San Diegans appeal to United Nations over excessive police force against Americans of color
Ted Womack was 16 when he was first followed by police, he said. He had been playing basketball at his local YMCA, and a fight broke out in the parking lot between people he didn’t know. He started walking home, but noticed a police car following him, he said. He sat down on the curb. The car’s lights lit up.
“He was like, ‘Hey, why’d you do that?’ And I was like, ‘It looks like you’re following me home. I don’t want to be followed home.’ And he arrested me and put me in the back of a car and said I’m impeding an investigation,” Womack recounted.
He said it was the first of at least 100 unprovoked interactions with the police. They would ask him what he was doing in places, he said, and want to detain him because they were looking for somebody else, or “just because they can.”
Disproportionate policing is a common experience for Black Americans, who are much more likely to be subjected to force and killed by police than white Americans. But they rarely find justice in United States systems.
“I wanted to be able to make sure that no other teenager would have their first police encounter be something that would make them look at police and not feel like they can help them,” he said.
So Womack, along with more than a dozen others and the nonprofit Alliance San Diego, is taking it international. They are scheduled to fly to Geneva, Switzerland on Thursday.
They are asking the United Nations Human Rights Committee to consider excessive use of force by American law enforcement officers as a violation of The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the U.S. agreed in 1992.
Many in the delegation will be testifying to experiences with border patrol officers in particular, including Janine Bouey, a Black woman from Los Angeles who said she was pulled out of line while returning to the U.S. and sexually assaulted by U.S. border agents because she refused the advances of an officer.
Womack said he’s a little bit nervous: “A part of me kind of feels like I'm still this, like, one small person going to speak to a giant, you know?”
He never thought his personal experiences would be heard by such an influential group.
“I remember so many times being in my car, being pulled over and just feeling hopeless,” he said. “Feeling like there's nothing that I can do. There's nothing that anybody can do to stop anything about this."
Womack said he represents many others who have never had the chance to look at law enforcement as people who will keep them safe. And many who will never have this kind of chance to advocate for themselves in their lifetime.
More than nerves, he said, a bigger question is rattling around in his mind.
“Can we change it?” he asked. “Can we be the people who get them to, like, do something? Just do something.”
He hopes it will open people’s eyes, who may have become numb to this type of policing of Americans of color as normal. But he’s also hoping for something more concrete: that the U.S. would change its use of force standard from reasonable to the international standard of necessary and proportionate.
“Any law enforcement officer can, under their discretion, say, ‘Well ... I feel like it was reasonable to choke this guy for 20 minutes because to me, he was not following my instructions.’ And then the person dies,” Womack said. “You cannot say in any circumstance, any person, that it's necessary and proportionate to choke somebody for 20 minutes who is not resisting you, who is not being a threat to you, who has been neutralized, and who's being restrained. Nowhere, ever, anywhere is that necessary or proportionate to do so.”
The U.N. Human Rights Committee will weigh their testimonies, along with the three reports published by Alliance San Diego, before issuing a report on whether or not the U.S. is in compliance with the international treaty, and any changes it should make.