The debate around racism and police abuse in Colombia exploded on social media in 2015 with the publication of a video of an Afro-Colombian man named Carlos Angulo being stopped by the police. And although it has been more than a year since it first appeared, the conversation surrounding what the footage reveals about justice (or lack thereof) has hardly faded.
The video shows Angulo on his way to work at around 8 a.m., when he is stopped and searched by police. Judging by his reaction, this situation is not out of the ordinary for him. Angulo raises his voice and sounds frustrated, all the while giving a clear speech against racism, defending civil rights and denouncing the discrimination he says he suffers day-to-day in Colombia.
Vienen pasando cada cinco minutos más de 200 personas y escoges exactamente a los dos negros que vienen pasando para requisarles. Y nos detienes, y asumes una actitud grosera […Pero] claro, somos iguales ante la Ley. Son las ocho de la mañana… ¡Es normal que lleve prisa! Pero mi prisa es sospechosa […] Para el patrón es sospechoso que llegue tarde y para ustedes es sospechoso que vaya rápido […] ¿Me pones entre la espada y la pared y luego me tratas de extremista?
There are more than 200 people passing by every five minutes and you choose exactly the two black people who pass to search us. And you stop us, and you treat us rudely […But] of course, we are equal in the eyes of the Law. It's 8 o'clock in the morning… It's normal that I'm in a hurry! But my haste is suspicious […] For my boss it's suspicious for me to arrive late, and for you it's suspicious for me to walk quickly […] You put me between a rock and a hard place, and then you call me extremist?
The resulting discussion about the video and the everyday racism it is said to expose has been broad. Various organizations that defend the rights of Afro-Colombians have reacted by condemning how police discrimination forces them to live in a hostile version of their own country.
…Indudablemente, lo que le pasó a Carlos es pan de cada día para los jóvenes afrocolombianos. ¿Cuántos de nosotros hemos armado protestas como estas? No es la primera vez que a Carlos lo detiene un policía; muchos de nosotros y hemos pasado por este mismo hecho, y no solo en Bogotá. Esto sucede en Medellín, Cartagena, Barranquilla, Cali, Pereira, en todo el país y fuera de él…
Without a doubt, what happened to Carlos is a daily reality for young Afro-Colombians. How many of us have protested like this? It's not the first time Carlos has been detained by the police; many of us have been through the same experience, and not only in Bogotá. This happens in Medellín, Cartagena, Barranquilla, Cali, Pereira, all over the country and beyond…
For many, given that these struggles receive little attention in Colombia, the topic is often discussed within the framework of police abuse of black people in the US and the activism surrounding it. However, racism in law enforcement is far from an exclusively North American phenomenon, as highlighted in the report by Andrés Páramo Izquierdo for Vice:
“…de acuerdo con la Encuesta de Policía y Desigualdad, desarrollada por ese centro, las personas afro o indígenas que tienen encuentros con la policía son requisadas el 32% de los casos; el resto de la población, el 26%. Los perfiles de hombres de raza negra hechos en Cali muestran cómo el prejuicio gana de forma sistemática: no solamente la policía los aborda de forma agresiva y preventiva, sino que siempre hay una mención a la raza: “este negro”, “ese negro tan agresivo, hijueputa”, “negro hijueputa”, “ah, que deje la bulla, negro hijueputa”…
…according to the Survey of Police and Inequality, conducted by this center, people of African descent and indigenous people who have encounters with the police are searched in 32% of cases; for the rest of the population, the figure is 26%. The profiles of black men in Cali show how prejudice systematically wins: not only do the police approach them in an aggressive and preventive manner, but there is always some mention of race: “this black guy”, “such an aggressive black guy, son-of-a-bitch”, “black son-of-a-bitch”, “oh, stop making a fuss, black son-of-a-bitch”…
There have also been debates and disagreements on social media about the representation of racism. For Felipe Arias-Escobar, the problem in Colombia is the difficulty in identifying discrimination in the country when it does not match popular understandings of racism:
@jeinzu Un gran problema para abordar el racismo en Colombia ha sido el no encontrar una segregación “institucional” o estereotipada.
— Felipe Arias-Escobar (@Feloarias) May 22, 2017
A big problem with addressing racism in Colombia has been that we're not looking for “institutional” or stereotypical segregation.
Other videos have also sparked controversy. One, shared by user La Cabellera de la Noche, showed a confrontation between the police and a group of young Afro-Colombians. However, even more noteworthy than the video itself are the comments it generated in response:
— LaCabelleraDeLaNoche (@afroconsciente) May 21, 2017
The responses to this video speak for themselves, and there are people who dare to deny that racism exists in Colombia, Happy #Afro-ColombianDay
— Rodrigo Perea (@rodrijoperea) May 21, 2017
Tweet from @NueveYDos: Afro-Colombians are also aggressive, Afro-Colombians also commit crimes, look up the crime statistics in Colombia, you'll be surprised
Tweet from @rodrijoperea: Look up the causes of crime in the Afro-Colombian population [and their relationship with lack of] opportunities in all fields and you'll be surprised!
Justice with selective blindness
Information on the situation of people of African descent throughout Latin America and their relationship with police and the justice system is lacking. According to the UNICEF report “Youth Criminal Justice: Situation and perspectives in Latin America and the Caribbean“, in most countries in the region there's no official data that could allow a better view on these discriminations, and the report highlights that the limited or non-existent statistical information also constitutes a form of discrimination. Thus, in Ecuador, Nicaragua, or Venezuela, the statistics that describe the social situation of communities of African descent are scarce or non-existent, even while the incarcerated population includes a significant number of young people of African descent.
Meanwhile, the report says security policies that are often defended by the most conservative sectors of society “portray adolescents and young people [of African descent] as dangerous people [and with this] racial prejudice is added to social vulnerabilities and phenomena such as gangs and drug trafficking.”
For movements that advocate the rights of people of African descent, the issues of police harassment, the criminalization of young people, and the limited access to justice not only exist, but are an integral part of structural racism in the justice system. Many of these organizations have been drawing attention to these inequalities for some time, both nationally and internationally.
At the same time, young people from communities of African descent receive harsher penalties or especially strong mistreatment in prison, as shown in a study by Felipe González and Jorge Contesse, and a report from the Colombian office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights:
…En centros penitenciarios como la cárcel distrital “La Modelo”, ubicada en Bogotá, los afrodescendientes “carecen incluso de lugar para dormir y se han visto obligados a ocupar, como los más pobres entre los pobres, un intersticio entre dos pabellones (por donde pasan los tubos de agua y desagüe, y los cables de electricidad) […] [Muchos] están en prisión por varios años y su situación revela la falta de una defensa profesional idónea.
…In correctional facilities like district prison “La Modelo”, located in Bogotá, people of African descent “do not even have anywhere to sleep and have been obliged to occupy, like the poorest of the poor, the space between two blocks (where water and wastewater pipes and electrical cables pass) […] [Many of them] are in prison for several years and their situation reveals the lack of an appropriate professional defense.