The Colonial Roots of the Global Police Violence Against African People

Over the past few days there have been protests across the United States in response to the death of George Floyd, who was killed after a police officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes and refused to let up even after Floyd complained that he was unable to breathe. Floyd’s death was the latest in a recent string of high profile cases of violence against African Americans. In March, Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by police officers who entered her apartment while serving a no-knock warrant. There was also the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed by white individuals who decided to follow him because they suspected that Arbery was a criminal. The police only decided to arrest the men who followed and killed Arbery after video footage of the incident was released, more than two months after the fact. I also recently came across a recent story of Emerald Black, a black woman in California who filed a lawsuit claiming that police officers stomped on her pregnant belly, which caused Black to suffer a miscarriage.

Police aggression against African people isn’t only an issue which confronts Africans in the United States. There is outrage in Brazil right now over the recent killing of a 14 year old boy. One of the most blatant examples of disregard for black life in Brazil was in 2014 when the police killed a woman and then dragged her dead body behind the police vehicle.

Police violence against African people isn’t just an American issue; it’s a global issue. One example of police brutality in the Caribbean which comes to my mind was the killing of Akel “Christmas” James in Trinidad in 2018. James was shot and killed by the police, setting off protests in the country. In one of my books titled Malcolm X, Bob Marley, and Other Essays, there is a chapter on the Rastafarian movement in the Caribbean which details some of the abuses that Rastas suffered at the hands of police officers throughout the Caribbean. In Dominica, for instance, a law was passed which essentially allowed the police to kill anyone who was suspected of being a Rasta. In that book, I also detail some of the abuses that Rastas experienced in Grenada. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the police force in Caribbean was used to brutalize and suppress segments within Caribbean society who were called for revolutionary change, like many Rastas were doing.

In 2014, Caribbean activists David Hinds and Khafra Kambon participated in an exchange on police violence in the Caribbean. This exchange took place as part of a special program which was in response to the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

Police brutality against African people is an institutional issue which stems from the fact that armed forces have always been utilized to keep African people oppressed. I think one of the most important points which was made in the discussion above on police violence in the Caribbean is when David Hinds mentions that that Guyana (formerly British Guiana) did not have a a police force until shortly after slavery was abolished. Hinds argues (24 minutes into the audio above for those who are interested in listening) that the police force was created to keep African people in their police. This is not unlike the United States, where after slavery was abolished vagrancy laws were implemented to re-enslave the newly freed African population.

Racism and brutality are so deeply entrenched in the institution of the police force that these abuses have continued even in situations where Africans take over control. We have certainly seen this throughout Africa. I recently wrote a piece on Nelson Mandela and one of the points that I made is that since the ANC took over, the police force in South Africa still operates in a similar manner as it did during the days of apartheid. I also recently wrote an article on the violent force which security forces in Africa have been unleashing on citizens in order to enforce curfews to prevent the spread of Covid-19. That article specifically focused on Togo, which has had a long history of the police force being used to torture and brutalize citizens.

Nigeria has a long history of this as well, especially considering the various military regimes which have ruled Nigeria in the past. A recent poll showed that 77% of Nigerians complained about the level of police violence in the country. In Kenya, 15 people have been killed by the police who were using violence to enforce the curfew. There are protests going on in Kenya over the police killing a homeless man.

In Uganada, the police responded to a peaceful protest against police violence by brutalizing the protesters.

Uganda also offers one of the most absurd examples of police brutality in Africa that I am aware of. The police beat and arrested a traditional ruler for trying to overtake the Vice President’s car on the road. The officers did not know that the man whom they were beating — because arresting the man was not enough, they had to beat him as well — was King Kamuswaga of Kooki, who was a friend of the Vice President. The police apologized, but also blamed Kamuswaga for his own arrest and beating because he drove himself like a commoner rather than having his own driver. Kamuswaga was also dressed like a commoner. In other words, beatings and arrests over trivial offenses are reserved for commoners in Uganda and the king made the mistake of appearing to be a commoner.

In the vast majority of pre-colonial African societies that I have studied there was no standing police force which patrolled the society, harassing citizens or organizing to violently put down uprisings on the part of the dissatisfied masses. Walter Rodney once explained:

[In] the whole development of capitalism — piracy, brigandage on highways, etc. — the security for goods and persons is a very late development in European and capitalist society and it has come about through the establishment of massive mechanisms for keeping people in their places; in other words, a police force and army. It wasn’t the police who were all around to see that goods and persons were secure. It was the social constraints. People just didn’t do that. Mungo Park went to the Gambia. He saw a little group called the Djolas. He said these are a bunch of savages. But yet, he himself had to concede. He says, “I left my goods there for months unattended and when I went back there wasn’t a pin removed.” And this is a generalized type of remark that is made about African traditional society; a socially induced security.

In African and Caribbean societies which underwent the decolonization process, many of the colonial institutions remained in place. One of these institutions which remained in place was the police force. In the United States, the police power was always used as a means of keeping African suppressed, whether it was through slave patrols, the previously mentioned vagrancy laws, or even the type of police power which was used to uphold segregation and to brutalize civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer and others who demanded change. So we have to understand that we are not merely dealing with specific instances of police aggression against people of African descent. The police force is a colonial institution, which was utilized for the purpose of keeping African people oppressed. This is the same purpose for which police forces are still utilized to this day.

Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.

Dwayne Wong (Omowale) is a Guyanese born Pan-Africanist, author, and law student.