Around the time I was asked to write this article on police murders of black people in the United States, another high-profile case had just occurred: Freddie Gray in Baltimore. At the time of print, it is likely there will be another case, albeit less well known. After all, police or vigilantes kill a black man every 28 hours in the US.
This excludes black women, who make up around 20 per cent of black deaths at the hands of police in the US. Like Natasha McKenna, a mentally ill woman who was shackled by police and then tasered to death. Or Rekia Boyd, who was shot in the back of the head by a cop – the judge in her case found that involuntary manslaughter was too light, and that he should be charged with first-degree murder. So he threw it out of court.
Even less heard of are black trans women, who are continually harassed, assaulted and murdered by police. One of these women, Deairra Michelle Venable, was harassed and arrested at a protest in Baltimore. The mainstream media was largely silent on the issue, focusing instead on black men who they accused of rioting and thuggery. Then there’s Mya Hall, a black trans woman and sex worker who was gunned down by police after making a wrong turn into Baltimore’s NSA headquarters. She found no justice and even in death, she continues to be misgendered by the press.
Black deaths are treated as unimportant. It is usually only when something else occurs alongside it, such as a riot, that people start paying attention. This is not dissimilar to instances of black deaths in custody here in Australia.
By 2009, African Americans made up 40 per cent of the US prison population, despite comprising only 12 per cent of the total population. In Australia, around 3 per cent of our population is Indigenous. Australian prisons? One quarter Indigenous. An Indigenous youth in Western Australia is 52 times more likely to be in prison than a non-Indigenous person. In Australia, 18 per cent of all deaths in custody – including custody before conviction – are Aboriginal people.
While the majority of these cases involve males, in the last decade, the Aboriginal female population has doubled and now comprises a third of the female prison population—many see this as the state continuing the incarceration of Aboriginal people in a time when so many Aboriginal men have already been imprisoned. Most of these are for petty crimes like not paying fines, effectively creating a debtor prison system for black women.
It is easy to rationalise the highly disproportionate numbers of black arrests and deaths by pointing to the alleged criminality of black people in Australia and the USA. Whether this is intended as pure observation or to imply that black people are simply racially driven to commit more crimes, these supposed answers ignore the real structural reasons why black people in both nations are more likely to face jail time and death at the hands of law enforcement.
The police in both countries have evolved parallel to the histories of domination, enslavement and colonisation. In other words, the very nature of police is entangled in oppression. Many police forces in the United States started as Slave Patrols used to keep black slaves in check. Now, police keep African Americans in check through stop-and-frisks, pulling them over and searching their car; the War on Drugs is the biggest reason for spikes in black incarceration, but it doesn’t target white people: it only gives police forces legislative rationale to continue the harassment and murder of black people.
In Australia, police were formed soon after colonisation to scatter Aboriginal people and make room for settlers. Later, they assumed the position of ‘protectors’ of Aboriginal people in reserves and missions. The discourse surrounding this punishment and abuse was out of a ‘genuine desire’ to better the lives of Aboriginal people. Today, police still arrest Aboriginal people ‘for their own good,’ police still enable the displacement of Aboriginal people from their lands through disproportionately high rates of arrest that move sovereign people from their lands to state-run prisons. They still allow the settlement of sovereign lands, moving Blackfellas off The Block or out of remote communities in Western Australia.
This is not unique. The Native American population in the United States is more prone to police violence than white Americans and Canadian Indigenous folk have prison rates frighteningly similar to that of Australian Aboriginals. It is important as residents of this country to fight for justice. Police are unlikely to pursue justice for the people they have been trained through history to oppress – which makes it even more unbelievable that they are tasked with investigating themselves.
We must remember the names of the people who die from police brutality. We must remember that they are real people, killed because of the colour of their skin and where they came from. Julienka Dhu. TJ Hickey. Cameron Doomadgee. Michael Brown. Rekia Boyd. Mya Hall. Tamir Rice. Freddie Gray. The names of only a few of the many black victims of police racism. We can’t allow this to become so normal that we just resign ourselves to it.