Satire becomes reality: Ferguson, MO edition

Police handcuff a protester after rushing the crowd to arrest him on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Mo. early Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Curtis Compton)

The top UN human rights official, Navi Pillay, said that the current protests in Ferguson, Missouri remind her of her own experiences protesting apartheid in South Africa. She is the latest international official to weigh in on the human rights volations that have been taking place over the past week following the August 9 shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer. Witnesses say the 18 year-old was shot multiple times while standing with his hands up in the air. Demonstrations ensued in response to the racial targeting carried out by the town police.

“I condemn the excessive use of force by the police and call for the right of protest to be respected. The United States is a freedom-loving country and one thing they should cherish is people’s right to protest,” said Pillay to Reuters.

“Apart from that, let me say that coming from apartheid South Africa I have long experience of how racism and racial discrimination breeds conflict and violence. These scenes are familiar to me and privately I was thinking that there are many parts of the United States where apartheid is flourishing.”

In a recent column for Vox, Max Fisher satirized media coverage of the ongoing protests in Ferguson, Missouri. He took a page out of Slate’s Joshua Keating’s book and imagined what the story might look like if what was happening in Ferguson took place in another part of the world. He uses fake international condemnations and characterizes the events as a spill over of building tensions within the US.

The crisis began a week ago in Ferguson, a remote Missouri village that has been a hotbed of sectarian tension. State security forces shot and killed an unarmed man, which regional analysts say has angered the local population by surfacing deep-seated sectarian grievances. Regime security forces cracked down brutally on largely peaceful protests, worsening the crisis.

America has been roiled by political instability and protests in recent years, which analysts warn can create fertile ground for extremists.

The point is to both comment on deep divide between how events are reported when they take place here in the US verses when they take place elsewhere. Easier access for more reporters plus a better understanding of the context makes for a greater diversity of stories and nuance. Information about similar situations in Africa, take the 2007-8 post-election violence in Kenya, relies on a smaller set of foreign journalists, local reporters and international bodies like the UN and Human Rights Watch to gather and share what is happening. Such situations also involve statements from world leaders condemning what is happening.

As the events continue to unfold since last week’s tragic shooting, the satirical column written by Fisher is slowly becoming reality. “[The US] should take care of large-scale internal problems and take effective measures to resolve them,” said Russian foreign ministry’s commissioner for human rights, democracy and law, Konstantin Dolgov.

“This is a more constructive way corresponding the requirements and realities of the 21st century, interventions in the internal affairs of other countries and replacing disfavoured regimes on the false pretext of protecting democracy and human rights – a practice inherited from last century,” he continued.

Even Iran’s ruling cleric Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had something to say about Ferguson, via Twitter.

Yesterday, Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement about Ferguson. Spokesman Badr Abdelatty said the country is “closely following” the protests and urged “restraint and the right to peaceful assembly.” Abdelatty’s remarks echoed those of UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. His office said on Monday that the rights of the protesters in Ferguson should be protected.

“The Secretary-General calls on the authorities to ensure that the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression are protected,” said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric to reporters. “He calls on all to exercise restraint, for law enforcement officials to abide by U.S. and international standards in dealing with demonstrators.”

The United States quickly responded to Egypt by making a glancing shot at Egypt’s problematic human rights record.

“We here in the United States will put our record for confronting our problems transparently and honestly and openly up against any other countries in the world,” said deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf to the press.

Reuters pointed out that the statement by Egypt mirrors one issued by the White House in July 2013 when supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi were protesting. The administration “urged security forces to exercise maximum restraint and caution.”

At least 1,150 demonstrators were killed during the protests between July and August of 2013, by Egyptian Security Forces. A report released by Human Right Watch last week said that the events were “likely crimes against humanity.” More than 800 people were killed in a single day, security forces attacked a sit-in protest at Rab’a al-Adawiya.

In Rab’a Square, Egyptian security forces carried out one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, in a press release. “This wasn’t merely a case of excessive force or poor training. It was a violent crackdown planned at the highest levels of the Egyptian government. Many of the same officials are still in power in Egypt, and have a lot to answer for.”

Meanwhile, protests and general civilian unrest continues in the St Louis suburb of Ferguson. The US government is taking an increasing role, including performing its own autopsy on Brown’s body. The handling of the protests has sparked further outcry and media attention. As has police action against journalists, from intimidation to arrests, who are trying to cover the ongoing events.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.