Broad spectrum of experiences with racial profiling
The diversity of interviewees offered a wide range of different encounters with the police. Despite the fact that the crucial features of people affected are physical traits – in particular skin colour—that can be perceived as an indication of belonging to an ethnic, racial, and/or religious minority group living in Switzerland, there are also often further aspects involved in the concrete setting. According to the context more features are implicated in action, such as age, gender, religion, language skills, outfit style, hairstyle, assumed social-economic status, citizenship status, and where the interaction take place. In a general view there are some difference categories which lead to a specific vulnerability for being particularly often in the focus of police stop and search practices.
Intersectional dimensions of difference
The most reported interdependencies that structured the experiences with the police are related to citizen status, gender and language. The interviewees in the study note that conversation with the police predominately takes place in standard German. People who told the police that they don’t speak German and prefer English were often ignored. Besides language, aspects such as presumed class and income were defined by the interviewees as elements that change the police’s treatment of people.
- Citizenship status: Significant differences in the occurrence of police checks were reported by people with pending asylum proceedings and sans-papiers. Many of them reported direct racist statements by police officers as well as physical searches of their persons, their personal belongings or baggage.
« I believe that the police thinks that if you are a sans-papier, you have limited rights, and that she can do anything with you. They do all with you what they want.» (Ahmed Abdu)
«Because it depends on the quality of your ID, if you have an N or F or B status, that even changes the reaction of the police towards you.» (Tahar Baznani)
- Gender: Black men are affected by stigmatizations as criminal, ‹illegal› and/or violent more often than other people. They also experience more physical violence, while black women are often addressed by the police as sex workers.
«Le policier fait des chôses qu’il normalement n’a pas le droit de faire.» (Lucie Cluzet)
«[T]hey said, ja, all of you, the North African only come here to make problems.» (Tahar Baznani)
«I once traveled from Wetzikon to Zurich. (…) And there were three uniformed policemen on the train who came to me, they were two men and one woman. I sat in the compartment with a friend, there were many people around. She said, ‹Open your mouth.› And I said, ‹What are you looking for in my mouth› Then she immediately grabbed my neck, choked until I had to open my mouth. And she said, ‹Ok, all right.› The two other policemen watched the scene, but did not respond. And I: ‹Did you see what she did?› And the reaction: ‹Yeah yeah, all right.›» (Omar Zaman)
- Language: People who speak Swiss dialect report changes in interactions with the police. Speaking in dialect partly made check situations easier and faster.
«For me it is often that—also in other situations—where I am treated weirdly or differently, as soon as I start to speak Berndeutsch [the local dialect] and they notice this, there’s like a click and then everything is different.» » (Ebony Amer)
- Social status: The presumed class affiliation, apparent socioeconomic status and social capital also play an important role in some situations—for instance, some people who have student status report receiving more respect from the police or others who are dressing themselves especially chic.
«[W]hen I have an important meeting […], when I need to go to Hauptbahnhof […] for example, I wear a nice classic suit with the hat, just to not be recognized by the police and catch me before this important meeting for me.» (Tahar Baznani)
Despite the broad spectrum of differences, the reports also contain many overlaps and similarities. Racial profiling incidents are not single, unique, or universal experiences, but experiences that can occur for some parts of the population who are not assumed to be normal Swiss citizens at nearly any time and place. However, the different narratives indicate that police checks often proceed along similar lines. People are approached in their daily lives by two or more police officers requesting them to identify themselves and give reasons for their presence. People who are not native German speakers and people with a refugee or no residence status have reported that they are faced with various personal questions such as their address, their destination, and their living situation. Many people are also requested to show or empty their bags and pockets, or to undergo a public pat-down. Individuals with refugee status, people without residency, as well as people who refuse to identify themselves, experience handcuffing and arrests and even being detained for a certain amount of time. Many checked people reported that they were not given an explanation for the check procedure. If asked by the controlled person, police officers often say «routine control». Patterns identified in almost all the interviewees’ reports are described in the following:
- Racial targeting: Almost all interviewees describe situations in which they are in a crowd and the police focus their attention on them, probably only due to their physical appearance, mainly because of their skin colour.
«We move like ordinary people on the street and they just come to us and ask for our identity card. The reason is our skin color. There is no other reason.» (Cabaas Xasan)
«[T]hey control me specifically because of my color. Because he [the police officer] didn’t control the other people, so that is for me racial.» (Phil Steward)
- Being the object of a gaze: Many interviewees reported that they have felt ‹exhibited› during the police checks, as if they were ‹in a circus›, ‹second-class people›, or people with ‹limited rights›. In particular, checks in public spaces, before the eyes of the (mostly white) passers-by, exacerbate the situation and the effect on those checked. Even after the situation, they often experience strange or humiliating looks from other people. Almost none of the interviewees had experienced interventions or help from bystanders. Being forced to undergo a physical check involving pat-downs or bag checks in front of other people is especially described as a particularly intense criminalising and humiliating situation.
