Media Wars: #Ferguson, American Hypocrisy and a Hint of Spring

This was originally posted on my professional blog.

America has experienced an ugly spotlight reversal with the eruption of popular discontent into violence in its own backyard. Just a few weeks ago, international media was buzzing with reports of ISIS steamrolling the Iraqi military and Russian-supported separatists in Ukraine shooting down passenger airlines. Now, the US squirms uncomfortably under international scrutiny of Ferguson, Missouri, where the shooting of a young black man by a white police officer has once again raised the specter of racism and police brutality.

Obviously, the incident itself is complicated. Eyewitnesses – who have given conflicting testimonies – are the only window into what happened, since there was no dashboard camera. The initial description of Michael Brown, the victim of the shooting, as a “gentle giant” about to start college clashed with video footage of him stealing a box of cigarillos from a convenience store. Commentators have drawn parallels with the case of Trayvon Martin, whose mother has now reached out to Brown’s mother. Peaceful protests have given way to violence and looting, reporters have been arrested, and witnesses have complained of excessive use of force by the police.

Social media, which played a major role in bringing media attention to Ferguson in the first place, has played host to the battleground of ideological responses to the incident. The primary complaint from conservatives is that the uprising in Ferguson, and the underlying racial tensions it has exposed, don’t deserve our consideration because some of the protesters have been looting and vandalizing stores…

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…including a few gems that actually blame the community for the excessive force used against it.

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Meanwhile, people used the Twitter hastag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown to spar over which photos of Brown were used by traditional media (wearing a cap and gown vs. striking a “thug” pose) and post their own side-by-side pictures. Still others are expressing frustration at the fact that the vandalism and looting has been used as a straw man to distract from ongoing widespread racial profiling and policy brutality against blacks, including one refreshingly blunt protester at a rally in DC:

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What has been the most interesting to me is the global shock and horror at the incident and resulting fallout. The international community sees what many Americans are apparently missing: that the protests and unrest in Ferguson are the manifestation of a minority group sick of being oppressed and ignored. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights drew parallels to South African apartheid, while several countries have been using the situation to take shots at America’s own human rights record when we so often criticize other countries. One might expect Iran and Russia troll the US over civil unrest, but as one friend of mine pointed out on Facebook, “When Egypt calls you out for human rights abuses, YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG.”

American police brutality, and the unwillingness of many police departments to be held accountable for their actions, have also been focal points. What happened to Michael Brown will unfortunately always be shrouded in mystery, since the Ferguson police department apparently prioritizes riot gear and tear gas over cameras for officers or police cruisers. They also seemed to have forgotten the meaning of “free press,” as they arrested and harassed several reporters who were trying to cover the protests. Interestingly, Obama was quick to condemn the bullying of journalists “here in the United States of America,” despite his own administration’s secrecy and aggression toward the press, including prosecuting a journalist who refused to identify the source of an intelligence leak.

Indeed, many observers have been quick to point out America’s hypocrisy at fingering human rights abuses outside our own borders when we have threads of discontent, similar to those found in the Arab Spring and other global protest movements, woven throughout our own society. A lovely little piece of satire from Vox portrays how American media might describe the events in Ferguson if they happened in another country.

When everything is said and done, America doesn’t look so much like a shining beacon of democracy and human rights – we just kinda look like everybody else.

“Two handcuffs” and no respite for garment workers

This was cross-posted to my own professional blog.

International outrage was sparked last with news of a massive factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the aid blogosphere spent months breaking down the

Photo credit: AP
Photo credit: AP

disaster and examining the fallout from it. Now, it seems that (though perhaps less of) our attention has been drawn again to the plight of garment workers – this time in Cambodia, where a large-scale protest was recently put down by force by the prime minister’s “private military.”

Why exactly the prime minister has a “private military” is a whole other issue that should be raising alarm, but perhaps beyond the scope of this particular discussion.

On Christmas Eve, a group of garment workers took to the streets of Phnom Penh to protest the Labour Ministry’s raise of the country’s minimum wage by a paltry fifteen cents.

In the days leading up to the protest, the Labour Ministry had approved an increase in the minimum wage for garment workers, from 80 to 95 dollars a month. But trade unions and workers protested, saying it was not enough to live on, and demanded a monthly minimum wage of 160 dollars.

Chrek Sophea, interim coordinator of the Workers’ Information Centre (WIC), which helps factory workers organise, told IPS workers cannot survive on the government’s proposed wage, and that it is in violation of Cambodia’s labour laws.

According to a 1997 law, “The minimum wage must ensure every worker of a decent standard of living compatible with human dignity.”

