Dec 3, 2014

America Continues to Gun Down its Young Black Men

Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed on Aug. 9, 2014, by Darren Wilson, a white12 year old police victim, Tamir Rice police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. The shooting prompted a storm of national and international comment, and protests that racked the area for weeks. A St. Louis County grand jury announced on Nov. 24 that it was not indicting Mr. Wilson, causing even more outrage and riots.  In a separate incident only days before the grand jury announcement, a Cleveland police officer, Timothy Loehmann, shot and killed Tamir Rice (pictured right), a 12-year-old African-American boy, over the weekend of November 22. From surveillance video, Loehmann shot Rice within two seconds of getting out of his patrol car. Loehmann has been placed on administrative leave, but no charges have thus far been filed.

The United States has a long and sordid history of violent treatment of its minorities, particularly its blacks. The memories of slavery still linger some 150 years after the American Civil War led finally to the abolition of slavery in the US. This was followed by many decades of officially sanctioned discrimination and segregation, in which blacks in particular were widely regarded as third-class members of society (Hispanics, Chinese, Native American Indians and other minorities being second-class). This in a nation whose Declaration of Independence  proudly proclaimed (even as thousands of black slaves were landing on its shores) it "self-evident that all men are created equal". It was not until Lyndon Johnson's reforms of the 1960s, including the landmark Civil Rights Act, that blacks officially became equal citizens under Federal law.

The Civil Rights Act notwithstanding, violence and discrimination against blacks has continued. Most notably, American police are instinctively suspicious of young black men and quick to clamp down on them with the heaviest of hands. It is striking to a young black foreigner new to the United States that whenever he is approached in a vehicle by an American policeman, the officer almost always has his hand on his gun. This level of official intimidation is what young black American men have to go through every day of their life, and is what has led to an unending pattern of confrontation over decades, almost always resulting in black men being shot dead and white police officers being exonerated. (read  A Short History of Killer Cops Let Off the Hook)

Racial profiling, in which suspects are targeted based on racial identity is widely used by American police. In Africa, we particularly remember the case of Amadou Diallou, an unarmed 23 year old Guinean immigrant into the US, who in 1999 was hit with 19 bullets (out of 41 fired) by four white New York police officers while standing unarmed in the doorway of his apartment. The police officers were later acquitted at trial. This and the two incidents mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg, a small sample of a pattern that is repeated year after year in every big American city ( read police shootings. US police shoot hundreds dead every year. No one knows the exact number. It could be over a thousand. An incredible 17000 law enforcement agencies exist in America, almost all of them armed. The culture is militaristic and authoritarian.

Astonishing in view of all this is America's record of haranguing the rest of the world over human rights. Granted, there are numerous violations of human rights outside America, but if you appoint yourself as human rights judge and jury, shouldn't your record be beyond reproach? The United States State Department produces an annual human rights report encompassing most of the countries of the world (although we could not find the US itself on the 2013 list). Here is a paragraph from the country report for Sierra Leone:

"Other major human rights problems included abusive treatment by police; arbitrary arrest and detention; some restrictions on freedoms of press and assembly; discrimination and violence against women and girls, including female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C); official and societal discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals; discrimination against those with disabilities; and vigilante violence."

Doubtless, Sierra Leone and many other African countries do have human rights problems, but some of the human rights listed above, particularly with regard to LGBT and FGM/C, are recently manufactured in the West and very much culturally based. Thus the US through the State Department seeks to impose its cultural norms and practices on the rest of the world, even as it criticizes the cultural practices of others, all the while remaining silent on far greater abuses that have been taking place in the US for decades.

Violations of the right to life, the muost important human right, by the US do not occur only through police brutality. The United States executes a substantial number of convicted felons, many of them young black males. Worldwide, America regularly is in the top six in terms of number of executions carried out annually. In 2013, with 39 executions it was fifth behind only China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia (courtesy Amnesty International). Europeans generally have proscribed capital punishment, but European governments are  very reluctant to criticize the US over its capital punishments even though these same governments are never reluctant to point out alleged human rights abuses in, say, Zimbabwe or Russia. Russia, frequently lambasted in the West as a human rights violator (even more so now with the conflict in Ukraine) has not carried out any executions since 1999. Human rights observance should be evaluated on universal criteria, rather than being subject to partisan considerations.

Those who escape execution are sometimes held in solitary confinement for years, in some cases decades. The United Nations raporteur for human rights has called this torture (read UN accuses US of torture). As before, this form of punishment falls disproportionately on black males.

When the US goes to war, as it frequently does, human rights violations occur on an industrial scale, but perhaps that is outside the scope of this piece.

US police sharpshooter
To return to the US police forces, the blanket policy of unquestioned obedience to orders and massive force has spread a reign of terror over black men in America. Far from this culture softening with time, it appears to be getting more rigid, with snipers (pictured right) and SWAT teams with automatic weapons and armored vehicles on the streets of Ferguson during the demonstrations over the killing of Michael Brown. The culture of intimidation and force against particularly black men is so strong that even the fact of a black President, Barak Obama, has made not a dent in it. Obama has been unable to stamp his authority or a new policy upon the brutes that infest the US police. The police forces wield a power within their communities that would be the pride of any third world dictator. For the little boy, Tamir Rice, playing with a toy gun, his crime was that he didn't raise his hands when ordered to do so by a US policeman.This was sufficient reason in the eyes of the American justice system to shoot him down.