International reaction to U.S. police brutality belies claims of American exceptionalism

Police officers point their weapons at demonstrators protesting against the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 18, 2014.  CREDIT: REUTERS/JOSHUA LOTT

Police officers point their weapons at demonstrators protesting against the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 18, 2014.

Since the August 9 police murder of Michael Brown, an unarmed black youth in Ferguson, Mo., the world has responded with a mixture of dismay and disgust as the U.S. has mobilized thoroughly militarized state security forces to crush demonstrations calling for police accountability.

The international reaction to the repression has called into question the United States’ frequent claims of “American exceptionalism,” the absurd notion that due to its “exceptional” history and unique culture, the U.S. is in some privileged position to provide moral leadership to the entire world.

In fact, the violence playing out on the streets of Ferguson is an all-too familiar sight to much of the world, which has for too long been on the receiving end of U.S.-sponsored violence and brutality. This includes, of course, the Palestinian people who have been suffering from U.S.-backed war crimes and atrocities carried out by the Israeli Defense Forces with a particular ferocity this summer.

Recognizing the repression that demonstrators in Ferguson are experiencing as similar to their own oppression at the hands of the Israelis, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been inspired to express their solidarity through social media, posting photos on Twitter such as these:



Others have begun offering advice on how to effectively deal with tear gas:

twitter advice

While activists take to social media, international diplomats are expressing concern through more traditional channels.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on U.S. authorities on Monday to ensure the protection of the rights of protesters in Ferguson. “The Secretary-General calls on the authorities to ensure that the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression are protected,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

“He calls on all to exercise restraint, for law enforcement officials to abide by U.S. and international standards in dealing with demonstrators,” he added.

At last week’s periodic review of the United States by the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), a body of “independent experts that monitors [the] implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination by its State parties,” the U.S. was questioned on a wide array of topics, with the situation in Ferguson casting a long shadow over the proceedings.

Noureddine Amir headed the CERD’s review, which cited racial profiling by U.S. law enforcement officers, as well as high levels of gun violence that have a disparate impact on minorities. African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but 50 percent of homicide victims, Amir pointed out.

“African American males are reportedly seven times more likely to die by firearm homicide than their white counterparts,” he said, pointing to factors such as “subconscious racial bias in shootings, the proliferation of Stand Your Ground laws and the existence of predominantly African American and economically depressed neighborhoods with escalated levels of violence.”

According to the UN’s readout of the hearing, other topics of discussion were excessive use of force by law enforcement and racial disparities in the criminal justice system:

Issues raised during the discussion included the high levels of gun violence in the United States, and its disparate impact on minorities.  Millions of United States citizens who held a gun licence also believed they had a licence to kill because of Stand Your Ground laws, Experts said.  The excessive use of force by law enforcement agents against racial minorities, racial disparities in the criminal justice system and in education, particularly that racial segregation in public schools was reportedly worse today than in the 1970s, were also discussed.  Discrimination against indigenous peoples, and violence against women, particularly indigenous women, as well as discrimination against non-citizens, particularly migrants from the southern border, were highlighted, as was the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.  The delegation was also asked about racial hate speech, racial profiling, obstacles to voting, child labour, racial biases within the child welfare system, environmental pollution and racial disparities in access to healthcare and housing.

Delegations of American civil rights officials who participated in the UN conference on racial equality in Geneva said that the murder of Michael Brown and the police repression of demonstrations in Ferguson were obviously reverberating internationally.

“Clearly this issue is resonating here … and they knew about it before we got here,” said Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau. The story “continues to run in circulation over and over again (on Geneva television). The world is watching what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri.”

“At times,” UN Watch reported, “it felt as if the Committee members were placing the U.S. delegates, and the United States in turn, on trial.” CERD expert Yong‘an Huang, a former Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China, commented on how “the U.S. likes to play the role of world’s police but never to talk about the human rights situation in the country.”