The military stepped in the night of Jan. 2, brutally beating and arresting labour leaders and protesting monks. Pictures of the bloodied trade unionists were widely shared on social media, which seems to be the point when the protests veered out of control.

By the early hours of Friday Jan. 3, young men allegedly armed with Molotov cocktails and machetes had replaced the women protesters. Hun Sen’s private military stormed the scene with live ammunition, shooting over 30 people, killing five and seriously injuring the rest.

Activists interviewed for the above-quoted article argue that the country’s current minimum way isn’t enough to scrape by an even sub-standard living without going into debt. “‘The minimum is for eight hours, so most work 10 hours to get a higher income to have just enough to sleep in a shared room. Most workers are in debt, borrowing about 50 dollars each month, and can only pay 10 dollars interest on the loan each month.’ Workers struggle to send money home to their families in the countryside.” Adding insult to injury is the fact that most laborers have to sign short-term contracts, which allows their employers to replace them easily if they get sick or have to take time off for the birth of a child. The result is “two handcuffs” – a low wage and no job security.

International media coverage is peppered with stories and commentary about the protest and its violent suppression, but the ongoing problems in Bangladesh’s garment industry are a handy reminder of how quickly we forget (no pun intended) our outrage. Even after Walmart cut off its business dealings with the guilty company and Congress tried (and failed) to do something about it, practically no is paying attention to the fact that garment factories catch fire every week. South Korea’s subtle encouragement of the crackdown in Cambodia is also a painful reminder that too often corporate interests – rather than a decent wage and safe working conditions – too often dictate our approach to the workers who stitch the clothes on our backs.

The Identity of a Protest

Most people are pretty surprised when they discover that I am Brazilian. You can look at my headshot on the “Bloggers” page if you want some idea as to why. Interestingly, most Americans and Europeans that I have met have accepted it with relatively little hesitation: when I explain that my mother is Brazilian, and that I am fluent in Portuguese and have a Brazilian passport, they nod in interest, and the conversation moves forward easily. With most Brazilians, however, the conversation goes quite differently; if you weren’t born in Brazil, there is a fair amount of skepticism in response to my claimed dual heritage. To a certain extent, I understand the reservation. But how do you classify a person with dual citizenship, fluent in both languages, who was born in one country but primarily raised by a mother from the other?

Such thoughts quickly bubbled to the surface as I was monitoring coverage of the protests in Brazil. What started as unrest over the botched construction of various World Cup stadiums and a nine-cent price hike of bus fares in São Paulo has erupted into a series of nationwide demonstrations so massive that they have turned the world’s collective head. The unrest caught the government by surprise (or, perhaps more accurately, with its pants down), and cancelling the fare hike and promising reform has done nothing to calm the national mood. A speech given by President Dilma Roussef last Friday has been dismissed by most as rhetoric.

The wave of protests began as opposition to transportation fare hikes, then became a laundry list of causes including anger at high taxes, poor services and high World Cup spending, before coalescing around the issue of rampant government corruption. They have become the largest public demonstrations that Latin America’s biggest nation has seen in two decades.

Brazil’s news media, which had blasted Rousseff in recent days for her lack of response to the protests, seemed largely unimpressed with her careful speech but noted the difficult situation facing a government trying to understand a mass movement with no central leaders and a flood of demands. …At the protests’ height an estimated million anti-government demonstrators took to the streets nationwide on Thursday night with grievances ranging from public services to the billions of dollars spent preparing for international sports events.

The fact that the protests seem to focus on government corruption came as no surprise to me. Corruption and government ineptitude is widely acknowledged and accepted among Brazilians to the point where it is almost a perpetual joke. They laugh at the poverty, the horrible traffic, and the virtual guarantee that pretty much everyone gets held up at gunpoint at least once in their life. My mother, who immigrated to America before the end of the military dictatorship, has never felt compelled to obtain U.S. citizenship to vote because, in her view, “all politicians are crooks.” My Facebook feed is peppered with memes disparaging government fraud and graft and decrying the state of the education system (several of my aunts and cousins are teachers). One night on Skype, my uncle made my mother and I laugh until we cried with the story of the multi-million dollar port that was built in a harbor too shallow for the ships it was designed to receive.

The last time I visited my family in Recife, we gathered around the computer so my cousins could show me the video montage made out of an interview with a woman who has become known on YouTube as “The Stutterer of Ilheus.” While I freely admit that it is tasteless to laugh at someone with a speech impediment, she became a minor social media sensation in equal part because of how vehemently she spoke out against the sorry state that her town was in due to neglect from local officials. Despite her stutter, she eagerly gave several interviews after her initial one.

