Monument in Curaçao in homage toTula, an enslaved African man who freed himself and led the Curaçao Slave Revolt in 1795. Photo by Kattiel / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).
The continued policing of Black bodies and the lasting structure of European colonialism and bondage is a legacy born from the Transatlantic slave trade and its aftermath in the African Diaspora.
In light of the recent deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Tony McDade in the United States, as well as the call to end all forms of police brutality and state-sanctioned violence across the African continent, Latin America, and Europe, the ties to colonial rule and slavery throughout the diaspora have become more and more apparent.
From the early 1500s to the late 1900s, up to 15 million African people were captured and enslaved by Europeans and forcibly brought to the Americas and Caribbean islands.
One of the worst and ugliest examples of human rights violations in history has created an incredibly dynamic, beautiful, and culturally diverse African Diaspora. This global community consists of people who are direct descendants of mainly sub-Saharan Africans who live primarily in the Americas as a result of this slave trade.
Black people in the Americas and Caribbean have carried on sacred and ancestral rituals indigenous to the African continent and have also created new practices and culture following the Middle Passage. This includes everything from wearing traditional braiding hairstyles or clothing from the motherland to creating new religions inspired by ones practiced in West Africa. For example, Santería and Voudou became iterations of the Yoruba religion and culture of Nigeria.
The policing of these diverse Black communities has deep historical roots that continue to reverberate into the present day, both in the Diaspora as well as on the African continent.
In the early 1700s, the US state of South Carolina established the first slave patrol police unit, which inspired almost every other state with slavery laws to follow suit. Slave patrols were responsible for hunting down escaped enslaved persons, disrupting and dismantling possible slave revolts, and punishing those found guilty of defying their masters and plantation rule.
US policies such as The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required the federal government to capture and return enslaved persons to their masters—even in free states—only helped reinforce the idea that the police serve to protect white interests and property. Police brutality continues in the US along with the fight against it through Black Lives Matter.
Today, citizens of many African countries—such as Nigeria, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and South Africa—also experience high incidents of police brutality; these countries all established police departments during the peak of European colonial rule.
In Nigeria, youth activists called for the end of the Special Anti-Robbery Unit of the Nigerian police, known as SARS, in a movement known as #EndSARS. SARS has a minimum of 82 cases of human torture, maltreatment, and extrajudicial killings from January 2017—when the unit was formed—to May 2020. The Nigerian government cracked down on the #EndSARS movement with violent suppression in October.
This structural violence speaks to the legacy of British colonial rule in Nigeria. Under the British, in what would become Nigeria, the Royal Crown relied heavily on its many business ventures to conduct foreign affairs and oversee its colonies. The British Empire allowed these enterprises to establish commercial and governing rights—and military forces. Nigeria’s police agencies were modeled after these systems and methods of control that sought to protect and enforce British colonial rule
Similar patterns of violence echo the colonial past in South Africa’s policing framework. During apartheid, the state utilized law enforcement to preserve and impose racial segregation and execute prominent anti-apartheid figures. In turn, the police disproportionately used excessive force on non-white South Africans and created long-lasting divisions within the communities they terrorized. This oppressive, anti-Black behavior that was introduced by white colonialists continues to impact Black South African communities today.
This past summer in Johannesburg, Nathaniel Julies, a 16-year-old boy with Down Syndrome, was shot and killed by the police. Nathaniel’s murder, in particular, incited protests because he was a child with disabilities and the details surrounding the case were unclear. Nathaniel’s parents believe that the police shot him because he was non-speaking and could not readily answer their questions.
In Brazil, home to the largest population of Black people outside of the continent of Africa, the Rio police in 2019 murdered over 1,800 people—and nearly eight out of 10 of those killed were Black men. Bahia, a Brazilian state with an 80 percent Black population, came third to Rio in police killings last year.
Brazil received the most enslaved people in the hemisphere and was the last to abolish slavery in the Americas. Therefore, Afro Brazilian activists argue that state-sanctioned violence in Brazil is tied to the commodification of Black bodies and the Brazilian government’s role in the incomplete transition from bondage to what was supposed to be freedom.
“They kill Black people because this is the structure of Brazilian society,” explains Aline Maia, the executive coordinator of Observatório de Favelas, an institution in Rio de Janeiro that develops public policy for Brazil. “[This genocide] is something that generates money, and it produces a spectacle that makes white people feel more secure because it’s happening someplace far. It helps politicians get votes.”
Signs with #VidasNegrasImportam (literally translated from Black Lives Matter) multiplied in Brazil in February 2019 after a Black man was killed by a supermarket security guard in Rio. On November 20, 2020, another Black man was beaten to death by two white security guards at a Carrefour store in Porto Alegre, which sparked a fresh wave of protests in Brazil.
In the United Kingdom, the police are four times more likely to use excessive force against Black people, despite only making up 3.3 percent of the entire population. In addition, Black people in Britain are twice as likely to die at the hands of law enforcement.
In Canada, between 2013 and 2017, Black Canadians accounted for 32 percent of all infractions, 30 percent of excessive force cases, and 70 percent of police shootings. In Toronto alone, Black Canadians were 20 times more likely to be murdered by a police officer.
White supremacy and colonialism are not specific to the US or the African continent. Police brutality is universal, white supremacy is global, and mechanisms of colonialism continue to operate, which is why Black people every day, around the world, are being killed.
Therefore, throughout the diaspora, Black people continue to fight tirelessly for their lives, communities, and future generations. In the United States, we say #BlackLivesMatter! In Nigeria, we say #EndSARS! And in Brazil, we say #VidasNegrasImportam!