China has also taken to its state-run media to express its views on the ongoing racial turmoil and police violence in America. As Think Progress reported yesterday:

After years of being critiqued for its own crackdowns against dissidents, China has begun to use the ongoing clashes between police and protesters and police in Ferguson, MO as a way to lambaste the United States for hypocrisy, joining other repressive regimes in expressing no small amount of schadenfreude at the current situation.

In an op-ed published Monday  by the official Chinese Xinhua news agency, commentator Li Li takes the United States to task, noting that “despite the progress, racial divide still remains a deeply-rooted chronic disease that keeps tearing U.S. society apart, just as manifested by the latest racial riot in Missouri.”

“It is undeniable,” Li writes, “that racial discrimination against African Americans or other ethnic minorities, though not as obvious as in the past, still persists in every aspect of U.S. social lives, including employment, housing, education, and particularly, justice.”

Li draws a connection in his piece between rampant violence within the United States and the violence perpetrated abroad by the U.S. military, urging America to focus on its own issues rather than citing “American exceptionalism” in criticizing other countries:

Uncle Sam has witnessed numerous shooting sprees on its own land and launched incessant drone attacks on foreign soil, resulting in heavy civilian casualties. Each country has its own national conditions that might lead to different social problems. Obviously, what the United States needs to do is to concentrate on solving its own problems rather than always pointing fingers at others.

Russian and Iranian media have also printed scathing judgments about the police response to protests in Missouri. As Al Jazeera reports:

One Russian site, Svobodnaya Pressa, coined the term “Afromaidan,” implying that the U.S. is getting a dose of its own medicine for backing anti-Russian Euromaidan rallies in Kiev, Ukraine. The article poked fun at the notion of a land of opportunity, signaling that America’s “race war” proves Washington’s hypocrisy.

PressTV in Iran led with the Ferguson story on its website Monday. A news feature quoted an African-American historian referring to “institutionalized racism” in the U.S. and calling the country a “human rights failed state.” And Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Facebook page read Sunday: “Look at what they do to the black community in their own country … . The police may beat them to death over the crime of having dark skins!”

Other concerns raised by the international community in recent days include the police crackdown on freedom of the press, as evidenced by the assaults and arrests of journalists covering the social unrest in Ferguson.

The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović said on August 14 that the arrest of two reporters in Ferguson was unacceptable and a clear violation of the right of media to cover news.

Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan J. Reilly were taken into custody by local police on August 13 while filing reports on demonstrations, the OSCE noted. They were released without charges filed.

“Summarily rounding up journalists while they are doing their jobs sends a dangerous precedent and must never be condoned,” Mijatović said. “Journalists have the right to report on public demonstrations without being intimated by the police.”

In response to the deteriorating human rights crisis in Ferguson, Amnesty International USA has taken the unprecedented step of sending a 13-person delegation to monitor the situation. It is the first time Amnesty International has deployed observers inside the United States.

Speaking on Democracy Now, Steven Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International USA, explained the decision:

Amnesty saw a human rights crisis in Ferguson, and it’s a human rights crisis that is escalating. We sent observers down because there was a need for human rights observers. Clearly there are violations of international human rights law and standards, in terms of how the policing is being done on protests. So, for example, we’ve issued reports on, for example, Israel and the Occupied Territories, how tear gas is supposed to be administered—never in an indiscriminate way where children and the elderly could be subject to very harmful effects, even death, from tear gas. So, we sent down observers to be on the ground. We have been thwarted in our efforts to be able to go out on curfew with the police, which would be a clear standard in these circumstances, as well as the opportunity for the press to be able to be in the space. So, we also went down to make sure that the citizens in Ferguson understood that the eyes of the world were watching, that Amnesty is deeply supportive, and we will be continuing to monitor the situation.

Watch the interview here:

As the international community continues to speak out on U.S. racism and state-sponsored violence, the United States’ claims of “exceptionalism” – the claimed basis for much of its military interventionism around the world – will continue to be undermined. And until the U.S. deals with its own deteriorating human rights crisis, its claims to be a “moral leader” in the world will likely be rejected with a combination of ridicule and revulsion.


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