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Dr. Lisa Tomlinson Headshot

Don't Forget Police Violence Happens Outside of America Too

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Police violence against black people should not be treated as an isolated incident that happens only in the United States of America. We need to begin to equally recognize and take an active approach against police brutality meted out to black working class men and women globally.

Indeed, police violence and racial profiling of young black men in the United States have been highly publicized for decades. Urban rebellions in the United States are closely tied to or triggered by police violence. The high profiled and widely disseminated police beating of Rodney King in 1990 and the sexualized and physical violence against Abner Lumina in 1997 by the police received expansive media coverage. These two cases of police brutality have remained etched into the memories of many North Americans. Thanks to widespread access to social media, attention to the problem of racial profiling and police brutality against Black men and women in the United States has been highlighted even more.

Given the U.S. history with chattel slavery, systemic racism within its police force and judicial system comes as no surprise. Historically, Black male bodies in the United States have been deemed as a threat to "civil" White society and the state. Their physical strength that was exploited for free labour and breeding purposes to facilitate the development of industrial capitalism was also feared. It had to be contained at all costs to "protect" society and to maintain social "order," based on the exaggerated fear of the racist, patriarchal and anti-working class system.

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 or predators, and a danger to society in general and white women in particular. Arguably, the law enforcement system has relied on the image of the aggressive buck to justify its over-surveillance and killings of unarmed black men in the U.S., Canada and even in the United Kingdom.

Yet, in our conversation around police violence and racial profiling, we often tend to turn our attention, primarily, to the United States and many of us have been left 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 U.S. In 1978, there was the shooting death of Buddy Evans and a year later Albert Johnson in Toronto; both men were unarmed. More police shootings of unarmed black men followed a decade later which went straight into the 1990s with similar incidents taking place in the city of Montreal. In one instance the victim of police gun violence was a young black woman, Sophia Cook, who was left temporarily paralyzed.

While the 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 black male bodies. A recent study published in the Toronto Star revealed that despite a revised carding (akin to a stop and frisk) policy that disallowed police from randomly stopping and questioning citizens, the police in mostly Black populated areas of Toronto were not complying with the new policy.

This was not the first time the Toronto Star ran a story reporting on the improper profiling of black youths in the city. These reports however do not get full attention from the Canadian media and social organizations in Canada. This is contrary to media coverage and local support that have been given to Ferguson and other police shootings in the US.

Not surprisingly, some UK citizens took to the street to also express their solidarity after the Ferguson verdict. British society has also had to grapple with years of police violence against black men and women. Like Canadian dub poets, renowned poet and cultural activist Linton Kwesi Johnson was instrumental in using his poetic work to educate the masses about police brutality, which directly led to the organizing of politically conscious groups against police violence.

Police relations and the black community in England has not changed much today. 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, Mark Duggan was shot and killed by police.

Ironically, even in countries with majority black population, African 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 mainly at poor black working class men. The online economist blog reports an estimate of 2000 Brazilian civilians 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. According to official statistics, an average of 140 people per annum have been shot and killed by police, within the last ten years, "in a country whose population is only 2.6 million". In 2013, the Jamaican police killed 258 civilians, and that figure 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. Notwithstanding the change in demilitarizing the police force, the brutality persists. In the reporting period 2012-2013, 706 South Africans were killed as a result of police action in a population of 50 million residents. In a decade alone, police violence in South Africa has risen by 313 per cent and only one in 100 cases against officers have resulted in conviction. High profile cases of police violence have included the massacre of 34 striking mine workers in Marikina and the "mistaken" shooting death of a young woman, Olga Kekana. Two months before the shooting death of Kekana, the police commissioner boldly informed the newspaper that he wanted a change in law that would permit the police to "shoot" suspects without worrying about "what happens after that."

Although many Brazilian, Jamaican and South African citizens have always been very vocal against police violence via street protests, appeal to international organizations, and more recently through social media, their cries have not garnered the same global demonstration and mass media attention as police violence in the U.S.

Fanon's revolutionary book Wretched of the Earth, speaks volume 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 states highlighted above, race, class and patriarchal forms of oppression lead to very exacting and brutal economic and social conditions for Black women and men.

Surely, the police's role is seen as one that obligates them to serve and protect all citizens. But Fanon's observation is an everyday reality in some of these societies where many Black men and women are not afforded equal protection of their civil and human rights and their lives are not valued. The state continues, in many ways, to ignore these acts of violence by its law enforcement agencies. Instead authority deliberately employs the police force as one of its major players in upholding the systems of oppression and shutting down any form of resistance or challenge to police repression and the structural violence of poverty, inadequate educational opportunities, limited access to healthcare, and high rates of unemployment.

I stand in solidarity with the people of Ferguson, New York and all over the world who are experiencing police violence. I encourage those of us who are committed to dismantling structural violence against black people that as we chant the slogan "Black Lives Matter", we must also remember "Black Lives Matter Everywhere". Let us not limit our desire for structural changes to only the United States. It is important that we use this crucial opportunity to collectively organize our resources and voices (regardless of geographical spaces), if we are to effectively challenge white supremacy, economic exploitation and patriarchal violence. The scourge of police killing of black people is global. Therefore, the character of our awareness, resistance and solidarity ought to be international in scope, while fighting in specific local spaces in which we are located.


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