Lamine Dieng, Abou Bakari Tandia, and Mariam Getu Hagos. These are just a few names of Black people in France with similar stories to victims of police violence here in the United States. Lamine Dieng died after being restrained by five officers and thrown into a squad car where he stopped moving. Abou Bakari Tandia died mysteriously in his cell after being arrested. The police said he smashed his head against the wall of his cell, but the incongruous nature of their story points to deception about what really happened. And Mariam Getu Hagos died after being restrained by officers during his deportation.
These names are likely unknown to Black people in the US. In the midst of Black uprisings around the globe, I worry that the hypervisibility of US-based struggles are obscuring the struggles of Black people worldwide. For a country that often considers itself the world’s leader, dominates international media, and exports American culture while appropriating other cultures; what are the consequences of this hypervisibility and does it necessarily lead to eclipsing Black struggles outside the US?
I learned about Lamine, Abou, Mariam, and Ali after I spoke with Anne-Sophie in Paris, France. She and I knew each other on social media, and I decided to reach out to her and several other Black people around the world after I noticed this issue of movement exceptionalism. I’ve been searching for understanding of how to address the disconnect between what we know about the plight of African descended people in the US and what we assume or don’t even know about the plight of people in the African diaspora worldwide. In my effort to make these connections, I spoke to Anne and others to ask them about their particular experiences of Black struggles in their current homelands.
Anne is a beautician and activist of West Indian descent via Guadeloupe. She and I are both descended from enslaved Africans who ended up in two different parts of the world at the hands of two different countries. These are not the only similarities we share. “Housing. Job discrimination. Of course police officers are constantly, constantly harassing us. Stop-and-frisk all the time,” she told me describing issues just like the ones facing Black people in my community and country as a whole. She spoke to me about the quiet-as-kept nature of police brutality in France. “You’re just not hearing about it, but it happens all the time.” Anne’s Twitter timeline holds a pinned tweet recognizing several victims of police brutality in France reflecting what police often do at the hands of the state internationally, kill.
Police brutality and dying in police custody is also very common for French POC. Lamine Dieng, passed away in 2007. pic.twitter.com/qwsKXqNKz8
— Rosanne Parks. (@FrenchHeaux) August 5, 2015
I couldn’t help but notice that Anne felt that solidarity from Black activists in the states wasn’t what it should be. Anne said she was frustrated with what she felt was a lack of concern or knowledge of Black European struggles. She made it plain she didn’t want Black activists in the US to fight for them, she said they could fight for themselves; still, she did expect competence, understanding, and respect around their struggles. “I would like for everyone to respect the differences that we have. I think that’s the only way we can celebrate the fact that we are all Black.” She went on to say, “When you understand that people do have the same traits as you but they are really different, I think that’s where you get intersectionality. You get it that people are different, so they’re facing different things.” The question presented itself plainly: If someone asked me to name Black people in the US, who were fatalities in the seemingly never-ending cycle of state violence, too many names would come to mind. However, if someone asked me to do the same for Black people killed by police in Europe, Latin America, or Asia, how many could I name? Our movements — and our knowledge of social issues — suffer from their parochial scope. For too many of us, our Black identity has been melded into a framework of American exceptionalism. That is to say, in the US our thinking around Blackness may very well neglect the nuances of Blackness among African-descended people worldwide. In a moment when the world is once again examining how the US treats Black people, it’s important to acknowledge state violence against African-descended people in other countries, especially the violence that Black people around the world experience as a consequence of US foreign policy and empire building.
Some media reports have compared police violence in the US to police violence abroad. For example, The Guardian has been tracking US police killings and has showed the drastic nature of the differences the US and other countries. The data states: “The US population is roughly six times that of England and Wales. According to the World Bank, the US has a per capita intentional homicide rate five times that of the UK.”
Police in the UK do not carry guns. The high profile Guardian report fails to provide the necessary distinctions about gun laws for police in the countries where comparisons are made. Many of the comparisons drawn by the media and some activists here in the US fail to explain this while minimizing the seriousness of the deaths that occur in police custody internationally. Missing crucial distinctions and nuances between the struggles of Black people in the US and abroad can further undermine our struggles if we’re not careful. In effect, we might be indirectly or unintentionally saying, some deaths or how some Black people die matters more than how others do.
