Police forces in numerous countries have come under increasing scrutiny from civil society, as well as policymakers and businesses. What started in the U.S. at the end of May 2020 was a continuation of the Black Lives Matter movement’s efforts in the last seven years and of the work done throughout the decades by anti-racism activists worldwide. Though instances of police brutality are nothing new, the current health crisis has revealed the systematic racism of police forces even further, a claim now publicly supported by Amnesty International.
The human rights NGO stated that their investigation “exposes a disturbing pattern of racial bias which is linked to concerns about institutional racism within police forces, and echoes wider concerned raised in the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests.” Though policymakers are yet to address these findings, the week before the report was published the European Parliament had voted to denounce racism and white supremacy and openly support peaceful protests worldwide. Yet, many figures in the Union have struggled to acknowledge the issues of racism present in the continent as one of the Commissioner’s vice-presidents affirmed that Europe did not have instances that “blatantly pertain to police brutality.” On the other hand, Germany’s first MEP of African origin, Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana, praised Amnesty International for uncovering the racially biased abuse she experienced first-hand in Brussels. According to her, “this research shows racialised groups, Black people, Roma people, people of north African origin and migrants are much more likely to be targeted and victims of police violence.”
In France, socially disadvantaged groups have been significantly affected by the pandemic, highlighting the social inequalities present in the country. In an ethnically diverse Paris banlieue, Seine-Saint-Denis, issues with health, housing and poverty have shaped the residents’ experiences in lockdown. Disparities have been a factor in clashes with the police whose checks here were more than double the national average. Similarly, in London, numbers for stopping and searching Black people increased significantly from the beginning of the lockdown there. As reported by Amnesty International, Roma communities have also been heavily mistreated by police forces. In Bulgaria and Slovakia, quarantines for Roma settlements were militarised while politicians publicly depicted these communities as threats to the general population.
The impact COVID-19 has had on our lifestyles and ideas about the world is immense. Social structures and relationships are being questioned in many regions. Though the Amnesty International report focuses on Europe, socially vulnerable groups like Black people in Brazil have struggled with lockdowns and the economic uncertainty they carry globally. Statistics show that people have been discriminated and affected differently based on race and class. Still, policymakers from London to Washington are reluctant to acknowledge the inequalities that mark their societies and have been laid bare by this pandemic. It is, therefore, hardly surprising to see thousands of people marching the streets of major and minor urban centres around the world demanding justice and equality for the same groups that have taken the worse hit from this health crisis.
Amnesty International’s condemnation of European police forces is an important acknowledgment of the experiences of many. However, the continent’s relationship with its own racism is a complex one that needs to consider the different aspects that allow systemic discrimination and biases to so heavily influence institutions such as the police. As British rapper, author, activist and journalist, Akala, argues in his book ‘Natives,’ it is easy to point to America as the racist state, but this does not absolve Europe of its racial fearmongering, racist immigration detention policies and migration laws as well as economic, and coincidentally ethnic, segregation.
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