Public opinion happily condemns systemic racism and excessive police force in other countries, but racist police violence is far from limited to the US.
It is easy to denounce someone else’s racism. Few Europeans, for one, would easily overlook the pressing issue with racist police violence in the US. The average liberal newspaper goes at length to praise the #BlackLivesMatter movement and its relentless efforts to question racial inequality. They happily endorse the notion that there exists such a thing as a deeply ingrained, institutionalized racism in the US.
It is far from controversial, in fact, to claim that the systematic use of deadly force against black people and persons of color is probably invoked by racist stereotypes, again, in the US.
But needless to say, none of this ever seems to apply to one’s own country, culture, or society.
Whereas the United States is still understood to be in the process of reconciliation with its racist origins, Europe has sufficiently dealt with its past. Here, in Europe, the consensus goes, police violence is both exceptional and “color blind”.
Granted: social-economic or political inequalities may perhaps be racially or culturally marked. But in that case they directly result from recent demographic movements, not racism, and thus are due to dissolve within one or two generations. “Racism”, in other words, applies only to the other.
Remember Freddie Gray
This weekend, on June 27, the 42-year-old Aruban man Mitch Henriquez was brutally murdered by police in The Hague. Henriquez was visiting his family in the Netherlands, with whom he attended a music festival. While leaving the venue, Henriquez was beset by a handful of police officers, allegedly on the basis of the vague, unfounded – and, indeed, in due course falsified – suspicion that he was carrying a weapon.
A press release stated that police had employed physical force, as Henriquez violently resisted his arrest. It also argued that only during the detainee’s transportation to the police station, Henriquez suddenly became unwell. He had to be reanimated in the vehicle, while being hurried to hospital. Henriquez died a few hours later.
Video footage made by eyewitnesses, however, suggests that Henriquez was already unconscious – or at least: unable to carry himself – when forced into a police van at the scene of his arrest. Although no substantial medical assistance is provided, police officers are visibly aware of him being wounded: his pulse is checked repeatedly, and his body lies motionless. He also appears to be bleeding rather severely.
The chilling accounts of Henriquez’ murder remind us of Freddie Gray’s death, a few months ago in Baltimore. Gray’s arrest was also based on the unfounded suspicions of him carrying a weapon. He was also heavily abused during his arrest, and subsequently dragged into a police vehicle without receiving any medical treatment.
As much as in Gray’s case, it was a combination of racially motivated suspicion, excessive police violence, and a disinterested neglect on behalf of the police that seem to have led to Henriquez’ death.
Intimidation and discrimination
On Sunday the Dutch Public Ministry announced that it has officially filed an investigation, as the standard procedure prescribes. In the meantime, citizens and press are expected not to speculate on what appears to be no less than a violent, racially motivated murder at the hands of the police.
Little suggests, however, that the Public Ministry is determined to get to the bottom of this. Already the Ministry had to repeal its earlier statement, which suggested that Henriquez possibly died of natural causes. As in the case of Baltimore, it is not unlikely that only public unrest might eventually result in the indictment of the responsible officers.
For although The Hague police department has a reputation of being notoriously violent and racist, its members’ misconduct tends to remain without consequences. Former employees have repeatedly stated that the department’s organizational culture is one of intimidation and discrimination, also among colleagues.
Numerous detainees have testified that they have been abused, bullied and humiliated by the Hague police. The department’s commissioner, Paul van Musscher, publicly declared on television that Dutch-Moroccans are culturally “somewhat wild at heart”. They are notorious street dwellers, he continued, and a bit “rougher” – in short, their perceived criminal inclinations would be “genetically determined”.
More importantly, it is evidently not the first time that members of this very police department are responsible for the death of an innocent person of color. Only in 2012, a Hague police officer shot and killed Rishi Chandrikasing, a Dutch citizen of Surinamese-Indian descent. Rishi was also falsely suspected of carrying a firearm, and was shot in the back merely for ignoring the policeman’s order to stop and freeze.
Initially indicted for manslaughter, the responsible officer was later acquitted on the public prosecutor’s own request. He subsequently returned to work for the Hague police department, which has continued to violently repress any protest against the officer’s acquittal.
Police violence, everywhere
That said: if the murder of Henriquez and its striking resemblances with Freddy Gray’s and many other cases prove anything, it is that racist police violence should never be reduced to a mere matter of local police culture.
There are simply too many similarities and too many indications of a more structural, systemic problem, to argue that any of these cases stand on their own. Notwithstanding the differences in local context and circumstances, everywhere in the capitalist world the police’s position vis-à-vis racial minorities or migrant communities appears to have similar, racist bearings.
Everywhere, all indications of systemic racism are fundamentally neglected or trivialized by the mainstream media.
Everywhere, police officers usually remain unindicted for their misconduct – and even if they are prosecuted, this rarely results in a conviction.
Everywhere, the victims of police violence or their remaining families and communities are charged with the burden of proof — rather than the very perpetrators of this violence.
And everywhere, public opinion will happily condemn the systemic racism and excessive police force in other countries, without acknowledging the persistence of similar problems in its own midst.
This is why no anti-racist movement is likely to succeed in confronting these issues, as long as it is lacking sufficient transnational scope. Only by scrutinizing the similarities between different forms of racist violence throughout the capitalist world will local activists be able to prevent their own communities from looking the other way. Only through building solidarity across borders – which, after all, are inherently racist institutions in their own right – are we to understand and confront the systematic nature of racism and other forms of oppression and exploitation.
Therefore, let Mitch Henriquez’ name be known around the world. Let his story be told across borders, and in many languages. For as long as systemic racism is to be found everywhere, so should our common struggle against it.
Mathijs van de Sande
This article was originally published at Roarmag (with a different title).