so at their own peril. Kenya is among countries with the highest number of deaths from road accidents, most of them attributed to carelessness.
Police handled the protesters humanely, with no one hurt during the arrests. Despite the protesters’ closing an important road for hours and blocking the gate to the federal court building, police negotiated with them for hours, pleading unsuccessfully.
In my country — although handling of protesters has improved with the enactment of a new constitution recently — police would not have the patience under the hot sun to plead with a handful of protesters.
You can take this to the bank: Police would have forcefully dispersed anyone who defied a directive to release the buses. And that’s when all hell would break loose.
If the numbers were big, police would not hesitate to use tear gas and batons to subdue the protesters. Considering that on many occasions, such protesters would be hired hands, a fight would be a must. A protest would be incomplete without a face-off with the police.
If the officers on the ground were overwhelmed, they would call in reinforcements from the paramilitary police unit called the General Service Unit. There is nothing general in it except the viciousness with which it quells protests. Cause chaos, and face the consequences.
Protesters normally prefer facing the regular police and disperse before reinforcements from the General Service Unit are deployed.
On most occasions, politicians would be the hidden hand in the protests. If a protest happened during a government crisis as Friday’s did, politicians would have a field day, condemning the government financing of the program being protested as a waste of taxpayer money.
Police would not be spared the politicians’ criticism for their display of bravado and extravagance. They would question why the Border Patrol was considered essential when other government services were unavailable for lack of funds.
And with so much media on hand, the protest site would be the right one for a press conferences by politicians — who would be prepared to make a quick exit (with the assistance of their bodyguards) if the police were to suddenly charge at them.
Questions have been raised as to whether civil society engages in such protests for the interests of the victims it purports to represent or for its own benefit. An organizer of a recent protest in Kenya was among those invited to the recent U.N. General Assembly meeting, where he shared the platform in a session chaired by President Obama.
I don’t know if Friday’s protesters got what they wanted, but they sure were organized, complete with their own first-aid personnel. One of them, who was extracting blood from a woman chained to a bus tire, told me he was checking her blood sugar.
Tucson police boss Roberto Villaseñor acknowledged as much when he told journalists that the protesters were well-organized and orchestrated a complex maneuver using vehicles to stop the two buses.
The police response, from officers’ arrival on the scene to officials’ press conference after the arrests, was quick, probably to ensure the protesters did not score any points at their own press conferences.
That’s far different from my own experience, where police react only if they are outsmarted.