«Ils [les policiers] nous traitent comme des animaux!» (Salah Chant)
«Police checked me, the other people looked at me. What happened to my dignity?» (Chandra Macasche)
«Like all other commuters, I went through the Zurich train station and two policemen and one policewoman come to me: ‹Zack! ID card!› And I said: ‹Why? Why me alone? And all the others?› And I said, ‹How would you feel so alone by all these commuters, at seven o’clock in the morning?›» (Mamadu Abdallah)
- Stigmatization & criminalization: Almost all interviewees describe the checks as unjustified and involving stereotypic attributions. Either openly or subtly, people checked on discriminatory grounds are taught they are a ‹problem›, to be kept under control, and that they are at least potential offenders.
«I felt like a criminal. I’ve never been an offender to the police, but just because I exist. I cannot help it that I’m born like that.» (Wakur Bari)
«I’m coming out of Migros [supermarket] with all my shopping, so what do they think? Do think I’m selling drugs? What dangerous thing am I supposed to be doing? That’s what I told them. The policeman was harsh, a real SVP-policeman [SVP is a right-wing political party]. They wanted me to take off my jacket and then they left me.» (Mamadu Abdallah)
«Du fühlst dich so minderwertig, wenn die Polizei dich kontrolliert. Ich frage mich: Wieso immer ich? Steht etwas auf meiner Stirn?» (Ahmed Abdu)
«You feel so inferior when the police checks you. I ask myself: ‹Why always me? Is something on my forehead?›»(Ahmed Abdu)
- Emotions & affects: For almost all of the interviewed persons, the discriminatory check by the police was a humiliating and shameful experience. During these situations, there seem to be limited possibilities to react or engage with police. They describe, for example, massive fears and further emotions that were triggered in the situation and which also persisted long afterwards. Many people report a severe distrust of the police which they perceive not as security guards or as helpers against discrimination, but as people that cause them anxiety and strain. In addition to fears, persons affected also express anger or despair. But before that, many interviewees recount that they felt confused and their first reaction was to ask themselves if they had done something wrong.
Some people even question their own behaviour, as one illustrates:
«After being checked, I felt totally uncomfortable. … Because the people, society looks differently.» (Chandra Macasche)
«The check situation happened eight months ago, but the fear and the experience is still deep inside me … every time I see the police I’m afraid.» (Jamal Hussaini)
«So, I often experience situations in which I am due to my skin colour and actually always, whether it was with police checks or someone speaks to me in standard German or English, then I have on the one hand the feeling of defiance and anger. Then I often begin to tremble inwardly, too, because I want to defend myself.» (Zoe Hetti)
- A huge step towards the personal recognition of injustice: Many interviewees report that they experienced the checks as shameful and/or humiliating, but it took some time to deal with feeling self-blame and the suppression of the experience before moving to an active engagement. As part of the experience of racism, many people affected made attempts to learn to live with the discriminating checks.
«I was asking myself, am I a trouble, I had to talk to myself, am I really a trouble maker? Am I making problems? Is it only me that this is happening to? I had to figure out, maybe change my way of life or how I dress or where I go? Then I started to meet people, then I realized each person that I met had a story to tell. That gave me the picture, ah, it’s not only me who had this.» (Jay Anderson)
- Coping strategies: The interviewees deal in various ways with the risk of being checked on a daily basis. Many report that if possible they always anticipate the checks, which means they leave earlier when they have appointments or always have their ID card on them, even on short errands. Some try to camouflage themselves so that they correspond as little as possible to the police’s check criteria. Some avoid certain places or avoid going outside at night where they expect frequent checks or state they have accepted this as a norm in their everyday lives. Others consciously choose not to be restricted by the police checks in their freedom of movement. Still others are very active during discriminatory checks: they ask for the reason, discuss with the police officers, and, if necessary, refuse to display their identity card if they feel they are being treated this way on the basis of racist decisions.
«I am not trying to avoid but I always expect it.» (Chandra Macasche)
«No, if you are a person of colour, you better keep your mouth shut and live as discreetly as possible.» (Lucie Cluzet)
«I always ask ‹Why are you stopping me? What is your first instinct that makes you stop me?› Of course, they never say, ‹Because you are black.› Often I say, ‹Look me in the eyes and tell me the truth.› And they never look me in the eyes.» (Chisu Chilongo)
The interviewees formulate general hopes in relation to the police, as well as other authorities and society in general, that they will fight against racism in concrete interactions as well as in structural and institutional settings. Specific demands concern the improved implementation of human rights and anti-discrimination legislation, as well as the issuing of receipts during checks which indicate the reason and the result of the checks. Furthermore, more members of minority groups and officers with wider language skills should be represented in the police corps. In addition to discriminatory police checks, many of the interviewees also had other experiences of racism in their daily lives, in the search for accommodation, in dealing with authorities, at work, etc. and emphasized that racism is not only a phenomenon of the police but a social problem which must be tackled on many levels.
«Il faut qu’ils [les policiers] recevoir une meilleure éducation, une éducation morale. Il faut qu’ils savent qu’on est des humains, qu’on a des droits.» (Salah Chant)
«I would like that the police will have a clear approach to checks, which has to be respected by all policemen. For example bodycams. If someone complains, there is proof. Or also that the police as in London has to make a statement or receipt for the check.» (Omar Zaman)
«That people come who ask what is going on here, why is that person now controlled. Cop-Watch, I think this would be fair.» (Denis Kramer)
«Everything you hear abroad about Switzerland is: Heidi, mountains, human rights, etc. I would never have thought that Switzerland is so unfair before I came here.» (Ahmed Abdu)