#OccupyPlayground: No one comes off well when schoolchildren are teargassed

The shocking series of events that led to the tear-gassing of schoolchildren in Kenya on Monday took me quite aback. I was scrolling down my Twitter timeline when, all of a sudden, I started seeing tweets expressing outrage about a teargas attack on protesting primary schoolchildren in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

The shocking series of events that led to the tear-gassing of schoolchildren in Kenya on Monday took me quite aback. I was scrolling down my Twitter timeline when, all of a sudden, I started seeing tweets expressing outrage about a teargas attack on protesting primary schoolchildren in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

It sounded so unlikely that I thought those tweeting were simply exaggerating; I mean, no one in their right minds would actually use such riot gear against kids. I was mistaken.

I’m sure the vast majority of you already know what happened but let me give those who haven’t a short resume of the events that lead to the scandal. Pupils from Langa’ta Road Primary School, led by some adults, violently demonstrated against an alleged land grab that left them without a playground. In reaction to their actions, policemen in full riot gear and with dogs in tow, launched canisters of tear gas at the hundred or so students, leaving them chocking and in tears.

Yesterday morning I found a couple of fellow journalists arguing about the event. One attempted to justify the police action (by saying that the police had no choice, especially because they were being pelted with rocks) and the other just couldn’t understand how the police could even think about launching tear gas.

I joined in on the side of the latter, saying that was no possible justificationfor instruments that are used against hardened criminals and crowds to be used on kids. I was quite irked that this debate was actually taking place.

However, before I continued my tirade, I took a step back and looked at the issue in a more holistic manner. Instead of rabidly attacking the riot police, I wondered to myself, what exactly was lacking in their police training that they would go to a primary school in full riot gear and armed? Never mind actually firing teargas at kids.

The very nature of the police force, whether in Kenya or Rwanda, is to interact with the population in a manner that is beneficial to both them and the people they are meant to protect.

I believe that, though police are meant to uphold the law, they must do so in the knowledge that they are dealing with human beings and not mere potatoes.

In my own experiences with our own police forces, which have thankfully been few and far between, I’ve observed that officers often care more about upholding the law than actually treating people like, well, people. Hence instances of them entering crowded places wielding automatic weapons, scaring everyone and causing panic. When I brought up this topic of police-citizen relations with senior police officers, they admitted that a lot more needed to be done in terms of training.

So, the police was guilty of overreaction. But we shouldn’t stop there.

Those poor children did not magically decide to abandon class, pick up placards and call the media. Someone planned that demonstration. I spent a lot of time looking at video footage of the incident and a few things jumped out at me. Firstly, where did the kids get the placards spouting sentiments like ‘Land grabbing is terror against children’, ‘Occupy Playground’, ‘Dad, Mum, What did you do to change things?’

Secondly, who were those adults in the crowd, urging those kids on? Were they teachers? Activists?

The children obviously didn’t write the placards themselves, someone printed those placards and then handed them to the children. Someone trying to make a point used those children.

Like pawns. In the full knowledge that children, decked out in their little uniforms, would garner media attention and public sympathy.

Which I guess worked. But I must ask, when did we start using children as cannon fodder?

The teachers and the so-called activists who put these children in harm’s way should not only be ashamed of themselves, but should also be prosecuted for child endangerment if such a crime exists in Kenya. Yes, perhaps there were real issues that needed to be discussed publically, but eight-year olds shouldn’t have been part of that conversation. At the end of the day, no one walks away from Monday’s events with a clean slate. It was a sad, sad affair.

The author is an editor at The New Times.

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