The scenario is all too familiar: the almost casual murder in Minneapolis of an unarmed African American citizen — say his name: George Floyd — by police officers has sparked a wave of social unrest and protests across the country. Since Floyd’s killing on 25 May, we have seen what are arguably the worst “race riots” in a generation, following Los Angeles in 1992 and Detroit in 1967, for example. What makes the current protests different, though, is how rapidly they have spread across America helped in part, no doubt, by the availability and use of social media. The events are taking place with the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic in a country with the highest recorded number of cases and deaths.
Yet while numerous cities are burning, stores are being looted and violent clashes are occurring between citizens and law enforcement officers, the framing of these events as “riots” is hypocritical. Commentators and politicians may well be blinded by US exceptionalism as they rush to describe similar protests in the Middle East and Hong Kong, for example, as “uprisings” or “revolutions”, while home-grown unrest is labelled as anything but. With “riots” implying that blame lies with the citizens on the streets, the subtle distinctions are rarely explained.
Last year, I wrote about the Iranian protests in reaction to the sanction-hit government’s raising of subsidised fuel prices. Many Western officials and analysts at the time were salivating at the prospects of a popular uprising against the “Mullah regime”, as they have for the past 40 years. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the developments and said at the time, “The world is watching”, as did President Donald Trump. Indeed, in a supreme irony given the current situation in the US, Trump tweeted: “To the leaders of Iran – DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS. Thousands have already been killed or imprisoned by you, and the World is watching. More importantly, the USA is watching. Turn your internet back on and let reporters roam free! Stop the killing of your great Iranian people!” He has, of course, threatened to turn “ominous weapons” and “vicious dogs” on US protesters. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
The world is now watching the US as Black Lives Matter protests spread to over 30 cities, including the capital. Secret Service agents clashed with protestors who knocked down security barricades outside the White House, where Trump and his family were taken to a secure bunker.
In Iran, as I pointed out last year, amidst the legitimate protests there were also arson attacks on state institutions, banks and other properties. Similar events have occurred in Iraq and Lebanon. As I said, “Reactions may differ, but no government would tolerate arson attacks on state institutions.” What’s more, in the aftermath of Iranians’ angry protests over the downing of the Ukrainian passenger plane in January, Ali Motahari MP said that such reactions were natural to a degree, but no government would accommodate protests with “subversive agendas.”
We are now witnessing such events in the US, with the National Guard fully mobilised in the State of Minnesota and Trump announcing that the left-wing anti-fascist movement Antifa will be designated as a “terrorist” organisation.
The Arab Spring, it is worth recalling, was ignited by the self-immolation of a Tunisian man in protest at the injustice of local police officers. The civil war in Syria was kick-started by the government’s brutal response to protests that followed the torturing of some young boys by police officers for spraying graffiti on some walls. George Floyd was killed because of a similarly minor infringement of the law. Indeed, there are numerous examples of black US citizens being shot and killed, or brutalised and abused for traffic offences and other incidents that would warrant a caution or fine in any other democracy.
While in places like Syria the divide is drawn along religious lines, in the US it is most definitely race which is the defining factor, along with the low social status that too many non-whites experience. Foreign states backed armed opposition groups and army defectors during the early days of the conflict in Syria. The US was one of a number of countries financing and arming terrorist groups in the country, often including foreign fighters not even from Syria.
As is usual when governments are faced with any kind of opposition, the spectre of “extremists” was invoked in Syria and now we are hearing the same mantra in the US. Attorney General William Barr has said that peaceful protests were “hijacked by violent radical elements”, while the Governor of Minnesota, Tim Walz, blamed the violence and criminal activity on “outsiders” from other states within America.
Although widespread defections from the security forces are very unlikely in the US, we have seen footage of at least one Sheriff, Chris Swanson from Flint, Michigan, siding with the protestors. There have also been satirical posts on a Twitter account of the “Free American Army”, reversing the role that the US usually plays when meddling in other countries’ affairs.
Another phenomenon in common with the dictatorial regimes of the Middle East and elsewhere are “regime loyalists” and paramilitaries who seek to crush popular dissent by any means. Many Trump supporters are gun-owners and activists. As recently as April, armed Trump supporters, some brandishing Confederate flags, staged protests of their own in response to social-distancing orders intended to curb the coronavirus outbreak. The state and federal responses were muted compared with those facing the Black Lives Matter protesters. In a worst-case scenario, the die is cast for conflict along racial lines, but there is hope: white citizens have also taken to the streets as the #ICantBreathe protests spread.
Nevertheless, the deliberate targeting of journalists in an effort to stifle the media has been seen in the US over the past week. Such crude attempts at press censorship are more associated with non-democracies, but one Denver-based journalist said that her cameraman was hit four times by police with paintballs and his camera was also hit, while a black CNN correspondent was arrested live on air while reporting, despite showing his press ID. Another reporter and her cameraman filming in Louisville were shot at by police using rubber bullets.
What is missing in America at the moment is the overseas funding and arming of protesters. The US has geography on its side, but is already awash with weapons and ammunition in any case. If terrorist groups do emerge as they did and continue to do so in Syria with the help of neighbouring, regional and international actors — including the US — would Washington have a moral leg to stand on?
While it may be argued that at least the US authorities are not bombing their own citizens that has actually happened. On 13 May 1985, Philadelphia police dropped a satchel bomb made up of FBI-supplied C-4 explosives and Tovex, on a largely African-American residential neighbourhood targeting the black liberation group MOVE. Eleven people were killed, including five children, and 61 homes were destroyed; hundreds were left homeless. The scant regard that too many people in power and in uniform have for the human rights of their fellow citizens in America mirrors in many respects the dehumanisation endured by people and states facing US and US-funded aggression and occupation.
At the time of writing, it is unclear where the Black Lives matter protests are going in the US, but doubts are already being expressed about whether George Floyd’s family and friends can expect justice for him any time soon. Not only did it take days for the police officer involved to be arrested and charged, but his colleagues who stood by and did nothing to stop him are also still at liberty.
Floyd’s murder could be an era-defining moment, with the Trump administration’s disastrous response to Covid-19, mass unemployment and a devastated economy all thrown into the mix. Far from “making America great again”, Trump is presiding over a country whose standing in the world has never been lower. China’s GDP is on course to overtake that of the US by the end of the decade and the declining power of the petro-dollar means that Americans face tough times ahead. They need to get a grip on the racism that blights their society before it is too late; it could be the factor that tips the balance.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor or Informed Comment.