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People of African Descent: doing more time for less crime


​​​​​Justin Hansford often remembers the first time he travelled to Geneva. He was there to present his organization’s shadow report for the review by the UN Committee against Torture of his country, the United States.

Hansford, a lawyer for the Black Lives Matter movement, came to support the mother of Mike Brown, an African American teenager who was shot multiple times by police officer Darren Wilson on the afternoon of 9 August 2014, while he was walking down a street of St Louis, Ferguson, Missouri. Mike Brown’s slain body lay on the asphalt for four hours before it was removed.

“Out of all the official mechanisms - the civil courts, criminal courts, the US Government, the Department of Justice that decided not to press charges against Wilson – [the UN Committee] was the only place where Mike Brown’s mother got a chance to tell her story,” Hansford said. “The activists got to tell their story in front of an official mechanism that listened to their voices and gave them respect.”

Two and a half years later, Hansford travelled back to Geneva to participate in the 20th session of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. There, he was able to connect with other civil society organizations and experts who gave him a wider perspective of the human rights issues this particular group faces globally.

“Engagement with the State is something we are going to have to face. Being here I see all of the different instances of police violence that are being directed towards black populations,” he said. “It’s not a coincidence that we are also seeing this rise in white nationalism, BREXIT, Trump and Marine Le Pen. It’s all connected.”

As the Working Group had noted in its report to the UN Human Rights Council on its official visit to the United States in January 2016, Hansford pointed out that there are continuing manifestations of racial discrimination in that country.

In his presentation, he highlighted that the US has five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. People of African descent make up 36 percent of the over two million people incarcerated. Hansford added that according to Human Rights Watch, Black Americans comprise 14 percent of regular drug users but constitute 37 percent of those arrested for drugs offences.

“When you review the data you actually find we commit crimes at a similar rate for the most part but what the police do: they focus, they target, they racially profile,” Hansford said. “Instead of running a drug bust at the local university, where all the kids are doing marijuana, they’ll do a drug bust for marijuana at the low-income housing projects.”

“Mass incarceration results not from a culture of poverty, but from having a bullseye on our backs simply for the crime of being born Black in America”

Since the creation of Black Lives Matter, the movement has enabled a number of federal investigations of police misconduct in Baltimore, Chicago, and Fergusson. However, when Jeff Sessions was nominated US Attorney General by the current administration those investigations were called off.

“That is the type of struggles we’re facing, so we have to figure a way to respond. A lot of us have been thinking recently that the way to go is to focus on local politics … We have more power in these places because we have a more concentrated black population that may be able to vote people out of office,” Hansford said.

What Hansford proposed for the International Decade for People of African Descent was to have goals and targets. “Goals can inspire people, they can bring them together. One thing we need to do for the US is to look to cut down on mass incarceration at least by half during the International Decade. We have a whole decade to do it.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, Matilda MacAttram, founder and director of a human rights campaigns group called Black Mental Health UK, sees the normalized coercion and mental health forensic response onto Black Britons as a form of oppression similar to that of Black Americans in the US prison system.

She explained to the Working Group that mental health is the only area of health care in the United Kingdom where State coercion is applied. Under the Mental Health Act, if a person is deemed to have lost capacity and is perceived to be in need of mental health care they can be detained in hospital and treated against their will.

When such an assessment is done in a public place and the person refuses to be treated against their will, the police will assist the mental health practitioner and the social worker to detain the patient.

The National Centre for Social Research in 2002 revealed that morbidity rates among Black Britons were not higher than any other ethnic group. However, the 2011 Count Me In Census, which details data disaggregated by ethnicity of patients in mental health hospitals across England and Wales, showed that Black people were nine time more likely to be admitted than the rest of the population. This data showed an increase from 2005 where the rate was three times more likely than the rest of the population.

MacAttram pointed out how the case of David “Rocky” Bennett was seminal for the UK. On the night of 30 October 1998, the 38 year old African Caribbean patient with schizophrenia entered into a scuffle with another patient at the Norvic clinic in Norwich. Bennett received a torrent of racist abuse from the other patient. The staff at the clinic decided to move Bennett to another ward.

When Bennett learned he would stay there overnight, feeling an injustice he punched a nurse, which prompted other staff to restrain him. The nurses released him when he went quiet: Bennett, an inquiry revealed, had died from injuries he sustained under restraint that were “consistent with excess pressure being used.”

For MacAttram, the UK Government inquiry report into the David Bennett case highlighted at a national level the institutional racism within mental health services.

“It also was seminal because in response the Government committed to roll out a five year program called Delivering Race Equality in Mental Health Care. But Delivering Race Equality is hugely flawed: unless you deal with the group facing the injustice it won’t be addressed,” she said.

MacAttram also pointed out that the use of coercion under the Mental Health Act is disproportionately targeting people of African descent. But the stigma associated with mental illness makes it hard to discuss in public fora.

“There is a research and inquiry fatigue in Black Britain. What we want to see, if any resources are made available, is what we should have seen after David Bennett died: resources given to the community-based, culturally appropriate services that meet people at the point of need,” she stressed.

“What we also want to see, if resources are available, is the right to a legal advocate before detention; give people their human rights!”

In 2014, MacAttram was selected to participate in the Fellowship Programme for People of African Descent of the UN Human Rights Office. She has since been able to apply what she learned during the programme through her organization.

“Almost with immediate effect. The fellowship has been incredibly empowering. I thank the people who pushed to have the recognition of the crime against us acknowledged at this arena so that the work of the next generation could address it,” she said. “The idea would be to fill your lungs as much as possible and to not stay silent until we have justice.”

If like Matilda MacAttram you are interested in participating in the 2017 edition of the UN Fellowship Programme for People of African Descent, click here to learn more and send in your application. The deadline for application is 31 May 2017.

Click here to learn more about the work of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, get involved and participate in activities to protect the human rights of people of African descent.

27 April 2017

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