Another example lies in the jubilation that swept social media when Swedish police officers intervened in an altercation on the subway in New York City last year. The police officers, who were on vacation, broke up a fight between two homeless Black men on a Manhattan subway train. The message the media relayed from the incident was this is how police should do their jobs. The Swedish officers asked questions like, “How do you feel,” and assured the men, who were both Black, that everything would be “okay.” But the imagery of a supposedly kinder, gentler police force still showed Black men lying on the ground screaming while White officers subdued them. In lauding these Swedish officers, the media relied on a classic assumption that Scandinavian countries are human rights sanctuaries for all. Yet, only two years earlier unrest broke out in Sweden around many of the same issues that people would uprise against in Ferguson, Missouri. The Stockholm riots erupted after Swedish police shot and killed a man who was armed with a knife in front of his family. Sound familiar? The Stockholm riots took place a year before Ferguson, and it would behoove journalists and activists to highlight the parallels between police brutality, racial profiling, and white supremacy in Ferguson and Stockholm. At the very least, this could help forge solidarity and help us better understand anti-Blackness both at home and abroad.
Mohamed Musse is a Somali-Swedish born university student living in London, England. “I know both sides,” he told me speaking of his experience in the two countries. “Black Europeans often don’t know about what happens to other Black Europeans,” he told me explaining that one segment of Black Europe might not know what’s going on with another in a country next door. “In terms of statistics, the statistics we have in this country are so untrustworthy. Even the parliament doesn’t trust it.” Mohamed told me about a report where British Parliament actually expressed that they don’t trust police statistics.
“And what we do know is still pretty bad,” Mohamed explained. Although the Black British population is a very small minority, they still make up the vast majority of Britain’s criminal DNA database. In 2006, an estimated 135,00 Black males aged 15 to 34 were to be entered into the “crime-fighting” database which was “equivalent to as many as 77 percent of the young black male population in England and Wales. By contrast, only 22 per cent of young white males and six percent of the general population will be on the database.” The disproportionate imprisonment of Black adult and youth offenders parallels the scene here in the US.
“Activism that happened like 30 to 50 years ago, we’re still fighting for the same thing,” Mohamed said. In the face of ongoing state-sanctioned brutality in Britain and the US, his frustration was all too palpable.
The death of Sarah Reed, a Black woman in London who died in her cell after being assaulted by a police officer, was an eerie reminder of Sandra Bland in Texas. Sarah Reed was charged after striking back at her abuser. Despite a known history of mental illness, she was transferred from a hospital and placed in Holloway prison where she was later found dead. Her family was told that she had strangled herself and their requests to see Sarah’s body were refused.
Like Freddie Gray who fell into a coma in the custody of Baltimore police shortly after he was arrested, Julian Cole was left in a vegetative state after police arrested him outside of a nightclub in Bedford in 2013.
“I think the police may have behaved the same here as in the US – it is the same type of behaviour, it hasn’t been as well publicized,” his brother Claudius Cole told The Guardian. “Julian did not need six officers to pin him down – he is only 5ft 5in and was unarmed – excessive force used is just the same. There are questions to ask about whether there may be a racial element to how they treated Julian.” The Coles said they were inspired to campaign by the activism of Black families in the US.
I also spoke with Dash Harris, an Afro-Latina multimedia journalist and educator based in Colón, Panama. She produces content relevant to the African diaspora that often focuses on identity and decolonization. She is a part of the collective Afrolatino Travel, described as a “resource for Afrodiasporic information, multi-media, travel curation and cultural exchange in the Americas” on their website. Dash and I problematized the essence of how Black American-ness is framed in the US and beyond. “I think the word ‘Black’ is used as a synonym for African American when that really doesn’t make much sense,” she said, “but I would like it be more inclusive of non-African Americans.” Dash pointed out how the term “Black American” itself usually doesn’t include Black South Americans or Central Americans.
“You can [take] whatever police brutality story is in the news, erase the country and put in any other country in the Americas. Change a few place names and the story is happening in Brazil; in Colombia; in Ecuador; in Mexico,” Dash explained. “The whole continent was built on the same system of white supremacy and domination.” But Dash was careful to warn that we should not blur away our differences. “In building a continental social movement I think there needs to be more room and more space for those differences to actually help in the movement,” she said.
Helping each other without erasing our differences or acknowledging our shared African ancestry were consistent aspects of each conversation that I had. Anne, Mohamad and Dash are well informed about the realities of Blackness in the US. Yet my Blackness is not of more importance than Blacks around the globe just as my African-ness is no less authentic than anyone else’s. Divisions created by colonial lines, empire, and oppression only stand in the way of an international movement of Africans both domestic and diasporic. For Black people in the US, it’s absolutely crucial and necessary going forward to see that our visibility doesn’t make us exceptional. If anything our visibility should make us extra accountable to forge a deeper understanding of the plight of Black people around the world.