Commentary: A pandemic fear of policing

Police brutality must be addressed worldwide, says this Tunisian teen.

  • News/Info Literacy
  • Politics
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iGeneration Youth reporter Tharwa Boulifi at her family house in Tunis, Tunisia. (Moucharref Boulifi/iGeneration Youth/TNS)

Since my youngest age, and for many other Tunisians, the word “police” has evoked discomfort mixed with fear. These feelings go back to President Ben Ali’s dictatorial regime of 1987 to 2011, when police forces had great power and terrorized people. 

During those 23 years of Ben Ali’s reign, police arbitrarily arrested people — especially the government’s opponents, whom they tortured, even killing some of them. They spied on citizens in public spaces like coffee shops and restaurants.

Everyone, except those who were close to the president or were top government officials, was on their guard whenever they passed a police patrol or even when a police officer talked to them. We kids felt this fear of the police our parents had, and without realizing it, they transmitted it to us. That’s why the police were nicknamed “hancha” (“snake” in English) in its metaphorical meaning in which police officers are as poisonous and always observing as snakes.

After the 2011 revolution during the Arab Spring, the Truth and Dignity Commission (L’Instance Vérité et Dignité) was created. Citizens and human rights activists shared their stories of torture and abuse at the hands of the police. Afterward, many high-ranking police officers were tried for their acts, which slightly calmed the public’s feeling of oppression and the desire for revenge. Police officers who had lost their hold on the people after the revolution preferred keeping a low profile. But despite such gains of the revolution like freedom and human rights, people were still afraid of the police. Back then, as a kid, I wondered why people would fear individuals who were supposed to protect them. 

Over time, the police regained their power and began brutalizing citizens again. It coincided with the start of the Islamist terrorist attacks. People were busy with this new war on terror and didn’t pay much attention to the renewed police terror tactics. This violence occurred mostly during large public events like festivals but especially in stadiums after football games when some fans, reacting to their team’s win or loss, would destroy public and private property and fight each other. Police intervened by pushing, kicking, hitting, and using tear gas canisters against them. Many who attend these games come back with black eyes and even broken arms. 

Many Tunisians avoid stadiums because they don’t consider it safe and end up watching games at home or in coffee shops. My parents even prohibited me and my brother from going to the stadium because they fear police will abuse us. This phenomenon has been going on for so long (since even before Ben Ali’s regime) that Tunisians got used to the violence and ended up normalizing police brutality. Some of them even justify it as the government’s duty to restore public order.

But then in April 2018, civil protection agents discovered the body of a 19-year-old drowned in a river, as reported in http://kapitalis.com/tunisie/. In fact, the victim, Omar laabidi, had gone to the stadium to watch a game. After it ended, police violently separated some fans and some chased Laabidi outside the stadium to a river. The frightened teen jumped into the river even though he knew he couldn’t swim. He drowned. According to the Kapitalis.com website, the victim’s family said the teen had told the policemen that he couldn’t swim, but one of them answered snarkily: “Learn how.” Tunisians in general and football fans in particular expressed their outrage on social media and protested under the hashtag #T3alem3oum (which means #LearnHowToSwim).  Seventeen policemen were convicted of involuntary homicide and non-assistance to someone in danger, but the inhumane way the police treated the teen continued to shock Tunisians according to a report in the Kapitalis.

After the tragic death of George Floyd in the U.S., I followed the news of the different Black Lives Matter protests not only in the U.S. but in other countries in Europe (like Germany, Italy, the U.K.). While I didn’t agree with some of the protest forms, I understand and sympathize with all the protesters, the victims brutalized by police, and their families. Floyd’s death stirred the rage and oppression I and many other Tunisians felt after Laabidi’s death. Today’s protesters, just like us in 2018, see the police forces not as citizen protectors but like the criminals they are chasing. We know there are many police officers out there who are against police brutality and want to prevent it from happening again. What happened to George Floyd has happened to thousands like him in many other countries, even in democratic ones, which is even more shocking considering the fact that respecting human rights is a pillar of democracy. 

Police brutality is an international phenomenon, affecting millions of people from different races, cultures, political regimes, and societies. This phenomenon threatens young people’s future and the better world we want to live in. That’s why we should never stop protesting, never stop demanding the end of police brutality, through peaceful and civilized ways. Our advocacy won’t bring back the dead from police brutality, but it will surely help ensure a brighter future and a peaceful world for our generation and the ones to come.

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