Poland: Reflections on the death of a street vendor

June 3, 2010 — Comment

Written by Joanna Tegnerowicz

A Nigerian street vendor was shot dead following a police identity check in an open-air market in Warsaw. But is anyone asking the right questions?

On 23 May 2010, Maxwell Itoya died in Warsaw after being shot by police in, as yet, unexplained circumstances. Itoya, a 36-year-old Nigerian, had lived in Poland for eight years. He was a street vendor at a well-known open-air market where he sold counterfeit shoes.[1] An investigation into his death has just begun. In the meantime, allegations that the young man was murdered by a Polish policeman are surfacing. Numerous different stories are circulating about the death of the young man. The ‘official’ versions are those of the Polish police. The ‘unofficial’ versions have emerged in a series of interviews and video-recordings with members of the African community, as well as the wives of the thirty-two men arrested in the disturbances that followed the death. The police’s narrative is very troubling for many reasons.

From victim to attacker

Warsaw police headquarters has its own website on which news on all kinds of criminal incidents that take place in Warsaw are posted.[2] Despite the ongoing public interest in this police killing, to date, only one account has been posted. It starts with the bold headline: ‘They attacked policemen’. Later in the story we are told that the ‘police and the prosecutor’s office are conducting an investigation into an attack on policemen on the premises of the open-air market near the former Tenth Anniversary Stadium, during which attack a 36-year-Nigerian citizen was fatally wounded’. In this way, the death of the Nigerian street vendor is pushed into the background, represented as far less significant than the alleged ‘attack on policemen’ with the text suggesting that Maxwell Itoya was one of the attackers. The rest of the report follows the same pattern, with the ‘attack on “the guardians of the law”‘ who ‘arrested thirty-two aggressive citizens of African countries’ presented as totally unprovoked.

Race, fear and counterfeit goods

But from here the 230-word website posting goes on to give a great deal of detail about the circumstances of the alleged attack on ‘policemen from the South Praga’ district of Warsaw who, we are told, were engaged in the ‘fight against economic crime’ and ‘conducting routine activities directed against the trade in illegal goods’. It was in the course of their duties, then, that they were allegedly attacked after asking ‘several men suspected of trading in trade-marked clothing and shoes’ to present their documents. The police allege that it was when they tried to apprehend one man who tried to run away, that they were ‘attacked by other citizens of African countries who were standing nearby’. The attack is depicted as a defiant act of senseless violence against a policeman who was only doing his duty. The rational behaviour, the courage and sense of duty displayed by the police, is contrasted with the irrational and frenetic violence of ‘citizens of African countries’ (the words ‘aggressive’ or ‘aggression’ are used four times in this short piece).

The report also presents the shooting as totally accidental. It occurred because the Africans started throwing various objects at the police, with one man even trying to wrestle a gun from a policeman’s hand, during which the shot was fired and the Nigerian injured. The police’s immediate attempts to resuscitate the man were hampered by the fact that the Africans continued to assault the police, ‘throwing chairs, fragments of flagstones and paving stones in their direction […] during which several policemen sustained injuries.’ It implies that the black street vendors are to blame for the Nigerian’s death.

A very similar version of events was later presented by Mariusz Sokolowski, spokeperson for the Chief Commander of the Police, in a video recording accompanying an article in what is probably the most influential journal in Poland, the Warsaw supplement of Gazeta Wyborcza.[3] Sokolowski added to the initial account the fact that police had now launched further inquiries into what these men were selling, why they did not want to submit to police control, and why the police control induced in them such strong resistance. As in the previous account, the victim is presented as an attacker, the shooting as an accident, and the ‘black-skinned’ men are depicted as having behaved in a very aggressive way for unknown reasons, even as it is implied, that they must have been something dangerous, e.g. illegal drugs.

However, some other police accounts, most notably of the Warsaw police press spokesperson, Maciej Karczynski (also in a video recording accompanying an article on the website of Gazeta Wyborcza[4]) are somewhat different in crucial respects. While, once again, the shooting is portrayed as accidental, Karczynski’s account is markedly less emotive. And, unlike in previous stories, the acts of violence against the police are depicted as following the shooting and the words ‘aggressive’ and ‘aggression’ are not used to describe the behaviour of the street vendors though the allegation that they later used violence against the police is underscored.

