How civic society can bring an end to a global police violence problem
By Susan A. Hughes
September 25, 2023
The massive and unprecedented demonstrations that followed the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 were not a solely American phenomenon. Across the world—from South America, to Africa, to Europe—protesters rose both in sympathy with the Black Lives Matter movement as well as against local conditions.
Members of those movements gathered at Harvard Kennedy School in September for the Resisting Police Violence workshop sponsored by the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy.
Three of them joined HKS faculty experts and workshop leaders Sandra Susan Smith, the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor for Social Policy and director of the Wiener Center, and Yanilda González, assistant professor of public policy, for a John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on civil society-led strategies to combat police violence.
"Throughout Brazil, Columbia, Chile, Belgium, France there have been protests," González said. "Citizens and collectives and communities have risen up to call attention to this issue of police violence. In the long tradition of conversations about policing happening here at Harvard and at the Kennedy School, from broken windows policing to community policing, we will yield the next wave of ideas led by civil society around the world to try to address this problem."
"This Forum event is, at its core, the beginning of a problem-solving conversation that is global in nature, about the various roles that civic society can play in tackling and perhaps ending the global problem of police violence with freedom from state repression and oppression as major objectives," Smith said in introducing the event. Smith also detailed the harms violent policing in communities can cause, not just to the victims, but to their families. It affects students in their schools. And the physical wear and tear of stress makes it difficult for the body to repair itself and fight disease. "To be clear, you don't have to be the actual target of police intervention. You only have to live near it," Smith said. "The effects of policing go well beyond the individuals who are maimed or killed daily to affect all residents in targeted neighborhoods."
João Godoy, Conectas human rights lawyer from Brazil; Rinu Oduala, #EndSARS activist and leader of Connect Hub from Nigeria; and Aislinn Pulley, co-executive director of the Chicago Torture Justice Center, spoke about the similarities, the differences, and their solutions to police violence from their global perspective.
Rinu Oduala: Nigeria
For the context of police violence in Nigeria, I will start with a statement that is often thrown at Nigerians by law enforcement agencies. They say, 'I will shoot you or kill you and nothing will happen.’ And the chilling part of the statement is that it is true. Our lives often get wasted at the hands of law enforcement agencies, police brutality, extrajudicial killings. About four in every 10 Nigerians have had experience with police brutality. Behind these numbers, there are real people, there are real communities, there are real lives.
So, we started the #EndSARS movement against police brutality and bad governance in Nigeria to start documenting these incidences. (#EndSars stands for Ending the Special Anti-Robbery Squad.) You find out that police violence is very grossly undocumented, especially in Africa and Nigeria. I feel it is a lot of mental tax to document killings and extortions. It actually gets mentally distressing. So that's part of what we do at Connect Hub, a human right platform I direct that is documenting, defending, and advocating against police violence and state violence in Nigeria.
We're also offering legal aid to victims. We get information about the victim who has been extorted, or extrajudicially killed. We have media partners that help to amplify as many of these extrajudicial killings that have happened. We also do a lot of advocacy. We try to engage with policy makers because, yes, the #EndSARS protest may have stopped by repression, it may have gone off the streets, it may have even gone off the TV screens. It doesn't mean that police brutality in Nigeria has stopped.
João Godoy: Brazil
I believe the first thing to say is the police violence in Brazil, like many other socioeconomic issues that we have, affects Black people more than any other race there. Our country still has a large racial debt to pay, but we don't face the problem.
For example, last year's population census said that we have 200 million people in Brazil and 56% are Black. According to the Brazilian Public Security Forum report last year, the Brazilian police killed 6,400 people: 83% of them were Black, and 76% were between 12 and 29 years old. And about the victims, the families, and communities: a very big challenge we have is that everyone who dies is executed. Police officers say, ‘they were criminals, so they deserved that.’ No, they didn't deserve that whether they were criminals or not. No one should die like that. So fighting the narrative of criminal activity is pretty important to the families because it's the honor of their families, it's the honor of their kids, it's the honor of their brothers or their husbands.
Among all the public prosecutors in Brazil, who are a prestigious cohort there and have the constitutional responsibility to investigate police violence, only 15% are Black. And among the judges, only 18% are Black. So, the authorities who have the constitutional responsibility to go and look at what's going on with this violence, they don't care. Many cases are just closed without any resolution.
Aislinn Pulley: Chicago
What's interesting and what's ringing in my head from hearing João and Rinu talk is the similarity. In Chicago, we also had a cop who was caught on camera saying, ‘I kill mother f*****s.’ The young person who recorded this, a young Black man, maybe 16, his father works in city hall. And he felt empowered enough to livestream this harassment by this police officer. And it turned out that officer was the one who killed DeSean Pittman in 2014, one of 21 people killed by Chicago police that year.
In that same year, another young man, 17 years old, Dominique Franklin, was tased to death by the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Tasers are often touted as an alternative to guns. This was proof that it is as deadly and definitely does cause death as well. Dominique Franklin was tased to death for stealing a Coca-Cola out of Walgreens. So we formed an organization called We Charge Genocide, and we went to Geneva and testified before the United Nations Committee Against Torture, testifying that the CPD commits genocide.
I work at the Chicago Torture Justice Center, born out of the violence from 2014. We provide free services, clinical services to survivors of, not just police torture, but families whose loved ones have been impacted by police violence, any scale from murder to sexual assault onwards and anyone impacted. We follow a community counseling model. And we operate from a politicized healing lens. And what that means is that we do not follow the managed-care model. We understand that organizing is actually a necessary and an important component to healing.
I think the importance of this convening is that these issues don't exist outside of a specific political program. There is a political ethos there that connects them all, and we can easily identify some of it as being linked to colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade, certainly because of the disproportionate amount of Black people who are the recipients of this violence. And it's important that we're able to connect our struggles.
Photography by Martha Stewart