VOICE FROM AMERICA: How Ubuntu could change the face of US police brutality
We will all have to choose to recognise the humanity in each other and to work together to break down systems perpetuating inequality
I am a black woman, born and raised in Soweto, during the reign of apartheid, though I now live in the greater Seattle area, where I work for Amazon.
The racial abuse and violence happening here today in the US was routine as I grew up, part of everyday life. The fact that my grandfather was exiled from the country for 27 years because he opposed the apartheid government was not extraordinary. Sadly, neither was the murder of my father, an attorney fighting for civil rights for all people of colour. My father was shot in the head with an AK-47 and left to rot — and that was simply the way things were.
Through it all, my mother and grandmother, who raised me, kept telling me to focus on making good choices and doing what I could do — which was to hold my head high, study, and cling to my faith — on the off chance that the future might offer more opportunities for people like me.
Even when my father was murdered, I only allowed myself one good cry. Then I wrenched my focus away from the horror and back to my studies and my faith. Similarly, my maternal grandfather, with whom I also lived, taught me to embrace the ubuntu tradition, which teaches us that life is about community and interdependence.
Ubuntu urges us to recognise the humanity of every individual rather than judge on the basis of group actions.
The years passed. I earned three degrees and became a tax lawyer. I moved to the US, earned another degree, and proudly became a citizen of the country. I saw the wisdom of the advice my mother and grandmother had given me, for I was well prepared to move ahead when apartheid crumbled.
To this day, I pride myself on being rational and optimistic, judging everybody based on their personal conduct and character. What my family taught me, I have tried to pass on to my children.
But then the events of the past couple of weeks hit, and my positive outlook crumbled. I cried as I have not cried since my father’s murder.
I cried for George Floyd. I cried for his kids, for I know very well what it is to face life without a father’s love and guidance. I cried for Floyd’s loved ones. I cried for the pain that this and other murders have triggered in millions of people across the country. I cried for my adopted country that I love, and I cried for the future.
I surrendered to my emotions as I can’t remember ever doing since losing my father. And now I’m done, for now is the time to remember what my family taught me: do what I can do, and hold on to faith, hope and love.
Wounds of the past
The first thing to do, I believe, is to remember that today’s events are not happening in a vacuum, whether they be the acts of the police or the protesters. Instead, they flow logically from the history of racism and police brutality towards minorities in the US.
Some people argue that the police kill more whites than they do blacks; others disagree, arguing that on a proportional basis, blacks are much more likely than whites to be killed by police. Regardless of how the numbers break down, it’s important to remember that police have historically been the face of injustice and the instrument of oppression for blacks and other minorities.
The wounds of the past are many, and the scars are easily ripped open by incidents today. Blacks today well understand that our lives have generally not been valued. We want to ensure that our lives and our children’s lives are. We also want to ensure that offending police officers are held accountable and not simply transferred to another police station or department … or let off entirely. Additionally, we want to ensure that no police officers, prosecutors or other officials cling to destructive stereotypes of blacks as being undeserving or dangerous, leading them to act accordingly.
The second thing we must do is remember that while expressing our grief, anger, and frustration is important, we must do so peacefully and keep our eyes fixed on the road that lies beyond. Now is the time for positive action, so it is vital that we process our emotions quickly and come out the other side with clear minds, ready to identify and take concrete corrective steps.
The protests have focused the nation’s attention, but that focus will soon be lost.
What will replace it? What can I, and the tens of millions of Americans who are grieved and appalled by what has happened, do to ensure that these things never happen again? What changes can we effect to guarantee that no police officer ever places a knee on the neck of an unresisting civilian and chokes the life out them again? To ensure that prosecutors have the mindset, courage and resources to charge and try officers who act with disregard for human dignity and life?
What can we do to ensure that the recent horrific events — the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, as well as the actions of Amy Cooper —are catalysts for substantial and lasting change?
It is clear that we need systemic reforms, that we must push for policies and practices that ensure everyone is treated with respect by the police. In the US, this could take the form of a number of interventions. These include:
1. Establishing a reconciliation body
This could operate like the Truth & Reconciliation Commission did after apartheid to uncover and acknowledge past wrongdoing and deal with the resulting pain. We need a similar forum in the US to address trauma caused by police brutality — a place where victims can be heard and where those responsible must face the pain they have directly or inadvertently caused.
2. Reform the office of the prosecutor
Prosecutors have too much discretion in terms of whether or not to bring a case. For example, in Georgia, a prosecutor twice indicted a black grandmother for helping a newly registered voter use a voting machine, but refused to charge Arbery’s killers. In some cases, the law itself makes prosecution difficult or impossible, which makes it difficult to hold bad officers accountable.
