The History Of Racist Colonial Violence Can Help Us Understand Police ViolenceRoundup
tags: colonialism, racism, policing, Law Enforcement
Sarah Olutola is a graduate of McMaster University and she was the 2018-2019 Gordon F. Henderson postdoctoral fellow at The University of Ottawa's Human Rights Research and Education Centre. Her current academic research concerns postcolonialism, youth culture and representations of race in popular media culture.
The recent police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others have reignited a global movement against police violence and brutality. Black Lives Matter activists of various racial backgrounds have united to call attention to the devaluation of Black life in the United States and across the globe. As these activists have made clear, the problem of police violence is rooted in anti-Black racism.
Even more, police violence in Black communities is rooted in the history of colonialism. This history, which dates to the 15th century, set in place a system of subjugation and control through conquest of the Americas and the enslavement of Africans. By remapping the world through colonial violence, European powers did more than brutalize non-White races — they carved out the very framework of racial categories as a way to justify their domination.
These racial categories remain firmly intact, shaping interactions between Black people and police forces. Present-day policing practices continue to mirror the colonialism that shaped the history of Africa since the 19th century.
The German annihilation of the Herero people in South West Africa — what is now Namibia — stands out as a tragic example of how racism fueled violence. It is considered the first genocide of the 20th century. In the late 19th century, Germans had established several colonies in Africa, including South West Africa, which they saw as suitable for German settlement. The peoples living in the region — including the Herero, Nama and Khoikhoi — attempted to accommodate and resist German power. As German settlers came in greater numbers, they appropriated the land and cattle of the native Herero population and relied on their coerced and enslaved labor.
Although the Herero resisted, the Germans fought them. Gen. Lothar von Trotha and members of his military decided not merely to triumph over the local population but to annihilate them. Those who survived were separated from their cattle, denied access to water and forced to cross the desert near Botswana — a death march where many met their end. In 1904 alone, over 80 percent of the Herero population was wiped out. By then, Von Trotha had already honed his methods of colonial violence and even took pride in his tactics: “I destroy the African tribes with streams of blood and streams of money. Only following this cleansing can something new emerge, which will remain.”
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