Police Brutality Is Not Exclusive to the USA
George Floyd did not have to die to become a hero
KOLKATA, Jun 3: Minneapolis burns today for the seventh straight day. As the windows of abandoned police vans on the street shatter into a million pieces, protestors make their way to the police stations, shards of glass crackling under their feet. The scene is one of war. They pose dramatically in front of police buildings engulfed in flames. One flexes his muscles in front of this ravaged symbolism of State oppression.
The power dynamics have always been oppressive and the message seems to be that people refuse to accept this any more. These photographs will go down in history, they all seem to know, as similar photographs have done in the past. But the movement has grown stronger, fiercer, angrier. And with every death the idea of a compromise becomes less realistic.
George Floyd did not have to die to become a hero. The protest in Minneapolis demanding the immediate arrest of the two White police officers who murdered Floyd has slowly grown into a full-scale protest calling for the abolition of the police system.
The Minneapolis protests, akin to previous large-scale political mobilisations in the USA in the past few years demanding radical solutions to police brutality against African Americans and against communities of minority ethnicities do not necessarily aim to create a more robust or honest criminal justice system – the motivations appear more personal and the nature of the reforms demanded is radical.
Floyd’s murder resonates around the planet. George Floyd died because he could not breathe. Those blinded by the shiny mirrors of religious/caste privilege, the high walls of class privilege and the islands of gender privilege may not share the feeling, but India too has been asphyxiated for time immemorial. The history of this country is a history of senseless oppression, oppression that has been furthered by the law.
While it is not our journey here to talk about the brutalities imposed by the warring factions of the past, we find that stories of past brutalities, carried through broken monasteries and burnt literatures, have seeped into the injustices of present times.
Seventy years after the enactment of the Constitution, the Republic continues to be run in a manner bereft of morality, by people governing those who are only marginally better off than their ancestors were, using laws that carry the oppressive flavours of their colonial moorings, through enforcers who have lost all ability to empathise.
Only a few days before the death of George Floyd, on May 22, conscientious citizens and those involved in an extended battle against communalism and the state-sponsored annihilation of minority rights observed the 33rd anniversary of the Hashimpura massacre.
On 22 May 1987 no fewer than 42 young Muslim men from the neighbourhood of Hashimpura in Meerut were rounded up by 19 men of the Provincial Armed Constabulary, an armed police division of Uttar Pradesh law enforcement, and taken to the city outskirts where they were shot dead in cold blood. Their corpses were thrown to rot in the drains. Even in death their dignities were undermined.
In the trials that followed, 16 of the 19 men who surrendered were later released on bail pleas. Only 31 years later were the killers sentenced to life imprisonment. Who gave the orders for Hashimpura?
But 1987 appears a long time ago, to those who did not lose sons and brothers in the massacre, and to those who have extricated themselves from the lives of ‘minorities’ in our shared country. Hashimpura has been imprisoned in the history books for some, and for others history does not seem to end.
The past year has been a time of great political uprising for India, exposing the shrouded realities of the culture we were brought up in. It is increasingly difficult for parents to tell their children the great Indian story. The State broadcasts mythologies propagating political agendas every night at fixed hours, and parents continue to romanticise the structural issues of everyday reality as acceptable and even admirable.
But when these children are having their colleges ransacked, their libraries gassed, their hostel rooms invaded by police officers, their bodies mutilated, it becomes a difficult act to convince them that anomalies in the social and political structure need not be addressed.
We remember the videos of police personnel in Meerut toppling vegetable carts, of the Delhi police senselessly beating Muslims on charges of spreading the coronavirus, of police using casteist instruments of shaming and derogatory punishment against the dispossessed and migrant workers for violating lockdown measures. The incessant brutality perpetrated by the AFSPA personnel in Kashmir and the northeastern region has an unending literature that we will need to reckon with.
In State of Uttar Pradesh v. Mohd. Naim (1964) Justice A.N Mulla of the Allahabad High Court while hearing a criminal appeal against a Station Officer imputed under §195 of the Indian Penal Code (presenting false evidence), observed that
“Somehow, the police force in general, barring a few exceptions, seems to have come to the conclusion that crime cannot be investigated and security cannot be preserved by following the law, and this can only be achieved by breaking or circumventing the law. At least, the traditions of a hundred years indicate that this is what they believe… I say it with all sense of responsibility, that there is not a single lawless group in the whole of the country whose record of crime comes anywhere near the record of that organised unit which is known as the Indian Police Force”.
Marxist criminology which propounds that “the law” is nothing but the bureaucratic furtherance of oppression by the ruling classes in any epoch of history, needs urgently to be studied in a more mainstream light. Democratic settings provide room to experiment with historically developed mechanisms of social control, and there has been no more powerful mechanism of social control than the police. And yet the history of minority politics in both the United States and India, supposedly the two bastions of the democratic form of government in the world, reveals the entangled nature of law enforcement and violence against the oppressed.
