Thursday, September 10, 2009

Gangster's Paradise

First, a few pics of what we've been up to.

Here is one of our Skillz placards set up before an intervention at the high school (for this activity, "Team Talk," kids are read a statement about healthy behavior or decisions relevant to HIV/AIDS and, based on their stance on the issue, they either run to agree or disagree; e.g. "I would be willing to take an HIV test")

And, second, a photo of Saddam doing what he does best (besides shredding goal nets and breaking defenders' ankles as the All Stars star striker), leading a discussion during one of the interventions.

Anna and I currently have the pleasure of a visit from some GRS higher-ups, Zak Kaufman (a recent Dartmouth grad who does all of of Grassroot Soccer's Monitoring and Evaluation) and Derek Daniels, a black South African who is one of GRS’ master coaches now, meaning he is in charge of training new coaches and making sure existing programs are chugging along. They’re here to check in on how things are going in Richmond and bring a wider GRS strategic perspective to our little paradise here in Richmond. And that, friends, is why this post is titled Gangster’s Paradise. Just kidding. This is why:

This morning me, Anna, Derek and Zak were walking from our house to Richmond Höerskool (the one high school in Richmond…henceforth referred to as Richmond High) for an early-morning intervention (GRS-speak for one of the HIV/AIDS education sport practices; the full curriculum is made up of 8 sequential interventions, each 45 minutes long). Our route takes us down a long, straight paved road which passes the police station, goes over a bridge, comes alongside the “prison” (quotation marks to be explained soon) and arrives at Richmond High. We were walking next to the “prison,” about 100 yards away from the high school, when six (SIX) police trucks (they don’t have squad cars here, they roll in trucks with the back bed covered and tricked out with barred windows and outward-locking doors so it can hold people they detain) and two unmarked police cars flew past us down the road, parked in formation outside the high school, and emptied 15 police officers, who swarmed out towards the main entrance of RHS.

We need to reflect on this for a second, because you have to realize that in the course of a day Anna and I might see five cars in Richmond, one of which may be a police truck. The fact that screaming past us came what must have been the Richmond Police Department’s entire vehicle fleet and every officer in its employ, including the police chief Marius and vice-chief Roy (we’re on a first name basis…), is NOT within the ordinary. As any of you who have been reading this blog with any measure of consistency will surely know, Richmond is a very small, very quiet place. My first reaction to seeing this assault force cruise past us was that we were either witnessing a joint operation by every town in a 100 mile radius, or that they found Osama.

Neither was the case. But it was EVERY SINGLE active officer from the RPD (if only the town’s goat bandits and tractor thieves had known about the operation!). As we approached the high school I went over to vice-chief Roy and—as I saw the 15 officers fan out in three squads of 5 to cover all the exits of the school--asked if it was safe (and chuckled inside my head as I asked such a ridiculous question) to go in there for our HIV education session. Roy, looking up at me from a game on his cell phone, told me that it was a simple search of the premises. He said that there had been a fight recently between two groups of teenage boys [Ha, we actually already knew about this since it happened at the community center and we had to break it up…Your move, South African Criminal Intelligence Agency] and it was enough of a cause for concern that they wanted to check the school for weapons and drugs. Smiling, Roy said, “We can’t have this place turning into a Gangster’s Paradise.”

Paradise, huh? Gauteng Province, the region which contains Johannessburg and its notorious Soweto township, is lovingly referred to by many South Africans as "Gangster’s Paradise" because vehicle license plates from the region all read “GP XXXXXXX.” But that Richmond would ever take on the title is laughable, even when our little town is at its worst. And, just as a policeman with a specially-trained drug-sniffing dog piled out of one of the trucks and made for the school, we were waved along past the secretary’s office.

We went to check on the classroom in which we were supposed to be working and, as we arrived, saw that each class was being escorted out to the main courtyard. As we got to Grade 8, section C’s Life Orientation class they were filing out with an officer, heading in the other direction. Not wanting to interfere with whatever was going on, the 4 of us outsiders just stayed put in a smaller courtyard on the other side of the school.

Although by now we were a physical ways away from whatever was going on, we were still well within earshot. So it was with a significant measure of surprise that, while sitting there, we heard literally nothing. 5 minutes passed in silence as we wondered what could be happening. Finally, we heard a piercing cheer erupt from the center of the school’s campus and, with that, had to go check it out. Zak led us around a few of the portable classrooms towards the sound of the commotion and, as we rounded a final corner, I saw what must have been one of the most bizarre scenes in the history of school-based police surprise attacks.

