Keeping our eyes open

One of the earlier things I noticed when I moved to Switzerland was a seemingly large number of black men stopped by police.

It seemed that any time I saw a man of color on the street, he was surrounded by three or more Zurich police officers checking his ID, and asking what he is doing.  Many of these men are asylum seekers, with the majority from Eritrea or Nigeria.

Switzerland is not the most racially diverse country, so maybe I was more sensitive to the issue of racial profiling than I otherwise would be.  But I kept noticing police turning their cars around and hopping out to question a black man on the street, or when I had lunch in the park, police only seemed to question “minorities.”

I followed up on this observation with Zurich police, the city ombudswoman, and human rights activists and heard police say there was not a systematic profiling of black men, though Nigerians controlled the drug trade. The park I ate lunch in used to be a hub of drug dealing so maybe the increased presence of police is attributed to that.

The ombudswoman did have a large number of complaints of profiling and unnecessarily long questioning of mainly African males from police.  Human rights campaigners complained of a lack of transparency in how Switzerland registered who was being stopped and questioned the most.

And anecdotally,  some asylum seekers told me they were subjected to questioning on the street all the time.  They claimed that if they complained, they were sometimes physically abused.

I couldn’t and can’t confirm their claims, and thus did not report them, but it does make me watch closer when police seem to single someone out…

Paris-bound

France is in another reality than Switzerland, though.  France is much bigger, and genuinely more diverse than Switzerland.

Part of this is arguably because of France’s colonial past, connecting it more directly to West Africa especially.  Suffice it to say, when a man of color walks down a French street, he is not necessarily accompanied by police, as I noticed often in Zurich.

On a trip back from Paris the other day, my troupe got off the regional train in Laon, a county hub in a rural part of France.  About half-way through the trip I noticed a half-dozen train policemen walking through and seemingly keeping some sort of peace..if it needed to be kept.  In Laon, another group of police met the train officers and they celebrated being together.  Fine I thought, maybe this was a training trip. That is why there were so many police.

But a black man walking with a shopping trolly and suitcase walked by, and headed through the small train station.  He looked like a normal shopper to me, coming back from a day in the nation’s capital.

But a van filled with three customs officials pulled up, and the officers surrounded the man. Just like Zurich I thought.  These customs officers only went to this man, and, in front of the station, had him open all of his things as the police looked through them.

I watched for a while, and the officers seemed respectful, but what prompted this?

Given the diversity of France, and the fact other black men were not searched at the station, perhaps we can conclude this man was already known to customs officers?  Or maybe he did something suspicious?  Or maybe he was in the wrong place at the wrong time?

I don’t often expect to be stopped and questioned as I have seen happen to many others.  This is partly because I don’t fit a “particular profile of criminal”…whatever that means.

Is this connected to race?  Yes.

Zurich police told me that many Nigerians are drug runners, so a higher proportion of those stopped are black and often Nigerian.  Does this give police a right to stop any black man, no…absolutely not.

This is one of the reasons I stop and watch any such stop.  I am a journalist, yes, but I am also a concerned citizen wanting to make sure my fellow citizens or residents are treated fairly and properly, or at least as fairly as the system purports to function.

I lived through a kind of racial discrimination as one of the few white kids in a mostly Hispanic area.  Sometimes an observer is enough to keep a situation from escalating into something worse.

Scene of the crime?
Not exactly the mean streets..

In the end the man in Laon was released without any other charge or interrogation, as far as I could see.  He had to pack his things up after a ten minute grilling, and then he smiled and carried on.  The customs officials hopped back in their van and left the station–it seemed that shake down was all they had to do at this station on this day.

A French colleague of mine once ran down from our office to watch police arrest two black men in Zurich.  The men appeared to have just tried to steal something from a high-end menswear shop near our studio.  My colleague had a camera and stood watching the police.

The officer yelled something like “What are you doing? This isn’t your business.”  My colleague replied, “Making sure you do your job.”

That job is to enforce laws, nothing more.

No profiling.

No abuse.

No assault.

The officer just scoffed, but my colleague was right.

Sometimes there is a desire to stick our heads in the sand when something uncomfortable happens around us.  But sometimes we need to make sure our eyes are open.  There is no shame in making sure the laws we have made for ourselves are as they should be, and are enforced as they should be.

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