The past week has seen news coverage and timelines taken over by the death of George Floyd, a black man in America who died at the hands of police when they arrested him on suspicion of forgery.
As we know, an officer has been charged with third-degree murder and three others are under investigation.
I’ve followed the news with varying degrees of heartbreak and pure rage, which is why, when New Zealand Police’s Armed Response Teams (ARTs) returned to headlines at the weekend, I was dumbfounded.
• Greens co-leader Marama Davidson speaks out against plans to further arm police
• Greg O’Connor: Time to get real and arm our police
• Should we arm police?
• ‘Police broke my arm’, weapons expo protester claims
A six-month trial of armed officers started in October, with then Police Commissioner Mike Bush stating the teams would be focused on crimes that caused “significant risk”.
The trial ended in April. It has just been revealed the majority of situations the ARTs were deployed for were not “high-risk” situations, but rather, routine traffic stops.
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They were also used for bail checks, burglar alarms, and other basic inquiries. Less than 3 per cent of incidents involved firearms and the majority of those apprehended were unarmed.
Importantly, half of those apprehended were Māori.
According to criminal justice group People Against Prisons Aotearoa, three people were killed during the timeframe of NZ Police’s six-month trial – “a New Zealander every two months”.
They say this is a “drastic escalation in killings by police, which threatens to become the new normal”. And that’s exactly my concern.
I’m not comparing the police involved to those who killed George Floyd. Not at all.
My concern is that, even if every aspect of the situation pointed toward lethal force being necessary beyond argument, the underlying problem is what happens when you start giving people that kind of power?
In the recent cases I’ve seen in the news, namely, those of Hitesh Lal, Anthony John Fane and Graeme Warren, all of the men threatened police with a weapon.
One of them fired directly at police.
I can only imagine what a terrifying situation that is to be in. But does it deserve a death sentence? No. Does anything? I don’t think so. But that’s a whole other conversation.
The point is, how many times have we seen black men and boys like Philandro Castile and Tamir Rice gunned down in America because police “thought he had a weapon”, or people like Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery killed because they looked a certain way?
At worst, it’s a convenient excuse for murder. At best, it’s the result of deep-rooted racism ensuring people of colour the world over are seen as dangerous and, in this day and age, most likely armed. Or they’re in a gang and are prone to violence. Or they’re on drugs and unpredictable.
The idea that people – and particularly men – of colour are not to be trusted is not an American notion.
It is a lie which has come from as far back as the enslavement of African
people and the colonisation of the “savage” Māori and other indigenous peoples because that’s how the violence against them was justified then as well.
Last year, New Zealand made international headlines and garnered worldwide acclaim for our Government’s swift move to ban guns in NZ following March 15. Now we’re trying to arm our police? I don’t know how that makes sense.
That sends a message that guns are necessary for protection – a message the NRA is founded on and which buoys the second amendment in the USA.
And you’d better believe that applies to criminals too – once they see police arming up, they will move to match them because they have to “protect” themselves too. It’s a vicious, idiotic cycle and benefits no one.
Now, let me reiterate: I am not saying the police who shot those men during the ART trial were racist murderers. I’m simply saying that people are already dying with the guns we already have in play and when you start giving those guns to more people with varied backgrounds, beliefs and degrees of training, you open the door to a slippery slope which could one day see us following in America’s bloody footsteps.
Māori and Pasifika are already wildly overrepresented in the criminal justice system. We are nearly six times more likely to come into contact with police than Pākehā and seven times more likely to be charged with a crime when we do. Māori are also nearly eight times more likely than Pākehā to be on the receiving end of police force.
Just imagine adding more guns to that mix.
Of course, to buy into this whole thing being problematic, you first have to buy into the fact that racism exists, that exists at this level, and that it exists in New Zealand, and it’s clear that far too many people are completely unwilling to accept that.
I’ve seen the news comments sections. I’ve seen the Facebook comments and tweets and heard the listeners calling into talkback radio. I know there are a lot of people who think brown people are garbage who need to be brought to heel. I’ve heard people say punishments aren’t harsh enough and “they should be shot”. I’ve been followed around a store. I’ve had a car accident automatically blamed on me despite all evidence pointing to the Pākehā driver of the other car being at fault. I’ve had ambulance workers question whether I’m making up injuries for pity. I’ve had peers question whether my success was due to merit or race. I’ve had people email me hate speech and death threats because I dare to write about race in New Zealand and blackness in America.
The same attitudes that killed George Floyd exist here, just not nearly as openly. And that’s the bit that scares me. Will any of the people we choose to arm secretly, or even unconsciously, harbour that hatred and distrust?
Not only have police in this country already been shown to disproportionately target and use force on Māori and Pasifika, but in the past 10 years, our people made up two-thirds of all people shot by police.
Add even more guns to that equation and you’ve got a country in which my friends and whanau become hashtags and my beautiful nephew could be murdered on the street while he calls for his Māmā because police thought he “looked dangerous”.
I cannot accept that. We, as a nation, must not accept that.
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