While the difference in the police narratives raises serious doubts as to their credibility, even more troubling is the general message of these stories. The weight of the blame for Maxwell Itoya’s death is placed on him and other black street vendors. Black males are depicted as capable of frenetic violence and – in some of the stories – this violence is presented as wholly irrational and unprovoked. The aggressiveness of the black street vendors is repeatedly emphasised, with the activities of ‘black men engaged in illegal activities’ contrasted with the heroic activities of the police (read white police) who must enforce the law in dangerous circumstances.

The power of racial stereotypes

The fact that in the police stories ‘blackness’ is associated with aggressiveness, irrationality and illegal activities could be of crucial importance. Aggressiveness constitutes one of the central dimensions of contemporary stereotypical images of blacks. A fact underscored by many academics such as Devah Pager who, on the basis of numerous studies, demonstrated that ‘particularly in interactions that contain some ambiguity, or in decisions made under pressure, evaluations are easily colored by these pervasive (and largely unconscious) stereotypes about black aggressiveness or threat.'[5] Independently of the results of social psychological experiments, there have been many real life cases where the fact that a person was black may have induced police officers to shoot because of a mistaken interpretation of the situation. Perhaps the most notorious of these cases was that of Amadou Diallo’s death, an unarmed Guinean immigrant killed in February 1999 in New York City by four police officers who fired a total of forty-one shots because they thought that he was reaching for a gun. Another case was that of Timothy Thomas, a young African American who was killed in April 2001 in Cincinnati while running from the police: at the beginning of the investigation the policeman claimed that he fired because he mistakenly thought that Thomas was armed.[6]

Whether existing stereotypes of black people may have influenced the way in which the police presented their version of the shooting of a young Nigerian man in the Warsaw open-air market is open to question. But what is of gravest concern is the fact that the police version of events has not been sufficiently challenged. Where is the proof that Itoya attacked the policeman or tried to wrestle the gun from his hand? Has anyone asked whether the policeman may have fired the shot because he misinterpreted Itoya’s conciliatory behaviour as aggressive? Could the police’s actions that day could have been influenced, either consciously or unconsciously, by racial stereotypes?

In fact, at least two of the ‘unofficial’ accounts of the young man’s death demonstrate precisely why these questions need to be asked. The first of these stories is told in English on a video-recording of a black street vendor who states that he witnessed the shooting.[7] The young man (whose face is not shown) says that when policemen started harassing another street vendor, wrestling him to the ground, Maxwell Itoya intervened, asking the police ‘Why you have to treat this boy like that? Because he’s black? Don’t touch him like that! Speak to him slowly! Speak to him slowly, he will listen to you.’ Whereupon one of the police officers told Itoya to pull back and pushed him ‘because they were very close together’. Immediately after pushing the man back, the policeman shot him. At first only some street vendors were trying to help the man, but later (at the witness’s request) the policeman began to try to help him, too. He tried to stop the bleeding using some clothes taken from one of the stands.

In this version of events the policeman fired the shot during a verbal confrontation with Itoya.

Another witness, also a street vendor, tells a very similar story, but without depicting Itoya as verbally defiant and also making it clear that the Africans only began to throw stones at police cars when they learnt that Itoya was dead.[8] This witness states that ‘contrary to claims in some sources’ ‘there was no fight with the policemen, no wrestling of the gun. This has been said in order to hush up the affair. We are often accused of being aggressive. It is true that if someone does not know us, it may look like this. The way we are talking to each other, our tone of voice, the fact that we gesticulate a lot, the way we move may seem aggressive to someone, but they are not aggressive.’

Independently of any conjecture over the reasons for the shooting, the difference between the ‘unofficial’ and ‘official’ versions is striking. The ‘unofficial’ story-tellers emphasise that the street vendors were not at all violent before the death of Itoya and did certainly not hamper the resuscitation efforts; on the contrary, according to some stories, black street vendors started helping the wounded man before others joined these efforts.

In the aftermath of the ‘riots’

In the disturbances that followed (which are depicted by the police and media as a ‘riot’), the police arrested thirty-two men: twenty-nine Nigerians, a Cameroonian, a Guinean and an Indian. All the men, some of whom have Polish citizenship, have been released. Twenty-five have been charged with ‘active assault’ on police officers and another man was accused of ‘active resistance’. Many in the migrant community see these charges as a form of police harassment. A fear that is heightened by the fact that the police officer who fired the fatal shot that killed Maxwell Itoya has not even been suspended from duty, let alone charged.

