Over recent days several disturbing facts about race relations in the US have emerged: a black man is 13 times more likely to be murdered than a white man; African Americans are shot at 2.5 times the rate that white men are; American police have shot dead 556 people this year, a disproportionate number of whom are African American or Native American.
The chain of events that brought these statistics to the fore began in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, last week when 37-year-old Alton Sterling was shot at close range by police officers whilst they restrained him outside a convenience store. It was captured in a graphic video and posted online. One day later, in Falcon Heights, Minneapolis, Diamond Reynolds and her boyfriend Philando Castile were pulled over for a broken tail light; he was shot four times in the arm and pronounced dead at the scene. Reynolds, whose four-year-old daughter was sitting on the back seat, live-streamed the attack.
These latest killings coincide with the two-year anniversary of the war on Gaza, which killed over 2,000 Palestinians – including some 500 children – and left thousands more in need of a home, food and psychological support. In 2014, four weeks into the war, American police shot, at close range, the teenager Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, then left his body in the street for four hours before it was taken away. At the mass protests that ensued, demonstrators raised signs in solidarity with the Palestinians; simultaneously, Palestinians posted advice on Twitter for protesters in America, including how to counter the effects of tear gas inhalation.
Back then parallels were drawn between the two communities. Both suffer state-sanctioned violence and discrimination, whilst those responsible for carrying it out are rarely held to account. There are other similarities – both have been subject to racial segregation, for example. Two years on since the killing of Darren Wilson and the Israeli bombardment on Gaza, the events of the last week have reminded us that neither community is better off in securing equal rights or justice.
In the West, when we hear of crimes carried out by security forces in the Middle East, our first reaction is to blame the leader. We are (quite rightly) happy to hold up Sisi, Assad and Netanyahu as responsible for the killing and torture that take place under their rule. When it comes to the US, however, the narrative changes – rarely is President Obama held so directly responsible for the actions of American law enforcement. Part of the reason is that we associate police brutality and state violence with something that only happens in “corrupt” Middle Eastern countries, rather than in the “free world” – when it take place in the US it is a one-off, when it is in the Middle East it is expected.
What began as shock and horror at the shooting of two black men was soon eclipsed by the story of Micah Johnson, the sniper who killed five police officers and injured eight others at the peaceful rally organised in memory of Sterling and Castile. In the UK at least, the news lead with coverage and analysis of the “extreme” behaviour and “terror” caused by the sniper and efforts were made to uncover which groups he had ties with and whether they were planning further attacks. Many news outlets described it as the deadliest attack on law enforcement since 9/11. As the story unfolded around Johnson’s life, it simultaneously relieved the pressure on Obama and the police force to confront the ongoing issue at the heart of last week’s events: institutional racism in the American police force.
Muslims in Britain will be familiar with such tactics since discriminatory laws, the stigmatisation of their communities and Islamophobic attacks are often heavily underreported, whilst terror attacks and extremist cells receive wall-to-wall coverage, feeding the narrative that all Muslims are terrorists.
The disproportionate media coverage offered to the sniper gives the impression that all protests attended by or organised by African Americans are violent – from here it’s not much of a jump to say that they in turn deserve a violent response. In reality, the thousands that protest peacefully for their rights get nowhere near the same kind of attention thanks to a media, and their consumers, who are only interested in stories that involve terror and clandestine groups who are proud of their commitment to violence. Demonstrations, including the rally last Thursday, are often organised by the Black Lives Matter movement in response to state-sanctioned violence and in favour of justice, transparency and accountability. But this hasn’t stopped these activists being smeared as violent hooligans.
Likewise, ask an observer about Palestinians and they will more readily recall rockets and suicide bombers, rather than the weekly peaceful protests in occupied West Bank village of Bil’in, or the boycott movement. Despite the existence of a solid, non-violent movement, this hasn’t stopped their opponents smearing their efforts in every way they can, including labelling them as anti-Semitic.
The people of Palestine, and other countries in the Middle East, are all too familiar with a media that oscillates between completely ignoring them, and demonising them. Small windows of attention, like that which followed the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and the 2014 War on Gaza, do help open a debate on crucial issues, but the debate never remains open or focused on the real issues for long enough. Like the people of Palestine, African Americans in the US will continue to be subject to discrimination and violence long after the cameras withdraw.