I traveled to the U.S. during the summer of 2015 to visit family, cultivate a few work partnerships, and participate in some of the #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations. I had been keeping up with news in the U.S. from the comfort of my home in The Netherlands; almost daily opening up my laptop to learn of another Black man or woman who was unjustifiably targeted, brutally beaten, and killed by the police. These violent events, almost always followed by a lack of justice for those harmed, inevitably brought into question the value of Black lives in a biased U.S. criminal justice system.
Horrified and feeling powerless, I tried my best to express solidarity with my Black American brothers and sisters from afar, attending rallies and marching through the streets of Amsterdam, calling for justice for Black people in the U.S. and all parts of the world. In response to Michael Brown’s murder, I joined an international group of protestors. We carried signs that read “Stop Police Brutality,” “Modern-day Lynching,” and “No Justice, No Peace.” We wanted Americans to see a united front of support and demands for justice from abroad.
But then I would turn around – thank goodness for my decision to leave the U.S. – hop on my bike, and ride through my perceived Dutch utopia.
In June I arrived in New Jersey to visit my sister and her 3 children. I spoke with my nephews about the police killings of Black people in Ferguson, Staten Island, North Charleston and Baltimore. “This is a dangerous country for Black people,” I explained. “We have to be more careful than most. Because in the eyes of many, our lives don’t seem to matter.” And then, just a few days later, I awoke to the news that nine people were killed by a white supremacist in Charleston, SC, as if we weren’t already overwhelmed by violence and terror in the U.S. I looked forward to returning to The Netherlands, where sanity prevailed.
Charleston was already intended to be the next stop on my U.S. itinerary. Several friends and I planned to meet there, enjoy some delicious food, take in some of the lovely sights, and absorb a few history lessons. And while we still managed to accomplish those goals, our priority shifted to paying respects at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church, the site of the recent slayings. It was during that sobering visit to Charleston that tragic news came from The Netherlands.
On Saturday, June 27, 2015, Mitch Henriquez, an Aruban man attending a music festival with his family in The Hague, was killed by the police during an unjustified arrest. Dutch police claimed Henriquez was intoxicated, carrying a weapon, and violently resisting arrest, all of which turned out to be untrue. Henriquez was brutally beaten prior to being taken into custody, as demonstrated in video footage in which he appears to be unconscious by the time he’s forced into a police van. In events eerily similar to the fate of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Henriquez was denied immediate medical treatment, although Dutch police claimed he only became unwell while being transported to the police station. He died just a few hours later.
Mitch Henriquez was murdered by the police in the Netherlands.
The circumstances and pursuant cover-up of the murder were neither unfamiliar nor surprising. The protests and riots that later followed in the streets of The Hague were to be expected. The Dutch government’s discriminatory efforts to dispel civil unrest in a predominantly immigrant neighborhood of The Hague by implementing curfews were comically par for the course.
So what was surprising? The silence from the U.S.
The people who marched in The Netherlands for Mitch Henriquez were the same activists who rallied for Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and countless others. When Black lives are stolen in the U.S., the cries are heard and the pain is felt worldwide. However, the reverse appears not to be the case. Although Henriquez’s murder was reported on a small scale in the U.S., it received nowhere near the amount of attention that a racially motivated event warranted. In fact, when I posted news about Henriquez on my Facebook page, some friends were confused and offered condolences for the loss of “my friend” – why else would I be posting about the murder of an Aruban man? Beyond that confusion, I saw no outrage from U.S. activists.
This lack of international awareness or solidarity was not always the case among American freedom fighters. The Civil Rights and Black Power movements were largely inspired by and cooperative with African anticolonial movements, Afro-Cubans and the Cuban revolution, and South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, among others. Black nationalism trumped an American identity. Because racism and brutality against Black people were never unique to Black Americans, calls for equality and justice were never treated as such.
“The struggle for freedom forms one long front crossing oceans and mountains. The brotherhood of man is not confined within a narrow, limited circle of select people. It is felt everywhere in the world, it is an international sentiment of surpassing strength and because this is true when men of good will finally unite they will be invincible.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
That is, until now. Global consciousness among many American activists appears to have been lost, as battles for justice are fought in national isolation. Our problems aren’t theirs, and their problems aren’t ours.
But Black lives are being hunted globally. And aren’t we all Black people? Don’t all of our lives matter, regardless of national identity or geographic location? If members of the Diaspora can march for US tragedies while in other countries, can’t Americans march for international solidarity in the US? Wouldn’t we be stronger as one united front?
I know we can do better.
If the emergent Black Lives Matter movement is to take any real, sustainable shape, this shameful lack of global perspective among today’s Black American activists must be addressed. Black Americans must view our experiences as part of a larger context, while understanding, validating and supporting our allies abroad. We must participate in a global, rather than a national movement, fighting for the lives of our Black brothers and sisters in all parts of the world. Otherwise, we may as well clarify the hashtag: #BlackAmericanLivesMatter.
And I’m not signing up for that.