Wondering If Radical Movements Work? Look to the Arab Spring.
I fled to the Middle East to escape racism, but now I see that our oppression is forever linked to those oppressed abroad. Here’s why.
As a Black woman born and raised in Brooklyn, the experience of having police regularly invade my neighborhood was part of the reason I decided to run away to the Middle East at 19. I not only wanted to escape the lurking, armed, and violent NYPD but also the hired security that followed me through every store in the city. In the Brooklyn of the ’80s and ’90s, being tracked and surveilled were experiences you simply had to live with if you were Black. Once overseas, I was surprised that the Arabs I met in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Syria, and Lebanon regarded their local and national armed forces with a similar resentment. Police abuse is familiar to people living under Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes: It has also long been a common reference point between Black and Arab scholars who advocate for global decolonization.
From the Palestinian solidarity of the Black Panthers’ Huey P. Newton to the post-Ferguson Black-Palestinian solidarity video “When I See Them I See Us” produced in 2015, activists such as Angela Davis, June Jordan, Cornel West, Noura Erakat, and others have framed the struggle for Black liberation in America as tied to an international anti-racist, anti-imperialist, and anti-carceral movement. The fight against police violence was one of the driving forces behind what has become known as the Arab Spring. Kicked off by a fruit vendor in Tunisia who was harassed and abused by the police, a wave of Arab protests demanding reform began with Tunisia’s 2010–2011 Jasmine Revolution and was followed by 2011 uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Syria. These popular movements toppled North African presidents who had ruled for decades and triggered the destabilization of Syria’s government through a civil war that has no end in sight. By contrast, there are no military incursions in Brooklyn, yet paramilitary tools and techniques have been increasingly deployed against U.S. civilians. For many, the violence unleashed on peaceful protesters domestically evokes parallels between America and repressive occupied territories, where protesters are routinely met with state-sanctioned violence.
The fight against police violence was one of the driving forces behind what has become known as the Arab Spring.
As Americans, we have allowed our military to perfect the art of murdering civilians abroad. We tolerate violent abuses by armed forces as long as the violence is directed at an unfamiliar “other.” A 1991 Human Rights Watch report on Iraqi civilian casualties during the first Gulf War states its objective as trying to “break the silence” around this subject. U.S. soldiers involved in the 2005 Haditha and the 2006 Mahmudiya massacres were punished but only after journalists at TIME magazine and military whistleblowers reported the events. The 2010 “kill squad” in Kandahar that shot unarmed Afghan civilians for fun also seem to have flown under the radar. The army contends that it did not know about these killings until afterward. Recalling comments about Black people in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and, more recently, about Black protesters following the murder of George Floyd, dog-whistle terms such as “thugs” paint Black Americans as dangerous interlopers. On May 29, 2020, the sitting president tweeted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Even if we accept that civilians may be harmed in active war zones, the ongoing assault and murder of unarmed Black people in America look more like conscious targeting than collateral damage.
As we saw with Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and the countless Black people brutalized by the war on drugs, we can easily be “othered” to the point of normalizing our surveillance, assault, and murder. Eighteen years after President George W. Bush assailed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein for being “willing to gas his own people,” some are stunned to see the U.S. repeatedly unleashing tear gas on its own civilians. I, for one, am not shocked. After endless U.S. incursions in the Middle East and countless reported abuses and targeted killings, most Americans know full well that our military is not only “defending democracy” abroad. They are also meting out collective punishment on populations who already live under corrupt and incompetent governments, most of which they did not elect.
As we saw with Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and the countless Black people brutalized by the war on drugs, we can easily be “othered” to the point of normalizing our surveillance, assault, and murder.
A recent video from protest marches in Atlanta shows members of the U.S. national guard doing the Macarena before enforcing a curfew. There are also photos of various police forces taking a knee in different cities before proceeding to attack protesters. Some do not see a pattern between American soldiers dancing in Iraq while occupying the country and law enforcement officers doing the same at home, but at least one international correspondent has suggested that U.S. law enforcement has, in 2020, resorted to using psychological operations (psyops) on U.S. citizens. In World War II and the Vietnam War, these tactics involved dropping leaflets, small gifts, or candy over enemy territory. But if methods have changed, the objectives have not: Psyops are designed to deceive and disarm enemy combatants. When treated as such by their own repressive governments, the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria revolted. In America, amid teargassing and rubber-bullet police assaults, we, too, may need an organized uprising.
Of course, there are many who decry the popular protests as radical and who discourage upending our current system. So did a range of Arab supporters of now-defunct regimes, particularly those who benefited from Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria’s secular ruling structures. I feel relieved that growing numbers of Americans are starting to rethink our relationship with the police — and with the carceral system it upholds. I am also glad that the world is finally recognizing the long-standing police brutality toward Black people through today’s indiscriminate offenses on American protesters. But protest and advocacy for Black lives in the United States should also recognize that the government surveillance and collective punishment we are experiencing is endemic to the oppression of poor and minoritized people worldwide.
Whether or not the Black Lives Matter protests end in revolution, we have more in common with the Arab world than we may think. As Black and White U.S. citizens demonstrate en masse for democracy at home, we might be witnessing the beginning of an “American Spring.”