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New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ “Blueprint” for reducing gun violence has sparked concerns of overexposing the Black community to mean encounters with the New York Police Department. Just as concerning, the plan is being considered by the Biden Administration as a national model for best practices. What this means is that civil rights groups may need reinforcement from human rights agencies in opposing the pitfalls — and foremost the United Nations, where activists have documented a legacy of racist practices in American policing. 

Eric Leroy Adams took office on New Year's Day as the 110th mayor of New York City, and its second Black mayor, with a coalition of Black and brown lower-middle-class supporters in the outer boroughs of the city. He is an ex-policeman turned politician and held positions in the NY state legislature and as the borough president of Brooklyn. Adams ran for mayor as a centrist candidate with a platform to address concerns of rising crime and a promise to avoid the past episodes of targeting residents of color. He spoke persuasively about understanding the toll of gun violence in the Black community and the racism in the police culture.  

As a former police captain, it could be expected that Adams would identify with the NYPD when it suffered casualties, such as the recent fatal shooting of two patrolmen responding to a domestic violence incident. At a time of inflamed public emotions, he came out with a much-anticipated plan: “The Blueprint to End Gun Violence.” 

Among the responses is the return of a controversial plainclothes anti-crime unit that caused the deaths of innocent people, the use of facial recognition technology that may play to racial bias, the rolling back of reforms for a bail system used unfairly against people of color and the treatment of children accused of crimes as adults.

The “Blueprint'' is setting off alarm bells within progressive circles and his own base of support. For example, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund cried foul over anti-crime proposals that scholars, lawyers and courts have discredited over the years. And if, as Adams once proclaimed, this approach is the new face of the Democratic Party, then advocates will need to be creative in ways to respond. They must be prepared to appeal to international human rights channels for support just like Black activists in the past.

That’s what happened in May 2021, when the families of 165 victims of police brutality called on the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to conduct an “independent inquiry into the killings and violent law enforcement responses to protests in the U.S.” They described deadly incidents with police practices of anti-crime street units, chokeholds, stop and frisk detentions, no-knock warrants and other tactics. The result of such ongoing encounters has been a calamity for Black men, women and children in recent decades.

Their letter, supported by 250 civil society groups and human rights lawyers from around the world, was submitted on the 70th anniversary of the classic manifesto, “We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief from a Crime of the United States Government Against the Negro People.”

The 1951 petition was devised by the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), an association of left-leaning activists founded in the late-1940s by William Patterson, a Detroit lawyer and member of the Communist Party. It claimed to have discovered evidence of violence against more than 10,000 Black citizens by police and white supremacist groups between 1945 and 1951, and called on the UN to investigate under the 1948 “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.”

The petition documented for the General Assembly evidence of the brutality unleashed on Black people in the years after the Allied victory against fascism. The record of atrocities was gathered from African American newspapers, reports of the Tuskegee Institute (now university), fraternity and sorority records, civil rights association accounts, government documents, and the labor press.

The manifesto asserted that genocidal practices is "a crime so embedded in law, so explained away by specious rationale, so hidden by talk of liberty, that even the conscience of the tender minded is sometimes dulled." The petitioners included outstanding figures such as the concert singer Paul Robeson, educator W.E.B. Dubois and newspaper editor Charlotta Bass.

While most people think of genocide as the extermination of a group, the UN defines genocide as actions committed under state sanction “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” This includes murders, serious bodily harm or mental harm, conditions of life meant to destroy the group and measures destructive to the children of the group.

The petition described the experience of African Americans under those standards: "Our evidence concerns the thousands of Negroes who over the years have been beaten to death on chain gangs and in the back rooms of sheriff's offices, in the cells of county jails, in precinct police stations and on city streets, who have been framed and murdered by sham legal forms and by a legal bureaucracy."

The document made assertions that foreshadowed issues of concern over policing today: "Once the classic method of lynching was the rope," it proclaimed. "We submit that the evidence suggests that the killing of Negroes has become police policy in the United States and that police policy is the most practical expression of government policy."

The General Assembly declined to take up the petition in 1951 because the United States — although a signatory to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights — had declined to ratify the Genocide Convention. The country would do so 40 years later when President Ronald Reagan signed it into law in1988. Nonetheless, "We Charge Genocide" created for the world community a historical marker for gauging the human rights status of Black people in the United States.

In 2021, the families that endured police brutality looked to the Convention once again as a potential instrument for redress. This time, with the momentum of the Black Lives Matter activism, the petition was taken up by the United Nations. In June 2021, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, expanded the scope of the inquiry to the treatment of Black peoples by police agencies in other countries — but the response was directly aimed at conditions in the United States. 

The OHCHR report declared that “Systemic racism needs a systemic response. We need a transformative approach that tackles the interconnected areas that drive racism, and lead to repeated, wholly avoidable, tragedies like the death of George Floyd.”  

For now, however, it is unlikely that international human rights institutions can claim jurisdiction over American police agencies. This means proponents of humane policing should look to maximize the value of human rights agency statements on shaping public opinion. This avenue of redress should be considered if, as feared, the Adams “Blueprint” falls short of its promises.


Roger House is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston and author of ‘Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy.’