By Andrea Charles-Fidelis
Watching the videos of violated black bodies, especially males has become commonplace on mainstream and social media platforms. The distress I felt when watching a Minneapolis Police Officer kneel on George Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes was excruciating as we heard him plead several times ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.
Police colleagues, the public and the person recording did nothing to challenge the act of asphyxiation being played out right before their eyes. It should be obvious to anyone and everyone that excessive and extreme force will result in the death of a human being.
The profound question is why does this continue to happen over and over when we know what the issues are? In 1999 the Macpherson Report published 70 recommendations to tackle institutionally racist policing.
Eighteen years later the UK government published the first ever Independent Review into Deaths and Serious Incidents in Police Custody which proposed in part recommendations towards tackling discrimination, through recognition of the disproportionate number of deaths of BAME people following restraint and the role of institutional racism.
We have known what the issues are for decades. Families, communities, organisations, the police and the government all know, yet arguably little to no real traction is being made to redress inequity in some policing practices despite more incidents over the passage of time.
Raising awareness of injustice to spark difficult conversations about why essential changes are needed is critical to the global outpouring of outrage, compassion and solidarity in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. I saw protests in Brazil, South Africa and Australia all of which are countries like the USA and the UK afflicted by historical, systematic and intuitional racism.
I and others hoped this representation of unity would set in motion a framework for positive change, but realistically how can it without a plan? Like so many incidents before and others yet to happen this is not going to be the defining moment in my opinion.
Without a doubt policing is an incredibly difficult and challenging job. Its role in society is fundamentally important, and excessive force or brutality in policing is not just about race, there are countless other examples of good and bad practice to draw upon, but the main point as I see it in this context is the issue of disproportionality with regards to BAME people around levels of aggression in how policing is carried out and administered by some staff.
We know what the issues are from numerous inquiries, reviews and lived experiences; I argue a need to return to the drawing board to map out a progressive way forward driven by a people centric approach to inform policy, politics and community relations. Reconstitute and prioritise the ‘right to life’ defined in an ethical oath similar to the Hippocratic Oath historically used by physicians ‘to do no harm’.
Individuals in authority need to critically evaluable why we think the way we do and how this can impact spontaneous decisions. In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell explores how our instant reactions result from an automatic shuffling of accumulated experiences and perspectives that inform how we make a judgement from first impressions.
This unsolicited automatic faculty was called the ‘adaptive unconscious’ by psychologist Timothy D Wilson. Given that spontaneous reactions are not always the best ones, Malcolm argues this can be trained. I believe a nuanced approach is needed to tackle bias policing with training through a prism of psychotherapy, contemplation and compassion for humanity at its core.
Internal and external mechanisms are needed to get to a place where ‘I can’t breathe’ should evoke a natural human instinct in us all to challenge deadly abuse to protect a life. Until this becomes commonplace we will remain in a state of dynamic inaction around improving race relations across this landscape.
Reactive policing in a state of flux with constant danger will enviably have incidents where it is difficult to strike a balance, however the importance of seeing the humanity in people, understanding the fragility of life and asking the right questions will certainly prevent more deaths of this kind.
Sadly the global condemnation of police brutality in the George Floyd case is not our watershed moment.
Andrea Charles-Fidelis, a Public Affairs Analyst and Commentator writes from the United Kingdom via firstname.lastname@example.org
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