The strong arm of the law

My first op-ed written for the Dhaka Tribune, on the subject of police brutality. Please post any comments you might have on the newspaper’s website: http://www.dhakatribune.com/op-ed/2014/dec/23/strong-arm-law Thank you for your patience in waiting for my posts. I hope to be regular with them now, especially as I will have a fortnightly commitment with the Dhaka Tribune.

Rights are a difficult thing to consistently keep in the public eye. People have a way of championing the most honourable causes for weeks, only to give up when they realise the rest of the world has moved on. It is not entirely their fault.

After all, the only way to get others to pay attention is to talk about something recent. Racism was the hot topic for a while because of Ferguson and New York – and it still is for the people living there with its ramifications – but it lost traction in the UK the minute student protestors made headline news.

The possibility of a bigoted police force was no longer as terrifying as the reality of law enforcement officials lobbing CS gas at unarmed students and threatening them with conducted electrical weapons. This, in the same country which has still achieved no closure over the riots in 2011 which shut down the capital for the same reasons Ferguson became, and continues to be, a war zone.

What these two seemingly disparate movements are failing to bring attention to is the one common problem they share with each other and with various other parts of the world. While #ICantBreathe has become the rallying cry against racism and #CopsOffCampus for student rights, the underlying problem is that of police brutality.

The overarching narrative on both sides of the pond has been to focus on the individual tragedies of the events. The unprovoked shooting of a teenager, the strangling of an unarmed civilian, the image of a young student with bloated eyes while struggling to breathe – these are the stories that garner attention.

In order to stay relevant, campaigns are forced to highlight such specifics at the cost of a wider debate. The events of 2014 have allowed us to more openly challenge racial discrimination and student assault by law enforcement agencies but, by choosing to not look at the larger issue of police violence, we have allowed the state to quietly implement policies that could prove far more damaging in the long run.

Consider the use of weaponry in the UK. British police are consistently compared favourably to their transatlantic partners in crime due to the restraints placed on firearms. Unfortunately, that does not by any means ensure a lack of lethal force. The decision by the current government and the mayor of London allowing the use of water cannons to help protect the peace is the most glaring example of this increasing recklessness on the part of the authorities. They might not fire live ammunition, but these guns are capable of causing severe injuries, particularly to vulnerable organs like the eyes. Yet, these same machines are now valid responses to protests and rallies.

The situation across the pond is much worse. The numerous shootings of alleged suspects have already highlighted the problem of excessive arms usage but, instead of taking steps to correct these oversights in favour of more balanced measures, the official response has been to ramp up the pressure. Even as individual officers are escaping punishment, their colleagues are being ordered to take to the streets in armoured vehicles.

Protestors in Ferguson are making do with handmade gasmasks and helmets, while the police are arriving in full riot gear and army-grade hardware. Never mind the fact that the UN Committee Against Torture has openly condemned such tactics.

British and American law enforcement agencies are increasingly moving away from their role of protecting the people, and the state is sanctioning them to take steps that are disproportionately violent and brutal. This is even more worrying given that these are the nations the developing world learns its lessons from.

Their police forces provide technical expertise and training to many African and Asian nations, including Bangladesh, while their government policies are the gold standard to which we strive. Unfortunately, this opens the door for authorities in countries that already have problems of corruption and discriminatory practices to oppress and exploit civilians even further. We might not openly acknowledge Boris Johnson or Jay Nixon, but their decisions affect us all the same.

In an ideal world, the law and law enforcement agencies are not beholden to the state. Their duty is to protect the citizenry, not the regime. Unfortunately, the reality is that the state is now openly directing its officials to exert progressively cruel methods against the populace. It would be wrong to suggest that different types of discrimination do not feed into this system.

Indeed, it is our duty to fight against any infringement on human rights in whatever way we can. That being said, it would also be remiss to ignore the bigger picture. With authorities clearly sanctioning police brutality, we have entered a more dangerous world. We need to challenge these measures and make it safe again.