But it happened — street vendors, in their numbers, decided enough is enough and struck back, pelting police officers with stones and other handy missiles to exact revenge for years of torment and harassment.
I would have loved to witness this fascinating spectacle first-hand, but decided, since police bullets seldom discriminate, it would not be advisable to get too close, and risk being a collateral damage statistic. But I am sure I am not the only one who found the thought of the usually smug and arrogant policemen, always brimming with self-importance, running for dear life from rampaging vendors, rather intoxicating. I could imagine elderly women, fed up with constantly running away from the “law,” whacking some unfortunate rookie constable over the head with a sack full of onions, and relishing the feeling.
Media reports said the clashes forced the closure of shops along the busy First Street Mall and Nelson Mandela Avenue while a police vehicle and a ZRP post had its windows smashed by the stone-throwing vendors. Obviously taken aback by this unexpected rebellion by the hitherto docile traders, police moved-in, armed with teargas canisters and rifles, in a bid to round-up suspects after one of theirs was allegedly assaulted by the vendors on Monday.
Predictably, in their attempt to explain away this alarming turn of events, fingers were pointed at the usual scapegoats – the MDC. “What we have gathered is that there are some political activists masquerading as vendors or vendors who are masquerading as political activists who have become so confrontational each time the police want to enforce the law, especially near Harvest House,” police spokesman, Chief Superintendent Oliver Mandipaka said rather ambiguously.
While I personally did not witness the spectacle of the mighty police on the receiving end of the brutality they routinely mete out to defenceless civilians, there is a measure of poetic justice when our law enforcement officers discover that people, even street vendors, have a breaking point beyond which they can endure no more. Many of them are single mother or father families trying to eke an honest living through street vending and when police arrest them and confiscate their wares, never to be recovered, they are left desperate. And as often stated, desperate situations attract desperate measures.
Police brutality is defined as the wanton use of excessive force, usually physical, but potentially in the form of verbal attacks and psychological intimidation, by police officers against usually defenceless civilians. Widespread police brutality exists in many countries, Zimbabwe included, and even in those countries where perpetrators can be prosecuted. It is one of several forms of police misconduct which include false arrest, intimidation, racial profiling: political repression, surveillance abuse and police corruption.
In the United States, the supposed bastion of democracy and human rights, there are many documented cases of human rights violations committed by the police such as the celebrated case of Rodney Glen King. For the uninitiated, Rodney King was the African-American best known for his involvement in a police brutality case involving the Los Angeles Police Department LAPD on March 3 1991. A bystander, George Holliday, videotaped much of the incident from a distance.
The footage showed LAPD officers repeatedly striking King with their batons while other officers stood by watching, without taking any action to stop the beating. A portion of this footage was aired by news agencies around the world, causing public outrage that raised tensions between the black community and the LAPD and increased anger over police brutality and social inequalities in Los Angeles.
Violence in any form is deplorable. The spectacle of an old woman, one hand trying to keep secure the baby strapped on her back while the other hand clings to her precious merchandise, bolting from pursuing police details, is depraved and dehumanising. In one incident, I witnessed an elderly woman vendor, with a small child on a lap, weeping uncontrollably because her entire stock of vending merchandise on which she had spent her entire savings of a princely US$17 had been seized by the police and she had no way of recovering what she had lost.
From a vantage third floor window of our offices, we have frequently been afforded a bird’s eye view of the ZRP clones, the municipal police, apprehending street vendors. In one such case, a municipal truck packed full of “captured” vendors drew the attention of passersby as municipal police details sought to subdue those who tried to escape. The brutality of their methods and the verbal exchanges between the vendors and their captors cannot be repeated in a family newspaper suffice to say even the Gestapo of the Nazi German era could have learnt a thing or two from these guys.
When one of the arrested vendors demanded to know why they were being treated like common criminals when their only offence was to try and fend for their families through vending, a gruff individual, obviously the “supervisor” of the group, retorted that in terms of the city by-laws, they were all criminals who deserved to be punished. And his idea of enforcing the law: he threatened to beat up the woman vendor if she did not shut up, saying the work of police officers was being rendered doubly difficult by pesky nuisances as street vendors.
To this officer and his colleagues, human rights and the doctrine of a suspect being innocent until proven guilty are alien concepts they know nothing about.
I, like other Zimbabweans, must wonder what law allows Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) officers and their counterparts in the Municipal force, to confiscate, according to unconfirmed reports, and share the spoils from their raids on street vendors. With the level of corruption in the ZRP and municipal police, it is not far fetched to conclude that the main incentive for the overzealousness with which they undertake these raids are the easy pickings from sharing the plundered goods and demanding bribes from those wishing to avoid prosecution.