How Ferguson Is Playing in the Rest of the World

News Abroad
tags: racism, Police, Ferguson

Aaron Brown is a PhD student studying US history and foreign relations at Ohio University. He is also a fellow at the university’s Contemporary History Institute and has written for the History News Network, American Diplomacy, and The Athens (Ohio) News.

As protestors in Ferguson, Missouri continue to battle with heavily armed riot police two weeks after 18-year-old Michael Brown was gunned down by a police officer in broad daylight, others around the world are taking notice of what is happening in this country. Particularly disconcerting is the extent to which America‘s least favorite human rights abusers are reprimanding us for our hypocrisy. How, they ask, can we lecture them on how they treat their own citizens when we are allowing our law enforcement officers to execute people with impunity?

Comparing human rights in the United States to some of the most odious regimes in the world is a fool’s errand. To be sure, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who tweeted in response to events in Ferguson that “racial discrimination is still a dilemma in the U.S.” and that “the flag of #HumanRights is borne by enemies of human rights with the U.S. leading them,” is the ultimate hypocrite when it comes to such matters. The Iranian regime has murdered and tortured thousands of people for their religious beliefs and political persuasions. In Iran, a petty thief (as Michael Brown allegedly was) may be subjected to a state-sanctioned amputation. Some American police officers may be overzealous in carrying out their duties, but at least Washington has not made it official state policy that thieves receive disfiguring medieval punishments.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin, never one to refrain from commenting on American affairs, has also condemned the police response to the Ferguson protests, singling out specifically the arrests of several journalists. Again, to hear someone like Putin criticize others for squelching press freedom is maddening. If anyone should write a book on the art of media manipulation, it is the Russian president. Not only has he created a propaganda machine the likes the Russian people have not seen since the Brezhnev era, he has failed to encourage any kind of investigation of the deaths of at least 20 journalists during his presidency. One who behaves in such a sinister manner has no right to lecture others on press freedom.

Still, it is important for Americans to recognize how our own failings resonate with the citizens of other countries. Palestinians in Gaza cannot help but notice that they are dealing with the same types of heavy-handed tactics that African-Americans are subjected to in inner-cities. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an order of magnitude more violent than the events in Ferguson, but protestors are facing the wrath of foot soldiers with tear gas in both situations. There are varying opinions concerning who bears greater blame for the chaos unleashed in Missouri, but disorder looks like disorder regardless of whether or not it is on Arab-language television or Fox News.

During the Cold War, the United States was often criticized abroad for its inability to deal with the issue of Civil Rights. The Soviet government, despite its many repressive and discriminatory tendencies, never failed to remind its citizens that the Americans were racist bullies. No matter how unfair such a denunciation might be, it is crucial that we understand how our own domestic problems reverberate worldwide, particularly when we take it upon ourselves to chastise others for their unsavory conduct.

 In a hyper-connected, media-driven twenty-first century, it is imperative that we as Americans lead by example. Moving forward, we must demand that police be held accountable for their actions. Most law enforcement officers do their jobs with utmost caution and civility, and our communities are safer for it. 

But police forces throughout the country must be willing to concede to thorough evaluations of their conduct. Police departments should no longer be allowed to investigate from within and attempt to exonerate those who have clearly abused their power. Transparency, enforced by an outside observer, will be the key. This will not only send a much-needed message of reconciliation to inner-city minority communities who feel that justice has been denied to them for too long, but also a message to the world that Americans practice what they preach.

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