This is the first in a series of five op-eds by Nani Jansen Reventlow published by the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant in October 2023. Read the original Dutch version here.
No racialised person needs video to prove that the police are not here to protect us. Alongside health care, and welfare, it is one of the public institutions that poses a significant risk to the lives of Black, brown, and other marginalised people more than it supports and sustains us.
When the world united in 2020 around protests following the police murder of George Floyd, I did not watch the video that lifted this unfortunately all too frequent occurrence of police violence against Black people out of statistics that tend to be so easily ignored by the media and the public at large. Nor did I watch the footage of the execution of Sammy Baker, a young Instagram influencer who was shot three times by Amsterdam police while in a state of disorientation just three months after Floyd was choked to death nearly 7000 km away in the US.
Sammy’s case was back in the news this week as the VPRO TV show Argos discussed the analysis Forensic Architecture conducted of the footage of his death. This analysis clearly disputes that his shooting was a matter of “self-defence”, the reason cited by the public prosecutor’s office to not prosecute the police officer who fired the shots. Sammy’s grandfather was Black, and his killing illustrates how common racialised, lethal police violence is in the Netherlands, a country that likes to refer to institutional racism as something that only happens “over there”, in the US. The numbers tell a different story. Controle Alt Delete, which is the only organisation in the Netherlands maintaining these statistics, has recorded 97 “fatal incidents” that involved the police between 2016 and 2022. 36% of the victims had a migration background. Even when leaving the 54% of whom there was no information on their ethnicity out of the equation, this means that people with a migration background are 11 times more likely to meet their death when encountering the police. By contrast, for Black Americans this factor is 2.5.
All of this fits into a bigger picture, where men with a non-Western background are twice as likely to be checked by police, young people with a migration background are twice as likely to be suspected of a crime than young people without a migration background, with a 10-12 times higher chance of ending up in detention. While white people may also experience police violence, the evidence suggests that violent police restraint is more likely to be used against non-white people who encounter the police.
And while suspects with a migration background can count on receiving heavier penalties from the courts and even being “preemptively” profiled, no such level of energy is being put into keeping tabs on wrongdoing by the police. Of the average number of complaints the Public Prosecutor’s office receives on an annual basis, 99% is dismissed – of the 97 recorded cases of lethal police violence only three led to a prosecution. The Netherlands thereby neatly fits into a European pattern of police brutality against racialised and marginalised groups, which has rightfully prompted the racial justice policy group Equinox to ask “who protects us from the police?”.
The even bigger question we need to ask ourselves is: if we are not willing to ensure our apparatus of state violence is accountable, should we have one at all? When we have the literal receipts to prove that police execute people who are in need of mental health services, of care, support? When the evidence shows us that the way police deploy lethal violence belies the Dutch self-perception of public institutions that “don’t see colour”?
Alongside the racist outcomes illustrated by the statistics above, it is time to acknowledge that, like racism, the police violence that disproportionately affects people of colour is institutional. It is rooted in the policies, practices and procedures of the police that misrepresents people of “non-western” or migrant backgrounds as not belonging and therefore as “risks” to be managed. We therefore cannot reduce the use of lethal police force to the behaviours of a few “bad apples” or “rouge officers”, but as the consequence of policing and law enforcement practices within the police as an institution.
Our end goal should be abolishing the police and our system of carceral punishment which produces harm. As an institution it cannot and does not keep people safe. What the statistics and experiences of racialised and marginalised people in the Netherlands and across the globe show is that cases like George Floyd’s, Sammy’s, and countless others are not the result of a fault in the system but rather the product of the intended functioning of a system designed to control and oppress poor, Black, and brown people. In this context, it is important to remember that abolition does not just mean doing away with something – the police – it means creating something new, a process in which we come together and create safe alternatives that support, sustain, and nourish all communities instead.
The first step onto this path is acknowledging systemic racism not only within the police force, but also the institutions that should hold the police accountable, including the office of public prosecution. It should not require a lengthy process of filing complaints to try to persuade the authorities to look critically at their oppressive culture and structures, as Sammy’s parents have had to do. Attaining justice should be inherent in our justice system – if individual efforts to pursue accountability are needed outside this system, it means the system has failed.