Black, racial revolutionary MalcolmX in a recorded speech is heard saying,
“Every case of police brutality against a Negro follows the same pattern. They attack you, burst you all upside your mouth, and then take you to Court and charge you with assault. What kind of democracy is that? What kind of freedom is that?”
In a 2019 report published by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, 35% of Dalit respondents claimed they had been arrested on false charges of petty crimes, 27% of Adivasi respondents claimed false arrest on Maoism charges, and a staggering 47% of Muslim respondents claimed false arrests on terrorism charges.
Law enforcement is the first point of encounter with the criminal justice system and also the point in chronology where the prospect of being exposed to physical violence is the highest.
Since 2014 the Black Lives Matter movement in the US has campaigned extensively for the complete abolition of this law enforcement institution.
In 2016 the #LetUsBreathe Collective, founded in the memory of Michael Brown, an 18 year old African American teenager who was shot dead in the back by a White police officer in Missouri, launched a movement founded on the idealisation of “a world without the police” and called for the city of North Lawndale to put its $1.4 billion police budget to other uses.
Elsewhere and over the years, instances of targeted police brutality have pushed the abolitionists into mainstream circles.
Interview with the late Erica Garner
The current movement for police abolition is inspired directly from the literature of the prison abolition demands of the Radical Feminist uprising and led by Angela Davis, who was also a Black Panther Party member in her earlier years. Davis wrote in 1998 in Colorlines that
“The prison industrial system materially and morally impoverishes its inhabitants and devours the social wealth needed to address the very problems that have led to spiralling numbers of prisoners.”
The prison abolition movement is a significant instance of challenging fundamental political institutions for the safeguarding of minority interests. Both the police abolition and prison abolition movements are based on a common philosophy of restorative justice – one of its staunchest advocates, John Braithwaite, argues that crime is a rupture between the criminal and the society, the criminal and the victim’s family, and the victim’s family and the society.
Promoting a system of dialogue and community building wherein the best interests of both perpetrator and victim are taken into consideration, he argues, is the most effective method of dealing with crime, and it requires no formalised law enforcement agency.
While criticisms of the idea, despite of successful experiments during the Radical Feminist era, are well recorded, the Black Panther movement of the 60s and 70s conceived yet another alternative to State policing mechanisms: Community policing.
Community policing has been described as a method of providing greater avenues of communication between the police and civilians, community organisations (including organisations in neighbourhoods where they do not exist) and a promotion and incentivisation of community crime prevention methods. Its most marked feature is the representation of the community in the ranks of the law enforcement, which would help increment the empathy quotient in the exercise of policing.
The Black Panthers, in their years of primacy, used to follow police vehicles, observing the police and ensuring that no violence took place. As a means of safeguarding the interests of the African American community, the Black Panthers essentially policed the police.
However, the Dalit Panthers could not enact community policing to that level of success in Maharashtra. Community policing has a certain history in India. Surakhya Samitis in Odisha, the Village Defence Party, Meira Paibi, and Gaon Burah in Assam and the Police Mitra Yojna in Madhya Pradesh have attempted to provide voice to indigenous interests in the policing of their communities.
Tapan Chakraborty argues that these programs have largely been failures, due to the lack of an institutionalised framework, but more importantly, due to the tokenistic apportioning of power and the resistance to community representation in the upper echelons of the executive.
K.G Kannabiran in his book Wages of Impunity proposed a workable solution within the existing framework of a non-diverse police force. As a matter of legal reform, he proposes that the “immunity enjoyed by public servants [should] not extend to the crimes set out in the penal code. The legislatures may, to set the matter at rest, introduce a provision to the effect that where the accusation is offences against the human body, no permission to prosecute will be necessary, and that such offences will not be regarded as acts performed in the exercise of the duties”.
Police brutality during the coronavirus pandemic in India is legally protected by §4 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 which absolves police personnel of investigation if any problematic activity was carried out in good faith. It is in this context that Kannabiran’s proposal is an extremely powerful one.
George Floyd’s murder brings back painful memories of yesteryears and forces us to acknowledge the repressive reality of our current times. The ongoing protests in Minneapolis and around the world are driven by a radical attitude and with a history of radical but efficient reformations that deserve wider attention.
We remember that “radical” is a very subjective label. For the Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, the Black Panthers of America or the Dalit Panthers and Ambedkarite revolutionaries closer home, what would be understood from a privileged position as radical action, would be from the perspective of the historically oppressed a reasonable and justified reaction.
Kannabiran wrote that since Independence the Constitution has taken a secondary role in the administration of the country, and this “indifference” to a document embodying the aspirations and objectives of our struggle for independence has resulted in our failure to restructure institutions in the terms of the Constitution.
Babasaheb Ambedkar, who was instrumental in drafting the Constitution of India, was as openly radical in his activism as he was in his scholarship. It is perhaps then essential to entertain radical philosophies for the reinstatement of the Constitution as the primary upholder of values in the country’s administrative circles.
Rest in Power George Floyd. Rest in Power all victims of police brutality across the world.
Sushovan Patnaik is a law student at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata