Guest Commentary by Manny Otiko, Special to California Black Media
I have several friends in various parts of the world. Sometimes when I talk to them, the first words that come out of their mouths are, “What the hell is going on in America?”
On many occasions, I’m too embarrassed to even answer. Last week was one such occasion. Two African-American men killed in Baton Rouge and Minnesota were the latest casualties in a string of troubling police brutality cases – too many of them fatal.
The situation has gotten so bad that at least three countries — the Bahamas, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — have issued travel advisories warning their citizens about coming to the United States. Can you blame them? If you’re a citizen of these countries and you’re considering sending your son or daughter to college here, there is a very real fear that he or she could be killed in a random encounter with the police.
The United States of America views itself as the most powerful nation on the planet and the standard bearer of global human rights. However, there are some major problems in American society, especially the way it treats racial minorities. This fact is pretty glaring when you look at the statistics.
More than half of the people with wrongful convictions who have been freed from death row are Black, according to The Innocence Project. The organization is a national legal advocacy group whose mission is to free innocent people who are imprisoned.
Results from a close look at New York Police Department (NYPD) data is similarly troubling. Those statistics reveal that even though the New York Police Department (NYPD) stopped and frisked Black and Latino men at a higher rate, White people in America are statistically more likely to be found in possession of drugs and firearms. That is a problem.
America’s treatment of racial minorities, especially Black men, is increasingly becoming an international embarrassment. How can the United States in good conscience criticize treatment of citizens in countries notorious for human rights abuses around the world when police murdering African-American men are becoming so commonplace at home?
These cases are also compromising America’s status as a moral leader in the world. They have the potential to hurt the country’s tourism industry and may significantly impact the United States being regarded as the most-desired destination on earth for international students seeking higher education degrees.
China, often called out for ill treatment of its citizens by the international community, cited America in a 2013 report on human rights abuses. The report stated, “If the United States wants to be the self-proclaimed human rights judge of the world, though China and most countries do not agree, it first needs to sweep its own doorsteps.”
Some international critics are even calling on the United Nations to investigate human rights abuses in the Unite States. They usually point to the mass incarceration of Black men; the flawed death penalty system, which has likely killed hundreds of innocent people; the American prison system, which is rife with rape, torture and exploitation; and extra-judicial killings by the police.
Historically, the legal and law enforcement systems have not been the greatest defenders of Black human rights. This has lead to a widespread lack of trust and frustration among African Americans when it comes to police officers and the courts.
Although cities seem pretty happy to pay millions of dollars to the families of victims of police abuse, those payments do not compensate for the lives lost. And they do nothing to repair the damage to America’s image in the world.
Baltimore, for example, has paid almost $6 million to the victims of police abuse since 2011.
According to the New York Post, the city of New York paid more than $185 million to settle claims against the NYPD in 2011. Last year, the city paid the family of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man choked to death by local police, $5.9 million.
As famed NYPD whistleblower Frank Serpico said in a 2014 Politico article,”the police are out of control.” And they don’t take too kindly to anyone who has the temerity to point out their crimes. Ramsey Orta, the man who videotaped Eric Garner’s fatal encounter with the NYPD, was recently sentenced to four years in jail after being followed, singled out and investigated by the police. Feidin Santana, the man who videotaped a South Carolina cop shooting a black man in the back, initially feared coming forward. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has been called the “worst cop in America,” runs his county like a corrupt, third-world despot. Arpaio had former District Attorney Andrew Thomas target anyone who spoke out against him. And when The Phoenix New Times ran stories critical of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department, Arpaio had the paper’s founders, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, thrown in jail on minor charges. The charges were dropped five days later and Maricopa County settled the case for $3.75 million.
Additionally, police officers rarely face harsh punishment for their crimes. For example, former Bay Area Rapid Transport officer Johannes Mehserle served less than two years in jail for killing 22-year-old Oscar Grant in 2009.
The legal system continues to turn a blind eye to the widespread human rights abuses of Black people in America. Until it does, America will continue to lose its standing as a moral leader in the world and diminish its authority to challenge human rights abuses in other nations.
About the Author
Manny Otiko is Southern California-based journalist who was born in Nigeria and raised in the United Kingdom.