This image of a peaceful protester in Baton Rouge being arrested by heavily armoured police officers on Saturday has spread like fire on social media. Many have compared it to the iconic image of the man who stood in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989. In one hand, its saddening to think powerful images like these will be remembered for a dark time in our history, but this is what we are living through. It’s images like these that are necessary. It captures the excessive response to protesters across cities in America, but is also a metaphor for the excessive actions that have seen too many people die at the hands of police in the United States.
The fatal killing of two, young, innocent black men by police officers in Minnesota and Louisiana this week were truly tragic, ultimately unethical and a painful loss to America and the world. It’s certainly not the first and unfortunately will not be the last. And, quite rightly, has sparked outrage and disarray in communities across the U.S. Lethal police behaviour, brutality, killings and racially-motivated crimes have been common place, way before the Black Lives Matter campaign started. It harks back to the despicable, heinous crimes of white supremacists in the 1800s, before and after. Equality should have been a birth right for every person on the planet. Yet black people have been fighting for this civil liberty since day one.
Things were supposed to have changed. The aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s battle for African-American Civil Rights, that he risked everything for, including his life, saw the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prevail. And a step in direction of change. He fought for civil rights, for an equal playing field, which should’ve existed already. And yet, 50 years later, it feels no different. The American justice system has repeatedly failed their people. It must stop.
With every subsequent reporting of another black life being taken, society cries out in anger, in emotion and in mourning. The sheer malice and terrifying truth that regularly reveals itself in cold blood, goes unpunished and without change. The gut-wrenching, abysmal trauma, that is now live-stream broadcasted for the world to see, is making us all witnesses to horrifying crimes. And some have even questioned what it means to bear witness to such tragedies and injustices so freely. The availability of such footage has never been so readily accessible before. They are invaluably useful when used in a criminal case against law enforcement, serving as unavoidable, incriminating evidence which could bring the perpetrators to justice. On the other hand, mass exposure to the public may have far wider psychological implications.
Trauma has been linked to psychological problems in the past, with returning soldiers of war suffering PTSD; a common wound of service. What they see, experience and do can cause them troubling mental health effects from depression, to excessive drinking and drug abuse. Of course, there have been no scientific studies into the effects of viewing such graphic content so readily and frequently, as testing would be unethical.
The truth is, people don’t know how to react. April Foreman, a psychologist at the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System in Baton Rouge, says “it’s probably not healthy for people to repeatedly become second-hand witnesses to traumatic events.” Especially if they’re more sensitive to the content they’re viewing. So the effect is multiplied when a viewer can identify with a victim. I’m a white British man, and have seen the videos of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and Freddie Gray, and I’m sick to my stomach, numb with disbelief and refuse to become desensitised to such hateful violence. But, many black men and black women in America must be mourning the deaths of these two men as if they knew them personally.
The shootings and deaths of five Dallas police officers were in direct response to the fatal killings of Sterling and Castille in a 48-hour period. And another unnecessary loss of life, through the evil actions of a few.
In what has been a truly heart-breaking week for America, it’s hard to find belief that things will get better. However, protests have grown and spread across the country and the world. This weekend saw Black Lives Matter rallies in London, where supporters marched on the Houses of Parliament, through Oxford Street and in Brixton. There were over 1,000 people gathered in central London yesterday as a show of solidarity for their American allies.
“Don’t shoot” should mean no guns
It’s too easy to say that an America without guns would be a safer place. But it’s so right too. I’m not saying it would solve the problem as there’s an ugly, racist, supremacist culture that slithers through the American community that is more than just access to a gun. But when you look at incidents in the UK, like the Leytonstone tube station attack in December last year which saw three victims suffer minor stab wounds. Put a gun in his hand and the outcome could be very different.
Our regular police officers in Britain do not carry automatic weapons, unlike the Baton Rouge police officers or the Minnesota officer. And cases of police brutality in the UK are virtually unheard of, and much more as a result of heavy-handed crowd-control efforts against large groups of people, like the policing of the 2009 G-20 Summit and the student protests in 2010. No less excusable, but isolated. In the UK, we have had only one notable case of a murder by police, and that was Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005 on the London underground. Whereas, in America there have been 571 people killed by police in 2016 alone. With 535 of those by gunshot.
Justice needs to be served for the victims, and for a country on its knees, as its people are left angry and disillusioned at a broken system of aggressive, prejudiced policing.
Feature image credit: 1000 words/Shutterstock