It depends on what you are looking at, of course. For example, I have a Facebook friend who is committed to posting stories about police brutality in the U.S. The sheer number and intensity of these posts has shocked me over the last year. When I see yet another article flick up about a police officer punching an elderly woman in the face, or breaking someone’s ribs who wasn’t resisting arrest, or shooting another unarmed black teenager, I don’t want to believe the articles are real. And yet, they keep coming. The latest conflict in Ferguson, Missouri is less shocking to me because for the last year I have been witness to the articles my friend has been drawing to my attention, almost none of which are picked up by the mainstream media. The news out of Ferguson is still distressing, but I’m just not as stunned anymore by the inordinate response, the para-military atmosphere, the blatant disregard for freedom of the press.
When I was a kid I was taught that police officers were always the good guys, the ones you run to for help, the calm collected refuge in case anything goes wrong. I imagine this is still the case in many (most?) instances. But it is disturbing to see the riot gear come out so quickly in a small town.
Which brings me back to Botswana’s boys in blue. (Who aren’t all boys but who do, in fact, wear blue. Is this color choice an unwritten universal rule for cops across the world?) The truth is that all bets are off when it comes to the police force in a foreign country. Contrary to popular belief, you are afforded no special privileges by virtue of being an American overseas. If the local police haul you off for whatever reason, no matter how invalid or inappropriate, no knight in shining armor from the US Embassy will come riding in to intervene. For that reason any encounter with the law when you are away from your home country comes with an added level of unease: Am I breaking some law I don’t know about? Am I being targeted for being an American? Can I still get my one phone call from jail?
But luckily the police force in Botswana reflects the general mood and atmosphere of the country itself, which can be described as: “Let’s all just get along and no matter what happens, the most important thing is for everyone to stay polite.” Sure, I am a minority here, but part of an historically privileged one, and the most extreme bias I have faced from any government official was when the policeman looked disdainfully at my Class C license.
A few months ago Drew got pulled over for making an illegal U-turn. With expired registration tags. While driving without a valid license. He and Lila had been making a run to the store for ice for a brunch we were hosting when it happened. The police gave their usual spiel that they would have to impound the car, but they sounded apologetic and agreed to first follow Drew and Lila to the store for the ice after Drew explained that his wife “really, really needed it.” This is why an entire police jeep full of serious-looking men in uniform languished in the parking lot for ten minutes while Lila rode on Drew’s shoulders into Square Mart for supplies. Then they followed Drew back to our house and stood in our driveway for 30 minutes with vague talk of us “going down to the station,” but no movement was made to actually take us there. We thought perhaps they wanted a bribe but no hints were dropped to that effect. In the end they piled back into their truck and left, so we went back into the house and dug into the fresh bagels and cream cheese.
Sixty-seven percent of Ferguson’s citizens are black while only six percent of its police force is. In Gaborone the numbers are much more evenly matched: my guess is zero percent of the police force is white (although this information is not published anywhere) while just three percent of the population is.
I think the police here really are trying. There has been a recent push to crack down on break-ins and carjackings, and they are proud of this fact. When I explained to the officer this morning that my purse was in the boot because I am worried about smash-and-grabs from the front seat, he shook his head back and forth and said “No, no. We don’t have those anymore in Gaborone. We have taken care of all that.” Well, it happened to a friend of mine just a few weeks ago so if I was feeling bolder I would beg to differ, sir. But like most people in the face of any police officer, friendly or hostile, fair or biased, overseas or right at home, I kept my mouth shut.