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Cultural humility

On May 25, 2020, a white Minneapolis policeman planted his knee on the neck of a black detainee, as three colleagues watched. The detainee, George Floyd, repeatedly pleaded, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe” to no avail. Apparently realizing he was at the point of death, the 46-year-old man called out to his late mother, “Mama, mama.” Unfazed, the policeman kept his knee planted on Floyd’s neck for more than two additional minutes. By the time he lifted it, Floyd was dead.

This horrifying sequence would never have been known were it not captured by a 17-year-old woman who had her cellphone camera trained on the scene. With the recording, the whole world got to see one of the most surreal murders by a law enforcement officer in contemporary history. It was cause for global outrage. In Minneapolis, other U.S. cities, and around the world, thousands thronged the streets to protest police brutality and racism. As often happens during protests, some participants broke away from the crowd to vandalize property and loot stores. And that resulted in confrontations with the police.

About one week after Floyd’s death, the protests reached the front lawns of the White House, and an unnerved Secret Service quickly whisked President Donald Trump down to the security bunker. But apparently embarrassed at thus showing weakness, the image-conscious president re-emerged soon after.

Then he did two things that widely drew both criticism and derision. First, he ordered the forcible ejection of the protesters from the White House lawn. Then, flanked by top government officials—including America’s top military officer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—Trump strode across the lawn to a nearby church, retrieved a Bible, held it up, and posed for photos. Beyond the ostensible show of resolve, the photo-op was apparently intended to appeal especially to fundamentalists and evangelicals. Yet, it was widely decried as an anomaly in a secular society.

Outside the United States, the action that caught the greater attention was the forceful ejection of the peaceful protesters. The United States routinely chastises other governments for abusing their citizens’ human rights. Officially and unofficially, some of those countries seized the opportunity to turn the tables. Among them were Russia, China, Iran, and India.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government took the most ironic approach, wording its comments to mirror U.S. admonishments of other governments. Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, implored the United States to “start respecting peoples’ rights and observing democratic standards at home” (Associated Press, June 4,2020). To drive home the actual concern, she added that “it’s time for the U.S. to drop the mentor’s tone and look in the mirror.”

The Chinese too didn’t hold back. As reported by the BBC on June 5, the state media covered the U.S. protests extensively, playing up the isolated cases of use of force to contain protesters. The state news agency, Xinhua, referred to the protests as “Pelosi’s beautiful landscape.” Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, had in summer 2019 referred to the massive anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong as “a beautiful sight to behold.” The massive U.S. protests presented too good an opportunity for China’s retort. On social media, Chinese activists also proclaimed the United States “the double-standard nation.”

These sentiments are chorused by officials, the press, and commentators in places as politically disparate as India and Iran. India, which boasts of being the world’s largest democracy, has come under U.S. criticism for its treatment of Muslims. The George Floyd demonstrations provided an opportunity for a counter-accusation. Much as Russian and Chinese commentators, an Indian broadcast segment circulated on social media caustically accused the United States of blatant hypocrisy.

Not surprisingly, the most official and dramatic reaction came from the Islamic Republic of Iran. As reported by the BBC on June 8, an Iranian legislator asked his colleagues to stand and chant “to show respect for the movement of the oppressed in the U.S.” And for about 15 seconds, members of the parliament stood and chanted a familiar refrain, “Death to America.”

To be sure, except for polemical purposes, it would be a stretch to equate U.S. observance of human rights—even under the Trump administration—to that of Russia, China, Iran, and even India. In the first three countries in particular, dissent is barely tolerated. In Russia, opponents and critics of Putin are often imprisoned or killed. There is certainly no equivalent anywhere in contemporary history of China’s Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989. It was an incident in which the government—more accurately the Communist Party—deployed armored tanks and thousands of soldiers to put down massive prodemocracy protests by students, leaving an estimate of at least 10,000 people dead.1

In summer 2009, Iran comparably squashed massive protests against election results that the protesters deemed rigged in favor of conservative candidates. Much like China’s Communist Party, Iran’s theocratic leaders took a hardline. They didn’t resort to China’s wartheater style of operation, but they detained thousands and killed an estimate of more than 70 people.

In contrast, despite massive turnouts in virtually every major American city to protest George Floyd’s murder, hardly any protesters were killed by the direct action of law enforcement and few were detained. But then that is not to say that the worst couldn’t have happened. In articulating the government’s strategy for containing the protests. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said it was to “dominate the battle space.” It is a phrase that President Trump repeated a number of times, especially in urging state governors and city mayors to clamp down on protesters.

The most observable indication of the Trump administration’s seriousness was that he had the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff accompany him to the Bible-display photo-op. Beyond that, there were actual preparations to deploy the military.

What many Americans did not see was that behind the scenes, active-duty units from the 82nd Airborne Division and elsewhere— soldiers who are prepared to confront external enemies at a moment’s notice—had been deployed to staging areas on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., apparently part ofTrump’s plan to ‘dominate the battle space.’

So wrote Rachel E. Van Landingham and Geoffrey S. Corn, two U.S. law professors and retired military officers,2 in USA Today on June 10.

The troops never engaged protesters. However, federal agents were deployed a few weeks later against protesters in Portland and other cities—against the wishes of state and municipal leaders. Regarding Portland, National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition reported on July 19 that the “federal agents dressed in camouflage and tactical gear took to the streets unleashing tear gas, beating protesters bloody and pulling people into unmarked vans.”

The Trump administration’s rationale for the heavy-handed intervention was that the protesters were a threat to federal government property. That raises this question: What if those who protested in front of the White House on June 1 had breached the building and sought to eject the occupants? What level of force would have been used to stop them?

These questions are especially pertinent because the United States applauded when protesters did those things in Ukraine and Hong Kong. In February 2014, Ukrainian protesters besieged the office of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and forced him to sneak out to Russia. Then in July 2019, protesters in Hong Kong surrounded the parliamentary building for hours before breaking the glass wall and storming the building. As reported by the BBC on July 1, “Extensive damage was done to the building, with portraits of political leaders torn from the walls and furniture smashed.” The protesters also spray-painted emblems on the walls of the central legislative chambers.

In both cases, the U.S. government warned the respective governments not to use force against the protesters. But would the primed-for-action soldiers of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division have stood aside while such happened to the White House? Who knows?

In any case, with just months to go before the presidential election in November 2020, there was palpable fear that Trump might refuse to hand over if he lost re-election. The concern was that he would scuttle the election or dispute its outcome as a pretext. This widely speculated scenario created the sort of pre-election unease that is associated with the emerging democracies of Africa, Asia, and Latin and South America. Trump lost the election and did exactly as feared.

What this all demonstrates is that democracy is ever a fluid form of government and the practice of human rights is a continuum rather than a dichotomy. In fact, Trump’s entire tenure is a lesson in that regard. His authoritarian tendencies, his disdain for the institutions of democracy, and his disregard for decorum all point to the fragility of democracy even in a country that has practiced it for centuries.

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