I transitioned from being complacent to becoming someone with burning passion after I read about Kolade Johnson’s death on Sunday, 31st of March, 2019.
It was a turning point for me because I had never heard of anyone killed during a raid by the police of areas suspected to habour suspected fraudsters and cultists up until 31st March, 2019. Kolade wasn’t a criminal. He was a father of one, a football fan who had gone to see a game at a viewing centre on Sunday afternoon. He was shot when officers were attempting to arrest another man who they suspected was a fraudster just because he had dreadlocks.
Anger, fear, pain and shock were all the emotions I felt when I read about his death. I became filled with the desire to break down the mental and societal blockades policemen have created in our lives.
My pain extended for miles when I thought about Kolade’s family and how they would have to live life without him. How would they explain to people that his death was unjust? That he was shot. That these men created a path of their own with rules that were guided by their own personal convictions and their lack of sound judgement: the memory silently screaming Kolade’s murdered dreams, his hopes, his future.
My mind kept going back to thoughts that it may have been someone I knew. Someone I cared about just like Kolade’s family cared about him. Kolade’s nightmare could become a stark and chilly reality for many Nigerian men and here is why.
If I told you that you could get arrested because of your hair in 2019, would you believe me? If I were to say that a person wearing headphones, walking with a bag pack, spotting a face with a long beard could potentially get arrested and accused of being a criminal in Nigeria, in 2019, would you affirm my words?
There have been numerous reports by men who have been wrongfully arrested and harassed just because of the style of their hair, the type of clothes they wore, the tattoos on their arms or earrings hanging on their ears. All in 2019.
It has happened to our neighbors, our colleagues at work, our friends, our brothers; but the question is why?
I started the #iamnotmyhair campaign movement to bring to awareness the stereotypical mindset that only a certain group of people style their hair a certain way. This stereotypical mindset ascribes the designation of being “a responsible person” to how hair is styled. The campaign spotlights a group of working young men who have been harassed and wrongfully arrested because of their hairstyles. I want to vent against the injustice, because that is what it is. I want to run this campaign proffering a creative and positive solution.
I hope that by sharing real life experiences of victimized men via social media especially, Instagram, I would be able to do engage and create a conversation on this issue.
Days after what happened to Kolade, I was scrolling through twitter, when a tweet from a friend came up:
‘’the worst fucking thing happened to me today. I got arrested and they just released me. Guess what their reason was? My hair. My fucking hair. I was so close to tears because these people were enjoying themselves and they couldn’t even hide it.”
I could feel the hurt and pain from his tweet and it made me so angry that someone I knew personally, someone I knew that was honest and hardworking had experienced this. He was eventually released after begging and paying bail. What did he do wrong? What was his crime? Was he caught stealing? Was he caught red handed doing something illegal that would have prompted his arrest? No. He was just a guy walking on his way. A guy who happened to have his hair locked and who was taken away by the police to be questioned and then ridiculed. This is not an uncommon incidence.
I have read stories of young men that complained about being harassed by the police for one reason or another but I never voiced out my opinion or frustration until now.
I believe that our lack of social responsibility has made us victims of a society that cares little to nothing about personal liberty. We need to champion the cause for a reform of stereotypes that plague us. If we stand together against this menace, we win together. We cannot continue to watch and allow our men be arrested just because of the hair style they spot.
The police have to do better with their understanding of human expression and how it translates to committing a crime. They are two separate things. If a person is not reasonably suspected of a crime then he should not be arrested. And if the person is suspected, it shouldn’t be because of what they look like but with credible evidence. They shouldn’t be treated like dogs or thieves.
Through the course of preparing to launch this campaign, I discovered that no matter how much you know or read about an issue, nothing stirs you up like seeing it with your own eyes or it happening to you. There are stories to be told, both mild and severe, of the tyranny that men have faced over their choice of hair. We need to listen, be kind, aware and take a stand.
This campaign emerged because of the plethora of unreported and recurring cases of young men who were wrongfully arrested and detained because of their hair.
“I had just come down from a bus, only for me to turn my head and I see two police men claiming to be inspectors telling me I was a suspect and that I needed to be searched. They took me to the station and searched my backpack. They requested I unlock my phone. I asked why and they replied that they suspected that I was a cultist and they needed to verify. They went through my gallery, commenting on my private photographs. I was embarrassed. I was later released and thinking about it now I knew I was arrested because of my beard. I did nothing wrong. I always had my hair full and my parents kept it like that growing up. I don’t understand why I would be arrested because of that when I did nothing wrong.”
Through the years I have grown and matured, I have had a conscious realization that human beings are wired for creativity. People like to do what they like to do; either with their hair, skin, and other personal choices and the expression of the creative mind must never be a crime. The color or texture of your hair from my own personal experience hardly determines if you are a responsible part of society. The expression of individuality should not be misinterpreted for irresponsibility. People should not be judged based on their appearance and I hope with the #iamnotmyhair campaign stereotypes will be revealed and reformed.
I started this campaign with the intent to help. To somehow feel what these men have gone through. I also hated the guilt I had in my throat for not doing anything about the situation for such a long time and for not empathizing with young men that had experienced their own version of harassment.
One of the scary things about this issue is the assumption that there may be men already in jail for crimes they did not commit because of the way they looked. They have lost meaningful days of their lives because they were suspected to be criminals. When will it stop? Tweets and stories are not enough to teach us what these men have experienced. It’s time we fought with them and ensure all men are safe in this country regardless of how/what they have on their head. It is time to take a stand for them. It is time for a reformation of mindsets plagued by this stereotype. To the men in black uniforms, I Am Not My Hair.
Rest in peace, Kolade Johnson.