I'm going to reserve analysis, and just call it like I saw it. We round the last portable and our path opens into the school’s main central courtyard. There the ENTIRE school (hundreds of people: students, teachers, administrators) as well as all the police were arranged in a large, thick circle surrounding something we could not yet see but which was clearly the center of attention. We were able to climb up onto a ramp and the altitude gain allowed us to see what everyone was looking at. I knew that something seemed strange when we first saw all the kids in the courtyard, and at that point I realized it was because none of them had their backpacks. Where were the backpacks, you ask? Why, right in front of us, in the middle of the courtyard. There every single bag and backpack—a rainbow of makes, models, colors, sizes, etc.—had been arranged into 6 long, neat rows. Sweeping the rows was the specially-trained officer and his sniffer dog. This process was actually one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen, as the officer was giving clear hand signal and whistle instructions to the dog during the sweep, and the dog seemed to be carrying out the instructions exactly as ordered. Every so often the dog, a cute white and black collie, would identify a bag of interest and start sniffing around its zippers and straps. A slow-building tumult could be heard rising from the students: "whaaooooaaa..." Then, every so often, the dog would decide the bag was worth pursuing further and—literally—tear into it and start wildly ravaging it in front of everyone. The apprehensive and expectant sigh which had been building gradually would, once it became clear the dog was really gonna go for it, then be freed and eventually erupt into a huge cheer ("wahhh...waooohhh...WAAOOOOH...WHAOOOAAAAAHHHH!!!!") from either the girls or boys depending on from which sex the bag's owner hailed. After 10 or 15 minutes of this, multiple raucous cheers from both sides (I think the score at the time was Boys – 3 Drug Scares, Girls – 2 Drug Scares) and several sweeps through the piles of bags, a few of the bags which had been especially identified by the dog were pulled aside and their owners identified. We couldn’t see exactly what happened at that point, but it looked like the bags were being searched. At that point the entire assault operation was proven worthwhile as, yes, a little girl's bag was revealed to contain Advil and she broke down in tears in front of everybody, probably just from the inherent stress of the situation, before being let go. [ed: Roy later told me that they also found a bag of the marijuana on one of the kids, thus clearly making the raid and hours of lost education totally worth it]

With their release, the K9 Cop gave a nod and the whole school massed around the little collie to watch it do tricks. A school bell rang and three hundred kids swarmed the piles of bags to find their own, and proceeded back to whichever classes they were supposed to be in. What struck me the most was that as the crowd dispersed—with teachers heading to their classrooms, students to a 10 minute break, police back to their jobs—everybody was smiling, laughing. The cops and teachers were joking around, all the kids were in high spirits. And everybody went back to their business.

This experience added to a perception I’ve been forming about life in Richmond where, as best as I can tell, there really isn’t ANY crime. But--and here’s the key--there are still crime-related processes that have to occur. The best way I can describe it is that Richmond has this “wink, wink” relationship with crime. For example, we have a prison, with prisoners dressed in orange prisoner outfits, who committed crimes. But here in Richmond they mockingly call the prison the “Holiday Inn” and the prisoners rock out to Whitney Houston songs in a fenced-in courtyard which has a gate that barely locks (I was at the prison for a meeting and, when I tried to leave and none of the guards were around to let me out, I just did the old reach-around through the fence to the outside, unhitched the latch, took a deep breath of fresh air--free man's air--and made my escape into the morning sunshine). Seriously, I think our prisoners are basically low-level offenders who are spending at most a year or two in jail. Yet Anna and I were still surprised the first few weeks to see them walking the streets of town, totally unsupervised, going about little community service projects (trash clean-up, manual labor, etc.) to which they’d been assigned. The rationale, dictated to us by Saddam, is that these guys have pretty small sentences (most are only in for a few months) and there’s just no logical point for them to try to escape. Most of the guys are from Richmond and really have nowhere else to go, so they’re better off just serving out their time, following the rules, and enjoying the sweet privileges they get around town. I guess at first glance it just really seems like a very different and strange approach to crime. But I’m not complaining, since we got 8 prisoners to come help us with the back-breaking labor of digging a huge trench for the community center garden by literally taking pickaxes and hacking into concrete-hard dirt for 3 long, awful days.

So that was my one other observation before seeing the drug and weapons search today. At the high school, it seemed like it was this whole “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” thing where the cops would come into the school in attack formation and full combat attire, have their dog bark at some bags, make a girl cry, allow the kids to cheer and treat it like a big joke, and then actually have everybody joke about it afterwards as they went along their merry ways. And I think a big part of this is the fact that, like I said, there really is very little actual crime in Richmond, but the town still has police departments and prisons and people with jobs and fancy police trucks and drug sniffing dogs whose existence is fueled by the veneer that some reasonable amount of crime other than minor in possesesion of medicine exists.

On the other hand, maybe I'm just a bit naive and still in bright-eyed tourist mode where everything seems new and exotic and, in fact, this is not that different from how low-level crime management works in the USA. Even if I’m totally wrong, I'll just defer to my friend and fellow GRS intern Karti Subramanian, who recently wrote from his site in Musina, South Africa, “Hey, I'm blogging, I can say what I want."

Okay, just thought I would share that experience.

1 comment:

  1. Best post yet. Good use of "veneer." Keep up the good work. -DK