In the wake of highly publicized killings of African Americans by the police, in 2013, the spontaneous movement “Black Lives Matter” spread like wildfire in the United States. It was facilitated by the new communications technology and social media. While the police killed persons of all races, the number of Blacks killed were five times the rate as that of whites.
Last Tuesday night, the police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana shot and killed Alton Sterling, a 37-year old former convict. He was carrying a gun, but had not drawn it, according to eyewitnesses. The following night in Falcon Heights, outside Minneapolis, the 33-year old school staff Philando Castile was shot minutes after he was pulled over by the police for driving with a broken taillight. His girl friend Diamond Reynolds live-streamed the incident as her four-year old daughter watched from the backseat. Castile told the officer who approached him he was carrying a gun and had the license. In the video Ms. Reynolds is heard telling the officer that Castile was asked to take out his license.
In Dallas Texas, while on patrol during a “Black Lives Matter” protest of the shootings described above, five policemen were killed and seven injured, by Micah Johnson, 25, an ex-military man of African American heritage. In messages taped by the police he asserted he was retaliating against white police for their needless killings of blacks.
Johnson quoted extensively from the philosophy of the 1960’s violently radical Black Power group – the Black Panthers – which had asserted that the entire American system was systematically racist towards African Americans. The police were simply utilizing the state’s monopoly on “legitimate” use of coercive force to give violent expression to that inbuilt racism. The Black Panthers defined the police as “pigs” who were to be hunted down.
While the horror of the killings and counter killings in the US have shocked the sensibilities of decent-minded persons across the world, here in Guyana we must insist that measures are taken to root out structural features in our society and state that may cause some groups of citizens to be targeted unfairly by state institutions. This in essence is the problem in the US which will not go away with just cosmetic measures.
For years, some groups here have pointed out that public institutions such as the police, army, immigration service, public service etc, are staffed overwhelmingly by members of one ethnic group. Sporadically in the press, there have been letters claiming this has led to discriminatory treatment meted out to individuals from other communities. For instance, it was asserted without challenge, that one police patrol routinely sets up roadblocks in Enmore which are used to fleece members of that community, while similar roadblocks are not deployed in communities such as Buxton.
In the US, Black activists had pointed out the exclusion of Blacks to the police forces, being not representative of the racial composition of the communities being “policed”, was one noted contributory factor in the police forces’ behaviour towards Blacks. Even though in the intervening years there have been measures instituted to correct the imbalance and the number of Black deaths have decreased from the 1960’s levels, they are still too disproportionate.
Imagine what could happen when even the discriminatory hiring practices are not rectified.