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Beneath the Skin of America’s Protest

Credit: Fibonacci Blue / flickr

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Just a few short weeks after Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was killed while jogging near his home in Georgia, George Floyd’s death in Minnesota has sent shockwaves through an already grieving nation (CBS, 2020).After a week of national protests erupting around the nation in opposition to racism, police brutality, and widespread unrest over the treatment of unarmed civilians persecuted for their skin color, socio-political issues once stashed into the shadows have been thrust into the limelight. There are three dimensions of American society that George Floyd’s killing and the large scale reaction to his death have exposed: deep social divisions, complex civil-military relations, and withering press freedoms.

1.0 Social Division

Above all, George Floyd’s death highlights the fact that the humanitarian demands of the Black Lives Matter movement—among them, equal treatment before the law, anti-racism measures, non-antagonistic civil-police relationship – remain unmet. Reactions to the systemic entrenchment of racial injustice in America, the melting pot, have boiled over internationally. In response to the undeniably racial characteristic of the homicide of Mr. George Floyd, BBC radio presenter, Clara Amfo, delivered a passionate speech about the severe social dislocation that comes with racial tension and violence. She eloquently expressed the dichotomy between “…how the world enjoys blackness and seeing what happened to George.” She expanded upon this concept beautifully:

“[W]e as black people get the feeling that people want our culture, but they do not want us.  In other words, you want my talent, but you don’t want me. There is a false idea that racism and, in this case, anti-blackness is just name-calling and physical violence when it is so much more insidious than that” (Clara Amfo, 2020).

She is right. In addition to the perennial violation of fundamental rights, police brutality harms civilian faith in institutions and fills the population with even greater distrust. Rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper-spraying crowds, and baton beatings only escalate unresolved issues and often incite opportunistic criminal activity that might not have existed otherwise. Bellevue, Washington’s Police Chief, Steve Mylett, has stated that he believes that “the looters were separate from the peaceful protesters who were demanding police accountability in the wake of George Floyd’s killing”(Kyro7, 2020). He indicated that such actors already linked to violence in the area may be exploiting the moment (Siemny, 2020). Unofficial reports about bribery stir suspicions that there are underhanded efforts to delegitimize the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Whether these postulations are rumor or reality, Trump seized the opportunity to label all protesters regardless of their respective positions toward pacifism of being “professional anarchists” (TIME, 2020). Growing uncertainty and distrust have driven the social fissures even deeper.

George Floyd’s tragic end revives painful memories of other high profile police fatalities such as Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Kendra James, Sean Bell, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sam Dubose, Philando Castile, Terence, Crutcher, Alton Sterling, Jamar Clark, Jeremy McDoyle, William Chapman II, Eric Harris, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland among many, many others. May they rest in peace. In a recent article about police brutality titled “Where Did Policing Go Wrong?” international journalist, Matt Taibbi notes that:

“…we have two systems of enforcement in America, a minimalist one for people with political clout, and an intrusive one for everyone else.In the same way our army in Vietnam got in trouble when it started searching for ways to quantify the success of its occupation, choosing sociopathic metrics like ‘body counts’ and ‘truck kills,’ modern big-city policing has been corrupted by its lust for summonses, stops, and arrests. It’s made monsters where none needed to exist” (Taibbi 2020).

Sowing further division is, indeed, a threat to national security. However, Trump’s threats to deploy the military throughout the country to crack down on the civil unrest may reap more distrust than stability, particularly given that law enforcement and National Guard personnel and resources are already deeply involved in the situation.

2.0 Complex U.S. Civil-Military Relations

Although the U.S. military relationship with the American citizens they aim to serves wings along steep peaks and valleys, the military as an institution has generally enjoyed a reasonably positive public opinion relative to many other countries around the world. The surveys measure trends relating to the people’s confidence that the military will act in the interests of the public. Within these statistics, there is often an underlying association between public approval or disapproval of military interventions abroad. Vietnam was perhaps the U.S. military’s nadir, the lowest point of the institution’s public opinion in history, but the most recent low valley in public surveys was recorded between 2003-2008 in response to the invasion of Iraq. At this time, confidence that the military was acting on behalf of public interest hovered around a low 20-30%(Pew Research Center, 2008). Opinion polls have been critiqued at times because the data is dependent upon how survey questions are phrased, however, large swings either in favor or in opposition can be genuinely revealing of deeper social trends. Recent data indicates that favorable perceptions and confidence toward the military as an institution have gradually improved over the last decade— interestingly as trust in the federal government has plummeted within that same time frame( Pew Research Center, 2019).  With that said, the same study also reported that 84% of Americans believe that confidence in the federal government can be improved, which shows a strong adherence to institutional frameworks and the power structures they organize.