The questions that remain for Brazil are much like the ones that followed Occupy Wall Street, or the Arab Spring. How long will they last? Some say they might persist, but similar predictions were made about the Wall Street Protests. What really triggered them? As political scientist Takoma Park at Dart-Throwing Chimp points out, it could be anything or everything:

We can’t learn a whole lot about the causes of mass protest by simply cataloging the conditions and things participants tell us about their motivations in cases where they occur. That information is useful, but not so much on its own.

To make real headway on causal analysis, we have to engage in contrasts. To learn about the origins of mass protest, for example, we need to compare cases where uprisings occur with ones where they don’t. Yes, income inequality is high in Brazil, but the same can be said for many of its regional neighbors. If inequality foments uprisings, why aren’t we seeing waves of mass protest in Honduras or Bolivia or Colombia or Paraguay? Meanwhile, inequality was comparatively low in many countries touched by the “Arab awakening.” According to World Bank data, income inequality is lower in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria than in virtually every country in Latin America.

My mother told me this morning that there was a big protest in Houston held by Brazilian expats who wanted to stand in solidarity with the demonstrations in the country. It made me wonder: what gives someone a stake in these types of demonstrations. Is this, like the media analysts are claiming, a worldwide middle-class uprising? Do Brazilians living abroad truly understand what their countrymen are crying out against back home? What about those of us with citizenship and (some) culture, but no experience living there? Should I protest, or even blog about it?

There are a lot of analysts drawing parallels between Brazil and Turkey, and now it would seem that they have inspired similar demonstrations in Bulgaria. But when it comes down to it, I think each country’s movement – much like every individual’s sense of identity – belongs to, and must be defined, by them. As long as the voices are heard, maybe the demands are secondary.

My cousin Penelope sent e-mails to the family with two videos about the Brazilian protests. The first one is a short film about one of the marches held in Recife, my family’s hometown.

The second is an interview with a man commenting on vandalism and violence in some of the demonstrations. It’s in Portuguese, but the main point he makes in the video is that while he doesn’t advocate violent protests, he doesn’t think the government has any right to decry demonstrators for it. He says vandalism is when “politicians steal public money, when my son dies in a hospital because there are no doctors or medicines because of the rampant corruption.”

Global Health News Last Week

May 18 was HIV Vaccine Awareness Day.

POLITICS AND POLICY

  • Hundreds of Kenyan AIDS activists held a protest on 18 May in the capital, Nairobi to demand that the government meet its commitment to increase annual health and HIV funding.
  • In response to the mutual expulsion of diplomats, the UK’s DFID announced that it has frozen new aid to Malawi.
  • DDT has made a controversial re-appearance in Uganda.

PROGRAMS

RESEARCH

  • The World Health Organization has just launched a new web-based information resource tool that should be of interest to many in global health and development community, the Global Health Observatory.
  • According to the World Health Organization, the worldwide prevalence of obesity has more than doubled between 1980 and 2008.
  • New research has found that a variant in one gene can lead to a 30 percent lower risk of developing cerebral malaria.
  • A new study from Bangladesh concludes that most of the world’s pregnant women don’t need vitamin A supplements.
  • American scientists have tested a treatment regimen for tuberculosis which will reduce the amount of time it takes to complete the full treatment as compared to current plans.
  • A new report from the Guttmacher Institute finds that that 7 in 10 women in Sub Saharan Africa, south central Asia and south east Asia who want to avoid pregnancy, but are not using modern methods give reasons for non-use which suggest available methods do not fulfill their needs.
  • Average life expectancy across much of the world — except Iraq and South Africa — is steadily climbing and infant deaths dropped across the world during the first decade of the 21st century, according to figures released by the World Health Organization.
  • The Clinton Health Access Initiative and Gates Foundation have teamed up to support research into developing a cheaper version of the drug Tenofovir.

DISEASES AND DISASTERS

  • China has reduced its AIDS mortality by two-thirds since it began distributing free antiretroviral drugs in 2002; however, the improvements were seen largely in patients who acquired HIV through blood transfusion, rather than through sex or drug use. On a darker note, Chinese authorities ordered an AIDS activists’ web site shut down after it had published an open letter from a retired senior official concerning news restrictions placed on a 20th-century public health scandal.
  • Dr. Orin Levine looks at a disturbing global trend: Infectious killers that had been beaten back by aggressive immunization efforts are making a comeback in places long thought to be safe havens.

WORLD HEALTH ASSEMBLY

The IH Blog was featured in the “Buzzing in the Blogs” section of the Healthy Dose this week! Thanks to Tom Murphy for reading and tweeting us!