The ongoing protests over the May 25 police killing of George Floyd and the United States political establishment’s heavy-handed response to them are seminal developments in modern American history.
They not only expose the deep-rooted racism of the American society but also provide yet another refutation to American exceptionalism – the widely-held belief that the US is fundamentally different from and superior to other nations.
This is because the events currently unfolding in the US mirror almost perfectly the core dynamics of the mass uprisings we regularly witness around the world that are triggered by the violent and oppressive policies of authoritarian or colonial regimes.
I personally experienced many such uprisings during my lifetime, in Israel-Palestine, several different Arab countries and also in the US.
I was a university student in the US in the late 1960s and early 1970s when widespread protests – then termed “race riots” – engulfed predominantly African American urban areas of the country. I also witnessed and engaged with the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement there in 2013.
What I observed in the last five decades as I lived through these citizen rebellions, and what I am feeling in my bones as I watch the widespread protests in the US today, is that they are all born out of identical political and human phenomena.
Three shared elements define all these uprisings across time and space: why protesters take to the streets, how the political ruling class reacts, and how the mainstream media covers what is happening.
Table of Contents
Taking to the streets to demand ‘dignity’
First, a ravaged, poverty-stricken and helpless citizenry that has been mistreated for decades by its own ruling elite or by an occupying power finally takes to the streets to express its despair in the only manner available to it.
African Americans, Palestinians, and other Arab nationals have all suffered demeaning and sustained poverty, dilapidated socio-economic conditions, permanent political powerlessness and decades of unfulfilled promises of change.
The overriding motivation behind all the citizen rebellions that I have witnessed in my lifetime, from the repeated anti-racism protests in the US to the Arab uprisings of the past decade, has been the chronic humiliation of ordinary citizens at the hands of the ruling elites. The ruling classes’ slow but steady dehumanisation of the masses eventually broke through the surface and triggered public protests.
The single demand that captures the aspirations of Palestinians, Arabs, and African Americans is “dignity” – not wealth, not power, not revenge, but human dignity. This is because dignity is the only antidote for people who feel they are being treated like animals and can be shot and killed at will.
Not surprisingly, the most common spark that sets off mass protests across the world is the killing of civilians by government troops or the private militia and thugs of ruling elites.
Oppressive governments and colonial regimes are killing unarmed, helpless citizens with the very same sense of entitlement and impunity from Palestine and the US. Within the same week that the Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, for example, Israeli army troops in Jerusalem shot and killed Iyad Halak, a 32-year-old autistic Palestinian man who did not understand their orders.
Responding to protests against violence with more violence
Once masses take to the streets to protest against the senseless killing of their compatriots at the hands of state security forces, the governments often make a series of generic statements: “We are investigating cases of security forces who killed unarmed civilians”; “People have the right to protest peacefully but not to use violence”; and “We will look into the wider grievances of citizens and make sure that unacceptable conditions are improved quickly.”
Over the years, I listened to government officials, police commissioners and bureaucrats make these very same statements, albeit in different languages, from the US to Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel-Palestine.
The problem with these statements is that nobody believes them any more. Exasperated citizens see elites who make promises and offer thoughts and prayers as selfish liars and insincere brutes who will do and say anything to stay in power, especially to maintain the existing economic structures that enrich them and impoverish everyone else.
As these statements no longer succeed in sedating angry, frustrated masses that often do not have much left to lose, the governments simultaneously unleash more state violence to bring uprisings under control. Police forces and army troops beat, gas, forcefully detained and even kill protesters to subdue the masses.
This has been the case during the Arab uprisings and Palestinian intifadas, and it is the case now in the US.
Surprisingly, these elites ignore the long-term consequences of repeatedly beating down protesters and killing innocent civilians. Those consequences include repeated national uprisings and revolutions, some of which have removed Arab autocrats from power since 2011.
Media focus on the drama, ignore the deep-rooted grievances behind protests
The final common element that I found in all the citizen rebellions that I witnessed first-hand is the mainstream media’s broad failure to probe deeply into the causes of the protesters’ discontent.
In Israel-Palestine, other Arab nations and the US, whenever the citizenry takes to the streets en masse, the media focuses primarily on the drama of crowds of protesters confronting the police. They provide detailed reports on property vandalism or attacks against security forces, but rarely take the time to humanise the protesters by reporting empathetically and accurate on the web of inhuman and discriminatory conditions that caused them to revolt.
The media widely fails to explore the structures of racism, colonialism, abuse of power and lack of equal rights in the US, Arab states and Israeli-occupied Palestine that trigger protests year after year, and decade after decade.
Towards a ‘global intifada’
As long as governments and occupying forces around the world continue to reach for their guns, tear gas canisters and batons to disperse protesters demanding dignity, equality and freedom from state violence, masses who have little left to lose will continue to rise against their oppressors.
In a globalized and deeply connected world, where mainstream media cannot continue to mask the interconnected and deep-rooted grievances of the subjugated and demeaned peoples, these citizen rebellions can soon pave the way for a “global intifada”.
Today, even the last remaining proponents of American exceptionalism are being forced to abandon their misguided beliefs, as the US acts exactly like other authoritarian and colonial powers and unleashes more violence upon protesters who only want freedom from state violence. As the state appears unable and unwilling to uproot the racist power structures that are preventing millions of Americans from living their lives with dignity, it is certain that African Americans and other mistreated citizens will continue their quest for social justice.
The Israeli occupation and continued annexation of Palestinian lands, now with the explicit approval of the US, clearly demonstrates that the colonial era in the Middle East is not yet over. So Palestinians will also continue to rebel and resist as they can.
In Arab countries, millions also continue to suffer as ruling elites pursue derelict policies that generate more poverty, inequality and desperation. This is why Arabs have been taking to the streets regularly for the last decade and this is why they will continue to do so in the coming years.
Across the globe, from the US to the Middle East, pauperised citizenries are rising up to reform or remove the militarized, racist and violent governments and regimes ruling over them. And they will continue their fight until they succeed.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.