I confess, I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen and now, sadly, it has.
Last Sunday, the police carried out a “routine inspection” of what used to be the “Russian Bazaar” in the Praga district of Warsaw and ended up shooting dead a Nigerian called Maxwell Itoyi. Today there is a protest march in Warsaw in the name of “Solidarity against racism and police violence”. The Police say they did nothing wrong and have several of their kind injured as proof this was not a one-sided affair. Many others, including eye witnesses, disagree and see this as the unjustified shooting of an innocent man just because he was black.
The bazaar used to occupy the area that is now the construction site for the new National Stadium. The new stadium will be the jewel in the crown of Poland’s venues when it hosts the 2012 European Football Championships and will be visited by many thousands of visiting foreign fans. It is reasonable to assume that the government would not wish to have these visitors’ impression of Poland spoiled by an encounter with what has always been a slightly dodgy bazaar and so it is also reasonable to assume that there is an agenda to move, close or seriously upgrade this bazaar before the visitors arrive. I suspect the action last Sunday was at least partly connected with that agenda.
I’ve wandered around the Russian Bazaar a few times myself, in the old days when it was inside the old stadium. Despite being warned about it, nothing bad happened during my shopping for illegal software, beaver-skin hat and replica NKVD uniform but I did notice on latter trips the growing presence of Nigerians using their often slightly over-aggressive sales techniques. This is not unique to Warsaw of course, you can find the same people selling slightly different goods (although the African masks and carved giraffes are always part of it) anywhere in the world. Last year we encountered them in Pisa, Italy.
The year before that on the beach in Marbella, Spain. No, I don’t have a thing about photographing Nigerian salesmen, I just take too many photos so I usually have at least one of what I’m looking for!
So, we have a few of the ingredients for trouble already in place – a lot of black people being slightly pushy in a dodgy part of town that the city would like to clean up. What was missing, until last Sunday, was an over zealous and armed police force with little experience of all the issues that hang around the term “racism” and make the lives of anyone in the position of having to manage such situations pretty much impossible. Given that the few Nigerians in the Russian Bazaar probably account for a significant percentage of all blacks in Poland, it might be perfectly reasonable to assume that the Nigerians are far more widely travelled and experienced in the unwritten rules of racism than are the Polish police force. This might have worked to Maxwell’s disadvantage. I mean, in the UK after so many years of accusations of racism and accidental shootings a British policeman would have to be pushed almost to the point of his own death before he’d dream of shooting a black man, or indeed a person of any colour that’s not milky white. The Polish police force has absolutely no experience of these things and is therefore just starting to understand the additional consequences involved shooting a black person as opposed to shooting anyone else, which might be summarised as “guilty of a racist attack until proven innocent”.
At times like this it is hard to know exactly what to believe. The people on Maxwell’s side claim he was a wonderful guy who would never dream of causing any trouble. The police say otherwise and claim there have been increasing incidents of violence against the Police (presumably perpetrated by Nigerians in the bazaar). Experience suggests to me that both may well be right and that Maxwell was just a very unfortunate victim of circumstance. There probably are some dodgy Nigerians in the bazaar who might push things either because that’s just the way they are or because they don’t like the police interrupting their legal/illegal trading or because they know the race/minority thing is on their side. Equally, there probably are policemen who are racist and who are tired of having to accept violent and provocative behaviour from the Nigerian ‘gangs’ and who would welcome the opportunity to open fire. It is therefore entirely understandable that an incident such as last Sunday could and would take place and also that the frequency of such incidents is bound to increase.
For the moment, the attitude of the citizens not directly involved appears to be one of coming down firmly on the side of Maxwell and his friends. This might be because of a general mistrust of the police, a knowledge that Maxwell was innocent or a general wish to side with a downtrodden minority who have such wonderful reggae music and like to smoke ganja. Who knows? What will be interesting to see is how public attitude might change as and when the impact of immigration and the number of black faces on the streets starts to have a much more significant impact on everyday life outside of the Russian Bazaar than it does right now.
I don’t know about you but I DO want an effective police force in Poland, one that can deal with nasty people who might otherwise make my life difficult or dangerous whether they be black, white or yellow, Nigerian, British or Vietnamese. I’m also fair minded enough to recognise the impossible situation they find themselves in when it comes to using firearms. The only occasions on which a shooting is immediately justified is when they hit either Osama Bin Laden or a nutter offloading a semi-automatic in the school playground, anything less that that and they’re in trouble. However, if having an effective police force means they carry out routine inspections of bazaars armed to the teeth then they had better make damned sure the police officers are better trained with the use of weapons and/or better psychologically selected for the job than they are now because I wouldn’t want anyone I know to be the next innocent (and dead) victim of bad policing.
As Poland is now at the beginning of this particular journey I think we also have the chance to get the balance on racial issues such as this correct before it goes too far. I’m not alone in thinking the pendulum in the UK has swung too far in the direction of favouring racial minorities against all common sense and to the point where there is strong positive discrimination for them and against the main body of white Christians in the population. People, the police especially, have to work with one hand tied behind their backs when dealing with minorities for fear of the “race card” being played and them getting into a lot of unnecessary trouble. The case of Ali Dizaei of the UK’s Metropolitan Police Force is a good one for Poles to read and try to avoid the nurturing of institutional anti-racism.
Maxwell might have been the first, but he certainly won’t be the last.