Friday, August 29, 2014

The plight of Finland's black taxi drivers

Manifestations of racism and discrimination in Finland keep surfacing. Hence anti-racism and anti-discrimination efforts in the Nordic country must continue, and perhaps intensify.

Helsingin Sanomat (HS) published a disturbing and damning article (in Finnish) on 22 August 2014 about suspicion and direct racism faced by dark-skinned taxi drivers in Finland, precisely in the nation's capital. According to HS, taxi drivers with so-called foreign background encounter suspicion as a result of language skills and lack of local knowledge, but also as a result of direct racism. The newspaper tells the story of Masawud Magagi, a Ghanaian-born taxi driver who waited in vain for customers at a taxi post -- although about ten customers waited for a taxi at the same taxi post. None of the customers got into his taxi. They waited for another taxi.

The taxi driver told HS that in his view, racism explains it all.

Another taxi driver of Ghanaian origin, Stanley Aboagye, corroborated the claim. He narrated an experience in which a customer got into his taxi, called him the N-word, then left his taxi.

In my view, Finnish language skills and limited local knowledge have nothing to do with the way dark-skinned taxi drivers are treated. Perpetrators of discrimination and racism in Finland often point to language barrier in a bid to justify discrimination, but personally, I do not buy it. Many taxi drivers who face racism and discrimination at taxi posts across the country have at least basic Finnish language skills required for the job. Local knowledge is also no issue since taxi drivers, including drivers of foreign origin take a course and pass a test before they qualify to drive a taxi. Besides, taxis have satellite navigation systems, which drivers, including ethnic Finnish drivers, use if they do not know a particular location.

I have lived in Helsinki for a long time, and I once boarded a taxi chauffeured by an ethnic Finnish driver who did not know my destination. He used a navigation system to get me there.

It is prejudicial to think that dark-skinned drivers do not know their job simply because they look different. Unfortunately there are many people in Finland who think that way, including people in the country's parliament. In fact, an MP declined to take a taxi allegedly driven by a dark-skinned driver -- in front of parliament.

Ethnic Finnish taxi drivers, I feel, also promote discrimination and racism by accepting customers who reject dark-skinned drivers on taxi queues. Normally, taxis queue and customers are required to respect the queue -- by boarding the first taxi on the queue. Ethnic Finnish taxi drivers become part of the problem when they welcome customers who violate queuing regulations on grounds of race.

I have no doubt that dark-skinned taxi drivers are treated differently by some of their colleagues and by customers because of stereotypes related to something they have no control over: color of their skin. Blatant despicable treatment of people of African descent persists in Finland, I believe, because perpetrators -- from parliament to the streets -- know they can get away with it, since the public and people in power do not speak out strong enough against racism and discrimination. Finnish media also lets perpetrators off lightly. The situation will change, I think, when attitudes towards perpetrators change.

Monday, August 25, 2014

U.S. police should learn from abroad, non-lethal law enforcement

The actions of police officers in the U.S over the past couple of weeks sparked anger in communities such as the African American community in Ferguson, Missouri, and reignited debate over what some describe as heavy-handedness of U.S. police officers. But are police officers in the U.S. heavy-handed and trigger-happy? A quick look at how police elsewhere deal with civilians who pose a threat to the safety of officers or the public answers the question.

In July 2014, New York Police Department officers were involved in the death of a civilian, Eric Garner, when a heavy-handed arrest incident went wrong. In a video of the incident captured by a bystander, the victim can be heard repeatedly saying "I can't breathe" as officers pressed his face into the sidewalk.

Less than a month later a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. The shooting death by a white police officer sparked protests and rekindled debate over race in America. According to autopsy reports, unarmed Michael Brown was shot six times. Police claim he posed a threat to the officer.

Ten days later, another African American, Kajieme Powell, was shot dead by police in St. Louis. The police department was quick to release a statement that the victim was armed with a knife and posed a threat to officers.

Even domestic animals are gunned down by police officers in the U.S. Officers once shot a dog in front of its owner. In another incident, an officer shot and killed a dog in someone's backyard.

Is killing the first and only way to neutralize a threat?

Non-lethal law enforcement elsewhere

On 17 August 2014, police in Finland responded to a report of a man "behaving menacingly". The subject was, according to Yle, brandishing a chainsaw. He threatened responding police officers with a chainsaw, an axe and a hunting knife. Before police arrived the man had threatened his neighbors. Police detained the suspect with the help of a police dog after a three-hour standoff. No one was killed.

In another incident that was captured on video and posted on YouTube, Finnish police successfully subdued and arrested a man who posed a threat to officers and the public in a market place.

In Greece, a 42-year-old man who threatened police with a chainsaw was also arrested without the use of lethal force.

After the Woolwich attack that left an off-duty soldier dead in London in a suspected Islamist attack, police did not kill the two men who orchestrated and carried out the barbaric attack --  even though the savage killers reportedly charged at responding officers brandishing knives and a meat cleaver.

Sometimes police action results in death of civilians in Europe too -- as was the case when police shot Mark Duggan in Tottenham in 2011. But police killings in Europe are few and far between, as opposed to the U.S. where killings by police officers seem to be norm.

It is plausible to conclude, drawing from the above cases, that police in the U.S. are heavy-handed, trigger-happy and could learn a lesson or two from police departments in Europe. There are a host of ways in which police officers can deal with people who threaten public safety, and the use of lethal force, which is only one way to respond, should be a last resort. I am convinced that if U.S. officers were to respond to the above cited incidents in Finland, Greece and London, the fate of the subjects would have been different.

It is true that police officers face deadly threats on a daily basis. However they should not be given license to kill on the basis of threats and erratic behavior by members of the public, some of whom could be mentally unstable. The threshold for using deadly force should be high -- both on paper and in practice. Officers should only use lethal force when the use of less-than-lethal equipment, including batons, pepper spray, tasers or rubber bullets fail to contain a suspect. And the amount of force used should be proportional to the threat posed.

Rather than spend public funds on military-style weapons, police departments in the U.S. should invest in studying how police officers in other countries deal with threats to officers and public safety without resorting to killing as a first resort.

My take on police heavy-handedness should not be misconstrued as "anti-police" behavior. Perhaps it is worthy to mention here that my father was a decorated police commissioner in Cameroon, and I have a lot of respect and admiration for law enforcement officers. I'm concerned by police departments and officers losing public confidence.

Image source: The Guardian

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Criticized for speaking out against racism after Mike Brown killing

Celebrities are expected by some people to be "neutral" or "apolitical" in situations of injustice. But retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu who rose to fame during the 1980s as a fearless opponent of South Africa's brutal apartheid regime once said: "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor." Celebrities who voice their views on salient issues, including hot potatoes like police brutality and heavy-handed response to protests should not be castigated for taking a stand.

Anger and protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting death of a black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer. Protests that erupted met with heavy police crackdown leading to the death of a second man. Protesters want to see the police officer involved in the killing of Mike Brown, which has been described as a "brutal execution of an unarmed teenager", to be arrested and prosecuted.

The case re-sparked discussions and debates on race in America. Some celebrities weighed in on the case.

Actor Jesse Williams, for example spoke on CNN about the killing of Michael Brown. He made no secret of where he stands on the issue.


The actor also expressed his thoughts on Twitter -- slamming "white supremacist cowards", according to information posted on Daily Kos.

Singer, songwriter and actor John Legend also posted his thoughts on Twitter. He tweeted, amongst other things, that "this is about racism".

Both celebrities were called out by fans and members of the public who disagreed with them.

Celebrities, I believe, should not be forced to remain silent, especially on issues that affect them. Racism remains a divisive issue in the U.S., and it negatively impacts the lives of people of color within the borders of the country, including celebrities. Affected persons should at least have the liberty to speak out against the social ill.

Human rights group Amnesty International dispatched a delegation of human rights observers to Ferguson following the killing of Michael Brown and the heavy-handed police response to protests. In a compelling letter to the chief of Ferguson Police Department, Amnesty International USA's executive director expressed concern about the use of lethal force by police.

Jesse Williams and John Legend might have lost some fans for sharing their views on police brutality and race in America but, make no mistake, they gained new fans in the process -- new fans who believe concerns raised are genuine. I remember listening to Jesse Williams speak on CNN's State of the Union with Candy Crowley, and saying to myself: "I like this guy. He speaks truth to power".

Speaking out against racism, in my view, is not incitement. It should be considered a public service announcement. That's why I followed Jesse Williams and John Legend on Twitter as a show of support at a time when some fans are "disappointed" in them.

The U.S. and other countries where racism is rife, I feel, are in dire need of more high profile people who speak out unequivocally against racism, inequality, police brutality and other social ills.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Lack of will to combat racial discrimination in Finland

A European country willing to eradicate racial discrimination would implement recommendations designed by the European Commission to help victims of alleged discrimination. Finland is apparently not such a country as evidenced by the fact that the Nordic country has repeatedly been taken to task by the European Commission for reluctance to bring its legislation in line with European directives on racial equality.

According to a press release in Brussels on 10 July 2014, the European Commission decided to refer Finland to the Court of Justice of the European Union for failing to comply with the Racial Equality Directive (2000/43/EC) despite "extensive discussion" with Finland.

Article 13 of the Racial Equality Directive requires Finland to set up a national equality body, and entrust the body with specific tasks, including providing assistance to victims (of racial discrimination), conducting independent surveys, publishing independent reports and making recommendations concerning discrimination.

According to the European commission, Finland has not entrusted its watchdog for equality, the Ombudsman for Minorities, with tasks related to racial discrimination in the field of employment.

The question here is, why is Finland reluctant to entrust the Ombudsman for Minorities with tasks related to racial equality in the field of employment?

In my view, there're three possible reasons why: firstly, racial equality is not a priority for the Finnish government. Secondly, the government wants to leave disputes in the field of employment, including issues related to racial equality in the hands of trade unions. And thirdly, the authorities do not want to open the floodgates of complaints since, I believe, there are many victims of racial discrimination in the field of employment who do not know where to go for help.

Racial equality should be a priority of the government mindful of Finland's changing population structure and numerous reports of unfair hiring practices that favor ethnic Finns over racial and national minorities. Finland's watchdog for equality should have the power to look into cases like the case of Dr. Gareth Rice. There's an urgent need for the Finnish government to prioritize equality on ALL grounds, including race, color, nationality, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation.

Trade unions cannot protect all workers. It is a mistake, I feel, to think that trade unions alone can deal with all disputes, including racial equality cases in the field of employment. Unions protect only the interest of their members, and not all workers in Finland are organised. There's a need to protect those who are not members of trade unions, and this can be done by the national equality watchdog. Finland's current Ombudsman for Minorities, Eva Biaudet, told Yle that her office receives employment-related requests for help but her office has limited powers to carry out investigations in the field. Hence the need to entrust the Ombudsman for Minorities powers to handle employment-related complaints together with racial discrimination complaints in other areas.

Personally, I welcome the decision of the European Commission to refer Finland to the Court of Justice of the EU. The Finnish government should bring the country's Non-discrimination Act in line with European standards.

*Image: 570 News

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