The packing sound of fists against skull cut through the growing chorus of screaming and the angry mob shoved the staggering figure through the entryway. Somewhere between the violence and the noise officers managed to pull the crowd apart.
In the center of the sweltering police station stood a shell of a man with blood pouring from head wounds and shattered teeth. It was “Chicken,” one of former child-soldiers, grown up and addicted to heroin, living in the open graves of Monrovia’s oldest cemetery. They called him Chicken because of how he pecks at his food. As he swayed on his feet, the officers held back the mob and attempted to figure out the cause of the violence. It seemed that Chicken tried to steal a girl’s cellphone in broad daylight and wasn’t quick enough to get away.
The first time I went to Liberia was in 2003, at the end of their last civil war. One night I had been out in downtown Monrovia, and as I got into my car, a man spun me around and tried to grab my camera. I managed to fight him off, and when he fled I gave chase, yelling “Rogue!” the Liberian word for thief. As if on cue, an angry mob formed to chase him down. The last I saw of the thief was him turning down an alley and the mob flowing into the darkness after him. Only when I made it home did someone tell me about the practice of “Dee-bee-dah.” When an angry mob gets their hands on a thief, they stack tires around him, douse him in gasoline, and burn him alive.
Thirteen years later, this time returning as a photojournalist, I thought about the murdered thief and how lucky Chicken was to be alive. An officer shoved him into a corner where he then collapsed. His pants were gone; the mob had tried to strip him. All he had was a single shoe and a stretched and tattered shirt soaking up the blood dripping from his chin. He kept trying and failing to sit up, and what noises that came from him weren’t words but a guttural mish-mash of gulps and gasps. Somewhere behind the broken blood vessels of his detached retina was rapidly-swelling grey matter looking for a way out.
Chicken presented the police with a conundrum: If they charged Chicken with robbery, they’d have to arrest the mob for assault. If Chicken accused them of assault, they’d have to arrest him for theft. The mob didn’t feel like being arrested and the mashed peas of Chicken’s frontal lobe was so brutally concussed that he couldn’t do or say anything. There was no ambulance service to call. No paramedics. The station didn’t even have a first-aid kit. The only thing to do was get rid of him.
After some deliberation, one of the officers came up and grabbed him, pulling him to his feet. I followed them outside as he pushed Chicken and told him to walk. Holding him by one arm and offering false encouragement, the officer dragged Chicken away from the police station, past the playing children and the women washing clothes, just far enough that he wouldn’t be their problem.
About fifty meters from the police station, the officer turned back, leaving Chicken standing, swaying, and ready to collapse. As his legs started to give out, his twisting body seemed to stand straight, and the hollow gaze of his eyes passed over the lens right as I clicked the shutter.
And with that, Chicken went down.