With the long name of “International Independent Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in the Context of Law Enforcement” a group of international visitors that I shall call “Mechanism” came to the United States from 24 April to 5 May 2023. They filed their report in September 2023. (A/HRC/54/CRP.7) Since the U.S. is party to the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, they are subject to such visits to determine compliance with the international conventions. If the U.S. could be embarrassed, its white face would be beet red.
The Mechanism visited six cities: D.C., Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York. The request to visit Phoenix was denied. So much racism; so little time. During the visits, they met with federal and local authorities, judicial authorities, law enforcement, NOBLE, police unions, civil society organizations and others. They heard testimony from 133 affected individuals in five of the cities and received dozens of written submissions as well including from Phoenix.
They noted positively that Biden has issued five executive orders since he was elected to deal with racial equity, DEI in the workplace, policing, and diaspora. Still the international visitors observed that the U.S. is plagued by systemic racism and racial discrimination by law enforcement as a direct legacy of slavery and such racism dates to the founding of the country. They encourage the U.S. to focus on some soul searching that includes truth, justice, reparations, and non-repetition. We should have a truth and justice commission like they did in South Africa and other places.
The Mechanism could not help but note the profound lack of trust of people of African descent toward law enforcement and the criminal “justice” system. They made it clear that current U.S. behaviors including Supreme Court rulings do not meet international standards. Our legal system was once the standard and the basis of many of the conventions and protocols now in existence in the world. Today we don’t live up to them ourselves. Eleanor Roosevelt, is one of the founders of the UN, would turn over in her grave.
Racial bias, stereotypes, and profiling play a large role in maintaining discrimination. According to the Department of Justice (DOJ) Blacks are three times more likely to experience the threat of force or use of nonfatal force; three times more likely to be shouted at by police; and 11 times more likely to experience police misconduct than white people. It’s not “bad apples.” It’s the social, historical, cultural, and structural system – it’s designed this way.
Technology, such as facial recognition, only exacerbates the harm to Blacks by extreme racial and sex disparities in error rates with 20-30% error for Black women compared to 0-0.8% for white men. Drones are misused to focus on surveilling Blacks and protesters. Yet when drones could be used to follow a fleeing felon, they don’t. They just shoot him instead.
The Mechanism were “alarmed” by how many people are killed by police in the U.S. – more than 1,000 a year with Blacks three times more likely to be killed then whites. A third or more of the victims were running away from police, thus posing no threat. Phoenix cops are the number one killers in the nation year after year after year. The Mechanism pointed out that the killings are often connected to traffic stops, mental health crisis, or people not threatening anyone so there was no need to use deadly force. Designating police as the first responder to mental health calls is deadly.
The Mechanism bemoaned the inappropriate use of police in our schools where they set up the school-to-prison pipeline for students of color. Yet Tom Horne, AZ Dept of Education, is asking for uniformed and armed cops in every school. Children are arrested for dress code violations or taking too many cartons of milk. Perhaps they were hungry? Perhaps it was for a younger child at home? In Florida, police arrested elementary school students, as young as 5-years-old, 345 times in one year. That’s insanity.
The Mechanism often used words like “shocked, astounded, deeply concerned, staggering, appalling” when they saw the evidence of extreme racism in the U.S. They saw the racially biased treatment of immigrants and the violent abuse of protesters, legal observers, journalists, and paramedical teams. They noted that legislatures followed up police violence by trying to make First Amendment protest illegal and to label protesters terrorists. At the time they visited, charges were still pending against the officers who murdered Teran at Stop Cop City while he was seated with his hands up. Since then, the prosecutor has declined to prosecute.
Only 1.9% of police killings resulted in an officer being charged with a crime. In 2022, that was only 1%. It’s getting worse not better. The militarization of the police is of grave concern. They also noted how the violent records of these police officers are hidden and how the abusers are recycled from department to department. Today, Departments wonder why they are having trouble recruiting decent officers. Who would want to work in a job where you must act immorally or your life will be threatened daily if you become a whistle blower?
Once again it was mentioned that the U.S. imprisons more people than any other country – seven million annually. We have surpassed Russia and China – we stand in a class of our own. I guess that makes us “exceptional?” Of course the incarceration falls most heavily on Blacks. One in 19 Black adults are under some kind of correctional supervision while it’s 1 in 62 white adults. The Mechanism considered this disproportionate rate “staggering.” But the U.S. Supreme Court says slavery was a long time ago, just get over it, and pretend we live in a color-blind society. How about we ask Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson how that’s working out for her?
The international investigation also looked at incarcerated women of which Black women are 34% and the extra abuse they receive if pregnant. The practice of shackling pregnant women and taking the baby immediately after birth contravenes international standards under the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Nelson Mandala Rules, Rule 48.2).
They were equally astounded at the treatment of children including those held in adult prisons. Black children are four times more likely than whites to be in prison. That doesn’t count the 32,000 who are now adults still in prison and may be there for life for offenses they committed while they were children. The U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences children to prison for life without parole. Yet another example of our “exceptionalism.”
