What if Mike Brown was Shot in Kiev?

FinalIranPicSince the slaying of Missouri teenager Mike Brown at the hands of St. Louis police, scenes of police brutality have dominated the news. Peaceful protesters have been met with overwhelming force in the form of tear gas canisters, armored police vehicles, and militarized police officers toting military grade weaponry. Writing for The Intercept, investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald put it in ominous terms: “Americans are now so accustomed to seeing police officers decked in camouflage and Robocop-style costumes, riding in armored vehicles and carrying automatic weapons first introduced during the US occupation of Baghdad, that it has become normalized.” At times like this it’s critical to examine presidential statements, not for reasons of policy—rhetoric and policy rarely, if ever, align—but because they provide valuable insight into the prevailing ideologies of power systems. Responding to these scenes of police brutality, President Obama proclaimed “Now is the time for peace … Now is the time for healing.” The Washington Post characterized this statement as an attempt to “strike a balance to calm tensions in the St. Louis suburb.” This has become a trademark of the Obama administration. Whenever there’s a legitimate struggle for justice, instead of siding with the demonstrators, Obama produces morally vacuous statements urging “restraint” and “calm.”

The Arab Spring protests provide one of the more recent examples of this pattern. During this revolt the Obama administration lined up squarely behind Hosni Mubarak while feigning “concern” for the non-violent demonstrators. Hillary Clinton even said the Egyptian dictator was “like family.” Given the routine nature of this practice, any deviation should stand out. Three deviations come to mind: the ongoing protests in Ukraine, the February 2014 protests in Venezuela, and the June 2009 protests in Iran. Quite apart from the equivocation and ambiguity that permeates Obama’s statements in response to protests against US-backed power, the Obama administration has vigorously denounced state violence against demonstrators in so-called enemy states.  When Ukrainian security officials forcefully responded to demonstrators in Kiev Obama did not mince words. In addition to saying the Ukrainian government was “primarily responsible” for the violence in Kiev, he stated “we expect the Ukrainian government to show restraint, to not resort to violence in dealing with peaceful protesters,” adding that Washington would be monitoring the events in Kiev “very closely” and there would be “consequences if people step over the line.” In reference to the protesters he stated “ultimately our interest is to make sure the Ukrainian people can express their own desires and we believe a large majority of Ukrainians are interested in an integration with Europe and the commerce and cultural exchanges that are possible for them to expand opportunity and prosperity.”

So not only did Obama side with the protesters in Kiev, but more importantly, he addressed their alleged grievances as legitimate. Furthermore, the demonstrators in Kiev were incomparably more violent than the citizens of Ferguson, Missouri. Russia scholar Stephen Cohen acknowledged the violence of the Kiev demonstrators in a Democracy Now! interview and condemned Obama for inciting social unrest. When asked to respond to Obama’s statement that the Ukrainian government was tasked with “the primary responsibility to prevent the kind of terrible violence that we’ve seen, to withdraw riot police, to work with the opposition to restore security and human dignity, and move the country forward,” Cohen unleashed:

Shame. Shame. He is saying that the responsibility for restoring peace is on the Ukrainian government, and it should withdraw its security forces from the streets. But let me ask you, if in Washington people throwing Molotov cocktails are marching on Congress—and these people are headed for the Ukrainian Congress—if these people have barricaded entrance to the White House and are throwing rocks at the White House security guard, would President Obama withdraw his security forces? … This incites, these kinds of statement that Obama made. It rationalizes what the killers in the streets are doing. It gives them Western license, because he’s not saying to the people in the streets, “Stop this, stop shooting policemen, stop attacking government buildings, sit down and talk.”

