The opera Blue and police brutality against people of colour in the US and the Netherlands
The opera Blue follows the lives of two black residents of Harlem in New York: from a young couple in love to proud parents and to grief-stricken ‘next of kin’. The woman becomes pregnant and a son is born. The son grows up to be a critically minded young man who speaks out against racism and other injustices in the world. The father is a police officer, who risks his life every day for the lives of others. Yet at home he is anything but a hero to his son, who denounces police brutality against people of colour and thinks his father is on the wrong side as a ‘black man in blue’. What could be more tragic than the death of the son at the hands of a white policeman – one of the father’s fellow officers?
Text: Jasmijn van Wijnen
There is a palpable generational difference in the way in which father and son view society and their position in it. The father believes that the son should be careful about how he moves through the world: a young black male shouldn’t stand out too much or dress ‘suspiciously’. For one thing, that means no hoodies. The son feels a need to do something about the fact that he can’t dress the way he wants, because he is more likely than a white person to attract attention or be seen as suspicious. These different views clash at the kitchen table, with the mother doing her best to keep the peace.
Black Lives Matter
In 2020, the streets and public squares in the US and Europe were full. The urban landscape was full of banners bearing slogans like ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘I can’t breathe’. Social media was dominated by the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, and Instagram accounts went black under the slogan ‘Black Out Tuesday’. The shocking death of black American George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, captured in full on camera, was a moment of reckoning for many people. Across the Atlantic, this incident also resonated in the Netherlands. The opera Blue, which had its premiere at the Glimmerglass Festival in 2019, was suddenly more topical than ever.
‘You often hear the situation in America is far worse than in the Netherlands. But is that really true?’
The US vs. The Netherlands
When it comes to racial discrimination and the use of excessive force by the police, it is often said that things are far worse in America than in the Netherlands. But is that true? The nature of police brutality is admittedly quite different, but the use of ethnic profiling and excessive force by police officers against people of colour are also commonplace in the Netherlands. The fact that police brutality is a bigger problem in the US seems to be mainly due to the more militarized nature of law enforcement there.
The militarization of the American police force is a trend that started in the wake of the September 11th attacks in New York. The result: fully equipped, heavily armed police officers who patrol the streets as if they were in a warzone, armed against ‘the enemy’ – with all the expected consequences. Within American ‘cop culture’ there is a mentality that ordinary citizens, who have the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment, are a permanent threat. And that has a major influence on how willing many officers are to reach for their own gun. The number of victims of police brutality in the US is therefore already high among the general population, including white Americans. Yet the figures show that black Americans are 2.4 times more likely to die when they come into contact with the police.
The Dutch police
So what is the situation in the Netherlands? Of course, policing in the US has a very different history, permeated by slavery and lynching, which colours the relationship between whites and blacks to this very day. But when making comparisons with the US, people tend to overlook the fact that the Dutch police is also guilty of racism, ethnic profiling and the use of excessive force. According to figures from Control Alt Delete, an organization dedicated to ending ethnic profiling, between 2016 and 2020, 50 people died during or shortly after an arrest. In half of these cases, no firearm was used. Fourteen percent of those who died were white Dutch; 56 percent had an immigrant background, and the origin of the other 30 percent was unknown. None of these cases were ever brought to court; the Public Prosecution Service concluded that the police did not use disproportionate force.
Whereas profiling individuals based on appearance and origin is – at least officially – prohibited in US law enforcement; in the Netherlands this tactic is deliberately used as an investigative tool. In fact, the national police organization has automated its racism: across the country the police work with an algorithm – the Crime Anticipation System (CAS) – that tells officers where to patrol in order to find as many criminals as possible. Police officers are also given specific ethnic target groups to focus on during traffic stops by their supervisors. This has led to countless wrongful arrests and suspicions against people of colour. And if the (often violent) arrests result in a criminal penalty, people of colour generally receive harsher sentences than white Dutch people. And that’s not even the whole picture: when you consider institutional racism in the broader sense, and systematic discrimination in the labour market in the narrower sense, the Netherlands is hardly any better than the US.
A personal letter
The opera Blue deals with this inequality. It is set in the US, but its subject matter is no less relevant to the Netherlands. Librettist and director Tazewell Thompson called the opera’s libretto a personal letter to the world: ‘There’s not a single black man in America who hasn’t had some kind of run-in with the police. Maybe it was something mundane, maybe it was life-altering,’ he says. ‘As a black man in America just trying to survive and thrive, it can be hard for me not to feel utterly defeated. On the other hand, it’s not hard at all for me to imagine my face on George Floyd’s body. I’m afraid, as a black man living in a country that’s becoming increasingly scary, violent and divisive. This is a place where gun ownership is promoted and where a white uniformed police officer, with his hands in his pocket, a smug grin on his arrogant face, can confidently take the life of an unarmed, handcuffed black man in the middle of the street in broad daylight with impunity.’ And so Thompson – unfortunately – was able to draw on his personal experience to write Blue’s libretto.
The words of parental advice he gives to the character of the father will sound familiar to any black American citizen:
‘Stay alive. That’s what you supposed to do. You a black boy. A walking, moving target. A black boy. Take off the hoodie… […] Son, the light is turning amber - Run Run across the street - No! Don’t run, Walk. Don’t walk. […] Don’t wear your ball cap backwards. Don’t wear a hoodie. Don’t carry shiny objects. Don’t get a tattoo. Don’t pierce your ears. Don’t shave your head. Don’t get an Afro. Don’t make a fist. Don’t sit on the curb. Don’t sit on the hood of a car. Don’t wear cornrows. Don’t look the man in his eye. Look the man in the eye. Don’t make quick movements. Don’t put your hands in your pockets. Don’t remove your shirt. Don’t lie on the grass. Don’t wear sunglasses! Don’t spit. Don’t chew. Don’t laugh. […]’
Institutional racism, inequality and the generation gap in how the characters deal with these issues colour Blue’s libretto. The central tragic event itself – the son’s death at the hands of a police officer – takes place during the act break. The opera confronts the audience with a stark portrait of the black experience in Harlem, showing the people and lives behind the news reports of police brutality. The opera deals with heavy themes, but at the same time it offers hope. The parents find this hope in friends, colleagues and their church community: though their hopes for the son’s future have been dashed, his loved ones pray for a transformative day.
Would you like to know more?
If you would like to know more about ethnic profiling within and by the Dutch police, you can watch the following documentaries:
- Verdacht (2018) by Nan Rosens
- De blauwe familie (2022) by Maria Mok and Meral Uslu