Equally shocking to the Mechanism was the half a million people detained daily who are innocent because they are pre-trial detainees. That percentage increased from 29% of those in jail in 2002 to 71% in 2023. Some people are held longer in pre-trial detention than they would be if convicted – and they are innocent. This of course brought up the issue of cash bail as the reason many remain in jail – or more properly called – debtors’ prison. The Tucson NAACP has embarked on its third year seeking this change in Arizona at the state legislature.
The Mechanism also remarked that pre-trial and convicted inmates are kept together in violation of the UN Standard Minimum Rules. They pointed out that immediate access to a lawyer and the prisoner’s family is crucial and often absent in the U.S. The death penalty is another area where international law requires us to abolish it; but we don’t. Solitary confinement is also prohibited but, in the U.S., we have held people in solitary confinement for decades – as many as 40 years. Three days is enough to bring on psychosis in many people. We simply cannot say we are ruled by any principles of international law or humane treatment of people when you look at what we actually do. Albert Woodfox was held over 43 years and 10 months in solitary because he was a Black Panther. His wrongful conviction was overturned in 2015 and he was released. He died August 4, 2022 at 75.
Jails and prisons have now become our mental health institutions as the investigation found. It caused them great alarm. They also considered the use of cheap or free labor provided by prisoners a violation of the 13th Amendment against slavery and were astonished at the plantation at Angola prison in Louisiana. They considered this the worst version of a racist criminal legal system. Recently all juveniles were removed from Angola. I suspect because the team was coming. But what were they doing there in the first place. Prisoners should have the same labor rights as everyone else according to international standards.
The practice of banning felons from voting in 48 states was also considered a violation of human rights. While Chicago has admitted and allegedly stopped their decades of torture by police officers, the officers were not charged. Criminalizing the homeless was another practice the Mechanism found abhorrent. Not only is it an ineffective way to deal with homelessness, but Blacks are highly overrepresented, and the actions have many downstream effects such as losing jobs, custody, children, and property leading to more homelessness.
Like countless others, the investigators found that the “war on drugs” now 50 years long is really a war on Blacks. Drug related offenses are the leading cause of arrest in the U.S. Despite comparable use of drugs between Blacks and whites, Blacks are arrested 3.6 times up to 10 times more. The “war on drugs” is simply a system of racial control.A month before the September report, the same Independent Mechanism filed a report at the UN about their activities around the world not just the U.S. (A/HRC/54/69) In it, they said we must reimagine policing but the recommendations on how to do that were spare. Many of their suggestions were ones we have heard time and time again with no result. They suggested taking a human rights approach and one that would comply with international standards. But one must recall that many of those standards came from the U.S. in the first place and 1) we never lived up to them, and 2) our system has gone backward since 1980.
The Mechanism suggested a systemic approach to systemic racism – but first the people of the U.S. must understand that it is systemic racism and not “bad apples” or “one off.” The Central AZ National Lawyers Guild has a talk/powerpoint on the history of police to educate people on that if desired. The Mechanism was insistent that trust between law enforcement and the Black community must be built but had no ideas on how.
The Mechanism suggested that first the U.S. must acknowledge the historic discrimination and its impact on policing today. The current political actions on banning CRT and teaching of accurate history goes in the opposite direction. Then there must be changes in police culture, DEI, community-oriented policing, and increased oversight and accountability. Excuse me if we have heard all this before. They suggested demilitarization, de-escalation, diversity, and diversity training. We thought we had community-oriented policing, but it became clear that the protected community was the community of police officers. Residents of Phoenix have fought for over 40 years to get oversight and accountability of the Phoenix police to no avail. Nowhere in the suggestions is there any real reimagining of the police. The Defund Police movement of Black Lives Matter was perverted by the powers that be to look like having no police when in fact what BLM asked for was to divert funding for police into more appropriate areas like mental health counselors, homeless advocates, and school counselors who could respond to the issues without resort to a criminal justice system thus saving money and lives and building strong communities.
The Kerner Commission report in 1968 after the summer of uprisings had over 120 suggestions dealing with health, education, environment, community, and law enforcement. Had we followed those suggestions then, we would be in a very different and better place today. But we didn’t. Instead we did exactly what the Kerner Commission said would happen – we created two societies: one black, one white, very unequal, and harmful to us all.
Blacks have been doing this work for centuries and bearing the price. The scope is so overwhelming and depressing that sometimes I want to shut my eyes and ignore it or dream about moving. Since neither of those work, I must roll up sleeves and get to work.
But it is work that whites must do. Just like in the uprisings after George Floyd’s murder, whites need to stand in front of Blacks because the police are less likely to attack them. Blacks don’t need to read these statistics. They know it in their gut. From the “talk” they must give their children, to the worry every minute they are out of the house, to the stomach clenching fear every time a red light goes on behind them. It is a crime to ask the victims to fix the perpetrators; we must do it.
Let’s get to it:
Vote the bigots out of office;
Pass legislation to bring equity in education, employment, housing, medical care, and the justice system both criminal and civil;
Support the work of your local African American group;
Deal with your own bias yourself; don’t ask Black people to educate you;
Support reparations – the value of 40 acres and a mule that was promised in 1865 and never delivered to those 40,000 freed slaves would be worth $640 billion today.