Zim: The thin blue line gets its first red card

Heavy-handed: Police arrest people rallying in support of former Movement for Democratic Change official Munyaradzi Gwisai outside the Harare Magistrate Court in 2012. (Reuters)

Heavy-handed: Police arrest people rallying in support of former Movement for Democratic Change official Munyaradzi Gwisai outside the Harare Magistrate Court in 2012. (Reuters)

Police officers in full flight, with hordes of barefoot, bald, bearded men in white ankle-length gowns holding “holy” staffs in hot pursuit.

It was a comic scene, but one that showed how angry ordinary citizens have become with the police.

It was a chance for the police force to take a hard look in the mirror, but one they have passed up by relying on old methods of violence, partisanship and reprisals.

Last Friday the police launched a raid on the shrine of a religious cult, the Johane Masowe weChishanu, in Budiriro, a poor Harare suburb. They had hoped to shut down the church, which is accused of marrying off young girls to church elders and banning children from attending school.

Instead, the police were brutally beaten in a melee that also left a journalist injured. That the incident did not cause outrage at such disregard for the law, instead attracting derision and mockery of the police, says a lot about how the public have come to view the police.

Within hours of the violence, Zimbabwean social media erupted. There was celebration, and the few voices that sought to ask whether this was not another step towards lawlessness were quickly drowned out.

Within a day of the incident, a song had been recorded and was going viral on social media, mocking the police to a dancehall beat and visuals of the violence.

Dozens of memes were created and circulated, all of them poking fun at the police.

Taking the fight to the police
Few asked whether girls really were being abused, but nobody wanted to talk about that. It was, finally, a small victory of the little man against the raging machine that is the Zimbabwe Republic Police. There would be no room to temper this rare victory with any questions about the conduct of the Mapostori cult.

It was easy to see why. Here were the police, always so quick to crush even the smallest gatherings violently, in full retreat. Nobody had ever fought back against the police until a group of Mapostori, long-­ridiculed figures, took the fight back to them.

The police are not public darlings. Images of the men and women in blue or khaki – raining down their baton sticks on hapless members of protest group Women of Zimbabwe Arise for handing out roses on Valentine’s Day to remind the public of the oppression by the state – are not easily forgotten.

The police also recently lost favour with Information Minister Jonathan Moyo after they broke up a World Press Freedom Day march in the capital in May.

Though the police had sanctioned the march, their anti-riot unit would have none of it. Moyo said the police’s “knee-jerk propensity to always and everywhere use or show force for its own sake is not revolutionary by any stretch of the imagination”.

Commenting on the violence against the police, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) this week said it was the “first incident of mob justice against the police”.

There are many worried that this sets a dangerous precedence for defiance of the police: “Zimbabwe can never be allowed to degenerate into a country where people disrespect the police and show serious disregard for the law,” the state-owned Herald wrote in an editorial.

But the violence against police showed how little regard the public now had for the police’s conduct, the ZLHR said. Where “professionalism is not enforced, mob justice dangerously takes centre stage”, the group said.

Many who rejoiced at the violence against the police pointed to the police’s reputation for partisanship. To many people opposed to President Robert Mugabe, the police are merely an extension of Zanu-PF, and last Friday’s attack was received as a rare victory against the party.

Reprisal march
The police have made no attempt to end such criticism, and on Monday they led a group of Zanu-PF youths in a reprisal march on the church’s shrine, which they desecrated by burning paraphernalia they found at the site.

Without a hint of shame, one of the youths carried a banner protesting at the cult for having attacked “Mugabe’s officers”.

Zanu-PF’s Harare provincial youth chairman Godwin Gomwe said: “The police are sent by the ruling party, which we call government. Security forces are Zanu-PF.”

And so, even if there was some sympathy for the police, by leading Zanu-PF youths into a violent march on the shrine, the police only reminded everyone just how far they are from winning back the public’s confidence.

On the streets, police are reviled for demanding bribes from drivers, and their heavy-handed approach to dealing with traffic offences that includes using spikes and smashing the windshields of commuter buses that refuse to stop at the makeshift roadblocks.

In April there was discontent after one such commuter bus driver, fleeing the police, ran over and killed a three-year-old child in the city centre.

This has led to the image of a policeman not as a protector but as a bribe-seeking figure that quickly turns to violence to enforce the law. So, when the tables turned against the police last week, their many victims celebrated.

Many had hoped the incident would be a good chance for the police to take another look at their policing methods.

In fact, it appears the violence has only hardened the resolve of the police to use violence. In court on Tuesday, the Mapostori reported how they had been tortured in custody, revealing an old habit of the police.

“We were assaulted from the day of arrest,” one of men told the court.

And so, after all the violence and the comic relief, the big bad machine remains pitted against the small guy. But the point was made – people despise the type of policing they are experiencing.

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