According to ‘unofficial’ reports, the police arrested all the black men they came across after the ‘riots’ although – as it is claimed by some – Vietnamese and white men were also involved in the disturbances. There are further allegations that the arrested men and even their families were mistreated by police. One wife of a man arrested claims, that for forty-eight hours, the men were not given anything to eat or to drink and were not even allowed to use the toilet.[9] Katarzyna Krukowska, who was one of a few wives willing to identify herself by name, spoke of her humiliation when the police asked her if her husband was taking drugs or beating her. She alleged that while the wives were in the prosecutor’s office waiting for news about their husbands’ situation, some policemen were recording them on their mobile phones for a joke.[10] The narrators of these ‘unofficial’ stories are convinced of the existence of a bias on the part of the police. This conviction is particularly striking in the case of stories told by the wives of some of the arrested men in a video recording accompanying an article on a media website.[11] ‘Many black-skinned people were arrested not because they took part in this incident, in this fight, but simply because they were there, because they were “black”‘, says one of the women interviewed. ‘They were catching all the blacks who were there.’ Another women states that the ‘police represented the facts completely differently to what they were’, unfairly presenting their husbands as violent and ‘typical criminals’. One of the wives on the video points out that black street vendors would never have attacked the police, it is because they are ‘afraid of them, when they saw policemen, they ran away or made way for them’.

It is still not known and perhaps will never be known why Maxwell Itoya was shot. However, it is certain that the stories told by the police differ significantly and have sometimes even been contradictory. All the police stories place the weight of the blame for Itoya’s death on the dead man and other black street vendors. But, on 25 May, a major blow to the police allegation that black street vendors hampered resuscitation efforts initiated by policemen came when a film, recorded on a mobile phone and posted on many websites, clearly shows both white and black men trying to save Itoya’s life.[12]

Finally, it is important not to overlook the role of the Polish media. When news of Maxwell Itoya’s death first surfaced, the police version of events was presented totally uncritically. Journalists concentrated on the ‘battle’ between police and the black street vendors. One particular article in the Warsaw supplement of Gazeta Wyborcza tried to minimise the importance of the police killing and question the right of the Nigerian government to condemn it by stating that the Associated Press notes that ‘human rights groups say that the police in Nigeria, the most populated country in Africa, routinely executes prisoners, rapes prostitutes and extorts bribes from motorists at roadblocks.'[13] However, as different versions surfaced the media did attempt a more balanced approach. The Gazeta Wyborcza devoted a whole series of articles to Itoya’s death and its circumstances. Two tabloids (Fakt and Super Express) published very sympathetic articles on the dead man, his wife and their family life,[14] with one article accompanied by a number of family photos. For a non-Polish audience, it may also be necessary to emphasise that positive portrayals of interracial couples are still rare in the Polish media and therefore articles on the Itoya family, easily available on the web, may positively influence Polish society’s view of such couples, of African immigrants and of black people in general.

Related links

Read an IRR News story: ‘No justice for Maxwell Itoya

 

* At age 14 in 1933 the boy who would become Professor Joseph W. Eaton was expelled from the Hohenzollern Gymnasium in Berlin, as were all Jewish children. His parents sent him to New York to complete his education. After graduating from Cornell University in 1940, he was offered the Directorship of the Rural Settlement Institute, to implement a research programme of US experiences with cooperative farming. In 1942, Joe was drafted like all other German-Jewish refugees. He volunteered to serve in a British-US unit to be dropped over Germany, but by the time he arrived in Camp Ritchie for special training, this programme was scratched. The Nazis captured previous teams before they could provide intelligence and/or engage in sabotage. Joe was re-assigned to the 4th Mobile Radio Broadcasting Company, a small 10-person special unit attached to the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), headed by General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Their assignment was the collection of intelligence by interviewing German prisoners of war and the residents of German villages and of the City of Aachen, which were occupied by U.S. forces in October 1944. Joe Eaton helped to prepare leaflets to be dropped over German lines by planes or artillery shells. After US forces began to move into Germany, Joe was assigned to edit the Regensburger Post, one of ten German newspapers published by US forces to replace the Nazi press. Near the end of the war in April, SHAEF agreed to Joe's suggestion to send him with a driver into Russian occupied Czechoslovakia to the just liberated Terecin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp. His mission was to secure a list of the liberated inmates for swift evacuation to their respective Allied homelands. As a young social scientist he understood the policy issues that motivated President Roosevelt to fight racist Germany with racially segregated US troops. But as a refugee from Nazi Germany, he thought the policy should begin to be modified and before too long, entirely terminated. Racial segregation subjected millions of fellow Americans to much suffering and unequal access to the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Censorship was not called for. There were no mutinies on 26 July 1948 when President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 to end segregation in the US armed forces.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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