I WOKE up today to find my Dutch morning paper, the Volkskrant, dominated by a full-page spread on the results of the independent autopsy on Michael Brown, the shooting victim whose death has plunged the town of Ferguson, Missouri, into protests and riots. The situation in Ferguson also headlined today’s editions of Spain’s El Pais, Portugal’s Publico, Denmark’s Politiken, France’s Liberation, and Germany’s Der Tagespiegel, Die Tageszeitung and Die Welt. The racially charged protests over police brutality in Ferguson are an important story, but the level of attention they are drawing in Europe is frankly bizarre. Police killings of unarmed black men occur regularly in America, and Ferguson is a small, faraway midwestern town. Yet the protests there are drawing more focused attention in northern European media than the anti-austerity riots in Greece did during the euro crisis. When Paris saw anti-Semitic riots following pro-Gaza demonstrations on July 13th, it did not even make a sidebar item on the front page of the next day’s Die Welt.
Part of the attraction of the Ferguson story for Europeans may be a bit ofSchadenfreude enjoyment of America’s racial woes. Europeans got tremendous political mileage out of America’s racial conflicts in the 1960s, using American racism as a negative pole to rally support for counter-American projects both on the Gaullist right and on the socialist left. In recent years it has been Europe that has struggled with anti-immigrant racism and an integration model that seems to work much worse than America’s. Europeans weary of criticism over rising xenophobia may be relieved to see that America still has its own troubles.
In a similar fashion, countries such as China, Russia, Egypt and Iran are exploiting the Ferguson riots to try to blunt human-rights criticism of their own repressive activities. “Obviously, what the United States needs to do is to concentrate on solving its own problems rather than always pointing fingers at others,” huffed an editorial published byXinhua on Monday. “We would like to advise our American partners to pay more attention to restoring order in their own country, before imposing their dubious experience on others,”Russia’s foreign ministry declared Friday.
That said, there’s another reason why the events in Ferguson are so interesting to a European public, and for that matter to everyone else. The confrontation in Ferguson, as many observers have noticed, looks uncannily like the ones in Ukraine, Gaza and Iraq. There is clearly some kind of a global blowback going on, in which military techniques of forcible population control developed for use at the periphery of states’ areas of sovereignty are now being applied at the centre. Leonid Bershidsky, a brilliant Russian journalist and editor, laid out the similarities in a fascinating column yesterday in Bloomberg View. “Police officers around the world are becoming convinced they are fighting a war on something or other, whether that’s drugs, terrorism, anarchists or political subversion,” Mr Bershidsky writes. “This mindset contrasts with the public’s unchanged perception of what the police should be doing, which is to keep the streets safe, a conceptual clash that can lead to unexpected results.”
The difference between these two kinds of policing, Mr Bershidsky writes, can be modeled as the division between the London Metropolitan Police Force established in 1829, which conceived itself as fighting crime in concert with the populace, and the repressive colonial police forces the British Empire employed in “colonies of rule” such as Ireland and India, who conceived of themselves as keeping potentially hostile local populations in line. He cites the argument of Emma Bell, a faculty member at France’s Universite de Savoie, that the colonial policing culture is now “coming home”, as local police forces come to see themselves as hostile to the populations they police. And he recalls how militarised police provoked the conflict in Ukraine.
I am not entirely convinced that Mr Bershidsky is right that increasing the level of militarisation of the police response in Ferguson will have the opposite of its intended effect. Ferguson’s own police force may have been heavily militarised, but they were also untrained and incompetent. Better trained and more efficient militarised police have been highly successful at containing and shutting down popular protests in New York, Moscow, Cairo and so on. The depressing reality is that, as repressive as modern police tactics of population control may be, they seem to be very effective, and the boundaries for autonomous civic action are growing ever narrower. Indeed, even as Ferguson was featuring on the cover of today’s Volkskrant, the paper was also reporting on efforts by the mayor of The Hague to ban an anti-ISIS march by Dutch right-wingers in a largely Muslim neighbourhood, after an earlier march led to violent clashes. Europeans are right to be riveted by what’s happening in Ferguson. It is in the same genre as the stories of protest and control we see playing out all over the world.