A Seattle Times study found that between 2005 and 2015, Seattle police killed 213 people — 10% of whom were black, in a state where blacks make up about 4% of the population. The newspaper said: “During that period, only one police officer has been criminally charged in state courts with the illegal use of deadly force on the job.”
Perhaps it’s time to introduce permanent special prosecutors focused solely on police misconduct.
3. Devise a system to identify and register bad officers
When Freddie Gray died in 2015 while riding handcuffed in a police van, medical examiners ruled the death a homicide because police officers failed to follow safety procedures. Though all the police officers involved were charged with crimes, they were all cleared.
Where are those officers now? Maybe it is time to develop a national registry of bad officers so they can be identified and prevented from jumping from station to station to escape accountability.
4. Revise collective bargaining agreements
Police unions often use their collective bargaining power to protect officers from disciplinary action (including termination) and impede accountability.
It’s time to put an end to this. We would never allow a union to protect teachers from being charged with sexual misconduct perpetrated against children, so why allow unions to protect bad cops from being disciplined or fired?
5. Review the scope of police responsibility
We demand a lot of our police, insisting they patrol the streets, monitor traffic, arrest those suspected of committing crimes, serve as social workers, respond to riots and more — including putting their lives on the line to protect us.
So it’s not surprising that some officers shine in one area and fail dismally in others. The officer who excels at chasing armed robbers into a dark alley may not be the best one to put a mentally ill person suspected of stealing a bag of potato chips into a police car.
Why do we need armed police to carry out administrative functions, such as routine traffic stops to check on licences? People of colour are tired of routine speed checks turning into life-or-death situations. Why can’t these be handled by folks who aren’t armed?
6. Institute a national review board or increase the use of consent decrees
Today, the civil rights division of the department of justice (DOJ) is empowered to investigate police departments that engage in excessive force. If it finds that a police department engages in “patterns and practices” of unconstitutional policing, it may issue a note outlining recommended policy changes, or bring an action in court for an order on recommended reform.
The Seattle police department is currently operating under such a decree, as are 13 other law enforcement agencies, including those in Ferguson, Los Angeles and Portland. Shouldn’t the DOJ look into initiating more investigations of law enforcement agencies suspected of engaging in patterns of misconduct?
7. Encourage the police to engage with ubuntu
There have been protests across the nation in response to the murders of Floyd, Arbery, Taylor, Michael Brown and others. While watching the news, I’ve seen videotaped footage of armed officers in Buffalo, New York, shove an elderly white man, Martin Gugino, to the ground and leave him lying there, blood flowing from his head. Fortunately, this case did not result in murder by the police, but it does demonstrate a lack of compassion and caring on the part of many police officers.
Police have a difficult and often dangerous job. But they act with the authority of the state — and they carry guns. This is all the more reason why we must push for anti-bias training, crisis and de-escalation training, and training on how to effectively engage with the community. We must insist police treat people with dignity and respect — with ubuntu.
Ubuntu teaches us that we are all interconnected, and that if other people are not whole, we cannot be whole. A phrase in Sesotho encapsulates the concept perfectly: “Motho ke motho ka batho”, which translates to “A person is a person because of other people” or, as some say, “I am who I am because of others”.
This idiom embodies the idea that our wellbeing can be enhanced by the actions of others. Police officers who fully embrace this concept will not abuse their powers, for they will truly “see” people and their humanity — and if Derek Chauvin had seen Floyd’s humanity, would he have killed him so callously, so slowly and agonisingly? Empowered by ubuntu, police officers will, where civilians are being brutalised by a fellow officer, look to shoulder the civilian’s burden and step in to assist.
Looking for justice
I offer the points above only as a list of possible solutions. I’m sure other people have ideas of their own.
Indeed, the Justice in Police Act of 2020, which (in part) looks to ban chokeholds, end racial profiling, mandate the use of body and dashboard cameras, and make lynching a federal crime, is being proposed in the US congress.
I am confident the US can be a better place and more like the “City on a Hill” I thought it to be when I was a girl growing up in Soweto. To me, America was the land of possibility, and I insist that it is possible for us to move into a much brighter future.
Looting and rioting will not bring us closer to that future; neither will political posturing and squabbling. Only hard work and a willingness to make tough choices will get us there. Some of us will have to choose to forgive generously, while others will have to choose to acknowledge traumas we’ve experienced.
We will all have to choose to recognise the humanity in each other and to work together to break down systems perpetuating inequality. A brighter future lies ahead, provided, as Nelson Mandela said, that our choices begin to reflect our hopes and not our fears.
- Tardif is a lawyer, author of Daughter of Apartheid, finance professional at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, and freedom activist. She earned four degrees from Boston University and University of the Witwatersrand. She writes in her personal capacity
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