The greatest concern about deploying the U.S. military against the civilians it serves is not that it gives excessive power to military leaders (as would be one of the greatest fears in many institutionally wobbly countries), but that it creates a dangerous precedent for future executive overtures. It should be noted that deploying the military against civilians does not change the overall structure of the military, which it is always answerable to civilian control (National Guard to a State Governor and Federal Forces to the President of the United States), but it could undermine the role of the Constitution and Congressional Authority if emergency clauses are abused. The Posse Comitatus Act expressly authorizes the use of the US Armed Forces to execute the law. Within the Posse Comitatus Act, The Insurrection Act, Chapter 13 of Title 10 (10 USC Sections 251-255) reads:

“This act allows the President to use U.S. military personnel at the request of a state legislature or governor to suppress insurrections. It also allows the president to use federal troops to enforce federal laws when rebellion against the authority of the U.S. makes it impracticable to enforce the laws of the U.S. by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings.” (USNC, 2019).

A number of situational dimensions are mentioned within the Posse Comitatus Act discussing the nature of high-risk situations involving counterdrug and counter-transnational organized crime, crimes involving nuclear materials, and emergency situations involving weapons of mass destruction. Although Congress is responsible for authorizing War, under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the Executive branch has conducted military operations (which are technically not wars, but look and smell a lot like them) all over the globe.

The most extreme manifestations of executive power abuse can be seen in the traditions of authoritarian leaders who cultivate paramilitaries, who are considered to be semi-militarized not because they lack any aspect of tactical training, but because they are neither integrated into the main branches of the armed forces (army, navy, marine corps, air force, coastguard, and space force) nor its auxiliary forces (such as the national guard). Paramilitaries or irregular militaries explicitly execute the objectives of the leader, and their crimes go unpunished because they act as a reinforcement of existing monopolies over executive power structures (federal administrations) rather than as a guarantor of international security.

Of course, there are an immense number of steps between an executive power involving the military to deescalate an isolated wave of civil unrest versus the habitual use of private militias to control the population, but the issue is not one to take lightly. For example, President Duterte from the Philippines makes frequent use of these techniques to enforce his agenda and there is little evidence that the dynamic will be reversed in the interest of the people any time soon. With regard to domestically deploying the U.S. military, even leading members of the military and Pentagon officials have expressed deep concerns: “‘There is an intense desire for local law enforcement to be in charge, ’one defense official said alluding to the laws that forbid the military from performing law enforcement roles inside the United States,” (CNN, 2020).

Paradoxically, the 1807 Insurrection Act was most famously invoked in 1957 to enforce desegregation initiatives particularly for the Little Rock Nine (nine African American students enrolled at a previously all-white high school in Arkansas for the first time).In spite of Federal Laws newly declaring integration, the governor of Arkansas resisted so much that he ordered the Arkansas National Guard to bar the nine students from entering on grounds that he was maintaining order. In response, President Eisenhower federalized the National Guard via executive order meaning that the National Guard now answered to the President of the United States rather than the governor of the State. Eisenhower then commanded the National Guard to escort the African American students into the school and ensure their safety. In this instance, a federal law was clearly being violated by a state, and therefore the grounds of national intervention to enforce compliance were quite clear.

Later, similar initiatives were applied to the Detroit Riot of 1967 as well as in the 1992 L.A. Riots also over racial tension. The complication with deploying the U.S. Military against civilians protesting the death of George Floyd is that it is unclear what specific federal legal institutions they are being deployed to protect. Protests are occurring in diverse pockets of the country and expressing themselves through equally diverse means ranging from passive to aggressive. Given that there are already mechanisms in place to manage general unrest, deploying the military not only harms the legal legitimacy of federal intervention, but it obfuscates the terms upon which it can be used (and abused) in the future. The following alarming because it sets the stage for future leaders to use unsubstantiated reasons to exert force:

“As we speak, I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults, and the wanton destruction of property” (Trump’s Rose Garden Live Broadcast, Monday 1 June 2020).

In this context, when Trump references ‘military personnel’ he is most likely only discussing Regular Army as opposed to the Army Reserve or Army National Guard. In an interview the day before, Army Maj. Gen. Thomas Carden, the Adjutant General of the Georgia National Guard spoke candidly about deploying Regular Army troops in addition to the National Guard component: “Of all the things I’ve been asked in do in the last 34 plus years in uniform, this is on the bottom of my list” (Starr, Browne and Gaouette, 2020). Using the military forces against civilians to restore order is widely viewed as sacrilege given that there are already other bodies intended to do so, such as domestic law enforcement officers, local authorities, and the National Guard.

Additionally, curfews initially imposed in response to the emergence of the novel Coronavirus, harshened in the wake of widespread protest and public assembly (New York Times, 2020). It is an open secret that these curfews are designed to curb the spread of political unrest more than the virus. Correspondingly, the self-proclaimed “President of law and order” has also antagonized governors wishing to use less aggressive means of crowd control:

“And you can’t do the deal where they get one week in jail… These are terrorists. These are terrorists. And they’re looking to do bad things to our country… You have to arrest people and you have to put them in jail for 10 years…And you’ll never see this stuff again” (Trump, 2020).

