US-based academician Dr Amy Ritterbusch, who was in Kochi recently, says the worst forms of oppression in any society are meted out by the police
Photos: Dr Amy Ritterbusch; transgenders in Colombia
By Shevlin Sebastian
It is night in Bogota, Colombia. Marianna is standing on a sidewalk looking at the drivers of the cars as they drive past. She is dressed in a short mini skirt and high heels with mascara on her cheeks and red lipstick. Marianna is a trans sex worker. As she stands with a few others, a police van comes up silently. She is quickly bundled in, along with the others. They sit silently, as the van drives away, fear creating a firestorm in their hearts.
At the outskirts of the city, the transgenders are told to get down. At the point of a gun, all their clothes are removed, despite their resistance. “Then they are told to run into a dark forest,” says Dr Amy Ritterbusch, Assistant Professor of Social Welfare at the Luskin School of Public Affairs, University of California, Los Angeles. “Soon, the police start shooting at the girls. And these transgenders have to run for their lives, falling and hurting themselves and hoping they are not killed.”
Later, they had to find their way back, towards the city, using leaves and branches to cover their bodies. “So that's one example of police brutality,” says Amy, who is of Colombian origin. “There are homeless individuals, children and adolescents who use drugs and drug users in general, who are just murdered by the police and their bodies dumped far away. Another way to describe this is ‘state-sanctioned social cleansing’. They are getting rid of individuals who are ‘unwanted’ with the help of unofficial death squads.”
Amy had come to Kochi, at the invitation of the Rajagiri College of Social Sciences to interact with students and to give a talk on police violence at the International Summer University in Social Work. At the campus when you look out of the window, you can see green lawns and blue skies, and students milling about, talking in a peaceful and animated manner.
And Amy also likes what she sees. “Kochi is serene,” she says. “The people are so generous and hospitable and the food is delicious. There is a beautiful peace here. In Colombia, because I am working on so many difficult issues I feel sad and full of rage.”
Soon, she continues her grim tale. At a particular area in Bogota, there was a police raid and they arrested several drug addicts. They were later thrown into a large canal nearby. The canal was located below a public transportation system. So when the system closed for the night, and there were no witnesses, the police came and shot at the men. A few addicts drowned.
“I was there personally and documented it and spoke to the survivors,” she says.
Amy has also been doing something similar in Kampala, Uganda.
With a sad shake of her head, she says, “Police brutality is the same all over the world. The state becomes a perpetrator. So, there is a need to condemn official violence. It is necessary to find mechanisms to fight against this. In Colombia, just in the last one year, hundreds of social leaders and human rights defenders have been assassinated.”
But when Amy sent reports to international organisations about what had happened, her team began to be persecuted by the Colombian and Ugandan governments. “Sadly, the Colombian media took the side of the government,” she says. “The media discounted the interviews we did by saying, ‘It's not enough evidence, we need more’. But my attitude is: any human life that is lost, needs to be denounced, and remembered. And our aim was to highlight the deaths.”
Asked how policemen resort to violence so easily, Amy says, “There is a culture of masculinity in police forces in general. Violence-mongering is part of the training. They are taught to regard as criminal those who belong to certain ethnic or racial groups. Even in the United States, police officers are racist and violence-prone. They will kill brown or black people on the flimsiest of reasons.”
And, Amy says, growing up as a Latina woman and moving around in white spaces, was particularly violent. “I've experienced it in my own life,” she says. “Overall, the worst forms of oppression in any society are meted out by the police.”
And she is worried even more now for Columbia because there is a right-wing President Iván Duque Márquez, who is in power. “He is militarising and investing a lot in the National Police,” she says. “Marquez is setting up a security state that criminalises poverty. That means if you're poor, there is a strong likelihood you will be shot dead. The poor have no rights anywhere in the world. Their lives are always precarious.”
(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)