Whose Lives Matter?: A Conversation on Police Brutality Across Borders

By Carla Diot
Staff Writer

In recent response to the social unrest over the mysterious circumstances of 25-year old Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei published several tweets expressing solidarity to protesters, all while attacking the United States for its inadequate responses to the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin. Using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, Khamenei tweeted “It’s ridiculous that even though US President is black, still such crimes against US blacks continue to occur.” The additional tweets, which can be found on Khamenei’s Twitter page, are not the first time that Iran has used such incidents as a platform to attack the United States. During the height of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, Ayatollah Khamenei attacked the United States, calling it the “biggest violator of #HumanRights,” committing not only international crimes, but crimes against its own citizens.

The perspective of the conversation on police brutality in the United States has been focused domestically. President Obama recently declared the allocation of $20million to local police departments across the United States to be used specifically for purchasing body cameras to monitor police behavior towards citizens. However, the nationwide issue has also had international repercussions. The United States has received criticism from the international community, including countries such as Egypt, Russia, and Iran, as well as in forums such as the United Nations. This has provoked an international conversation on police brutality, with the United States serving as the principle violator. Yet, many of the countries who saw the unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore as an opportunity to attack the United States have also been responsible for police brutality against their own citizens, and have, ironically, been criticized by the United States for doing so.

After the death of 18-year old Mike Brown, the town of Ferguson, Missouri erupted into a series of protests, and were met with escalated responses by St. Louis county police and the National Guard. In Ferguson, images of the high tensions between the protestors, the police, and the media were broadcast around the world. The images provided an opportunity for international political leaders and media to highlight the United States’ unsolved racial tensions. In Russia, government-controlled channels such as Russia Today and Rossiya 24 reported on the unrest, calling the scene a war zone. The conversation in Russia also focused on comparisons of the unrest in Missouri to the current unrest in Ukraine, even referring to the protests in Ferguson “Afromaidan.” The term gained significant ground and has also been used in describing the current ongoing protests in Baltimore. Russian politicians also got involved in attacking the United States, with the Russian Foreign Ministry’s representative for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, Konstantin Dolgov commenting that, “While urging other countries to guarantee freedom of speech and not to suppress anti-government protests, the U.S. authorities at home are none too soft on those actively expressing discontent over persistent inequalities, actual discrimination and the situation of ‘second class’ citizens.” While preaching these values, the Russian government eclipses their own treatment of second-class citizens.

In fact, Russia is not exempt from condoning brutality against its own citizens. In 2014, Human Rights Watch published License to Harm: Violence and Harassment against LGBT People and Activists in Russia. The report was scathing, accusing Russia of treating LGBT citizens as second-class citizens after the passage of a law banning “the promotion of non-traditional sexual relationships.” While the language behind the law was noted for its vagueness, its intention was clearly seen as attacking LGBT citizens. Since the passage of the law, Human Rights Watch noted a rise in brutality against LGBT citizens. Most of the subjects interviewed for Human Rights Watch claimed that while the attacks were from vigilante groups such as Occupy Pedophilia, police officers often sided with the attackers, with one officer even claiming he would have done the same thing to the victim. Police officers both sided with, and participated in violence against LGBT citizens and activists. For such reasons, brutality against LGBT citizens went unreported, leaving them without any rights to justice.

In Egypt, the foreign ministry called on the United States to show restraint towards demonstrators in Ferguson over the summer. The Foreign Ministry claimed that it was “closely following the escalation of protests” and urged the U.S. government to find answers to Mike Brown’s death. The Egyptian government’s call had come at a time when tensions between the two countries were strained after the Egyptian government arrested and convicted forty-three non-governmental (NGO) workers under charges of operating without a license. The case was controversial, as critics argued that the law was vague and used to control NGOs. Several months after the conviction of the workers, President Obama announced the suspension of military aid to the Egyptian government, only releasing it under conditions that Egypt show credible steps towards free and fair elections. The withholding of military aid was used to show displeasure with Egypt’s violation of human rights at the time. Thus, when instability struck Ferguson, it was an opportunity for Egypt to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the United States in its policing of human rights.

Yet in calling for restraint, Egypt conveniently clouds its recent history of violence against dissidents. One of the most notable cases of violence against protesters was the Raba’a massacre, whose two year anniversary will be commemorated in August 2015. The massacre occurred after supporters of the ousted Mohammad Morsi gathered around the Raba’a al-Adawiya mosque to protest the coup against Morsi. The group consisted mostly of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, a group that would continue to be targeted by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s administration after the massacre. The demonstrations began peacefully, with supporters establishing camps around the mosque, but when it came time to disperse the camps, supporters were met with violence from the police. Though the death toll of the massacre is still unknown, it is estimated to range from 600 to 1,000 deaths. The crackdown was met with heavy criticism from the international community, with many groups such as the United Nations calling it a violation of human rights law. The United States immediately addressed the massacre, with President Obama responding through sharp words and the cancellation of a joint U.S.-Egyptian military exercise, known as Bright Star. In his address, Obama noted that “the Egyptian people deserve better than what we’ve seen over the last several days.” The incident was seen as another step in the deterioration of U.S.-Egypt relations. However, even more notably, the incident failed to create real dialogues in addressing violence against citizens.

The time for the United States to address police brutality may have finally arrived. After the deaths of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Darrien Hunt, and Freddie Gray, the United States has begun to move towards repairing race relations, and ensuring equity in human rights. Countries such as Russia, Iran, and Egypt are justified in criticizing the human rights abuses of the United States, and their words should be taken seriously. Yet it is their intentions that are lacking and should be criticized. For these countries, including the United States, human rights goes from being a goal for countries to aspire towards, to a back-and-forth game in an international political arena. Countries should reconsider their use of human rights discourse as a propaganda tool, as it results in empty words and fear-mongering. Instead, criticisms of another country’s human rights violation should be used to conduct thoughtful self-reflection and as an initiative to address the abuses seen in a productive way domestically.

Photo by Light Brigading

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