7 ways Ferguson carries echoes of foreign conflicts

The American conversation is dominated right now with news from Ferguson, Mo., with many shocked by scenes of social unrest and heavy-handed police crackdowns. Protesters are being tear-gassed and journalists, including The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery, man-handled and arrested.

These are images we’re more used to seeing outside the United States, and, in a day and age where Twitter can so swiftly stitch together news events occurring in far-flung places, the events in the town have led to numerous comparisons to crises elsewhere.

Here are some ways that Ferguson, as our colleague put it, has become "Fergustan."

The arrest of journalists

On Wednesday, police arrested two journalists at a McDonald's restaurant in Ferguson. The journalists — Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post and Wesley — were later released without charge. You can read Wesley's account of his arrest (and assault) here. The arrest or detention of journalists covering foreign conflict zones is all too common. There are a number of high-profile examples – such as Simon Ostrovsky, an American journalist covering the Ukraine conflict for Vice News, who was detained by pro-Russian forces earlier this year — but it happens more often than you might think: In the past month, the Committee to Protect Journalists has called for the release of a local journalist arrested in Djibouti, two French journalists arrested in Indonesia, an Ethiopian journalist held without charge, three editors detained in Burma, and many more.

 

Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery was detained by police on Wednesday while reporting on the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., following the fatal shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown by police over the weekend. (The Washington Post)

 

Wesley is not the only journalist working for The Post to be detained recently. Jason Rezaian, our Tehran correspondent, was arrested along with his wife and others on July 21. The State Department has condemned Jason's arrest.

The presence of 'outside agitators'

Ferguson's police chief, Thomas Jackson, ascribed much of the unrest in recent days to "outside agitators." This carries echoes of statements made during the struggles of the civil rights movement, as a Boston College historian pointed out:

But it also smacks, immediately, of some of the rhetoric we've heard from overseas autocrats and demagogues denouncing dissent at home. Raising the specter of "external forces" or a "foreign hand" is the oldest trick in the book for a government or despot keen to obscure the root causes of unrest. Every single president in Egypt in the past half a decade — from the long-entrenched Hosni Mubarak to the Islamist Mohamed Morsi, to Abdel Fatah al-Sissi (the man who ousted Morsi in a coup) — has played this card. So, too, have Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Syria's Bashar al-Assad, Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki and myriad other embattled world leaders.

The experience of tear gas

Mariam Barghouti, a Palestinian journalist, watched clouds of tear gas encircle Ferguson's protesters and went to Twitter to offer advice and solidarity.

 

 

The militarization of the police

Many witnessing the scenes in Ferguson have been startled by how well armed the local police forces are. Beyond riot gear, they are equipped with a whole range of weapons and protective clothing that make many look like soldiers deployed overseas to fight in U.S. wars. That's no coincidence: Last year alone, the Defense Department transferred about $400 million worth of surplus combat gear to local law enforcement agencies.

The New York Times has a helpful round-up of some of the military technologies now being deployed in Ferguson.

When watching the use of such force by the police -- the presence of mine-resistent troop carriers, the images of helmeted snipers taking up their positions atop military vehicles -- it's hard not to dispel comparisons to the militarized security forces of interior ministries in other countries, be they in Egypt or Ukraine. In many parts of the world, the police have a far more antagonistic relationship with the local populace than the army.

The response by law enforcement to protesters in Ferguson, Mo., is being criticized for its level of force and use of military-style equipment. We've labeled the weapons and gear being used by police in these photos from Ferguson. (Tom LeGro and Thomas Gibbons-Neff/The Washington Post)

The no-fly zone

On Tuesday, St. Louis County Police Department requested a no-fly zone 3,000 feet over Ferguson. The official reason stated was that it was to "provide a safe environment for law enforcement activities" — but it appeared to be a bid to keep news helicopters from the area. Anyone following foreign news, however, will probably be reminded of the confusion after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine last month. That tragedy brought further attention to the areas of the world, often zones of dramatic conflict, where flights are restricted. Although the logic and the scale of Ferguson's no-fly zone are different, it is certainly striking.


Post Graphics

 

The problems for Al Jazeera

On Wednesday, journalists from Al Jazeera America found themselves having to run from tear gas as they tried to cover the chaos in Ferguson. "Rubber bullets were fired on us, and then a canister," Ash-har Quraishi, a correspondent for Al Jazeera America, said afterward. "We had to retreat into the neighborhood."

It's unclear from the video whether the Al Jazeera America journalists were being targeted because of the outlet they worked for. But for anyone who follows news from the Middle East, it'll seem familiar. Al Jazeera is one of the most prominent news sources in the region, but it's fraught with controversies and accusations of bias. In particular, it is often accused of pushing a pro-Muslim Brotherhood line for the Qatari state. This often means that the network is singled out by authorities. In Egypt, for example, three journalists from Al Jazeera were sentenced to prison this year after being accused of collaborating with “terrorists." Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement calling their sentences "chilling, draconian."

The use of molotov cocktails


Riot police flee from an exploding molotov cocktail during clashes with protesters in Kiev, Ukraine, in January 2014. (Oleg Petrasiuk/European Pressphoto Agency)

Molotov cocktails were a visceral sign of the intensity of Kiev's Euromaidan protests, which began late last year and helped oust Viktor Yanukovych from the Ukrainian presidency in February. The improvised explosives were thrown at Ukraine's Internal Ministry troops — the notorious Berkut — and clearly caused terrible injuries. They were a crude yet effective weapon against the armed and armor-clad security forces, and Ukrainian protesters were far from the only group to use them this year.

In Ferguson, protesters appear to have the same idea:


A demonstrator protesting the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown carries what appears to be a molotov cocktail in Ferguson, Mo. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
Comments
Show Comments

Get the WorldViews newsletter

Sign up for daily updates from WorldViews.

Most Read World
Next Story
Abby Ohlheiser · August 14