George Nkencho

It took at least 12 unarmed Gardaí, two members of the Armed Support Unit (ASU), and five bullets to end the life of George Nkencho, a 27-year-old man with a history of mental health problems. These reported facts make the shooting death of Nkencho sound disturbing and the more you dig into the story, the more the feeling tugs at your heels: This man did not have to die.

So goes the tragic chronicle: at around midday on December 30, Nkencho entered the Eurospar in Hartstown where he reportedly punched a store manager, breaking his nose, before producing a kitchen knife from his pocket. Unarmed Gardaí had arrived on the scene by the time Nkencho exited the building. He then made his way home to his family home at Manorfields Drive, Dublin 15, refusing appeals to drop his weapon. The ASU were deployed. Having heard George’s knock on the door, Gloria Nkencho says she came out of the house and informed Gardaí that her brother had mental health issues but was ushered back inside. The door was closed over but not shut. With the use of tasers and pepper spray proving ineffective, five shots were fired after Nkencho appeared to lunge forward, two of which entered the hall of the house through a window, where his three brothers and sisters had gathered.

How could these heavily tooled, highly trained law enforcers not have disarmed this man with non-lethal force? Why were the unable to deescalate the situation? Was their flaws in the way they discharged their non-lethal implements? How could the ASU have been so cavalier with their guns that they seemingly put the lives of Nkencho’s siblings at risk? Was their true priority in the moment the triggers were pulled to serve these members of public? These are the questions that come to me, a person who believes the fatal use of force by state law enforcement must only be used as a final resort—that the bar must be higher than high. To any person of that mindset, the natural position here is to find the Gardaí’s conduct extremely dubious.

That doesn’t appear to be a universal position. In fact, many have praised the ASU for their actions. It’s fair to say that some have even landed on the position that Nkencho deserved what he got. In the headline of their initial report (later edited), Dublin Live used the language “knife-wielding thug,” leaving no doubt where they stood. When I wrote a post on the supposedly safe echo chamber that is my own personal Facebook account that addressed the misinformation being spread about Nkencho (more on that later) without expressing an opinion on the shooting itself, I was met with pushback.

Look, the portal of social media can be a pretty muddy window into a society, but forget the anonymous online imps that roam Twitter for a second. A scan of the messages being endorsed by Fine Gael politicians chilled my soul. See the terrifying tweet that the account of Clara Murphy, a Fine Gael councillor, seemingly felt deserving of her endorsement with a like: “Well done to the Gardaí on ending this situation with a violent knife wielding criminal who attempted to murder Gardaí and shop staff without any innocent member of the public getting injured or worse.”

This statement is loaded with claims that are disputed and language that is, at best, inflammatory. But plenty of people don’t care. They crave the justification. Shoot first and figure the rest out later—anyone who ends up down the viewpoint of a police firearm deserves the trigger to be pulled, right?

I am reminded of the very recent video of Gardaí violently snatching a group of teenagers off the Dart and slamming them to the ground. Their crime? Throwing a plastic bottle apparently. Anti-social behaviour is obviously annoying—sometimes it’s intimidating. But how did we land on the appropriate punishment being violence committed on the perpetrators by uniformed agents of the state? The video captures a passenger gleefully cheering on the guards as they manhandle the teens before pointing to another young man in the hope he gets punished in the same way—and he does. This guy is the epitome of a scary world where the public are willing to live with, even encourage, brutality inflicted on their fellow citizens if they are perceived to step out of line.

Funny how the the same people that accuse the left of worshipping authoritarian dictators immediately cape for the Gardaí when they violently pull teenagers off a train or shoot a man with mental health issues dead. The left is criticized for supposedly importing American-style identity politics and race relations discourse to Ireland, yet it’s the left that condemns American-style militarisation of police and its glamorization, which was encapsulated earlier this year on the cover of an official Gardaí magazine, Garda Review.

“Defund The Police” has become such a contentious phrase that moderates like Joe Biden and Keir Starmer won’t touch it. Leftist activists who use the slogan fall have various ideas of how the idea should take form: some do seek the abolition of police services in their current shape, others champion the diversification of the police into more community services that would both prevent and provide more effective responses to crime. It’s never made any sense to me to have a single, centralised police force—why should a person have to go to the same building to report a sexual assault as they do to get their passport stamped? The Nkencho case exposes failures in both the mental health support systems— his family were still waiting on the HSE to provide mental health supports at the time of the shooting—and presents the question of whether deploying heavily armed police and nothing else to situations like this is the best we can do.

As I’ve been posting some of the news reports, I’ve been sent dozens of messages asking me to leave race out of this. Thing is, I’ve never before mentioned race in relation to Nkencho’s killing. This is obviously a ghoulish preemptive strike by those who wish to delegitimise concerns that race plays a role in the story. For those people, here are my thoughts: Because I know racism is a problem in Ireland, and because the circumstances of this shooting are questionable to me, I can’t discount the possibility that racial bias, conscious or unconscious, was a factor in the killing of this man of Nigerian background.

Last summer, Irish activists shouted “Black Lives Matter” in solidarity with American comrades who protested the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police. A core tenet of the Black Lives Matter movement is the protection of precious Black life. Now, a Black man has been killed in Ireland by police, and we are left to question whether or not the Black lives of George Nkencho and his siblings were treated with all the care they should have been.

Besides, leaving race out of this is pretty difficult when it’s Nkencho’s race that has sparked activity from racists eager to whip up hatred against Ireland’s Black community and push an anti-immigration agenda. Make no mistake folks, the far right is working overtime. Outrageous lies and smears have been circulated about Nkencho; the family has received racist messages through the post. When one of their own is dead and such loathing is being spread, it’s reasonable for Black people to feel both rage and dread. I can only describe the anger among those in Ireland’s Black community seeking #JusticeForGeorgeNkencho as righteous.

Nkencho’s killing is now under investigation by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC), as is the procedure. I hope it will bring clarity. For now, the condemnation is entirely justified. Because Gardaí whose instinct is to harm and not to protect is something to be deeply feared and bitterly resisted. Anyone whose default position is to support Gardaí violence has no ethical authority and deserts the moral high ground.

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