Russia Is Having A Field Day With Ferguson — And Completely Missing The Point

As protests swept the nation Tuesday, Russian state-sponsored media outlets are having a field day over the unrest sparked by a Missouri grand jury's failure to indict Officer Darren Wilson for shooting and killing an unarmed black teenager. It's no surprise that the Russian propaganda machine would use the growing outrage over unfair, racialized policing practices to critique the United States, which has often lodged complaints against President Vladimir Putin for harsh crackdowns on public dissent and free speech. But otherwise-justified criticisms descend into little more than political chicanery in the hands of state-supported media outlet: To hear senior Russian officials and media outlets tell it, the United States stands on the brink of a full-out racial war that threatens American stability.

The Russian state-sponsored media first directed its attention and resources towards Missouri back in August during the initial round of protests after Brown’s untimely death at the hands of Wilson, who is white. The nightly protests — and the ensuing militarized response from local police forces — featured prominently on the major state-supported TV news stations. Mashable’s Christopher Miller notes that, aside from coverage of Ukraine and propaganda features on Putin’s movements, the situation in Ferguson received greater attention than any other story.

The media swarm returned to Missouri after St. Louis County Attorney Robert McCulloch announced the grand jury had failed to return an indictment for Wilson in Brown’s shooting. Russia’s state-sponsored English language TV station, RT, had a live stream from the protest site as well as at least two reporters on the ground live-Tweeting. The story led on all the major broadcasts on state media that night.

A senior Russian foreign official, Konstantin Dolgov, warned on Russian state television that the current unrest over the grand jury’s failure to indict risked a complete collapse of the American social system.

The developments in Ferguson and other cities highlight serious challenges to the American society and its stability, Dolgov said. Racial discrimination, racial and ethnic tensions are major challenges to the American democracy, to stability and integrity of the American society.

In turn, a popular Russian tabloid compared the unrest spreading across the country over Ferguson to the pro-European integration protests that splintered Ukraine and toppled its Russian-allied government last year.

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Other news sites took direct aim at the US government for pushing a human rights agenda abroad while neglecting to housekeep at home.

“So the U.S. government, when talking about their own country, forgets about democracy, human rights, protection of ‘peaceful protesters’ and people’s right to protest,” Russian news site Pravda.ru said Tuesday.

Even the Russian Foreign Ministry entered the fray. In a statement posted online, the Ministry noted:

Recent developments in Ferguson are another very disturbing signal to the U.S. authorities that it is time finally to focus on large-scale internal problems in the field of human rights, taking into account the relevant recommendations of international human rights organizations in this regard, rather than engage in baseless and fruitless mentoring and propagandistic moralizing against other countries.

Direct attacks on the real flaws of American democracy — particularly those that materialize along racial lines domestically — are nothing new. Since the Cold War, the Russian state has attempted to deflect attention from its own human rights abuses by putting the United States on the defensive about its own track record on measures of democratic participation and minority treatment.

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Unfortunately, the political propaganda machine undercuts what could and should be a legitimate critique of how U.S. policing practices target and exploit people of color, largely with the tacit approval, if not outright sanction, of the criminal justice system. By distorting the facts and pushing the looming risk of a race war that threatens to end American society as we know it, Russian media outlets allow Americans to dismiss global criticism out of hand as mere political grandstanding.

As the aftermath analysis around Ferguson spreads across media outlets in the US and abroad, we have to be careful not to mistake the trees for the forest. Ferguson brings to the forefront all of the structural and institutionalized forms of racial dispossession and disadvantage that allow a white police officer to shoot an unarmed black teenager without facing criminal consequences, and the protests sweeping the country should be a reminder that American democracy still has a long way to go before we realize its founding ideals.

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