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Watching Ferguson, but still unseeing

Scaling back police militarization will not end the abuse of the state; the US has consistently mobilized the same tactics and attitudes towards undesirable communities domestically and abroad.

Flickr/Poster Boy. Some rights reserved. 

In October 2011 I sat in a crowded hotel conference room in Islamabad with over one hundred spectators. Lawyers, scholars, civil servants, politicians, journalists, and concerned citizens were gathered to hear from tribal elders and drone victims’ families who had traveled a considerable distance to share with us that day. They told us that hundreds of innocent Pakistanis, including many children, had been murdered in drone strikes. 

Understandably, the group was angry about years of illegal surveillance and targeting by CIA drones, and the increase in the killing of innocents under President Obama’s illicit drones program. They were also frustrated by their own government’s failure to protect them. After the conference, I participated in a peaceful anti-drones protest along with hundreds of Pakistani men, women, and children.

Over the past few weeks I have watched a similar display of civil disobedience unfold in Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown – an unarmed black teenage boy, who stood with hands raised as if to surrender – was gunned down in broad daylight by a police officer. Seeing the images from Ferguson, and the movement that is growing out of it, I have been reminded of my experiences meeting and demonstrating with Pakistani families who had lost loved ones as a result of the US’s flawed counter-terrorism policies. The similarities between Brown’s story, and the story of drone strike victim Hafiz Zaenullah – who was killed by a missile as he slept in his home – were too obvious to ignore.

Both were 18-years-old when they were killed.

Both were unarmed. 

Both had no criminal histories.

Both were students. 

Both had promising futures: Michael Brown was headed to college to study heating and cooling engineering and Hafiz Zaenullah was a security guard at a government girls’ school. 

Both are just one out of countless and similarly tragic stories in their respective communities.

Though the stories and community responses are similar, the conversations surrounding the issues raised by their deaths are worlds apart. With all the news segments and articles that have covered the happenings in Ferguson, what I’ve not seen is any discussion of the similarities between the treatment and condition of black Americans domestically and other marginalized persons internationally, most notably Muslims. Such discussions transcend geographical boundaries and ethnic identifications. But instead of highlighting the obvious comparisons between domestic law enforcement practices that have a disproportionate negative impact on black communities and US foreign policy that has a disproportionate negative impact on Muslim communities, mainstream American media has separated the debate about police brutality from the abuses in counter-terrorism. 

But as a black American lawyer, who has worked on civil rights, criminal justice, and international human rights, I know that injustice domestically against poor and minority communities reflects a wider problem of injustice internationally against marginalized persons. By continuing to compartmentalize these discussions we fail to look deeper into how and why these issues are connected. We also miss an opportunity to awaken a global response that brings with it the benefit of international pressure to right these wrongs. 

It’s about attitudes, not tactics 

In trying to make sense of a senseless death, even before the Ferguson police department revealed the identity of the officer who had shot Brown, a culprit was named: police militarization. After police responded to the protests that sprang up in the wake of Brown’s death with heavy artillery and armored vehicles patrolling the city streets, policing tactics in minority communities came under fire.

For decades, many American police forces have used tactics aimed at terrorizing black communities. They have sought to instill fear in an attempt to silence our suffering, iconic in images of dogs and fire hoses unleashed on peaceful protestors during the civil rights movement. I grew up in Los Angeles where LAPD helicopters, which we called ghetto birds, patrolled the night skies with bright lights that beamed down on our homes. The message was clear: we were viewed as a community of peop[le who were always up to no good. We required constant surveillance. This led not only to the ghettoization of our communities, but also led many to fear the police. I did–and to a certain extent still do.  

As black people, we were always deemed “suspicious” and constantly intimidated by police. At 16 years old, I recall being outside of a friend’s house one evening around dusk. As the two of us talked, like any other night, a ghetto bird hovered above. But this wasn’t like any other night.

All of a sudden, two police cars pulled up with sirens blazing and emergency lights flashing. Four officers jumped out and drew guns on us. Terrified, I burst into tears. My friend yelled at the police. He demanded that they leave. Three of the cops then tackled and searched him. Finding nothing, they still began to forcefully restrain him.

