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What Ferguson and the Middle East Really Have in Common

Ferguson and the Middle East do have one striking commonality, but it has less to do with armored vehicles in the streets than with the way in which the media assigns culpability to black and brown bodies for the violence perpetrated against them.
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The Washington Post recently published an article comparing the police response to protesters in Ferguson, Mo. with the violent and repressive actions of governments in international conflicts, namely in the Middle East and North Africa. From the use of riot gear designed to make police officers look more like soldiers than law enforcers, to the arrest of journalists, the blind tear gassing of protesters including one state senator and the establishment of a no-fly zone over the region, Ferguson looks more like "Fergustan," to use Anupe Kaphle's term.

Ferguson and the Middle East do have one striking commonality, but it has less to do with armored vehicles in the streets than with the way in which the media assigns culpability to black and brown bodies for the violence perpetrated against them. The media's criminalization of victims, and their subsequent degradation and dehumanization, is what Ferguson and the Middle East really have in common.

By drawing a further comparison between Ferguson and the Middle East, my intention is not to blur the unique oppression faced by African Americans in this country, nor compare distinct systems of oppression as they operate. However, the solidarity between Palestinians and protestors in Ferguson is worth noting, and speaks to not only a shared experience of oppression, but also a shared understanding that the media tends to back the claims of the oppressors in each of these situations. This occurs when the media begins to report Ferguson Police Department claims as absolute facts or when anchors parrot the Israel government's rationale without criticism. When protestors in Ferguson hold up Palestinian flags or signs thanking Palestinians for their advice, they are acknowledging not only that both groups are working against their own respective systems of oppression, but also that the grievances of the oppressed receive far less air-time in the 24-hour news cycles than their oppressors' rationale for their violence.

When media outlets do acknowledge the commonalities between Ferguson and Palestine or Syria or Iraq, they choose to focus on images of military power being used against civilians. However, this drive to compare the events in Ferguson with repressive governments abroad is disingenuous to the long history of militarized policing in the United States, especially within minority areas. Though police officers of the Civil Rights era may have dressed in civilian clothes, the use of fire hoses to quell protesters in Birmingham represents the instinct to use asymmetrical force against a minority population in a thoroughly dehumanizing display, mirroring what we currently see in Ferguson.

It is absolutely valid to oppose the fact that the government funnels truckloads of surplus military equipment to police officers that have a far less stringent vetting process and generally work under less supervision than the soldiers that carry the same weapons. However, the focus on militarization in Ferguson and the comparisons to repressive regimes and governments abroad shifts the discourse away from the real problem of the racism that motivated the shooting of 18-year old Michael Brown, and towards what might (sadly) be a more broadly acceptable outrage.

Nearly everyone can agree that policemen rolling down a city street in an MRAP carrying machine guns is a terrifying scene, even if only 17 percent of whites compared to 70 percent of blacks believe that it is a "serious problem" that police "stop and question blacks far more often than whites" or that police "care more about crimes against whites than minorities." The fact that Michael Brown's name is omitted from many reports discussing Ferguson as the most recent and perhaps most prominent example of post-9/11 police militarization can be read as evidence that some writers are catering to white sensibilities and readers who fail to see the discrimination inherent in the US Criminal Justice system.

When Michael Brown's name does appear in reports, more often than not, he is criminalized. According to Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, criminalization occurs when the media consciously or unconsciously creates a justification for why people of color are killed. Commentators have criticized the media's use of a photo of Brown in a red jersey holding up what some viewers could interpret as a "gang sign," rather than his high school graduation photo. Others have made the valid point that black victims need not be college bound for their deaths to be tragic. But on August 15th, when police named Brown as a suspect in a robbery that occurred moments before his shooting, the media no longer needed to make a choice between photos to criminalize Brown. Rather than critique the grainy surveillance photos, immediately headlines claimed "Mike Brown Videotaped in Possible Store Robbery Ahead of Ferguson Shooting," a linguistic choice that may as well be an indictment.

The report that Brown was a suspect in the robbery is not even a "big-if-true" story. Michael Brown is dead and will never have the opportunity to defend himself in a court of law. Whether or not he stole a box of cigars would not merit his execution. Michael Brown shares the fate of Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin, all black teenagers who were put on trial after their deaths, their behavior, personalities, and mental states scrutinized endlessly to justify why their assailants found them suspicious and thus, acceptable targets.

This same criminalization of victims is what links coverage of the events in Ferguson to the Middle East. The most recent and highly apparent example of media degradation of victims is the ongoing crisis in Gaza where Netanyahu's dehumanizing description of Palestinian victims as "telegenically dead" garners far less criticism than the Hamas charter or that Gazans voted terrorists into office. There are endless segments of reporters touring so-called "Hamas terror tunnels," but little investigation into the claims by the doctors treating patients in Gaza that the injuries of victims indicate the use of banned weapons such as dense inert metal explosives (DIME).

The horrifying Wall Street Journal op-ed by Thane Rosenbaum claims civilian status is ambiguous in the context of Gaza, writing: "on some basic level, you forfeit your right to be called civilians when you freely elect members of a terrorist organization as statesmen, invite them to dinner with blood on their hands and allow them to set up shop in your living room as their base of operations." Though the Rosenbaum piece did receive a fair amount of criticism from mainstream sources, there does seem to be a level of dehumanization and victim blaming that the media is willing to endorse. As Deanna Othman writes, "Anchors on CNN and MSNBC tout Israel as raising the standards of moral warfare, praising it for giving families 58-second warnings before demolishing their homes, reducing these people to stereotypes, equating all with Hamas -- denying their humanity and legitimacy."

While protesters in Ferguson with "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" signs are told "Well, don't loot," Gazans are told if they stop hiding rockets in their homes, Israel will not target civilian structures. Both of these responses assign blame to members of an underprivileged group for the attacks waged against them by police and military forces, not on the basis of any evidence of culpability, but on the basis of a shared identity. When news networks play endless footage of looting in Ferguson or the convenience store surveillance tape on loop or radical statements from Hamas leaders paired with the last election results, they create this notion that the victims of violence truly deserve what happened to them. If we are going to compare Ferguson to Palestine, two situations where the systems of oppression are unique and deserving of their own study and understanding, let's focus on the ways in which the racism seeping through the media coverage of both events denies victims their humanity.