Police violence is a systemic problem across the United States, and it’s one that we are finally talking about, but in very simplistic ways, and that concerns me. A lot of the focus has been on young Black men, who are indeed the group most likely to be profiled, assaulted, and killed by police — particularly in urban areas. We need to be discussing this and talking about the complex racialised history that comes into play here, from assaults on slaves to the modern-day notion that Black lives are still, collectively, the property of a white public.
But at the same time, this ignores the intersectional nature of police violence. Which is not to say that we should talk less about anti-Black violence, but rather that we should be talking more about police violence in general. There’s a common assumption that when we try to bring intersectional elements into a conversation, we’re playing Oppression Olympics or a game of ‘but if this, why not that,’ when in fact, we’re saying that an issue is even bigger and more systemic than people are willing to admit, and that we need to enlarge the framework of the conversation.
I’ve been covering police violence against the disability community, especially mentally ill people, for years, and yet that element is almost entirely left out of conversations about police violence. When it does come up, it’s often in the context of justifying police shootings because people were ‘dangerous.’ Or it comes up without engaging with racial intersections: Disabled people of colour are more likely to encounter police violence than white disabled people. To compound this problem, people of colour are more likely to be disabled due to a variety of social factors. Given that over half of police shootings involve disabled people (who make up 20 percent of the population), the silence on the subject is deeply troubling.
So is the fact that we aren’t engaging with the issue of police violence against Native Americans. The Guardian’s project focusing on police violence, ‘The Counted,’ indicates that police shootings of Native Americans trail just behind those of the Black community (other sources actually suggest that Native Americans are more at risk — the lack of concrete statistics thanks to limited recordkeeping regulations is a huge problem here). Similarly, Latina/os are much more likely to be killed by police than whites, but they too are left out of the picture, or people are making sweeping comments about ‘people of colour’ instead of breaking down the diversity there and delving into the complex issues.
Just as there is a complex racialised history for Black Americans, there’s also a complex racialised history for Native Americans. When Europeans colonised the Americas, they engaged in acts of systemic violence and genocide against indigenous communities, setting the tone for cultural attitudes that have never gone away. These attitudes inform the way law enforcement interacts with Native communities, and they also play a profound role in the health, welfare, and social status of Native people, who are more likely to be poor, to have limited health care, to have fewer social opportunities, than white people.
As we discuss police violence and race, which we urgently need to be doing, we need to be separating out and picking apart various racial issues. Latina/os, the Black community, and Native Americans don’t deserve to be lumped together as ‘people of colour’ and treated as though the problem of police violence can be resolved by magically fixing some vague ‘racism.’ There are specific kinds of racism leveled at each of these communities and they need to be engaged with not just under the broad umbrella of racism, but also specifically within the context of each community (including biracial and multiracial communities). Young Black men face different issues when interacting with police than young Native men, than young Latinos, and we can’t ignore this.
We need to be talking about the huge rate of police violence directed at Native Americans across the United States, and about how it interacts with larger attitudes about indigenous people. Like the historical attempts to actively strip Native Americans of their language and culture. Like the fact that a prominent football team still uses a racial slur for its name. Like the fact that the rate of poverty and educational attainment in Native communities is horrifically low. Like the fact that Natives were enslaved in some parts of the Americas by early colonists, but in different contexts than people brought over from Africa.
Anti-indigenous racism is a persistent problem around the world, though each region faces very specific cultural issues — we can’t overmap Canadian indigenous politics onto Australian Aboriginal issues onto Native American problems in the US. But we can, and should, talk about what we have done to Native communities, and how it intersects with the way they are criminalised by the law enforcement community. Because every time a Native person is killed, brutalised, or raped by police, it’s a reflection of centuries of racialised oppression, and every time we are silent about it, we’re perpetuating that oppression.
Law enforcement have shown little sign of reform when it comes to shooting young Black men, even in response to huge social pressure and an awareness that a growing percentage of the country is watching and judging them. When only a small community is pushing for oversight — as in the case of Native Americans — it’s even easier for law enforcement to ignore, and to view Natives as easy targets for violence, and that is unacceptable.
So let’s not be afraid to expand the conversation about police violence. Let’s talk about the fact that any police killing is unacceptable, but that Black men are disproportionate victims of law enforcement violence, racial profiling, and abuses in the justice system. And let’s talk about these issues in the contexts of the Native, Latina/o, and disability communities as well, because they too have been suffering and speaking out for years. This is an addictive process, not a reductive one, and I want to see it flowering into a much bigger conversation.
Image: Native American, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Flickr