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- Photo: 2020

US Protests Unmask The ‘Torch-Bearer’ Of Human Rights

By Kalinga Seneviratne

SYDNEY (IDN) – “The United States (US) has always taken pride in calling itself the ‘Land of the Free’ and appointed itself to be the global cop to punish others who violate human rights. … It has poked its nose in the affairs of almost all countries, all the time presenting itself as the torch-bearer of human rights”, noted India’s WIONEWS TV.

In addition to the murder of African-American George Floyd by the police in broad daylight, police cars have been shown to ram into unarmed protestors.

Television camera people have been attacked by military police and some even been arrested while reporting live from protest scenes. When such footage is smuggled by activists in other countries – who are often funded by western agencies – the US would be in the forefront calling for sanctions against the regime.

As WIONEWS noted while showing images of police brutality in treating protestors and journalists, “this is the America of maximum restraint” echoing a term used by the US to lecture others when such protests take place and the police crackdown on demonstrators and the media.

“What happened in Minneapolis violates every American watchdog standard on identity-based discrimination. The crackdown on protestors breaches their standards on state-sponsored violence,” the Indian news channel pointed out. “Where are the self-righteous human rights reports now? Where are the resolutions? Where is the condemnation?” it asked.

Meanwhile, in the US, Black journalists are taking to the social media to complain that they are being asked by managers and editors to take down tweets, stop commenting publicly, or generally requested to be silent on issues related to the Black community, to avoid them seemingly being viewed as biased. But White journalists are not required to do the same. Thus, the American media itself is confronted with the question of whether bringing different experiences and perspectives to reporting, is the hallmark of a ‘free media’.

What we see right now is the unravelling of the Libertarian Media Function Theory which is known as the ‘Western Free Media Theory’ which prescribes that the media has to be privately owned and should also disseminate a wide range of perspectives and let the audience decide what is wrong or right. This principle is taught in journalism training programs around the world, usually through American textbooks.

“The voices calling for an end to police violence need to be heard. And the voices calling for an end to the endemic and structural racism that blights US society need to be heard,” United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, a former Chilean human rights activist said in a statement.

She voiced particular alarm at reports that at least 200 journalists had been attacked or arrested while covering the protests, despite having press credentials visible. “What has been happening is an unprecedented assault on journalists,” she said, pointing out “it is all the more shocking given that freedom of expression and the media are fundamental principles in the US, central to the country’s identity.”

The US Press Freedom Tracker (USPFT), managed by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, reported on June 2 that since the protests against Floyd murder started on May 28, they had received over 190 violations of press freedom – claims that can range from physical assault, arrest, damage or seizure of equipment. “It’s a scale that we have not seen before,” Kirstin McCudden, managing editor of USPFT told TIME magazine, adding, “it’s unprecedented in scope without a doubt.”

Military police used excessive force using tear gas, rubber bullets and baton charges to clear a park for President Donald Trump to walk to a church adjacent to the White House for the infamous photo opportunity holding a Bible on June 1. In doing so, they viciously attacked an Australian journalist and his cameraman that even created a diplomatic row with the close US ally.  

Rafael Noboa Rivera, an Iraqi veteran, writing in the American alternative news site ‘Daily Beast’ described the treatment of  Americans, and Black Americans in particular by the police as if they were under occupation. The cops growling voices “get inside now” has reminded him of the horrors of his Iraqi experience with the US military.

“The scared people on their porch put me in mind of what Iraqi, and surely Afghan, civilians must have felt every single time we kicked down the door searching for a high – or even low – value target” he recalled.

“It’s extremely dangerous for American citizens to feel that they’re under occupation,” he argues. “There’s a lot at the heart of policing. We’ve forgotten what it means to protect, to de-escalate a situation, to preserve the peace as opposed to inflicting violence”. He is critical of mainstream media’s focus based on statements by such people as the Commissioner of New York Police Department that his main concern is about the safety of his officers that are trying to preserve law and order.

“You are talking about a crisis of democratic legitimacy, that is profoundly corrosive. I think that’s really at the heart of much of what’s happening here,” argues Rivera, who is Black. “We’ve got way more than 100,000 dead in this pandemic and probably way more than 40 million unemployed. The American people don’t feel like their government institutions are at all responsive to their most basic needs and desires.”

Ironically, the police were attacking news crews just a stone’s throw away from the White House, where President Trump was addressing the nation claiming that America has been gripped by professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, and rioters. “I am your president of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters”, he added. But, while he was speaking, it was such peaceful protesters and media personnel that his military police were dispersing with such brutal force.

The timing of the protests – that is also spreading to Europe and Australia – is impressive, taking into account what Rivera describes as the legitimacy of democracy to address peoples’ basic needs and desires. The young Whites and marginalized people coming to the streets risking their health, undoubtedly are severely affected by the Covid-19 crisis.

In his address from the Rose Garden, President Trump expressly referred to a group called Antifa describing them as “leading instigators of this violence”. He called them a terrorist group and wowed to crack down on them.

New York Times describes Antifa as a group that “generally seek to stop what they see as fascist, racist and far-right groups from having a platform to promote their views, arguing that public demonstration of those ideas leads to the targeting of marginalized people, including racial minorities”.

American alternative news website AlterNet describes Antifa as “an ethic rather than an actual group”, and it pointed out that even if it were a group, there is no domestic terrorism statute for designating a non-foreign entity as a banned terrorist organization. Thus, what President Trump is attacking is an ideology describing it as terrorism.

Antifa had originated from the punk scene about two decades ago. While they do take part in street violence against far-right groups, AlterNet says they have a diverse range of activism from journalism and writing protest songs to infiltrate neo-Nazi groups.

“They make headlines when they confront white supremacists in the street, but few hear about their quieter activities, including research, monitoring, and surveillance of far-right extremist groups, community organizing, and advocating for historically marginalized populations”, says behavioural scientist Caroline Orr of social media group Digital Arc.

It is easy for the corporate mainstream media to describe the massive protests as an anti-racism uprising, that may help to project these as evidence of how race relations have been successful in the West because Whites are also supporting the “Black” cause. But, Antifa and many other groups involved in the worldwide protests are fighting a much bigger battle to which Rivera referred.

 “I want the organizers of this terror to be on notice that you will face severe criminal penalties and lengthy sentences in jail”, Trump said in referring to Antifa and anarchist groups. The corporate mainstream media will undoubtedly give him the platform to ‘manufacture consent’ for the President to crack down on such groups – as the President put it: “to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans”.

The question that may take some time to unravel is who is protecting “law-abiding” citizens around the globe. Social media is undoubtedly going to play a significant role in explaining this truth.

“The paradox here is that when anti-fascists are most successful, few people hear about it, because they stopped something bad before it happened,” argues Orr. “This has led to skewed public perceptions, with many people viewing anti-fascists as little more than street fighters who show up to protests on the weekend”.

* Kalinga Seneviratne is a journalist and media analyst. He is the author of ‘Myth of Free Media and Fake News in the Post-Truth Era’ published by SAGE. [IDN-InDepthNews – 12 June 2020]

Photo: Protests in New York on killing of George Floyd. Credit: Anadolu Agency of Turkey.

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