25 June 2020

Racism and police brutality: the USA and Sri Lanka

T. Greg Doucette, a US lawyer, and a mathematician named Jason Miller have compiled a list of 780 videos (as of June 16) showing police brutality. The investigative journalism website  Bellingcat has documented over 140 incidents of police violence against journalists during the protests.

A website called www.copcrisis.com claims ‘only a small fraction of the 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the USA track misconduct reports,’ and that the report of the Department of Justice on police conduct (in 2001) ‘was based on statistics given voluntary by just 5% of police departments in the USA.’

The following is a short list of violent incidents that took place a 72 hour period ending May 31, 2020 and were caught on camera.

A New York City police officer tore a protective mask off of a young black man and assaulted him with pepper spray which the victim stoop peacefully with his hands up. New York City police officers, in two separate vehicles rammed into crowds. Security forces in Minneapolis marched down a quiet residential street and shot paint canisters at residents who were watching from their private porch. Atlanta police stopped two black people, inexplicably shooting them with tasers and pulling them out of their car. Rubber bullets, tear gas and batons, pepper sprays and spraying other chemical agents, attacking people already on the ground or were even handcuffed have been reported all over the USA. Fourteen people have been killed and at least eight of them were involved in protests while some were bystanders while the involvement/presence of the rest haven’t been confirmed as yet (as of June 18). Please note that Black Americans account for less than 13% of the U.S population but are killed by police at more than double the rate of white Americans. In 2019, 250 Black people were fatally shot by the police. 

There’s a civil war in the United States of America and it’s happening now. No exaggeration. It’s about race and it is about racism. Police and police brutality. It’s not random, undisciplined officers but systemic racism that pervades that country and finds expression in the form of police brutality.
The USA doesn’t want to acknowledge any of this. Even after calling the UN’s human rights outfit ‘a cesspool of bias’ and walking out, the USA is using all means deemed necessary to prevails on the body to desist from passing resolutions on the country’s human rights situation. 

Washington is in a way the headquarters of racism and brutality insofar as decisions, domestic and international, are driven by the former and manifest as the latter. Of course the overarching policy imperative is serving capital interests, especially the arms and pharmaceutical industries but not necessarily limited to these.

However, capitalism (and all the violence that goes with it and generates), racism and police brutality do not make up some jealously guarded private property of the USA. Poverty and powerlessness go hand in hand with the sustained development of capital interests in other countries as well, big and small, rich and poor. There is racism outside the USA and Europe. Countries with numerically strong majorities privilege those communities. 

As such the question can be asked, for example, ‘Isn’t what is happening in the USA also happening in Sri Lanka?’ There are other questions that can be asked: 1) Doesn’t Buddhism have a special place in the constitution? 2) Wasn’t violence unleashed on minorities (Tamil and Muslim)?  3) Aren’t minorities systematically excluded from political and administrative office? There can be more of course, but these are key.

Buddhism has a special place in the constitution, yes (Article 9). This ‘special place’ is effectively nullified by Articles 10 and 14. This redundancy should be eliminated. However, those who wail about the ‘unfairness’ and demand secularism are loathe to eliminate exceptions based on religion and race or ‘customary law’ (for example the Thesavalamai law for Tamils in Jaffna, the Kandyan marriage laws and the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act). 

Violence. Yes. Various regimes have turned a blind eye on violence against Tamils and Muslims. In 1983, the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS) the trade union arm of the then ruling party, the UNP, led the race riots. Minorities haven’t been innocent either. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was the world’s most brutal terrorist outfit for decades. It was also a racist organization, targeting Sinhalese (the vast majority of whom are Buddhsits) and Buddhist places of worship. The LTTE also turned its guns on the Muslims, ethnically cleansing the Jaffna Peninsula of that community and turning one in ten Muslims in the Eastern Province into refugees. As for the Muslims, the Easter Sunday attacks were orchestrated by the ‘National Thowheeth Jama’ath,’ an outfit that has been spreading Islamic Fundamentalism for well over a decade. 

Sri Lanka hasn’t had an Obama, true. However, it is not that people in the USA voted for Obama because he was black. Neither did people in Sri Lanka vote for Chandrika Kumaratunga or her mother Sirimavo Bandaranaike because they were women. Racism in the USA wasn’t ‘suspended’ during Obama’s reign and gender imbalances in Sri Lanka didn’t disappear when we had female heads of state. It would be simplistic to say that a country has to be racist if the head of state is from the majority community. 

In the case of privileges in top posts in the institutional arrangement, we need to take into account the identity (religious and ethnic) of the officials. Key institutions such as the Supreme Court and the Central Bank have had heads from minority communities. In fact Sinhala Buddhist ‘representation’ in the top ranks of certain institutions have been low and even non-existent historically. 

Such ‘anomalies’ don’t necessarily say things are all beautiful and equal. Indeed, certain minority political groups believe that only a federal arrangement would amount to ‘equality’ never mind that grievance claims are exaggerated, aspirations presented as citizenship anomalies and ‘solutions’ deliberately avoiding any comment on historical, geographical and demographic realities.  There are grievances. There are citizenship anomalies. 

We are comparing and contrasting here, however. The USA has one religious holiday, Christmas (Good Friday is a holiday in the UK and in other European countries as well as in Canada, Australian and New Zealand). Sri Lanka has holidays for all religious communities with Christians and Muslims enjoying a disproportionately high number. All the above mentioned countries have religious iconography associated with the state. Theism reigns. Christian theism, to be precise. You see it in flags, anthems and even currency notes. Nothing of the kind in Sri Lanka.

Let’s talk of prisons and police brutality. If ‘racism’ is to be extracted from percentages of the incarcerated, the so-called Sinhala Buddhist State is a masochistic edifice! Sri Lanka has known police brutality but here again if you talk numbers the victims have been disproportionately Sinhala Buddhists. The issue however was not race or religion. The police defended regimes. In the USA, obviously the police defends systems, but the issue was and is race and the violence was racist. 

Innocent Tamils were certainly targeted by the coercive apparatus of the Sri Lankan state, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, but this very apparatus moved to kill 60,000 Sinhala people in just two years. The victims saw themselves as nationalists. Identity was important to them. They were unarmed and weren’t exactly caught in a crossfire or killed by undisciplined soldiers. THAT was ‘policy’ and is very different from the realities of a war-theater where a monumental hostage rescue operation was successfully completed. There were costs, as always. 

That said, Sri Lanka is a long way from obtaining inter-ethnic and inter-religious resolve. We don’t have an ideal police force. Our justice system is flawed. Our constitution needs corrective amendment. At the same time,  we have nothing even close to the kind of systemic racism and police brutality whose existence the USA can no longer deny. 

However, if there were 780 videos showing police brutality and 140 incidents of police violence against journalists during the protests held over ten days in Sri Lanka, we would have the US State Department issuing warnings, Ambassador Alaina B Teplitz taking a knee and the UN issuing statements of censure. No, forget the numbers 780, 140 and 10. They’d still do it if it was just one video of a police officer kicking a protestors, one claim of even a journalist with dubious credentials whining about persecution over a period of 365 days. On the flip side, these entities AND their local lackeys have gone all quiet over rights violations in the USA. Telling!

Equivalency. Nice word. Misleads. Pernicious. The USA is in the middle of a civil war. Sri Lanka is not.