Black lives matter? The closure of an infamous police brutality case

The words of a bereaved mother can often pierce the heart, and this time was no different. Sitting in a Knesset committee hearing last week, Farnus Salamsa shouted “I’m burning!”, and told a senior police commander to shut her mouth and hear the pain of her loss and that of her children, who she said no longer sleep at night.

Salamsa’s son Yosef committed suicide in July 2014, months after he was abused by the Israel Police during an arrest in Zichron Yaakov. You may not have heard his name but he’s famous, at least in a certain Israel.

Last Sunday the Justice Ministry announced that they had decided to close the criminal case against the police officers who arrested Salamsa, though they pointed out that police falsified aspects of their report and committed disciplinary violations that should be addressed, including failing to warn Salamsa before using a Taser on him multiple times.

On Monday, the day after the Justice Ministry’s announcement, the Knesset’s State Control Committee met to discuss police treatment of Ethiopian-Israelis and Salamsa’s family embraced the opportunity to confront the police directly.

Already in the hours after the decision social media was abuzz about the ministry’s failure to prosecute police, and a flagship case of police abuse began to take on new proportions, at least under the surface.

Activists began promoting a protest rally outside the Justice Ministry on March 1st, to mark two years since Salamsa’s arrest, and to demand the ministry reopen the case and other abuse cases that were closed “due to a lack of public interest”.

On Facebook, young Ethiopian-Israelis expressed their outrage at the decision, with the images and statements taking on characteristics familiar to any who have followed the “Black Lives Matter” movement in the United States.

One Ethiopian-Israeli, Avi Yalou, wrote on Facebook “the protests last year in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and the ones that will be held this year are meant to send a clear, sharp message – no more institutionalized racism, legally or socially against the Ethiopian community.”

His message was clear – the protests weren’t just about Damas Pakadeh, the IDF soldier who was assaulted by police in Holon or Abera Mengistu, the Ethiopian-Israeli from Ashkelon who has been missing in the Gaza Strip ever since he climbed the fence into the coastal territory on September 7, 2014, and who many in the Ethiopian-Israeli community think has been all but forgotten because of his skin color. Rather, it’s much bigger than that, it’s a deeper structural problem of racism at all different levels of society.

In what is hopefully a step in the right direction, the Justice Ministry on Tuesday held the first meeting of a multi-ministry task force founded to deal with racism against the Ethiopian-Israeli community. The task force is split into three smaller teams who will deal with mapping the problem, examining the tools currently at the state’s disposal to deal with the problem, and a team that will focus on public awareness. The teams include a number of prominent activists, leaders of Ethiopian-Israeli NGOs, and officials from government offices dealing with housing, immigrant absorption, and the legal system.

That follows the founding of a special police task force last year to examine issues dealing with the Ethiopian-Israeli community, which later issued the recommendations that police reexamine a number of controversial cases and appoint more Amharic-speaking staff and recruit more from within the community.

Whatever the good intentions may be of police, from the protests last year it was obvious that the problems go far beyond police brutality, and deal with deep-seated problems of racism and discrimination in Israeli society. It deals with discrimination in housing, higher unemployment and lower rates of education, a shortage of prominent Ethiopian leaders in Israeli government and society and so on. These are not problems that police can solve on their own – nor are they trying to go it alone –they represent the bedrock of serious discontent that can easily be sparked by a single act of police misconduct, such as last year with Damas Pakadeh.

The rioting that took place at Rabin Square last May after the protest march against racism shocked many in Israel, and led to the founding of the police task force. The images from that night forced the issue to the forefront for a short, fleeing moment last spring, before the momentum died down and the wider public moved on.

Though sequels rarely live up to the hype, an incident like the closing of the Salamsa case can force it all up to the surface again, with the potential for the protests to become more violent, more painful the next time around..

During the Knesset hearing last week, the head of the Police Personnel Branch, Deputy Commissioner Gila Gaziel said she “believes that an injustice is being done to police here”, sparking the outburst by Farnus Salamsa. Gaziel was lamenting what she said are sweeping generalizations about police, as opposed to focus on “bad apples”. This is understandable, but if police are being wronged, are being denigrated wholesale, the blame lies with they and society’s failure to safeguard and provide for the weakest among them, and not with those who have been wronged and whose children cannot sleep at night.

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