Thursday, February 17, 2011

Mob injustice

Yesterday morning, on the way to do field work, I saw a dead man. Or more correctly, a man who was beaten to death just minutes before.

I’ve never seen a body like that - freshly killed, limbs sprawled in unnatural ways like a ragdoll thrown to the ground by an angry child, lying there completely devoid of animation. I’ve seen pictures like this, always from some warzone. But never up close.


We saw the mob from a distance. Crowds form easily along the main road, and whenever any bit of excitement happens people are drawn from whatever they are doing - selling vegetables, getting a shave at an outdoor kinyozi, gossiping with neighbors - ants to a fallen piece of cake. I’ve seen such mobs before along the road and it’s always been because of an accident.

So, as our car passed cautiously through the crowd, I wasn’t totally surprised to see a body lying in the dirt ditch on the side of the road. Still, I felt a jolt at the site – the shock of the fresh and indiscriminant loss of young life, followed by a profound sadness.

But when I looked back I saw something that made me see everything suddenly differently. Like that drawing that is sometimes an hourglass and then suddenly becomes 2 faces when you look at after blinking, the meaning of the scene immediately morphed when I saw a man gleefully running over the motionless body with a motorcycle. Another man lifted a heavy rock over the dead man’s body ready to crush an already lifeless body. And then I noticed other things. People weren’t gathering to tsk tsk the sadness of a life lost. They were celebrating it. Or watching others celebrate it. People were running, and laughing and shouting, seemingly giddily energized by the event. That’s what disturbed me the most. The glee people expressed in the face of the brutal ending of another’s life. It left an utterly sour taste in my mouth.

Police were heading in our direction towards the scene as we past it. I found out later that in an effort to disburse the crowd, the police shot and killed someone else. Probably someone we just saw running or screaming or simply taking a break from the monotony of their day to peer in on the excitement. A second person, who woke up that morning, drank their daily chai and didn’t expect it to be their last.

The crowd turned on the policeman, this time outraged instead of titillated by a killing, followed him back to his compound and threatened to burn his house. I know this because one of our field officers lives in his compound. She was scared to go home and spent the night at her sister’s.


I also found out later that the dead man was presumably a motorcycle thief who had succumb to mob justice.
The last time I was in Kenya, mob justice occupied nearly a month of my thinking. It was the subject of my independent study. I had all kinds of theories and interviews to support them on why people took justice into their hands in such an immediate and unforgiving manner. The collective frustration of the poor and the way poverty intensifies the effects of theft. The unreliability of police and justice systems that can be too easily bought off. The African sense of communal responsibility – that a theft of my neighbor affects me too. Even the seductive allure of drama and violence among the bored and idol. All these things people mentioned to explain the spontaneous group think behind mob justice that’s nearly non-existent in the US.

And I thought I had a pretty clever little handle on this social phenomenon.

But what I still can’t seem to reconcile, now that I have seen the aftermath in person, is the glee. The joy people seem to take in all the brutality. I know this is not unique to Africa. Hell, there are amphitheaters in Rome dedicated to this kind of spectacle. Maybe this is more the rule than the exception to human behavior throughout history. But I still don’t get it.

Obviously when you vilify and dehumanize someone it’s easier to avoid empathizing. But taking joy in someone’s pain? Even if someone explains it to me, I don’t think I’ll understand it.


  1. Wow, Kim... That is quite an experience. Wish we could sit and share a beer sometime and, together, process some of what our time in Africa has brought to our awareness.

  2. That is very shocking. I remember when you did the work on mob justice. The reality is not pretty!
    Understanding the culture still does not help us with a different culture emotionally able to take it in. The reality is a shock to our system.


  3. I didn't know (or didn't remember) that you explored mob "justice" for your independent study, Kim. And you're right. There's a huge gap between academic explanations and awful realities. I don't think that diminishes the validity of some of those explanations. Issues of poverty and injustice are very real, and assuming (as I do) that the victim might have be accused of theft, very relevant.

    But it doesn't excuse the glee. I don't think there is any excuse, any explanation, that can be acceptable. To me, it's an example of how very thin the line is between our lower and higher natures. And as you also note, we see brutal examples of what happens when human beings behave worse than animals throughout the world and throughout history.

    I'm sorry that you had such a shocking experience, grateful that you are safe, and impressed at your perspective.