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Fighting Fire With Water

Owei Lakemfa

The tidal waves of the Baltimore protests against the police murder of the African-American Freddie Gray are still spreading. Last week, the waves made a fall in London. But it is just one of the latest murders by the American police, and more are likely to follow with the usual response of indignation and protests. One of the major protests that shook America was the not-guilty verdict returned for George Zimmerman who on February 26, 2012 shot an unarmed High School student, Trayvon Martin, whom he had profiled as a thief.

Martin protested his innocence but was shot. Zimmerman found sanctuary in a 2005 Florida “Stand Your Ground Statute” which permits the use of deadly force by anybody who feels threatened. Another was Michael Brown who was stopped while walking down a street with a friend in Fergusson, Missouri. He put up his hands shouting, “I don’t have a gun!” but was shot dead. One video I have watched several times is that of Eric Garner, 44, whom the police accused of retailing cigarettes without tax receipts. On July 17, 2014, five cops pounced on him in New York City with one of them, Daniel Pantaleo, giving him a chokehold. Garner pleaded eleven times, “I can’t breathe” before the chokehold was relaxed. But it was too late. Over fifty demonstrations followed.

The Baltimore incidents are for me, unique in four ways. First is the speed with which the police dismantled Gray; within twenty minutes of his April 12, 2015 arrest, he was in need of urgent medical treatment. It was like some wild bears had descended on him as he had severe spinal cord injury, his voice   underbox crushed and his neck snapped. One week later, he was dead.

The second is the mainstream American media focusing not on the causes of the demonstrations but on demonstrators smashing car windscreens and shop windows. To this, a Community Organizer, DeRay McKesson, retorted “You are suggesting broken windows are worse than broken spines… Freddy Gray will never be back and those windows will be” A third is yet another campaign, especially by the CNN which showed a mother, Toya Graham slapping, hitting and dragging away her 16-year old son from the demonstrations because she does not want him to end up dead like Gray. She was hailed as a good mother. But what the boy was protesting against was not to end up like Gray. If there is no resistance to this spate of police murders, and they are not checked, the possibility of the boy, being African American, falling victim of these extra judicial killings is high. The boy is right in protesting the American Police racial profiling of non whites. His mother is wrong to urge an acceptance.

Graham’s display of public aggression towards her son also fits into the stereotype of black parents who are portrayed as being aggressive and brutal. If her action were not in favour of the American establishment, the possibility of social welfare visiting her for brutalizing her son, would have been quite high. The fourth thing I found unique, is the Police declaring wanted, a co-operative Kelvin Moore, the man who filmed the arrest of an agile Freddy Gray. The killings continue; in the first five months of this year, 62 African Americans have been murdered by police including Mathew Ajibade of Nigerian heritage. Last year, 2014, 194 were killed.

While mass demonstrations can reduce the rate of Police murder of African Americans, they will not do so in a fundamental way even in the US of today where the President, Barrack Obama, the Attorney General, Loretta Lynch and her predecessor, Eric Himpton Holder, are African Americans. American police brutality has its roots in the origins of the country; first in the bloody occupation, colonial and anti-colonial wars by Europeans. Secondly, in the genocide against the indigenous Indian populace, then in the lawlessness in vast parts of the country between 1781 and 1912, which became known as the Wild West, and the enslavement of blacks who were hauled across the oceans in slave ships. The blacks were not regarded as human beings and policing was essential to contain them.

This was where racial profiling took roots. It is however essential to state that the police as enforcer of ruling ideas and the status quo, is used not only to suppress African Americans, Asians and Latinos,   but also poor whites and all those who challenge the system. In the case of the African Americans, Asians and Latinos, special laws were made and enforced in the South from 1876 to 1965.

The Apartheid law known as Jim Crow segregated whites from non-whites in all aspects – including education, housing, economy, public transport recreational facilities and even prisons. One general provision common in the Jim Crow laws was the criminalization of marriage between “whites and Negroes, Mulattoes, Indians and Mongolians” Extra judicial murders by a combination of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and the police were also used to enforce these laws. What we are witnessing today as police brutality is the continuation of this culture of lynching and state murders.

Things can get worse with the police, in the name of fighting terrorism, getting better trained, armed, and establishing special arms like the SWAT. There is the need for the reorientation of the police, bringing culprits to book and creating increased awareness. But a fundamental way of tackling the problem is the building of a mass non-racial movement.

Fred Hampton, 21-year old African American murdered by police in his bed on December 4, 1969 posited a solution to police brutality: “We don’t think you fight fire with fire; we think you fight fire with water. We are not going to fight racism with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity.” As the most powerful country in the world, the US is too important to be left in the hands of racists and bigots. All humanity has a stake in a tolerant, multiracial and democratic America. In this sense, the US is a battle ground progressive humanity must win.

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