Imagining a Better Future: Institutional Kindness

Caitlin Smart

The University of Auckland 

Undergraduate (First Year)

As I write, the town of Ferguson is being immortalised alongside Selma, Montgomery, and Los Angeles. Immortalised, for cementing race intolerance in mass protest, and third-party rioting and looting. Two high-profile Grand Jury cases have returned no indictment on alleged cases of police brutality. Both victims were black.

 

Even halfway around the world, in little old New Zealand, the possibility of widespread American police brutality is on everyone’s minds, everyone’s lips and everyone’s Facebook profiles. However, in the New Zealand politicosphere, most of the argument has been around whether it is relevant to New Zealanders. Although statistically People of Colour in New Zealand have a higher rate of incarceration, there have been few complaints about the attitudes of the police towards POC’s, or at least not to the extent of the US. Many of my acquaintances do not feel like this issue affects them at all, that they aren’t black and therefore they shouldn’t be getting involved. Alternatively, they argue that they are purportedly ‘colourblind’, and therefore they can’t see the importance of a ‘race’ issue. If it isn’t already clear where I stand, I present to you a collection.

 

Abner, Adolph, Albert, Alexander, Amadou, Anthony, Askia, Brian, Calvin, Carmelo, Cassandra, Danny, David, Delano, Donovan, Eric, Flint, Franklin, Gino, Henry, Hope, Ismael, James, Javier, Jessie, Jonny, Joseph, Juan, Kahlif, Kathryn, Kelly, Kendra, Malice, Mark, Marlene, Marshawn, Marvin, Maurice, Michael, Mitchell, Nathaniel, Oscar, Ousmane, Philip, Reora, Richard, Robert, Rodney, Ronald, Ronnie, Samuel, Sean, Sofia, Stanley, Stephen, Tarika, Timothy, Tracy, Trent, Tyrone, Wayne

 

These are the names of a selection of victims of police brutality, in the land of the free. Some are addicts. Some have mental health problems. Most are black. Many will tell you of the long legal battles they had to endure in order to receive compensation. Some didn’t even get the chance. Read those names. It’s an attendance roll. Do you see any relatives forenames on the list? Both Mark and Franklin are ex-boyfriends. My dad’s name is Michael.

 

My own experience with the police has been very different to the stories on the news. I was assaulted on an empty train in the middle of the day. The police officer who took my statement was incredibly friendly, and stayed calm throughout. No questions were asked about my state of intoxication, and he only asked about the length of my jeans because he wanted to know whether the man had touched bare skin. My family have always taught me to trust law enforcement figures, and I was always promised that they would keep me safe. However, now that I am an older, I am constantly wondering. Have the police been protective of me because I am white? Will this change if and when I reveal myself as queer and with mental health issues?

 

Within the ideal democracy, authority figures are to be trusted. They are elected/appointed by the people, and are therefore subservient to the people. If you do not like your local politician, you can vote them out at the next election. Terrible schoolteacher? Complain to your education board, or if that fails, contact local media and start a petition. Sure, your petition won’t get any traction if everyone else in your neighbourhood likes the schoolteacher, but at least with democracy, we do not get a case of tyranny of the minority. At least in theory.

 

Police Officers were originally watchmen in ancient and medieval times. They were either military men or bodyguards for hire who watched over the people and property of their town, their lord, their emperor, or basically whoever paid them. Until Victorian times, watchmen were simply middlemen hired by the elites to protect their property.  That all changed in 1829 however, with the introduction of the Metropolitan Police Service in London. This police force was designed to be apolitical, and available to all citizens regardless of their social class. Mainly, their main goal was to prevent crime, not to punish criminals. In the words of their creator, Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel, “the police are the public and the public are the police.”

 

I do not solely think that the apparent corrosion of policing in modern society is our main concern for the next century. However, it does provide an apt example of what I believe is our primary issue, ensuring that all members of society can access the rights and freedoms of the democratic state. The modern attitudes towards policing developed at the start of the movement towards state-provided social welfare, and more importantly, the notion that the democratic modern state is accountable to all citizens.

The idea of a society is that we sacrifice some of our individual freedoms, and in return, we get the protection of living in a society. It is not a particularly hard concept to grasp when we bring in examples. We pay taxes; the taxes help to pay for education to help us get a better life, and healthcare when we are sick. We agree to follow the ‘law’ and (unknowingly) agree to the consequences of not following the law; in return, we are protected from someone hurting us unlawfully.

 

It looks like we will be following the path to democracy over the next century, for better or worse. The 20th century has largely shown us that humans in peacetime want at least some participation in their own system of governance, and many are willing to protest and even go to war for it. This doesn’t mean that all humans want democratic elections, but merely that systems of government are held accountable for their actions. Even if the concept of statehood is breaking down in the process of globalisation, citizens of the planet still want to be given the ability to change who runs their lives if need be.

 

It is not just corruption in the traditional sense that we need to remove in the next century. If we are to continue along the path of democracy, we need to ensure accountability towards the most marginalised members of our society. If democracy is to survive and grow in the next century, it must be shown to protect ethnic minorities, women and transgender individuals, the stateless, the disabled, and a host of other groups that have traditionally been downtrodden. There are many ways to going about doing this, all of them difficult, but the riots of Ferguson should not be our future.




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