July 2nd. 12pm. The Matadi riverside community of Monrovia. A crowd. A white man with tattoos, an orange t-shirt, and a mop of graying hair. Two men handcuffed together. A set of burly Liberia National Police (LNP) officers. The burly officer smashes his baton into the back of the handcuffed man wearing a bright green t-shirt. Then the white man with the tattoos starts getting the crowd riled up, yelling about how bad these two men are, egging on the LNP officer with language that can’t be repeated here. Kicks, punches, slaps, and that baton hitting each and every part of this man’s unprotected body- him, defenseless, handcuffed, not fighting back as the white man enjoys the beating.
I am wondering why the other man handcuffed is not being hit, and then I realize with shock that the cable in which these two young Liberians were using to connect a home to the power grid has been wrapped around the neck of this second handcuffed man. He stands, stoic, as the coils of cable form a tight necklace of sorts – one wrong move or a pull on the other end of the cable hanging through the edge of the roof, and this man is dead.
What is going on? And what should I do? I pull out my phone to begin recording the beating of these two defenseless men, labeled as criminals for stealing from the foreign-owned Liberia Electric Company. Defenseless as they are beaten, noose around the neck, I keep snapping photos. The handcuffed men are roughly stripped, their possessions thrown in the mud, and the cash they have in their underwear for safe-keeping, pocketed by the biggest of the LNP officers. Over and over, the white man with the tattoos informs the crowd, “It is illegal for me to beat them, but all of you can and should for what they have done.” He says it in a way that he seems deeply disappointed he cannot put his own boot into the ribs of these defenseless men. And the crime? These men were bringing power to a community that has been neglected by the LEC, a community that in most cases, live in a state of poverty where to opt-in to the foreign-controlled electricity grid is simply not possible.
So yes, these men were stealing power from the grid. It’s happened in my neighborhood, it happens everywhere. When it happened to my neighborhood, the LEC shut off the power for the entire neighborhood for weeks out of payback. Finally, a $30 bribe from a community leader brought the LEC workman to turn the power back on.
Yes, stealing power from the grid is not good. I am not saying that is is. But beating men not yet convicted of any crime, and demanding a community becomes violent? This foreigner from the Liberia Electricity Company, he should be held accountable for his actions. What I stumbled on in a quiet community is violence and oppression that must be stopped.