Students protesting Police Brutality in Kenya

Reforming Policing in the United States: A Wake-up call for African Solidarity for Justice

By Adotei Akwei, Deputy Director for Advocacy and Government Relations, Amnesty International USA

The time has come for Africans to actively support police reform in the United States.

For some that might sound farfetched, however, there are several reasons why African governments, African civil society and African individuals have a role and a responsibility to show solidarity for efforts to address ongoing racism and discrimination in the United States criminal justice system too often targeted at African Americans. Support for the Black Lives Matter Movement reaffirms that the need to establish and strengthen accountability and respect for human rights is a global challenge faced by all, an ever-increasingly interconnected world. What happens in the United States regarding human rights, the rule of law and policing impacts those issues in Africa, and thus the response to challenges in these areas must similarly be global in nature. A second equally powerful reason for engagement is the principle of solidarity. Paradigm shifts like those that are being demanded across the United States have been supported by acts of solidarity from other countries and they should be supported now.

February 2020 marked the 30th anniversary of the fall of Apartheid in South Africa. In 1989 South African President F. W. DeKlerk released nine anti-Apartheid leaders and codefendants of Nelson Mandela who were convicted at the infamous Rivonia trial that took place between 1963–64. That trial would become a rallying point for a global solidarity campaign that helped the African National Congress be unbanned and Nelson Mandela to walk out of Victor Verster prison a free man after 27 years of incarceration.

The global Anti-Apartheid campaign brought together people of all colors, faiths, nationalities and professions to join a fight to end a brutal system of racial oppression in southern Africa. People abroad protested before seats of government, boycotted companies, occupied university campuses to force divestment, and acted as a second wave of activism in support of efforts in South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique and Angola to show that the will to tear down this system of oppression extended well beyond the borders of one nation. Stories of the brutality employed by the apartheid regime to secure its white minority rule also fueled outrage globally as people embraced the struggle as their own. Simply put people around the world committed themselves to link freedom and justice in South Africa to their own, and that global energy was stronger than any institution that sought to oppose it.

Thirty years later the fight has come full circle, and the global community that united against Apartheid and defied their own political leaders must now mobilize itself to support the struggle: in the United States.

Racism and discrimination in the United States did not suddenly erupt with the election of Donald Trump in 2016, nor did police brutality begin with the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. The consequences and cost of racism and discrimination predate the founding of the republic in 1776, and many of the challenges of that era, though now under different names, remain. Today though, George Floyd’s murder has put the spotlight on the need for fundamental reform in the criminal justice infrastructure of the country, starting with, but not limited to, the practice of policing.

In the United States today, the lack of national standards on policing and the excessive and discriminatory use of lethal force has contributed to a higher number of fatalities among men of color, particularly Black men. This, along with persistent impunity when police encounters with persons of color have resulted in death, has deeply eroded trust in law enforcement officials among the very communities the police are supposed to be protecting.

Adding to the storm has been the response of the Trump administration and Congress. President Trump’s inadequate policy response to cases of police violence and misconduct came just as he ordered the police forces to forcefully disperse non-violent protestors supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. He reiterated his unwavering support for and trust in all police in the same breath as he issued inflammatory comments denying the country’s history of racial injustice. From the second branch of government, Congress, the lack of leadership and action by the Senate has been soul-crushing.

There is a way forward, however: demanding that the Senate pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The bill includes provisions that would establish national standards that limit the use of deadly force, ban chokeholds, roll back qualified immunity protections for police officers and scale back the 1033 program that allows for the transfer of surplus military equipment to police departments.

No single bill will address all of the areas in which reform is desperately needed, but passing this bill is a critical step toward ending a nightmare where being a man of color in the United States means being a member of an at-risk population by virtue of the color of one’s skin.

Passing this bill will require effort from anyone and everyone committed to racial justice, human rights and individual dignity inside and outside the United States. This includes Africa where activists are waging efforts to see police reform enacted in their own countries and where the experience of the United States should augment their demands for justice, accountability and professionalism from security forces. Supporting police reform should also reenergize the African Union by reconnecting it to its core founding principle: fighting for the freedom and dignity of all Africans on the continent or in the diaspora. Action for those suffering in the United States is not an act of ignoring the suffering on the continent, but rather a blow against injustice for Africans everywhere.

In 1986 the US Congress stunned the world and South Africa by passing the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act over the veto of Ronald Reagan. The Act imposed economic sanctions on South Africa and drove the US and other businesses to cease operating in the country. An act of solidarity, taken by people in another country crippled the South African economy and contributed to the end of Apartheid in that country. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The world recognized that in 1986.

It is time for us to mobilize that global solidarity and recommit to that truth once more.