The shooting death of Mike Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer and the subsequent stand-offs between protestors and heavily armed law enforcement units might seem like a quintessentially all-American tragedy.
But it’s not. Consider the violent rioting that erupted across England in 2011, after police in London shot dead Mark Duggan, a black British resident of Tottenham; or the violence in the suburbs of Paris in 2005, after two young boys of North African origin were electrocuted after they ran from police; or the 2013 rioting in a suburb of Stockholm involving mostly young migrants angered by a police shooting; or the 2013 demonstrations across Brazil after videos emerged of police brutality.
In all these cases, just as in Ferguson, the deaths sparked anger that had been fed by a history of racial discrimination, a history that is experienced on a daily basis by many young people of color in the form of humiliating stop-and-search checks that can easily escalate into confrontations.
Policing that singles out minorities is a global problem, particularly when the police do not come from the communities they are supposed to serve, a problem documented across Europe as well as in Brazil, Colombia, Canada, South Africa, and Australia.
But just because it’s common doesn’t mean that nothing can be done about it. Likewise, much more is being done by young people on a daily basis beyond the riots that capture international headlines. At the Open Society Foundations, we believe that one of the solutions is to ensure that the young people most affected by this kind of abusive policing are given a voice in efforts to improve relations between their communities and the police. This summer, for instance, youth activists and organizers from 15 different cities and 11 different countries met in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to share their stories and experiences, their tactics and strategies, their questions and solutions, and their hopes and determination for meaningful police reform.
In spite of being the most directly affected by discrimination in policing, young people and youth of color in particular are often sidelined from the official discussions on needed reforms. Their insights into what would constitute fair and effective policing are often ignored or worse, not invited. Many police authorities view youth as an “unreachable population”—i.e., one that is hard to consult or engage. (Apparently, although young people are easy to find in order to stop and search, they are less easy to find in order to ask how policing can be done better.) It too frequently seems that youth voices and demands are only considered by pundits and older community leaders after they riot.
Beyond the demonstrations in Ferguson or the riots in London, Paris, or Stockholm, young people are engaged in daily efforts to hold the police to account and to realize fair and effective policing. Here are just a handful of the projects that are underway:
- In New York, organizers are using street-level video monitoring of police activities, often known as “Cop Watch,” as a way to prevent and document misconduct, hold police to account, and organize community members.
- In Amsterdam, young people engaged in a situational testing study and storytelling in order to capture real experiences of ethnic profiling. As this problem is often dismissed in the Netherlands, such testing has been important to document the problem and help people understand its existence.
- In Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, a diverse set of organizations are working to promote nondiscrimination and counter police violence, the vast majority of which affects young black Brazilians. Amnesty International–Brazil is working closely with community organizations to engage in outreach, street law, and documentation of abuses in Rio’s favelas, while UneAfro conducts popular education in São Paulo’s favelas.
- In Barcelona, youth members of SOS Racisme Catalunya are actively engaged in collecting stories and reports from individuals who experience discrimination or abuse and file complaints to oversight bodies.
Ultimately, these kind of efforts can also lead to the police talking directly with young people. In various cities in England, for instance, members of the Youth Commission on Police and Crime are now working to create a space for youth to directly engage with police and crime commissioners to develop policing policies that reflect their needs and priorities.
In Ferguson, Missouri, the road out of the current confrontation will undoubtedly be long and difficult, and require the engagement of all members of the community. But when the talk eventually turns to the future, it’s worth remembering that youth and youth of color in particular are the ones facing the brunt of discriminatory policing. If we are serious about addressing these problems, they must be involved in the solutions.