The twilight of Barack Obama’s second term as US president has been marked by an unprecedented national conversation on how — not if — the criminal justice system is stacked against black people, young black men in particular. If some thought Obama’s election heralded a post-racial America, the depth of the anger and frustration that has erupted across the country over the past year, in small towns (Ferguson) and big (New York, Los Angeles, Baltimore), demonstrates the degree of alienation still felt by African Americans. Each time another young black man is killed by the police in circumstances that point to institutionalised prejudice, and there is no accountability or justice, it reaffirms the community’s suspicion that, decades after the abolition of slavery, the end of Jim Crow, and even after a black man became president, it is helpless to resist the violence perpetrated by the very instruments of state that are supposed to protect it.
Freddie Gray’s mysterious death in the custody of the Baltimore police department is yet another entry in a tragic roster. It follows Eric Garner’s death at the hands of their New York City counterparts, Tamir Rice’s in Cleveland, Walter Scott’s in North Charleston and Michael Brown’s in Ferguson. The protests in Baltimore, which have now spread to NYC and Washington DC, were sparked, therefore, not just by this specific case, but also the stark racial biases that seem to routinely characterise the police’s use of force. In its investigation of the Ferguson police, the department of justice catalogued how law enforcement practices in the city were shaped by a “discriminatory intent” that indulged in wilful racism to generate cash. Each new incident serves to remove focus from the individual perpetrators and underscore the broad systemic corruption at the root of such abuse. It is a high price to pay, but there is a valuable recognition of the casual racism and entrenched prejudice that pervades America’s institutions.
Such cathartic outrage is absent in India, where police attitudes towards minority communities are egregious but the prejudices remain mostly unacknowledged. A culture of impunity shrouds cases of extra-judicial killings by the police, as exemplified by the Hashimpura verdict earlier this year, where all 16 police officials accused of killing 42 Muslims in 1987 were acquitted. In India, as in America, an urgent national agenda centred on reforms to policing and the criminal justice system is needed.