By Zach Goldhammer
This past weekend, in a tense press conference, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and called for a curfew in Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb where protesters have been clashing violently with law-enforcement officials following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager.
“This is a test,” Nixon said. “The eyes of the world are watching.”
Knowingly or not, Nixon was echoing words used for the past six decades to protest police brutality and government neglect in the United States over the past six decades. The phrase “the whole world is watching”—a pithy warning that an incident was testing America’s commitment to its values, before an international audience that would hold it accountable—was first used as part of the civil-rights movement in the 1950s, particularly during the fight to integrate schools in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. But the slogan’s most iconic moment came in August 1968, when it was chanted by demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago who were protesting the Vietnam War, among other grievances. Don Rose, then the press secretary for the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (also known as the Mobe), suggested that Students for a Democratic Society leader Rennie Davis inform the press about the victims of police beatings in Lincoln Park.
“Tell them the whole world is watching,” Rose said, “and they’ll never get away with it again.”
Unfortunately, they did get away with it. On August 28, 23,000 police officers and National Guard members squared off against 10,000 protesters, many of whom were beaten with batons and sprayed with tear gas. Despite the television broadcast of what was later labeled a “police riot”—a broadcast that drew an estimated 83 million viewers in the U.S.—no action was taken against the Chicago police. Mayor Richard Daley remained in office and received 135,000 letters of support for his defense of the Vietnam War and the U.S. soldiers fighting there.
Chicago in 1968, like Ferguson in 2014, featured outrage over racial injustice, the harassment of journalists, and brutal behavior by police (it also burnished the legacy of another Nixon, who rode unease over the chaos at the Democratic convention to the White House).
But there are many differences between the two moments in American history—not least that the world is really watching now—and responding in ways it didn’t 46 years ago. Palestinians are tweeting advice to Ferguson protesters about how to deal with tear gas. Tibetan monks have traveled to Missouri and assumed the “hands up, don’t shoot” pose in solidarity with the demonstrators. Amnesty International, which dispatched a delegation to Ferguson, has called for independent investigations into the killing of Michael Brown and condemned Nixon’s curfew tactic as akin to “dictators … quelling dissent and silencing protesters.”
Ferguson has become more of an international rallying cry than Chicago for several reasons. Police forces, in some cases relying on American equipment, weapons, and crowd-control techniques, have recently become more militarized in many countries while protests as a political tactic have become more widespread, lending a certain transnational homogeneity to scenes of riot police clashing with demonstrators. U.S. companies, for instance, have exported tear-gas technology to countries like Bahrain, Egypt, and Turkey. When tear-gas canisters in Ferguson appear identical to those used by Israeli security forces, it’s no surprise that Palestinians would want to express solidarity with Missourians.
The evolution of media since 1968 has also contributed to Ferguson’s global resonance. Journalists filmed the clashes in Chicago and broadcast the dramatic clips on television for tens of millions to see—what one reporter recalled as “17 minutes of tear gas-shrouded chaos.” But the TV networks controlled the vantage point and visual experience, and it’s hard to get a sense from the footage of what individuals witnessed during the violence. Around the world, technologies like Livestream, Twitter, and Vine have helped journalists report on developments in Ferguson with far more immediacy, and enabled people to bypass journalists altogether in seeking out real-time information on the unrest. As the columnist Robyn Urback wrote in Canada’s National Post:
Ferguson proves there is no monopoly on information. … The danger of this flood of information is that the truth is often buried under, or distorted by, thousands of pictures, eyewitness accounts and videos on the ground. For many armchair observers, that will mean a rush to judgment. But Ferguson is a good reminder that when the whole world watches now, it is looking through a seemingly infinite number of lenses. The authorities in Ferguson don’t seem to understand that. But if there’s something positive to come out of this disaster, it’s that, eventually, they will have to.
The decades since the 1968 protests have also witnessed the rise of new and increasingly sophisticated forms of state-run media in authoritarian countries, which have seized on Ferguson to discredit the United States and call out its hypocritical championing of human rights in their countries (critiques and analyses of the clashes in Missouri have also appeared in independent European outlets in countries such as Denmark, France, and Germany; the violence, after all, is a newsworthy event). News agencies in places like China and Egypt have wagged a finger at U.S. authorities for their treatment of protesters, while some leaders—most notably Iran’s supreme leader—have taken directly to Twitter to criticize America. In Russia, which is currently mired in a standoff with the West over Ukraine, news organizations like RT are aggressively hyping the conflict.
Ultimately, though, Ferguson is not Gaza or Tehran or Kiev, or even Chicago. It may matter less that the world is watching than that Americans are. And they’re perceiving the conflict differently. According to a Pew surveythis week, 37 percent of white Americans believe that the shooting of Michael Brown “raises important issues about race that need to be discussed,” compared with 80 percent of black Americans.
During the 1968 Democratic convention, the Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, who was later imprisoned for his activism there, grabbed a microphone and condemned racial oppression and the “racist power structure” in the United States. The issues he raised weren’t resolved during the upheaval in Chicago, and they still haven’t been fully addressed in Ferguson today.