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Sierra Leone News: CHETANYA’s View: On talking about American police killings with Sierra Leoneans

CHETANYAWe’re seven months into 2016, and the United States and the world have already been traumatized by a succession bloody, senseless acts of violence. Last week I was just getting settled into Freetown when the headlines greeted me with news of death: two African American men in separate cities killed unnecessarily by the police, one after the other, and just a few hours later, five police officers gunned down in revenge by a sniper in Dallas, Texas.
It’s been interesting being in West Africa while these events unfolded, and hearing reactions from people here. On more than one occasion I’ve been asked for an explanation for why this happens. Why do police in the United States seem to kill black people so often? The issue has sadly become such a common subject of conversation in the United States, in the headlines and on social media. I hadn’t thought about how inexplicable this phenomenon might seem to people in the rest of the world, and how many questions are raised by its constant recurrence.
The subject came up this past Saturday while I was walking toward a polling station with several Sierra Leone journalists in Lunsar, north of Freetown. It was a clear, sunny day and we were walking between the highway and a ditch on the other side.
One man was curious if this narrative of black people being killed by police was more the result of media bias than anything else. Didn’t police kill white people as well? As far as I understood, I offered, the proportion of black people killed is much higher. One man said he was under the impression that this happens because police fear black people and see them as dangerous. He noted pessimistically that if it’s an instinctive, unconscious fear, it might be hard to do anything about the problem. He worried that these police killings could lead to race war and ethnic fighting in the US.
I mentioned that laws in the US often shield the police from prosecution for killing people while in the line of duty. It turns out that in Washington state in the northwestern US where I’m from, police officers can never face charges for killing people unless it can be proven they acted with “malice”  this is a difficult thing to prove, making it one of the most restrictive of such laws in the country.
The conversation touched on how extreme the police response was. Philando Castile was doing nothing dangerous or illegal when he was hit with five bullets. He even let the officer know, before he reached down for his wallet, that he had a gun.
Someone drew a parallel with the rules of engagement in international human rights codes of conduct  aren’t there specific, systematic procedures that should be taken by police before they shoot people?
In just a short conversation, I was hearing perspectives on the issue that went beyond the usual rhetoric I hear in the US. There’s not much talk about international human rights when it comes to these killings.
But I won’t easily forget two particular responses I heard.
In a moment of dark humor, one of the journalists in Lunsar said that all Sierra Leoneans want to go to America. Even the risk of being killed by police because of their skin color will never deter them.
The other remark came the day after the killings, from one of my colleagues at Awoko. People in Sierra Leone often look to the United States as an example for democracy, she said, but every time these horrific incidents happen in which a black person is unnecessarily killed, it feels like the United States is letting the world down. All I can say is, I don’t blame the world for feeling let down. I feel the same way.
Thursday July 14, 2016

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