The majority of the protesters are students, minorities, Black Lives Matter advocates, and those who believe in human rights. President Trump’s abuse of the word terrorist is reminiscent of highly repressive regimes such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other countries with a history of inhibiting free speech such as Turkey (Voisich, 2020). In all of these contexts and others, terrorism is indeed a significant security issue, however, there are also circumstances when the word “terrorist” is invoked for the political purposes of shaping public opinion. Using such labels in conjunction with rhetoric to ‘dominate the streets’ and to create ‘an overwhelming presence until the violence has been quelled’ is a major red flag (Trump’s Rose Garden Live Broadcast, Monday 1 June 2020).

3.0 Press Freedom

The arrest of a journalist, Oscar Jimenez, by state police in Minnesota, who was covering the event on live television “drew global attention to how law enforcement authorities in the city were treating reporters covering protests that have descended into riots” (BBC, 2020). He is not the only correspondent who has suffered. One reporter, Adolfo Guzman-Lopez, was targeted by police from a distance and shot in the throat with a rubber bullet after conducting an interview. Other reports have emerged of journalists being blinded, injured, and arrested while covering the protests (USA Today, 2020). According to the US Press Freedom Tracker, in the days since, over 100 incidents of reporter attacks have come under investigation (US Press Freedom Tracker, 2020). Similarly, The Niemann Foundation for Journalism has documented over 110 incidents since the 28 May 2020. The issue of receding press freedoms presents a microcosm of the already strained relationship between the media and President Trump:

“At contentious White House COVID-19 press briefings on March 19 and 20, he again angrily attacked the news media, saying that ‘the press is very dishonest’ in its reporting on his handling of the crisis and that journalists ‘truly do hurt our country” (U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, 2020).

While the media is by no means perfect, the role of the press in society is that of a watchdog. Media outlets are the main source of information dissemination to the public about events they might not otherwise have known or content that certain actors have hushed. In many cases, the investigative nature of journalism draws uncomfortable truths from the shadows. For example, “after Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, was killed in 2014 by police in Ferguson, Mo., a Post investigation found that the FBI undercounted fatal police shootings by more than half” (Washington Post, 2020). Following the discovery that police departments were grossly under-reporting these incidents, a database independent of the government was created to accurately reflect and record incidents of police brutality (Fatal Force, 2020).

These same statistics indicated that there have been approximately 1,000 fatalities each year, and that, although the absolute quantity of white individuals who died at the hands of police last year is slightly higher, African Americans account for a mere 13% of the population. According to the Washington Post, this indicates that “the rate at which black Americans are killed by police is more than twice as highas the rate for white Americans” (Washington Post, 2020). The press was incredibly important in driving attention to this issue, and, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s passing, they have been on the frontlines documenting this formative moment in U.S. history. The fact that they have been so harangued can also be interpreted inversely: those in power believe that the media wields such a significant weight that they are threatened by their own inability to control all aspects of it. In contexts where free speech is held as a value by leaders and society alike, press freedom is respected, and information flows openly. However, in environments where this liberty is contested (or where it simply does not exist), high-quality journalism becomes the victim of its own success. Those who dig too deeply or expose too much, are silenced with increasing aggression.

4.0 Conclusion

Today, we are witnessing a level of upheaval throughout the country that, while not unprecedented, is reminiscent of some of the most volatile eras in U.S. history. However, one critical difference between what distinguishes then and now is that today’s turmoil is flagged by deeply disturbing warning signs. If there were a political canary in the coalmine of U.S. politics, it would have long been dead. Some of these red flags include the diluted use of the word “terrorist,” suppression of public assembly and press freedom, invoking the military at the expense of subsidiarity, calling governors ‘weak’ who are hesitant to use aggression against their citizens, and a number of other infractions that run counter to traditionally cherished democratic values.

The nationwide – and truly, worldwide –response to Mr. George Floyd’s killing has brought to light the true extent of disequilibrium in America today in terms of social division, civil-military relations, and press freedom. How these dimensions will affect the upcoming November elections is as uncertain as the present volatility. As American institutions are being tried and tested by the country’s current and prospective leaders, the stability of the current social contract becomes ever more dependent upon them:“Everything is impacted by the lack of trust – and the driver of the declining trust is the head of the federal government. Trust cannot be repaired without truth – which is in short supply” (Trust and Distrust in America, 2019). How tenuous is the stability of the nation if it can wobble from a $20 bill?

J.M. Jakus is an independent writer, researcher, and editor with a focus on Human Rights, Geopolitics, Global Political Economy (GPE), and International Relations. With a background in photojournalism, empirical research, and long-form academic publications, Jakus is currently pursuing a postgraduate degree from Boğaziçi Üniversitesi in İstanbul, Turkey with the program, International Relations: Europe, Turkey, and the Middle East. More about Jakus' writings can be found at www.jmjakus.live.

Americas

Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics

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The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

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Americas

Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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Americas

Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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