Policing and the militarization of western cities was a major theme at the conference. Racial profiling is one of the most significant features of most western cities today. The city is a racialised and colonial urban space, felt most significantly by communities of colour and the poor. As argued by the moderator Vanessa Thompson, a process of stabilizing colonial power is apparent through detention centres, genocidal border regimes, and the increased militarization of the police in both European and American cities. “Communities of colour, the homeless, the poor, and the non-gender conforming are the most affected.”
There have been rebellions in both Paris (2005) and London (2011) as well as resistance to the everyday policing of people of colour, of which the major events of Troy Davis and Trayvon Martin are just two examples.
The first speaker was Rachel Herzig from Critical Resistance, an organization in Oakland, California that works against the prison industrial complex. We often hear about the US and the war abroad, but rarely about the wars the American government is fighting within its own borders. Rachel began by pointing out that the increased militarization of the police forces in the US is having major effects, including a more sharp delineation of “inside” and “outside,” as well as portraying the “outside” as a place where the battle to maintain the integrity of the inside is waged. Importantly, the means and weapons the US has been using to fight its wars abroad, are now being used against its own citizens.
Rachel defined militarism as “a contradictory social process in which civil society organizes itself for the production of violence,” and policing as “a social relationship made up of a set of practices set up by the state.
She argued that an actual war is happening in America; an intentional armed conflict between political communities. Other speakers referred to this as “low-intensity” conflict. The main targets are blacks and Latinos, although Arab/Muslim Americans make up an increasingly central target group. She also pointed out that Native Americans should not be forgotten, as they represent a community that has been virtually disappeared.
The militarization of the police force is a process happening both in Europe and in the States. Fighting crime is now referred to as fighting “insurgency.” The police themselves describe what they do as “low-intensity conflict.” 90% of American cities have some sort of police paramilitary arm, known as a SWAT team. For many of these, the machine gun is their weapon of choice.
One important point is that countries will often use ‘openings’ to push through dramatic policies that then become normalized. 9/11 is perhaps the most obvious example of this—many of the laws and policies that were pushed through to “deal with” or “respond” to 9/11 have now become normalized in American society. The London Olympics is another example. The MASSIVE surveillance system put in place to “keep people safe” will NOT be dismantled now that the Olympics are over. Moreover, discourses such as “protecting citizens” and so on are mobilized to justify the increasing infringements on the human rights of citizens. For example, Dutch cities have a very large number of hidden cameras. These are justified by consistent reference to the state protecting people and fighting crime. People don’t seem to think about the consequences of this increasing intrusion into private space. Of course, if you are a non-white Dutch person, this increased surveillance has altogether different implications, as you are often considered part of the “crime” the state has to “fight against.
Going back to Rachel’s talk, it is essential that we de-normalize the policing that is happening in western urban spaces today. This level of intrusion is not normal, and the racial profiling that is a normal part of this policing is not acceptable on any level. It is NOT a “necessary evil” and we have to question the discourses that lead to such policies.
An example given on the same panel was of a migrant from Sierra Leone who was put in a German detention centre after being violently arrested on the streets of Berlin. His hands and feet were chained to his bed, and he suffered hours of torture, before he was burned to death in a fire in his cell. It was discovered later that the mattress was fire-proof, and the police couldn’t explain how he managed to set himself on fire. The reality is that the police knew they wouldn’t face any consequences, and in fact, they did not. Moreover, the media and the state portrayed him as an alcoholic woman-abuser and that we should be glad that he is no longer with us.
Another panellist explained that there was a war against people of colour in Berlin (as in other European cities, Dutch cities being no exception). In Germany there is no military personnel on the street, but there is a militarized police force that people now accept as normal. From my own experiences in Holland, it seems that Dutch people accept the immense powers the police have because they see it as “necessary.” Moreover, when they hear of the high rates of incarceration of people of colour, particularly Moroccans, they say things like “well they commit more crimes/are more violent.” This type of simplistic, ignorant and downright stupid analysis conveys the immensity of the racism that is present in Dutch society. The fact that you are more likely to get stopped by the police if you are brown or black somehow doesn’t filter itself into the consciousness of a white Dutch person. For them, the system WORKS. If you are in jai, you MUST have done something. If Dutch jails are full of Moroccans, they MUST be more violent and they MUST commit more crimes. How are we to move forward if this type of discourse is so strong?
The same type of discourse is present when it comes to undocumented migrants. Dutch people ask why they come here, if they don’t have papers. It must be so easy to speak from a blind position of racial and national privilege. There is no consideration of the global system of the power; of the simple fact that Holland would not be rich, if other countries in the global South were not poor. The two are not unrelated. When people risk their lives to come to Europe, even though they are undocumented, it means that they had NOTHING where they came from. It means this was all they had left; their last chance. Rather than locking them up in detention centres in the middle of nowhere where they often suffer from torture, why not delve a little deeper into global realities? Why not try, for one second, to look past your privilege and understand why people are willing to die to come to Europe. Europe is not rich because of European efficiency, hard-work, racial superiority, cultural superiority, or whatever else Europeans have thought of to make themselves feel better about the global destruction their states are responsible for. Europe is rich because it stole and pillaged, and continues to do so in a myriad of ways. Europe is rich, because other parts of the world are poor. Let’s not forget that when we think of migrants who come to European borders because Europe has taken everything from them in their own countries. Dutch people love to talk about “humanity,” but it so conveniently disappears when it comes to undocumented migrants, who simply should not be in Holland in the first place. This attitude is the perfect example of how, for most Dutch people, nationality comes before humanity.