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Police violence and racial profiling of young Black men in the United States have been highly publicised for decades. Urban rebellions in the United States are closely tied to or triggered by police violence. The high profiled and widely disseminated beating of Rodney King by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department in 1991 and the sexualised and physical violence against Abner Lumina in 1997 by a New York City police officer. Both cases of police brutality received expansive media coverage and have remained etched into the memories of many North Americans. And now with the prolific use of social media and access to global news channels the problem has been highlighted further.
Given America’s history with chattel slavery and systemic racism within its police force and judicial system it comes as no surprise. For centuries Black males in the United States have been deemed a threat to the civilised White society and the state, with their physical strength being feared and exploited for free labour and breeding purposes to facilitate the development of industrial capitalism, and the exaggerated fears of the racist, patriarchal and anti-working class system meant they had to be contained at all costs to protect society and to maintain social order.
Undeniably, the constructed image of the dangerous buck has been imprinted on the imagination of Americans through Hollywood films, newspapers and the portrayal of Black men in sports. The controversial 1912 film The Birth of a Nation further fuelled the depiction of Black men as sexual aggressors, predators and dangers to society in general and White women in particular.
Arguably, law enforcement systems have relied on these portrayals to justify the over-surveillance and, in some cases, murder of unarmed Black men not only in the US but also in Canada and even in the United Kingdom. Yet in our national and international conversations about police violence and racial profiling we only seem focus on the United States, leaving many ignorant to some of the most vicious forms of police aggression targeted against Black men and women in other parts of the world.
For instance, the relationship between the police and the Black community in parts of Canada has shared a similar history to that of the US. In 1978, there was the shooting death of 24-year-old Buddy Evans followed a year later by Albert Johnson in Toronto; both men were unarmed, both shot be White police officers who were subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing. Dozens of unarmed Black men were killed by White police officers in Canada from 1987 onwards. In one instance the victim of police gun violence was a young Black woman, Sophia Cook, who was left temporarily paralysed.
While shootings of Black males by police have decreased in places like Toronto and Montreal, racial profiling has become a more widely used tactic to contain them. A recent study published in the Toronto Star revealed that, despite revising the policy of allowing police to randomly stop and question citizens without valid reasons, officers patrolling mostly Black populated areas of Toronto were still using the stop and search policy. This is not the first time the Toronto Star has reported on the improper profiling of Black youths, but it seems these stories don’t get the same media coverage and local support given to Ferguson and other police shootings in the US.
Not surprisingly, some UK citizens took to the street to express their outrage after the Ferguson verdict. British society has also had to grapple with years of police violence against Black men and women. Black men continue to be victims of police abuse and racial profiling in England with the most recent incidents occurring in 2008 when Sean Riggs died in police custody and in 2011 when Mark Duggan was shot and killed by police.
Ironically, even in countries where the majority of the population is Black, Black men and their communities are subjected to structural violence and repression at the hands of law enforcement. Brazil, Jamaica and South Africa, for example, have all had a long history of police brutality, which is often time aimed at poor Black working class men. The online Economist blog estimates that 2,000 Brazilian civilians are killed each year with little or no recourse under the judicial system.
Reports of police killings in Jamaica are just as alarming. Amnesty International reports that Jamaican police continue to engage in the lethal practice of extrajudicial executions and unjustifiable use of force. In fact, the rate of fatal police shootings in Jamaica has been ranked as one of the highest in the world, with official statistics recording an average of 140 people being shot and killed every year by police for the last ten years. In 2013 alone the Jamaican police killed 258 civilians; a figure that could be surpassed by the end of 2014.
During the apartheid regime, South African police operated like a paramilitary force in their effort to maintain their oppressive system of segregation. In the reporting period 2012–2013 706 South Africans were killed as a result of police action. In a single decade police violence in South Africa rose by 313%, with only one in 100 cases against officers resulting in a conviction. High profile cases of police violence have included the massacre of 34 striking mine workers in Marikina and the apparent mistaken identity that resulted in the shooting death of a young woman, Olga Kekana. Two months before the death of Kekana the police commissioner boldly informed a newspaper that he wanted a change in law that would permit the police to ‘shoot to kill’ suspects without worrying about ‘what happens after that’.
Although many Brazilian, Jamaican and South African citizens have protested against police violence by way of public demonstrations, appeals to international organisations, and more recently through social media, their cries have not garnered the same global attention as police violence in the US.
Fanon’s revolutionary book The Wretched of the Earth, speaks to the government’s explicit use of the police force as a tool to further repress the politically and economically disenfranchised community in its attempt to discourage any challenges toward structural changes. In the countries previously mentioned race, class and patriarchal forms of oppression lead to very exacting and brutal economic and social conditions for Black women and men. One could assume that the role of the police is to serve and protect all citizens. However, Fanon’s observations are an everyday reality in some societies where the lives of many Black men and women are not valued and thus they are not afforded equal protection of their civil and human rights.
The state continues, in many ways, to ignore these acts of violence perpetrated by its law enforcement agencies, instead deliberately employing a police force as one of its major players in upholding the systems of oppression along with the structural violence of poverty, inadequate educational opportunities, limited access to healthcare and high rates of unemployment while shutting down any form of resistance or challenge to police repression.
I stand for the people of Ferguson, New York and those all over the world who are experiencing police violence. I encourage those who are committed to dismantling structural violence against Black people to no longer chant ‘Black Lives Matter’ but instead chant ‘Black Lives Matter Everywhere’. Let us not limit our desire for structural changes to the United States. If we are to effectively challenge white supremacy, economic exploitation and patriarchal violence it is important that we use this opportunity to collectively organise our resources and voices – regardless of geographical location. The scourge of police killing Black people is global. Therefore, as well as fighting for justice at a local level, the character of our awareness, resistance and solidarity needs to be international in scope.
Dr Lisa Tomlinson is a cultural critic and activist. She currently works as a professor in humanities and community research.
This article originally appeared on Pambazuka News.