Many of you won’t have heard of Matthew John Lee. I hadn’t, until recently. But his memorial page on Facebook, set up by his family after his death (along with two other friends who were with him at the time) in 2013, describes him as a person who was always brought up to be “caring” and “very helpful”, going out of his way to assist strangers in the street in need of medical help, even if he was busy.
Unfortunately, for the more than 3,000 victims of police killings in Jamaica over the past 20 years, all that is often left of many of those who’ve suffered such fatal violence, are these anguished anecdotes from heartbroken family members and friends. Stories full of fond memories and anger met with opposing narratives from police forces, in many cases protesting that these victims were armed when they were killed.
It was just last year that six police officers were charged with the murder of Matthew John Lee and his friends, with one officer “accused of misleading Jamaica’s Independent Commission of Investigations about his use of lethal force during the incident”. The officers have indicated they acted in self defence.
Last week, after protests had erupted around the world following George Floyd’s death, another name rang out in Jamaica: Jermaine “Shawn” Ferguson.
Like John Lee and so many others, he too was said to have been armed when he was shot and killed in Kingston on 5 June this year. The residents of Cockburn Gardens – who carried placards reading: “Ghetto people have rights too”, according to the Jamaica Gleaner – are still demanding answers.
In countries where black people make up the majority of the population, the topic of police brutality could easily seem out of place. As I write this now, I’m acutely aware of how tempted those who wish to derail the conversation must be to frame examples like these instead as “black on black” issues of crime. They aren’t. In fact, look just beneath the surface, and it’s immediately clear that where this unbridled use of heavy police force stems from.
It’s not just Jamaica, of course. My focus is influenced, in part, by my heritage (another name I’ve noticed, thanks to posts from family members on my Antiguan side, is the name Bruce Greenaway – four law enforcement officials face charges over his death in April this year).
The same issue of undue force is true of many police forces around the world, regardless of the makeup of the population. In the case of former colonies in particular, white supremacy has a lot more to answer for than many realise when it comes to police brutality, even when whiteness isn’t an obvious factor, or doesn’t come in the form of an overwhelming presence of white people.
In their 2019 paper, “Old Boys and Badmen: Private Security in (Post)Colonial Jamaica”, Rivke Jaffe and Tessa Diphoorn observe that “in the Caribbean, the history of policing is inseparable from the institution of plantation slavery and its aftermath”.
Though the demographics may be different, the same is true of the US. In fact, the impact of slavery and/or colonialism, has also been felt across many former British colonies on the African continent: Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, and more. The same (excluding the transatlantic slave trade, of course) can be said of former British colonies across Asia, with India being just one glaring example of how closely policing practices are tied to imperialism.
Jaffe and Diphoorn go on to highlight the extent of those connections in Jamaica – which boasts a large number private security businesses that have also been said to be sources of brutality against citizens – both “before and after the abolition of slavery in Jamaica in 1838”.
They wrote: “Both public and private policing actors were critical in maintaining a violently exploitative colonial order based on clear racial hierarchies ... As in other colonial contexts, security forces concentrated on maintaining a docile and productive labouring population and ‘pacifying’ political threats.”
Writing for Global Voices in response to the deaths of black people in the US at the hands of police, Janine Mendes-Franco observed that, “while some wondered why Caribbean people were concerning themselves with American problems ... many made connections between America’s systemic racism and the region’s.”
And that’s without looking at how the additional context of the varying racial, ethnic and socioeconomic hierarchies in many of these countries (again, enforced under colonial rule) impact who is more likely to be brutalised.
As one blogger observed: “I don’t think the way Jamaican police treat poor youth here is any better. They are socially black in the Jamaican hierarchy and ‘born fi dead’ as far as police are concerned”.
So, when the UK somehow professes to be removed from this issue, despite installing this same system across the world over a number of centuries, you can see why many of us, who know of the wider context both here and in the countries where many of us or indeed our parents were born, are sceptical.
Having created such violence around the world – how can we say we have emerged unscathed? We haven’t, but we have managed to convince ourselves that Britain was strictly built on virtue and honour, rather than blood and greed.
With more attention on cases of deaths in police custody, including those that have only recently emerged, such as the case of Simeon Francis, there is a simultaneous need for a wider understanding of how and why policing itself has been designed.
Normalising violence as a fundamental right of police forces is wrong and will do nothing to fight what is a cancerous form of authority.
While police violence can be inflicted on anyone, the disproportionate force of it will continue to be felt by those whose lives are least respected in society. Guessing who that is should be easy.
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