The killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis was the latest tragedy illustrating a centuries-long history of racism in America, one so deeply ingrained that it endures despite the rights hard-won in the courts and Congress. Police brutality is, of course, just one of countless ways that African Americans and other people of color suffer from structural inequality and discrimination in America.
Faced with massive protests against this racism, President Donald Trump has responded like an autocrat. Trump has repeatedly encouraged violence against protesters and threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act to deploy troops on US soil. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff – America’s top military official – stood next to Trump as he talked about deploying troops, then walked the streets of DC in his combat fatigues to survey the scene like an occupying general. The US secretary of defense told governors to “dominate the battlespace” – the “battlespace” meaning the streets of American cities.
The breadth and depth of the structural problems at play can be seen in police forces’ responses to protests, which often range from heavy-handed to outright dangerous. Police are shooting people with paint pellets and rubber bullets, running into protesters with cars, and shooting teargas and flash-bang canisters into crowds. A helicopter in Washington DC flew low over a crowd to disperse it with noise and wind, a tactic used in war zones against insurgents. And the police violently dispersed a group of peaceful protesters in front of the White House to clear a path for Trump to walk to a church for a photo op.
If these events were taking place in any other country, a normal US government would express its outrage in statements and high-level phone calls and coordinate with allied countries and international organizations to pressure the offending government. From repression in the Soviet Union to the brutal suppression of protests in the Middle East during the Arab spring, the US has helped lead principled international responses to countries that violently oppress their citizens.
America is, justifiably, the focus of intense anger, frustration, and disappointment from people across the world
Today, in a truly sad state of affairs, dictatorships around the world – systems built on the repression of their own citizens – are able to give their propagandists a break from fabricating stories about America because they can just post pictures and videos of current events. While there is no legitimate comparison between these dictatorships and what is happening in America today, the US’s actions undercut its ability to stand up for what’s right abroad. In the same week that America is trying to pressure China over its repression in Hong Kong and commemorating the anniversary of China’s violent crackdown against citizens in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the American government is threatening violence against peaceful protesters at home.
America is, justifiably, the focus of intense anger, frustration and disappointment from people across the world. United Nations officials have spoken out about the murder of George Floyd. The pope called out racism in America. Australia launched an investigation into an incident in which a police officer attacked an Australian journalist covering the US protests. If the situation in America continues to escalate, one could easily imagine some of America’s closest democratic allies beginning to consider steps like offering protesters asylum, criticizing America’s state-sanctioned violence in international organizations, and even perhaps sanctioning US officials responsible.
But something more is happening abroad – something that speaks to the best of America as well. Protests from New Zealand to the Netherlands have shown an outpouring of support for Americans standing up against racism and police brutality. As flawed as they are, America’s democratic institutions are built to allow people to voice their opinions, vote out their elected leaders, take to the streets to protest peacefully, and improve policies. It is this capacity for change and improvement that has given inspiration to people across the world for decades.
Today, America’s protestors are its ambassadors to the world, reminding everyone of the ideals the country strives to embody. And even in these dark times, people around the world still believe in the vision of America that the protesters are struggling to build. Like the protesters at home, those taking to the streets around the world to speak out against racism in America – and to remember George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others – understand what makes America great far better than Donald Trump.