One officer approached me and asked me what we had been doing. It was obvious he suspected we were up to no good. Through my tears, I said we’d just been standing there talking. He didn’t believe me; he asked why I was crying if we’d done nothing wrong. I told him I was scared. He replied he didn’t understand why I’d be scared if in fact I was innocent. In that moment I realized that either he could not or he chose not to see my humanity.

Thankfully the situation ended with no one arrested or shot. We were informed that we could no longer stand outside and that we needed to go back in the house. The ordeal was over, but I was forever changed.

Dubious policing tactics will continue to evolve. Now, instead of helicopters, many police departments are equipped with drones. Instead of dogs and hoses, they have machine guns and grenade launchers. And though the same equipment is used for surveillance and targeting of Muslim populations, the conversations about policing of marginalized communities at home and abroad remain separate.   

Even if we legislate to de-militarize today’s police forces, new tactics that instill fear and quiet our voices will emerge. While I certainly agree that our communities should not be treated as war zones and our peaceful protests should not be met with gunfire and tear gas, the overwhelming attention on the militarization of domestic law enforcement deflects attention away from the real issue: the underlying attitude that made it possible for Officer Darren Wilson to view an unarmed teenage black boy as a danger and threat so profound it warranted deadly force. 

We live in a country, in a world, where the privileged class, through policies and practices, dehumanizes the marginalized. Poor and minority persons, especially the brown people of the world, are often looked down upon as subhuman, unworthy of the same rights, protections, and sympathies that are exclusively reserved for the majority. And the abuses against our communities are justified by placating to prejudices; stereotypical reasons are found to view us as suspicious and rationalize criminal conduct directed at us. 

It is this same attitude that grounds President Obama’s ‘shoot first and talk later’ foreign policy. A policy that has given the CIA, a civilian – not a military – agency, carte blanche both to remotely operate unmanned missile-carrying drones in countries where the US is not at war, and to target and kill “suspicious” persons with the click of a button.

Because of this I find it hard to understand why many black Americans have called on the president to do more about Ferguson. Obama is the Officer Darren Wilson of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. It would be hypocritical for him to take a strong stance against the actions of domestic police, when he has sanctioned the same conduct overseas. 

As a results-driven society, I know that we’d all like a quick fix to the pain that our communities are experiencing. But as long as we continue to ignore the underlying prejudices that make it possible for those with power to view the powerless as having less value and less worth than themselves, no legislation will stop the violence against marginalized people. And as long as we have a government that permits and perpetrates this same prejudice, the violence will continue to be unaccounted for. So if we legislate to change tactics and attitudes persist, innocent unarmed black men and boys will continue to die. Justice for Michael Brown and the others like him will remain elusive. 

Solidarity and resistance

Instead of seeking presidential intervention to handle the problems in Ferguson, we need global resistance against a system that teaches, encourages and rewards unjust treatment of marginalized people. In addition to working to secure our own rights and liberties at home, it would behoove the black American community to take a stronger stance against similar injustices committed by our government domestically and abroad.

As a lawyer who has represented clients from the inner city of DC to Guantanamo Bay, what the case of Michael Brown and others like it evokes for me is the fact that as black Americans existing within a historically racist system, we have more in common with marginalized Muslim populations that have been targeted by the so-called ‘war on terror’ than we might realize. We do ourselves a disservice by not seeking out opportunities for global unification on our common challenges. While some may think that our voices would be weakened or our own efforts diluted if expanded globally, I believe that such a move would not only add strength, but also credibility to our respective calls for justice.

We like to invoke Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, but if we believe this to be true, we cannot voice our outrage only when injustice hits our doorstep.

About the author

Tara Murray served as deputy legal director for London-based human rights charity Reprieve. In that role, she worked on extra-judicial killing and detention cases around the world. Prior to joining Reprieve, she was a Prettyman Fellow in Georgetown's Criminal Justice Clinic and represented indigent criminal defendants in felony and misdemeanor cases in Washington, DC.  


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