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Police Brutality is a Global Phenomenon

08/20/2014 05:09 EDT | Updated 10/20/2014 05:59 EDT

Michael Brown, Sammy Yatim, and the 11 civilians killed in June in Lahore are three sides of the same coin. They are dreadful examples of police brutality.

Messers Brown and Yatim, both 18-year-old racialized men, were shot dead by the police. However, unlike in Toronto, Canada, where Mr. Yatim died, Ferguson, Missouri, has erupted in riots after the death of Mr. Brown. Islamabad, Pakistan's capital city, is also under siege partially for the murder of the11 supporters of Canada-based cleric, Tahir-ul-Qadri, who were killed by the police in Lahore last June.

The riots and looting in Ferguson (a suburb of St. Louis), which have lasted for more than a week, and the siege in Islamabad show that when fundamental issues of social justice remain unresolved, no place is impervious to riots and chaos.

Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson

Earlier on August 9, a white police officer killed Mr. Brown, an African-American teenager, by shooting him six times. Successive autopsy reports suggest that Mr. Brown was killed in a defensive posture whereby he did not pose any direct threat to the police officer.

Eyewitness accounts reveal that the initial altercation between Mr. Brown and the police officer escalated quickly. The police officer then chased down and shot Mr. Brown while he had raised his arms, requesting the officer not to shoot. Still, the officer fired multiple shots.

Everything that transpired from Mr. Brown's unfortunate death until now reveals how race remains a divisive concern in the United States. African-Americans in the United States have been largely excluded from sharing in the riches that the American dream has generated in the past six decades. Their ill-treatment by law enforcement agencies adds insult to the injury.

The contrast between African-Americans and the rest is striking. African-Americans are more likely to be poor, less educated, less likely to obtain loans from banks for self or business, more likely to be profiled, stopped, and arrested by the police, and executed for murder than others in the United States.

Mr. Brown's death at the hands of a white police officer and other similar incidents -- such as Rodney King being tortured by the Los Angeles Police -- usually result in riots because of unresolved issues of race and equality in present-day United States.

Within this background, the police conduct in Ferguson after the death of Mr. Brown raises several questions. Initially, the police refused to disclose the identity of the officer who shot Mr. Brown. Later, the police released a video and photographs, which alleged Mr. Brown's involvement in a robbery at a grocery store just before he was stopped and killed by the police. The video and photographs are attempts to paint Mr. Brown a petty criminal and bolster the defence of the officer that shot him.

There is, however, a small problem. The officer in question had no knowledge of the robbery or Mr. Brown's involvement in it. Why then did the police officer stop Mr. Brown, you may wonder. The answer points to a deep-rooted problem, racial profiling, which is common amongst the police in North America where racial minorities are much more likely to be stopped without cause by the police than others.

Statistics in Ferguson reveal that whereas 63 per cent of the residents are black, they represent 92 per cent of the police arrests.

Attempts to paint Mr. Brown a petty criminal by the police backfired. Instead of practicing calm and restraint, the Ferguson police, however, responded with even more force against the protesters, resulting in riots and looting.

The Governor of the State of Missouri, Jay Nixon, was forced to intervene and impose a state of emergency and curfew. He also called in the Missouri National Guard after the curfew failed to control chaos and mayhem.

Sammy Yatim shooting in Toronto

Subsequent events after the tragic death of Sammy Yatim in Toronto unfolded quite differently. Mr. Yatim, a Syrian emigrant who arrived in Canada in 2008, brandished a knife and exposed himself on a streetcar in Toronto. The driver immediately stopped the streetcar and evacuated other passengers.

The sight of a teenager holding a knife in one hand and his genitals in the other must have been disturbing. Still Mr. Yatim posed no immediate threat to the commuters in the streetcar or to the police who responded to the incident.

Eyewitness accounts and a video captured by a bystander on July 27, 2013, shows officer James Forcillo discharging his firearm, killing Mr. Yatim. He was shot nine times. People erupted in peaceful protests as sadness descended on the city that mourned the unnecessary and tragic death of a troubled young man.

Just like the death of 18-year old Mr. Brown, the death of 18-year-old Mr. Yatim was also a case of excessive and unwarranted use of police force. However, this is where the similarities end. The Toronto police and city administration did not attempt to paint Yatim unduly in bad light, or to defend the police officer, who was charged with second-degree murder in August 2013. Last month, attempted murder was added to the officer's charge sheet.

The city administration and civil society in Toronto reacted quickly to address the fact that a young man died because of excessive use of police force. Collectively, they are working to ensure that such incidents are not repeated in the future.

And while Toronto is not the poster child for the perfect place, it is still a place where social justice matters to most. Despite infrequent incidents of police excess, most Canadians do respect the police. Ask a group of six-year old first graders in a school of what would hey like to be in the future, and most boys would say a police officer.

The mob surrounding the parliament building in Islamabad and frequent riots in Pakistan are no different from the intermittent urban riots in the United States. Months have passed since the attack in Lahore, and the police have not yet laid charges, which has caused anger and frustration.

The lack of social justice is a recipe for disaster, chaos, and mob rule. The scenes from Islamabad and Ferguson, Missouri, are indeed two manifestations of the same problem. Toronto has escaped riots because its citizens hold dear the principles of social justice and equality.

A modified version of this article also appeared on Dawn.com.

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