In 2020, George Floyd’s murder by a white police officer focused the world’s attention on anti-Black lynching. Like never before, we saw huge global protests in solidarity with Black Americans. Governments, corporations, celebrities and cultural figures all spoke out against anti-Black violent and unlawful deadly policing.
In April 2021, international scrutiny culminated in a report produced by leading international human rights lawyers, which I covered here for the Editorial Board. Some police killings of Black people, it said, met the legal criteria for “crimes against humanity.” The report pointed to a long history of violations of international law committed against Black people. It points to the failure of the United States government to fulfill its international human rights obligations.
Page 109 reads:
Commissioners’ concluded from the evidence of witnesses and attorneys that instead of requiring law enforcement officials to take precautions that protect life, US law and police practices allow law enforcement officials to arbitrarily endanger the lives of Black people. The Commissioners found a clear pattern of state-sanctioned criminalization of Black people through the targeted policing of Black communities permitted by US law.
The report wasn’t just critical. It was practical.
It offered recommendations to state and federal governments.
Now, similarly, a new UN group has been set up to conduct an independent probe into the recent police shooting of Jayland Walker. The UN group is expected to make recommendations to state and federal governments. Its investigation has already begun.
Despite mounting criticism, however, any recommendations made to state and local governments are essentially symbolic and are unlikely to grab the attention of ordinary citizens. States make their own laws. The federal government can only enforce federal law.
In the same breath, however, international focus on US policing does signal how seriously the international community views the problem.
Millions are no longer buying the “bad apple” argument.
Bobby DiCello, attorney for Walker’s family, understands the significance of the UN’s involvement. He told the Editorial Board:
It is extremely important to the Walker family that the United Nations is investigating. It is the perfect organization to share his story and examine his death.
The opening lines, the Preamble, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the founding charter of the UN published in 1948, couldn’t be more appropriate for this tragedy. It directs us all to recognize 'the inherent dignity and 'the equal and inalienable rights' of 'all members of the human family' as 'the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.'
This is the correct frame through which to view Jayland’s story. In fact, the First Article of the Declaration offers another guiding principle to keep in mind as we consider how the actions of the police officers contributed to Jayland’s tragic death:
'All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.'
According to DiCello, as well as the ideals and guiding principles of the UN charter, there’s also a more fundamental benefit to the UN demonstrating concern about Jayland’s case.
The involvement of the UN thus gives hope to Jayland’s mother and sister - hope that some good might come out of so much violence and pain. The UN will review the shooting, examine how the police lost control, and, with the assistance of internationally recognized experts, make recommendations on how to improve police interactions with us. It will be up to everyone who receives those recommendations to make good use of them.
Anyone on the left or right, claiming to believe in democracy and the rule of law, should understand that what has become the norm with US policing at home is increasingly considered to be a grotesque abuse of state power by millions around the world.
The US is forfeiting the right to speak about the rule of law, democracy and human rights as long as Black people remain as second-class citizens in a so-called first-class democracy.
Whatever the outcome of the UN’s investigation into Jayland Walker’s death, nothing will bring Walker back. The almost unbelievable violence behind a hail of gunfire, close to 100 rounds rattled off in seconds beggars belief. Walker was unarmed when killed.
People are demanding action from their elected officials. For Americans to understand that the global perception of the country is shaped by the words of institutions like the United Nations.