The fraught relationship between police and the African American community in the United States played out on television screens across the world, as riots broke out in many states in response to a spate of deaths of black men at the hands of law enforcement.
The depth of the anger and despair of the protestors who took to the streets highlighted to the international community the level of injustice African Americans feel occurs within their community. Many felt that the deceased men were portrayed as thugs and drug dealers, when in some cases they were simply walking down the street – unarmed.
Tensions between the African American community and police can be traced back to the harsh slave patrols, through to segregation of the Jim Crow Laws, to police brutality during the civil rights movement.
“It’s been a relationship that’s been strained from very early times,” says Tanya Gladney, Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at St Thomas University.
“Police are a symbolic image that’s seen as denying justice. But at the time they were just upholding the law because there were unjust laws.”
Although laws have changed, the legacy of the injustice cannot be underestimated. Associate Professor Tanya Gladney says it is crucial to consider the impact of the psychological wounding that has occurred across generations when assessing the recent deaths of young black men.
“It’s almost like a trigger that strikes up old wounds from historical times with the feeling that law enforcement is seen as an oppression. It’s an entity that dominates and oppresses the African American community.”
“When you’re trying to restore that trust and these current events are taking place, they continue to fragment.”
A new New York Times/CBS poll conducted in July found that six in 10 Americans think race relations in their country are poor, and four in 10 believe they are getting worse.
Despite the removal of discriminatory laws – if you are black in America, you are more likely to be less educated, poor, go to jail, and die in custody than the rest of the population.
Many parallels can be drawn with the indigenous community in Australia. If you are indigenous in Australia you also are more likely to be less educated, poor, go to jail and die in custody. Mistrust of law enforcement also has a historical context. It is rooted in the Stolen Generations, when indigenous children were forcibly removed from their parents by white authorities. Today, the likelihood of arrest is about 20 times greater for an indigenous Australian than the rest of the population. And like young African Americans, young indigenous men complain of racial-profiling by police, as they feel they are unfairly targeted and harassed.
You don’t have to scratch far beneath the surface to see the tension. Some years ago I went to a local police station in Sydney to report a crime. The police officers treated me with respect, and my complaint was taken seriously and investigated.
However, during that same visit I saw a very different side of the police force. Two indigenous teenagers had been brought in for questioning because their boyfriends were suspected of committing a crime, and could not be located. The girls sat quietly in the lobby waiting for their interview.
As the officer approached to escort the girls to an interview room he launched into an unprovoked verbal attack, “you little sl*ts, tell us where they are.”
The contempt was mutual. The girls responded, “you scum, you think you’re above the law.”
The exchange continued along these lines for about ten minutes.
I was astounded. As a middle class white person, I had never seen anything like it.
While the similarities in police-community relations in Australia and the United States are clear, there is one crucial difference – in America minor infractions can escalate into a gun being fired.
From an Australian perspective, part of the problem in the United States appears to be gun control. Given guns are easily accessible to civilians, police understandably fear deadly violence. It’s a dangerous job and an officer’s overriding goal every day is to go home at the end of their shift.
Guns have been outlawed for two decades in Australia, and there has been a dramatic reduction of incidents of gun violence as a result. It would be rare for an Australian police officer to be shot at by a civilian, because the vast majority of people do not have guns. For that reason, the threshold is much higher before an officer would even consider reaching for a weapon.
Nekima Levy-Pounds, a law professor and Black Life Matters activist, says while widespread gun ownership issue is certainly an issue in the United States, the root of the problem is much more complex than gun laws.
Like Professor Gladney, she believes the current situation can be linked to the historical oppression of African Americans by white authorities.
“There’s a racial aspect here that has its roots in slavery in terms of hyper fear of African Americans in general and in particular of African American men. During the days of slavery when black men tried to escape from plantations they were seen as fugitives, they were seen as dangerous – there was a lot of propaganda that was put out there, posters and other things that portrayed them in a very menacing way. Those perceptions have continued,” Professor Levy-Pounds says.
“There is a widespread perception of black men as being prone to criminal conduct. Those perceptions of black men as being portrayed as dangerous play a role in terms of how they are treated when they come into contact with law enforcement.”
Professor Levy-Pounds was a legal observer in Ferguson during the riots. She was deeply concerned by a group of white civilians who called themselves “The Oathkeepers.” They stood on the rooftops of businesses armed with guns – but had travelled from interstate and had no connection to the properties they were supposedly protecting.
“If these had been African American men standing on the rooftops with rifles – there is no way the police would have allowed this to happen.”
The fact that these white men were allowed to intimidate people with weapons, and unarmed black men have been shot by police for a minor infraction doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of police-community relations in some parts of the country.
But there is a glimmer of hope. Police Departments across the United States will soon be compelled to offer their staff anti-bias training. As officers are likely to use more force depending on the level of threat they perceive – the training is designed to compensate for the unconscious racial biases that lead officers to consider black men a greater threat than others.
Both Australia and the United States have progressed in leaps and bounds when it comes to improving opportunities for minority groups over the past few decades. But it’s very clear that when it comes to police-community relations, there’s still a long way for both countries to go.