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Trayvon Martin and St Vincent’s UN Ambassador: the racist similarities

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It seems that institutional racial profiling continues to be a massive problem in the United States, notwithstanding that the country has an African-American President, several African-American Congressmen and Mayors of Cities, and accomplished African-Americans in the media and in corporate America.{{more}}

I have not mentioned the entertainment business – either sport or music – because for decades those are the two areas in which black people were expected to be. They have long been ‘racially profiled’ as acceptable within the confines of these two categories.

Even though there are thousands of African-Americans in the Police forces across the States of America, institutional racial profiling is particularly evident amongst the Police. In part, this is because the Police force is the institution that most confronts black people every day in the United States, and the reports of abuse are legion. As a friend, former diplomat and current commentator, Peter Simmons puts it: “Obama’s election does not mean that the country has moved to post-racial status”.

In reality, although he is the President of the Unites States, Barack Obama himself continues to be a target of racial abuse. Some of the statements made about him by bigoted and prejudiced Americans – even within the US Congress – would never have been made about any former US President.

As I write this commentary, the circumstances surrounding the admitted killing of 17-year old African-American Trayvon Martin in Florida by George Zimmerman, who could at best be described as an eager neighbourhood watch vigilante, is yet to be properly determined. What is certain is that the Police did not do their job correctly, and Martin’s death is yet to be investigated thoroughly. This has caused well-thinking people in the US and across the world to speculate about how different the Police would have acted had the victim been white and the admitted-killer been black.

This same bigotry and prejudice is also reflected in the assault and arrest of a Caribbean Ambassador to the United Nations in New York by a white policeman. On March 28, the Ambassador of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Camillo Gonsalves, was pursued by a New York Policeman into the building that houses his Mission to the UN, assaulted, forcibly hand-cuffed and arrested. His crime, as he describes it, without any denial from the New York Police Department, is that he did not respond to a shouted challenge from the Policeman: “Hey You! You! What the hell do you think the Goddamn barricades are there for?” as he crossed a barricade to enter his own Mission – something he and others have done for years, and which others – including representatives of Israel – had done that very day. Israel’s diplomatic mission to the UN is located in the same building.

The key that unlocks the offensive and aggressive nature of the Policeman’s behavior in relation to Ambassador Gonsalves is his remark to fellow officers: “I couldn’t let him just walk into the building. Look at him: he could be a terrorist.”

Well, how a person looks is not reasonable grounds for suspicion that he or she may be a terrorist. Because someone looks Arab, African or in some way different from white people is not enough reason for such an assumption. Unless, of course, racial profiling is the basis of judgement which, in this case as in many others, it clearly was. Maybe, if the Policeman had approached the Ambassador politely and inquired who he was, he may have had a civil response and a production of the identification that would have avoided the incident altogether. But, he seemed determined to use his position to subjugate a black man who did not surrender to what he regarded as his authority. In execution of that mindset, he pursued Ambassador Gonsalves into his building and despite the protestations of the security guards within the building and the objections of other diplomats on the scene, he assaulted him, handcuffed and arrested him.

Intervention by officials of the US State Department and senior officers of the New York Police Department caused the removal of the handcuffs and the avoidance of the Ambassador being ignominiously carted-off to a police station for formal charges.

As this commentary is being written, the New York Police Department is considering issuing the Ambassador with a summons for disorderly conduct. It would be shocking if they did so, particularly in the context of their officer’s behaviour, and it should rightly lead to the strongest objection from the entire diplomatic community at the UN.

The Caribbean diplomatic community has already voiced its outrage at the incident. The Chairman of the Caucus of Caribbean Ambassadors has written the US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, pointing out that the “observance of privileges and immunities is a matter of great importance to the normal functioning of Ambassadors” and member states of the UN expect the highest standards from the individuals and entities charged with such observance.

Like the circumstances surrounding Trayvon Martin’s death, this incident involving a UN Ambassador and the Police in the US is far from being put to rest. In each case, there are elements of racial bigotry and prejudice and consequent poor police conduct. It is those very elements that the St Vincent government has now asked the US State Department to investigate.

There is clearly great need for the authorities in the US to address racism in its Police Forces. They may not be able to legislate against racism, but they can legislate and implement machinery to punish those whose racial prejudice and bigotry motivate their actions. The election of a unique African-American to the highest office of the land in the US was a great tribute to millions of Americans who saw beyond colour. It is not so for many who abuse the authority of their positions and give Americans a bad name. That is the sadness for America.

(The writer is a consultant and former Caribbean diplomat)

Responses and previous commentaries at: www.sirronaldsanders.com

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