By Dr David Hinds
There is major concern over police brutality against African Guyanese since the current executive government came to power. African Guyanese activists have pointed to over 400 African Guyanese, mostly young men, who have died at the hands of the police since 1992. There are strong claims that there was direct state involvement in some of these killings during the period 2002-2006. The recent Colwyn Harding incident has raised these concerns anew. Many have joined the debate. There have been some very useful contributions. The police force has correctly come under severe criticisms. But, sadly, what is missing from the debate is how police brutality is a reflection of our larger ethno-racial problem. Of all the public commentators, only Henry Jeffery and Freddy Kissoon have dared to go there.
Dr David Hinds is a political activist and commentator. He is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Caribbean and African Diaspora Studies in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. His writings can be found on his website. You can also listen to Dr Hinds on “Hindsight” on Mark Benschop online radio every Thursday night 8-9 pm at guyanaobservernews.com
And yes, we have had and will continue to have an ethno-racial problem. I use the term ethno-racial to mean ethnic groups that relate to each other through the lens of race. To get a proper sense of what we are talking about, a brief history and explanation of race is needed. We often talk about race in Guyana as if it is figment of people’s imagination -- false consciousness. But it is not; it is real. Race as biology has been proven to be unreal. But race as social, political, economic and cultural practice is real.
The concept of race was first developed in the USA in the late 1600s as a justification for the rise of plantation slavery. It gave social meaning to skin colour. Blackness came to mean less than human, while whiteness came to mean fully human. The German philosopher, Hegel, said to be human is to be white. Thomas Jefferson would later remark that blacks were inferior in body and mind and do not feel life’s pains as other groups. Other white thinkers concluded that black people could not exist in a state of freedom. Hence it would be dangerous to free them from slavery.
Blackness became synonymous with, among other things, backwardness, indolence, shallowness, unreason and laziness. This characterization of blackness as inferior -- the white racial frame -- found its way into laws and socio-economic and political policies. Over time such laws and polices inevitably begun to shape people’s consciousness about blackness and, by extension, whiteness.
This white frame of blackness or racism became the core of a dominant global ideology that would inform European and American expansion in the form of the Atlantic slave trade, plantation slavery and colonialism and internal colonization such as American segregation and South African apartheid.
The key in all of this is power. Whites were able to use their political and economic power to turn their anti-black prejudices into law and policy. This is the essence of race -- give meaning to skin colour and then use your power to institutionalize that meaning. It is called intuitional or structural racism. One Guyanese social scientist, Freddie Kissoon, has called it ideological racism.
Other ethnic groups inevitably adopted this ideology of anti-blackness. Everyone wanted to be white; they avoided blackness. In the USA, for example, where after 1865 one could only be legally black or white, all, but one or two, non-white applicants for citizenship wanted to be white. Even free fair-skinned blacks tried hard to “pass for white.”
At the core of the construction of blackness is violence. Blackness is constructed as the embodiment of mindless violence. Because, as Jefferson observed, they do not feel life’s pain, are more emotional and devoid of human reason, they readily reach for violence. Other more “enlightened” theorists have contended that because blacks had to fight back against oppression for so long they have developed a reflex for violence.
Since the black male has been seen as the vanguard of this violence, he is to be feared. And they way you deal with this danger of black maleness, which often include the “bad, militant” black female, is to develop laws and institutions to combat it. This need to combat black savagery has been at the core of “law and order” in places where blacks live.
This brings me to Guyana. We have inherited a colonial law and order praxis that is grounded in keeping blacks in their place and combating this presumed savagery. Our post-colonial state, despite some tinkering here and there, has maintained the colonial outlook and praxis. Anti-black racism is at the core of the state behaviour when it comes to state violence. Some will say it is not anti-black it is anti-poor. It is both.
But when those laws and behaviours were constructed, social class was not the issue. Slavery was not about social class, it was about race. Sure, race and racism have since been used to maintain and defend social privilege. But social privilege often has a racial face and mind.
That black males have continued to be victims of police “law and order” is no accident. What is important to note is that the police force is predominantly black. But policemen and women are mere servants of the state. They take orders from leaders and institutions of the state. So to understand police brutality one has to understand the nature of the state and more importantly the interests of those who have control over the state. Anti-black biases are embedded in the Guyanese state even when it is not articulated as such.
One can no doubt make the same claim from both an Indian Guyanese and an Amerindian Guyanese standpoint. Indeed Indian Guyanese made similar charges during the tenure of the PNC. Dr Jagan himself made the charge in a 1988 speech in New York that East Indians were second class citizens in Guyana. Other East Indian leaders have called for the ethnic balancing of the police force. Whether Dr Jagan was correct or not, what is true is that, even under the PNC, blacks were still more likely to be subjected to summary execution by the police than any other group. East Indian and black dissident political protests were confronted with police violence.
Police violence against blacks has been there since slavery and colonialism and continued under the black dominated PNC government. But I contend that the violence of the state against Africans under the PPP deserves closer scrutiny. One cannot adequately understand and explain the upsurge of police brutality against black men outside of the interests of those who run the state.
I argue that ethnic domination through the use of institutional racism is a fact of politics and economics in Guyana. After all, ethnic domination by one group is seen as a defence against ethnic domination by the other group. Black victims of police violence, therefore, are the victims of the larger ethno-racial dynamics of ethnic domination.
There is a reason why despite widespread crime in both Indian and African Guyanese communities, disproportionately more Black boys are being summarily executed by the police. There is also a reason why black protest is easily confronted with police violence while Indian protest is not.
Here are the dynamics. The PPP executive government has a known interest in securing the loyalty of the police and other armed forces, which it has repeatedly claimed helped to throw it out of power in 1964. The PPP government also as an inevitable interest in quelling protest and rebellion among the constituency of its political rivals. Finally, the PPP has an interest in demonstrating to its constituency that it can protect them against the deep-seated fear of black violence both from police and civilians.