KARACHI, Pakistan ― Even thousands of miles away, protests in the U.S. against racism and police brutality ― and the harsh crackdowns and devastation surrounding them ― are front-page news.
Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper devoted one-third of its Monday front page to a story about the demonstrations, saying five nights of clashes between police and protesters left “streets scarred [and] outrage simmering.” Italy’s La Stampa featured a large photograph of three officers arresting a young activist. And half of the Toronto Star’s June 1 front page highlighted the situation stateside under an all-caps headline: “FROM CRISIS TO CHAOS.”
Since George Floyd, a Black man, died in Minnesota after a white police officer knelt on his neck, journalists worldwide have felt a responsibility to highlight the disturbing incident and its aftermath. So have public officials. On Friday, the African Union condemned “continuing discriminatory practices against Black citizens of the United States of America.”
Floyd’s death and the public anger it provoked are a fresh reminder that the world’s richest and most influential country is not the ideal its representatives often proclaim it to be. Racism still defines many U.S. institutions, even after the world watched Americans fight for civil rights and elect their first Black president. The brutal use of U.S. power familiar to many outside the country is often deployed within its borders, too.
Many activists abroad expressed outrage and boosted calls for change. Some tied the protests in the U.S. to their own struggles with historic prejudice and repressive governments. The news also presented an opportunity for more cynical voices, including critics of the U.S., to say Washington has no authority to talk about human rights internationally. If the world’s leading democracy won’t stand true to its values, they argue, it proves there is no point in such lofty goals anyway.
Floyd’s death and the public anger it provoked are a fresh reminder that the world’s richest and most influential country is not the ideal its representatives often proclaim it to be.
Whatever their conclusions, hundreds of millions of people are watching what’s going on in the U.S. with alarm and disgust.
“These are far from new issues in America… apparently Black lives continue not to matter,” Diane Abbott, Britain’s first Black female member of Parliament and a top figure in the country’s opposition Labour Party, wrote in a HuffPost UK piece on Saturday.
“Many Canadians of diverse backgrounds are watching, like all Canadians are, the news out of the United States with shock and with horror,” Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, said on Friday.
Observers outside the U.S. are also expressing fear as American police departments respond to demonstrators with aggressive tactics that would be unimaginable in similar wealthy democracies, often deploying military equipment that makes disproportionate violence more likely. They have watched as public anger allows for opportunistic acts like looting and serious damage in places familiar around the world thanks to popular American films, television and other media, like New York City or Washington, D.C.
The U.S. is presenting “scenes out of a civil war,” according to the German tabloid Bild.
The situation offers foreigners a darker way to think about the well-known idea of American exceptionalism, that the U.S. is a special force in the world, usually one representing freedom, openness and ingenuity.
Floyd’s mistreatment highlighted one disturbing difference between his nation and others, Agnès Callamard, a United Nations human rights official, noted on Twitter.
“Police Use of force should be guided by the principles of legality, necessity, proportion, precaution and non-discrimination,” she wrote. “These are fundamental principles of international human rights law that should bind all states. But they are not the norms in the USA.”
Law enforcement officers have made that point especially clear to international audiences by targeting crews of foreign journalists.
Minneapolis police shot projectiles at reporter Stefan Simons and cameraman Max Foerg, who work for the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, when they followed officers who had encircled another camera crew. Officers in the city have also shot at Norwegian and Swedish journalists. Thomas Nilsson, a photographer for the Oslo-based newspaper Verdens Gang, told his outlet it was obvious he was part of the press because of his cameras and badge.
Although President Donald Trump claims that unless state governments get tougher, other nations will believe America is “a push over,” some U.S. officials clearly see an urgent need to shore up their country’s reputation by speaking out against Floyd’s killing.
U.S. diplomats in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Congo have promoted messages about government efforts to seek accountability for Floyd’s death in recent days. On Monday, the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, Brian Nichols, met with the Zimbabwean foreign minister and issued a statement that acknowledged U.S. missteps but emphasized that those do not excuse abuses by other governments.
“As an African American, for as long as I can remember I have known that my rights and my body were not fully my own. I have also always known that America, conceived in liberty, has always aspired to be better ― a shining city on a hill ― and that is why I have dedicated my life to her service,” Nichols wrote. The officer who pinned Floyd down has been indicted, and U.S. officials are carrying out investigations, he added ― which he said should also happen for the critics of the Zimbabwean government who have gone missing for years.
“Americans will continue to speak out for justice whether at home or abroad, Nichols wrote. “We can meet the ideals of our founding, we will change this world for the better.”
One way Americans could contribute more to global progress is by appreciating that a host of different communities face similar barriers to equality ― and that they can help dismantle those hurdles not just within the U.S. or when it’s convenient for U.S. interests.
Activists from the Kurdish community, a millions-strong ethnic group that has been persecuted in a host of countries, said Floyd’s death shows that solidarity is the only path forward, according to a statement from the Kurdistan Women’s Communities, a group associated with the Syrian Kurdish fighters who helped the U.S. fight Islamic State militants.
The U.S. has had a fickle, decadeslong relationship with the Kurds, helping multiple allied governments crack down on them but often relying on them in its bids for influence in the Middle East.
“Not a day passes when Kurdish people are not attacked and murdered for simply being Kurdish. Everywhere, particular communities are declared as enemies and attacked,” the statement reads. “We must not dismiss these kinds of atrocities as individual acts. We have to look at them in the overall context of social conditions. Nationalism and racism must be challenged.”