Bessma Momani is a professor at the University of Waterloo and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
As a scholar of international affairs, it is not hard to see the parallels between the United States of America under President Donald Trump, and recent global protests calling for justice, human rights and dignity. The protests across the U.S. are akin to demonstrations we’ve witnessed in the Middle East, Hong Kong and Russia, to name only a few. If we listen to the words of racial-disparity protesters in North America, we can see that Black Lives Matter deserves our ear and empathy.
When George Floyd, a Black American man, was pinned down by Minneapolis police and muttered, “I can’t breathe," it echoed the experience of so many Black Americans, who have witnessed their people, society and communities endure endemic poverty, systemic racism and police brutality. Much like the slogan of the Arab Spring – “bread, freedom, dignity” – “I can’t breathe” has the same sense of despair. Twenty-eight per cent of Black American children live in poverty, compared with only 4 per cent of white American children. Historically, the median household income for Black Americans is nearly half that of their white counterparts, and they are incarcerated five times more than white Americans. In the age of COVID-19, it’s estimated that Black Americans account for nearly a quarter of coronavirus deaths, despite representing 13 per cent of the American population.
Images and videos of protesters burning a Minneapolis police precinct, spraying graffiti on Washington landmarks and gathering at the Trump Tower in New York, were reminiscent of Hong Kong protesters who last summer threw bricks at police vans, stormed the city’s legislature and entered the inner chamber, defacing government symbols in the process. Like millions of Black Americans fed up with police brutality, Hong Kong youth have protested in the streets to stop China from targeting their young activists and stifling their right to dignity.
As the U.S. National Guard was deployed onto the streets of dozens of cities with military-grade weapons and assault vehicles, Mr. Trump tweeted that if any protesters coming to the White House had breached its fence, they would have been greeted with “the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen."
Hong Kong police have implicitly authorized officers to use any level of force they deem justified. It’s an open call for violence without impunity. The Chinese government-backed police have also deployed military-grade weaponry, including tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds. While the Chinese army has until now stayed tucked in their garrisons on the outskirts of the island city, commanders recently warned they could send 10,000 troops to the city to impose new national-security measures.
When Mr. Trump took to Twitter to react to the protesters’ burning of the Minneapolis police precinct with the racially charged phrase, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” it was akin to president Moammar Gadhafi’s infamous “zenga” speech in 2011, when he promised to cleanse the streets of Libya “home by home, alleyway by alleyway,” targeting Benghazi protesters demanding freedom and justice. A few weeks after Mr. Gadhafi’s speech, the UN Security Council passed a resolution to prevent the mass killing of Libyan protesters. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization began enforcing its “Responsibility to Protect” principle, to prevent Libyan security forces from committing crimes against humanity. Mr. Trump’s tweet received an unprecedented warning label from Twitter for glorifying violence.
When thousands of Russian protesters took to the streets of Moscow last summer to protest excessive police tactics and the detainment of prominent critics of the state, authorities arrested hundreds of people, including several journalists. In reaction, the European Union condemned Russia’s mass detention and use of force against protesters and reporters. After just a few days of racial-discrimination protests in the U.S., there have been several instances of police shooting at, pepper spraying or arresting American journalists across the country. There has been no global condemnation from democratic leaders, just ironic commentary from the despotic corners of Iran and China.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “A riot is the language of the unheard." If we listened to the voices of protesters during the Middle East’s Arab Spring, Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement and Russia’s Moscow protests, but refuse to listen to Black Lives Matter, then we need to rethink what it means to live in a democracy.
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