Thousands of Americans are protesting police brutality against people of colour in more than 350 American cities. It started on Tuesday, May 26th a day after George Floyd died in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Floyd, a 46-year-old African American, died after a police officer pinned him to the ground with his knee. What was his crime? He tried passing a counterfeit bill to buy a pack of cigarettes. Could it have been avoided? Yes, had the police not used the choke-hold method. What happened in Minneapolis is nothing new.
Earlier in March, the police shot Breonna Taylor dead in her home during a narcotics bust in Louisville, Kentucky. They had the wrong address. In 2018, Stephen Clark was shot seven times in Sacramento, California, by police who were investigating a break-in. According to the Mapping Police Violence database, last year alone, the police killed 1,099 Americans 25% of which were African American, though they constitute only 13% of the U.S. population. African Americans are three times more likely to be killed by the police than white Americans.
What immediately comes to mind is police reforms. There have been several attempts at that.
Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson in 2014 ushered in an era of police reform that saw federal and local governments invest heavily in police training, on racial bias, and in technology like body cameras that officials promised would bring about accountability. But those reforms have failed.
Neill Franklin, the executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit that has become a new voice of the criminal justice reform in the U.S., has explained why. “We are still working with a model of policing that was born out of slavery in this country, that was born out of white supremacy in this country. That’s why reform won’t work, and that’s why we haven’t made any traction whatsoever on this issue of race, as we’ve seen with the death of Mr Floyd.”
Naomi Murakawa in her book The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America, details how the liberal assessment of the problem failed to take the role of racial domination in the structuring of the criminal justice system seriously.
Kandace Montgomery, the director of Black Visions Collective, said that organizers are tired of just calling for prosecutions. “We’re moving past a conversation around prosecuting the police and individual officers.” They think defunding the police force and shifting to community policing might be a real move forward.
People have had enough. This time not only African Americans but also white Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, South Asian Americans are coming out in big numbers to protest. While the solidarity shown by most is refreshing and encouraging, there are aspects of the protests and riots following Floyd’s death that is being criticized for being destructive and criminal. Especially the part where some protesters cross over from peaceful demonstrations to participating in violence.
Federal law enforcement officials have told CNN that there are organized groups who are seeking to carry out the property destruction and violence using the cover of the legitimate protests in Minneapolis and elsewhere. Those domestic extremist groups include anarchists, anti-government groups often associated with far-right extremists and white supremacy causes, and far-left extremists who identify with anti-fascist ideology. There are also members of organized crime groups taking advantage of the confusion and participating in the looting of businesses, big and small. All this is doing is diluting the main cause behind the agitations and giving the administration an excuse to consider deploying the army. It is also aiding further polarization of politics that will be used as a tactic by politicians to attract votes in the upcoming Presidential election.
But beyond shaping national politics, the mass protests are having an impact on other countries as well.
In Paris, there was a riot over the racial injustice and heavy-handed police tactic that Floyd’s death represents. The death opened an old wound, death of Adama Traore, a French African in police custody back in 2016.
Thousands of people walked through Sydney to protest against Floyd and to demand a change in Australia’s treatment of the indigenous population. They remembered the death of David Dungay, a 26-year old Aboriginal man whose last words were also “I can’t breathe” like Floyd’s. He died in a Sydney prison while being restrained by five guards in 2015.
There were demonstrations in the Dutch capital. Many gathered to show their solidarity with U.S. protesters in Tel Aviv. In Brazil, crowds gathered outside government headquarters holding signs that read Vidas Negras Important: Black Lives Matter. Thousands were marching in New Zealand. “We’re here about the injustice of black lives being lost every day at the hands of the police occurring in the United States,” said an organizer to a large crowd in Dublin. “But not just in the United States. Racism is a global issue.”
Leaders around the World have expressed shock at what happened at Minneapolis because it echoes what happens everywhere. It shines a light on local police violence which has worsened now, during virus confinement in working-class suburbs with large minority populations. The overall concern with the pandemic mixed with local injustices is worrying people all over the World.
As a result of the mass protests, police immobilization techniques—face-down holds and choke-holds around the World are drawing criticism. Restructuring of the police force has become a significant topic of discussion.
The good news is that there are some solutions in sight. There are organizations like Campaign Zero, a police reform initiative in the U.S. that are distributing documents discussing evidence-based methods to curb excess police aggression. It’s founder, Samuel Sinyangwe a data-scientist himself, believes that the most discussed ‘solutions’ to police violence like attaching body cams have no evidence of effectiveness. Police recruits spend 58 hours on average learning how to shoot, but just 8 hours learning how to de-escalate potentially violent situations. Spending more time on de-escalating and partnering with non-police professionals who know how to respond to mental health crises could help more than throwing more money at the problem.
Raising voices and showing solidarity through protests, demanding systemic change is one thing, and to see the changes through is another. It will be a battle, an uphill one. There is also a need to generate a strong political will to bring about the significant change. This time what looks positive is that the majority has joined ranks with the minorities in demanding a change not only in police procedure but also in the overall attitude towards minorities in the U.S. and other countries around the globe. Hopefully, this essential moral battle will continue and not lose momentum once the protests fizzle out.