Contrast Obama’s incitement of Ukrainian violence with his words to demonstrators in Ferguson: “There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting.” Under this warped worldview it’s perfectly fine for Ukrainian demonstrators to use violence in an attempt to overthrow an elected government, but any show of force, irrespective of evidence, on the part of American citizens in the face of an unambiguously racist police force merits presidential condemnation. Similar statements were made during the massive demonstrations in Venezuela. When citizens from an overwhelmingly wealthy sector of the country rose up against the government of Nicholas Maduro Obama was quick to denounce the response of Venezuelan security forces as “unacceptable violence.” To rub salt in Maduro’s wounds, Obama added that Maduro’s government should stop “trying to distract from its own failings by making up false accusations against diplomats from the United States.” Moreover, Maduro was refusing to address the “legitimate grievances” of Venezuelan demonstrators (again invoking a standard of legitimacy that he chooses not to apply to Ferguson demonstrators.)
aljazeeraWhile the reactions to the protests in Kiev and Caracas were instructive, they pale in comparison to the most dramatic illustration of this double standard, namely the Obama administration’s response to the June 2009 protests in Iran, commonly cited as marking the rise of the so-called Green Movement. Obama Condemns Iran’s Iron Fist Against Protests read the New York Times headline. Not only did the Obama administration trot out the predictable clichés regarding Iranian “repression” and authoritarianism, but he omitted the now uncontroversial fact that there is zero evidence to substantiate the claim that the 2009 elections were rigged. International relations scholars Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett dispelled this myth in their superb analysis of Iranian society Going to Tehran. Despite repeated claims within the US political class, opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi “never substantiated any of his myriad accusations of electoral misconduct, though virtually all of them, if true, should have been easily documentable.” Among the charges brought against the Ahmadinejad government by Mousavi was that his electoral observers were unfairly treated. When the Iranian Guardian Council found that 5,016 of Mousavi’s 40,676 observers “were not registered because his campaign had ‘failed to provide the required documents,'” Mousavi was not only unable to refute the findings, but his campaign could not “identify a single registered observer who had been excluded from a station or a single station where observers had been excluded.”
fergusonimageInconvenient facts of this kind, nevertheless, did not interfere with Obama’s mission to paint the incumbent government as a gang of crooks stealing an election. In comments that the New York Times characterized as “more forceful and less ambiguous,” President Obama made it known just how “appalled and outraged,” he was “by the threats, beatings and imprisonments of the past few days.” Additionally, he “praised what he called the courage and dignity of the demonstrators, especially the women who have been marching.” This sentiment was specifically directed at slain Iranian demonstrator Neda Soltani, recognized within US circles as a “martyr” for the movement. As the Leverett’s note, “barely seventy-two hours after her fatal shooting, the White House organized a press conference to give President Obama a platform to talk about her fate and, more broadly, to pivot toward a tougher rhetorical line regarding Iran.”

Contrarily, three days passed before the Obama administration issued a written statement on the murder of Mike Brown, a statement that didn’t even mention the fact that he was killed by the police. 48 hours after the publication of this written statement—a total of five entire days since Mike Brown was gunned down, approaching double the time it took him to rush, watery-eyed, to the podium to condemn Iranian violence—and he finally gave a public statement. Much like the written statement, Obama’s public statement made sure to surgically excise the decisive role of the police in the murder and the subsequent cover-up by withholding the suspected officer’s name. This effort to conceal uncontroversial facts was not lost on intrepid reporters like Kevin Gosztola, who astutely observed that “no specifics were given” in the speech and “his mention of Brown was surrounded by meaningless jargon.” As a result, Obama “could not even bring himself to acknowledge that Brown was shot and killed by police or that he was black and that the fact that he was black may have had something to do with why he was shot and killed …”

To the extent that Obama did criticize the actions of the police, they were confined to the way they “bullied” journalists, which, incidentally, is an awfully innocuous way to describe the indiscriminate launching of tear gas canisters at Al Jazeera reporters (place this alongside other state-terrorist colloquialisms like “we tortured some folks”). This is omitting the fact that President Obama condemning anyone for repressing journalists is the absolute peak of hypocrisy. Following Obama’s statement, the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review published a piece headlined Why Obama’s statement on reporters’ arrest in Ferguson is hypocritical. “Just minutes after the president finished his remarks, a coalition of journalism organizations at the National Press Club in Washington began a news conference condemning the Obama administration’s attempt to compel James Risen, a New York Times reporter, to identify a confidential source,” CJR reported. And Risen is by no means alone as a victim of the The Most Transparent Administration in History™. Doubtless, Obama’s statements in opposition to police “bullying” of journalists in Ferguson would resonate with Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye, who was “bullied” into a Yemeni prison by Washington’s Nobel Laureate after he had the gall to blow the whistle on one of his many drone strikes (acts of international terrorism) in southern Yemen. This particular strike killed 44 civilians (22 of which were children).

Overshadowing all of these unmentionable thoughts is an important question. Why such a double standard? The answer is obvious to any tenth-rate gangster, where this kind of behavior comes naturally. Official ideology requires that imperial leaders feign neutrality in the face of horrors for which they share responsibility. This facade of balance is strengthened through meaningless statements calling for “de-escalation” and “peaceful transitions.” Meanwhile, in the background, they’re supposed to enthusiastically cheerlead the violence by increasing diplomatic, ideological and material support for the aggressors. The recent Israeli massacres in Gaza provide a paradigmatic example of this doctrine at work. Conversely, when horrors unfold which cannot be traced back to Washington the same individual who before was urging “calm” and “de-escalation” miraculously transforms into a dedicated humanitarian whose conscience is repeatedly “shocked” and “outraged” by the oppression of others. On rare occasions, these real crimes can even elicit tears.

So as the militarized police force of St. Louis proceed in their macabre imitation of G.I. Joe, it’s worth asking what the reaction would be if Mike Brown was a citizen of Tehran, Caracas or Kiev. Would Obama be simply “heartbroken” by the “loss” of a “young man” or would he be “outraged” by the brutal murder of a “martyr” who had “legitimate grievances”? Would the violence be narrowly confined to the “bullying” of journalists or would he highlight where the overwhelming portion of the brutality is being directed, namely at the Black bodies of Ferguson County? What if Mike Brown was not Black? Suppose he was a white Ukrainian or a wealthy Venezuelan? Would that make a difference? What if Mike Brown was shot like a dog in the middle of Kiev?

Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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