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Why America’s Protests Are the World’s Protests

Around the globe, people are taking to the streets—a reminder of the unique role of the United States as the protector and messenger of freedom.
June 9, 2020
Why America’s Protests Are the World’s Protests
A general view of the Edward Colston statue plinth on June 8, 2020 in Bristol, England. Yesterday, protesters in Bristol toppled the statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave-trader, and tossed it into the harbour. Outside the Houses of Parliament in London, a statue of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill was spray-painted with the words "was a racist" amid anti-racism protests over the weekend. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

This past weekend, a statue of slave owner Edward Colston was torn down by anti-racism protesters and a statue of Abraham Lincoln was graffitied with the names of black Americans killed by the police.

Where? Not in the United States, but in England.

In the capitals of Europe and in democracies around the globe, people are out on the streets, protesting police brutality and demanding U.S. criminal-justice reforms in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

In Paris, 20,000 people marched towards the high court in a mass demonstration. Over the weekend, French authorities forbade two new protests in Paris—by the U.S. embassy and the Eiffel Tower—but they happened anyway. French protesters link George Floyd’s death with the killing of Adama Traoré, who died in police custody four years ago and whose last words were reportedly, like George’s, “I can’t breathe.”

Footage from Amsterdam’s Dam Square went viral as 5,000 people crowded together in support of Black Lives Matter.

In London, thousands marched towards Parliament chanting “I can’t breathe.” As they reached the monuments at Trafalgar Square, protesters kneeled for nine minutes to mark the length of time that Floyd was pinned to the ground by the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

In Rome, thousands of protesters gathered to denounce racism in both the United States and Italy. They chanted, “No racism, George Floyd is here,” holding signs in English for the American audience and in Italian for their own government and their compatriots.

Demonstrators in Tokyo, Osaka, and Shibuya gathered to protest against police brutality both in the United States and in Japan. (A Kurdish man was injured by Tokyo police in May, a few days before George Floyd’s death.)

In the Philippines, university students attached their own cause—opposition to a controversial anti-terror bill—to the international protests. They also kneeled to show their solidarity with black Americans.

Some of these international protests have ended in skirmishes with the police caused by a small but aggressive minority of protesters, prompting fierce debates about public safety and order amid a pandemic, similar to those taking place here.

Why has police brutality in the United States moved so many people around the world to protest? It is surely in part because of the nauseating footage documenting George Floyd’s last minutes of life. And, to some extent, the protests are a result of the globalization of social justice activism. (For what it’s worth, some government figures in Europe are keen to argue that racism in the United States has little to do with their respective countries.)

But many of the protesters who have taken to the streets in recent days are also, as they have explained, driven by a recognition that America has been—and ought to be—a standard-bearer for freedom and human dignity.

“Everyone knows that this represents more than just George Floyd, more than just America, but racism all around the world,” explained a student protester at a demonstration that began outside the U.S. embassy in London. To paraphrase: America’s founding principles make what happens here uniquely important for the cause of democracy abroad. “We join fully with the citizens of America, and particularly the young, in their struggle for a society finally free of racism,” reads a statement released by anti-racism organizations in France. Many citizens of the free world see their own destiny as inextricably bound up with America’s.

Individuals in this country have the power to come together, seek to heal racial divides, and shape history. Nonetheless, there is one individual whose voice carries more resonance than anyone else’s, both abroad and at home: the president.

Instead of pausing to bring the nation together, Trump stoked tensions. The recent public statements from former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, former defense secretary James Mattis, and retired admiral Mike Mullen, among many others, have been moving and wise. But they are reminders of how our leaders used to speak, not how they speak today. Trump is not a unifier. He lacks the capacity for empathy. He is not compassionate. He is, rather, a divider. For the sake of unity, the best he could do would be to keep quiet. Instead, he settles on cheap stunts.

Like his stunt last week at Lafayette Square—a photo op in which he awkwardly brandished a Bible as a prop in front of St John’s Church. According to White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Trump wanted to look like Winston Churchill inspecting bomb damage during the Blitz. What has the president done to deserve comparison with this great wartime leader? His use of tear gas on his fellow citizens to clear the way for his stunt makes it all the more egregious.

Churchill, in his famous Iron Curtain address, spoke of the roots of Anglo-American liberalism—“the great principles of freedom and the rights of man” that were secured in such achievements as Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights, and that found “their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.” “Here is the message of the British and American peoples to mankind,” he said. “Let us preach what we practice; let us practice what we preach.”

If Churchill understood that America’s great power resided not just in its economic and military strength but in its ideals, so too did America’s enemies. They feared that power as an existential threat. Which is why they sought to exploit our flaws—why, for instance, the Soviets talked about segregation in the American South. And in ending segregation, America not only struck a great and long overdue blow for justice, but also strengthened its moral standing vis-à-vis the Soviets.

In much the same way that the Soviets sought to exploit segregation, our adversaries today love what they see when they look at America. They can paint the United States as an oppressor: You see? The Westerners, the Americans, they are no better than we are. That’s why the world’s totalitarian states have made public statements about Floyd’s murder. The spokesperson for the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs, a notorious propagandist, tweeted, “I can’t breathe.” A Politico headline read, “Chinese propagandists seize on George Floyd protests,” outlining the airing of propaganda to both Western and Chinese audiences. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the notoriously anti-Western and anti-Semitic former president of Iran, tweeted about the injustice against Floyd, quoting Tupac Shakur. Iran’s state media have been covering the U.S. protests—and their suppression—nonstop. And, of course, the Russians are not known to let an opportunity for whataboutism go to waste.

The world’s dictators and kleptocrats are no true friends of America—or of justice. Their statements of criticism are made in bad faith. But our friends in Europe and across the free world don’t want our shared enemies to have that power. They are inspired by self-preservation. They are inspired by fear: If freedom in America collapses, then the free world will collapse. They take Lincoln’s declaration that America is “the last, best hope of earth” more seriously than many Americans do because the boots of Chinese, Russian, and Iranian totalitarianism are closer to their necks than to ours. The late Charles Krauthammer said: “Europe can eat, drink, and be merry, for America protects her. But for America it’s different. If we choose the life of ease, who stands guard for us?” We would add: If America chooses “the life of ease,” who will stand guard for the free world?

We—both authors of this article—were born outside of the United States. One of us is British by birth, the other, Iranian. For one of us, a migrant from Britain, America is the bigger and better sister, safeguarding European freedom. For the other one of us, an asylee from Iran, America is the beacon of freedom and his savior against tyrants. Our different backgrounds mean that one of us looks at America as the protector of freedom and the other as its messenger. But we both see America as a nation of liberty and justice for all.

In the present push for racial equality in criminal justice, we must succeed first and foremost for the sake of black Americans. But we must also succeed in order to dispense with the fiction, the lie, that American liberalism is no better than Chinese, Russian, and Iranian totalitarianism. We must keep fighting for the equal rights of all citizens—so that we remain the “shining city on a hill” that others are inspired by. So that America can both inspire freedom and have the moral footing to condemn the violation of others’ rights—rights of Uighurs, of Tatars, of Bahaís—by their oppressors.

To quote Lafayette—that Revolutionary War hero, an American accidentally born in France—“the happiness of America is intimately connected with the happiness of all mankind; she will become the respectable and safe asylum of virtue, integrity, tolerance, equality, and a peaceful liberty.”

Tamara Berens and Shay Khatiri

Tamara Berens is a writer living in New York City. Twitter: @TamaraBerens. Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.