Politics of Shame: The United States, Ferguson and the World

The ongoing events in Ferguson are shaping the consciousness of an American generation even as it divides members of that generation. But aggressive police racism against unarmed citizens in Ferguson, Staten Island and the rest of the nation is not just a domestic issue. It is also an international one.

For one there is the clear link between the United States’ global military power and the militarization of domestic police – an unfortunate inward turn of what Dwight Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex.” As the New York Times reported last month, war gear has flowed to small police departments at outlandish levels since 1996 as part of the War on Drugs. The military-police connection has inundated popular culture. On his HBO show, comedian John Oliver described Ferguson police as “dressed to invade Fallujah.” In the same breath a critique of American policy toward Iraq since 2003, Oliver is right to note that police militarization is more than just a simple transfer of violent technology. It is a domestic extension of what J. William Fulbright once labelled “the arrogance of power” – that is, the tendency of people, nations, or institutions with authority to equate power with virtue.

Activists have also placed Ferguson under a harsh comparative light. Another comedian, Kumail Nanjiani, summarized what many people were thinking when he wrote on Twitterthat those tuning in late might think “there are a lot of non-brown people in Gaza.” Nanjiani compares the plight of Ferguson residents to the recent Israeli strikes into Palestine, but he also points to something more subtle. Notions of solidarity among groups with different experiences can gain great intellectual and political capital in a market that favors information as much as military-industrial power. The addition of protestors from outside Ferguson, many of whom are white, has given the problem greater visibility. By contrast, Palestine stands alone despite the efforts of its supporters.

Other examples of the international politics of Ferguson abound. One is the statistical comparison of state-sanctioned violence. German police, for example, fired 85 bullets in 2012, of which over half were warning shots. In the nation of 80 million people, only six were killed. Perhaps the hard streets of Mainz and Freiburg cannot be compared to East St. Louis, the Bronx, or Southwest Atlanta, but there is at least some truth in these numbers. Many nations in Europe and Asia have pointed out that their police are not granted such expansive powers as US police and are subject to external review when mortal violence is inflicted upon citizens.

International pressure may be a useful tool to change domestic policy, especially for an image-obsessed White House enveloped in a 24-hour news cycle. Reporters from the international media – for many in the world this was al-Jazeera’s Ash-har Quraishi – became direct political actors when they were tear gassed. The two major powers that butt heads with the United States most constantly, of course, see the political advantage. The Chinese News Agency told the US to stop “pointing fingers at others” and the Russian foreign minister has cautioned the Obama administration against “imposing their dubious experience on other nations.” Palestinian and Egyptian protestors have written their support and included home remedies against tear gas. And members the Iranian parliament called on their foreign minister to condemn the rights abuses of American police, even as Human Rights Watch denounced Iran for its detention of political prisoners.

This international dimension is the crux of the unprecedented decision by Amnesty International to send an observation team to an American city. The claims by Barack Obama in his first presidential campaign that American democracy can serve as a global model are empty for many people. The deaths of Brown, Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin expose the unworkable romanticism of such “City on a Hill” assertions. The rhetorical acrobatics, shared by Republicans and Democrats alike, also remind us that the problems of endemic racism and the militarization of American society are also questions of how the world understands the United States, its political system, and its people.

Activists calling for change at home should know that there is a successful precedent to pressure from abroad. It will no doubt resonate with groups like Amnesty or Human Rights Watch, not to mention the New Black Panthers, whose forbearers kept international company from the start to the finish. In the 1950s and early 1960s, both the Kennedy and Eisenhower administrations began to support the Civil Rights movement largely because of Cold War demands. When the stunning photos of racist police, German shepherds, and water cannons circled the globe, the image of the United States took a beating from nationalists and communists in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Institutionalized racism in the US was also a constant topic in Soviet and Chinese propaganda, and a barrier to the objectives of Cold War policy. As Emory historian and legal scholar Mary Dudziak has argued, American presidents from Truman to Kennedy did not make landmark civil rights decisions because of the righteousness of the cause. Pressure from abroad, in the form of what could be called a politics of shame, pushed them to stand up to conservative elements in the South that sought to continue Jim Crow segregation.

The policies that came afterwards were only a step in the right direction. The geopolitics of the Cold War may have been more auspicious for the mainstream Civil Rights movement than today’s global framework is for Ferguson, but the world is still watching. The imagesof police pointing live ammo at unarmed American citizens reveal that the half-measures of the past are no longer enough. They never were.