In repressive states across the world, I have often watched with deep dismay the response of foreign military and police forces towards political reform movements or popular mobilization efforts. In many cases, brutal tactics, sometimes made possible by U.S. equipment, are used to stifle civil society and to guard the regime in power from criticism, accountability and reform. Yet, even as a member of an organization that tracks and scrutinizes the policies and behaviors of U.S.-backed foreign security forces, I was ill-prepared for the surreal yet painfully familiar scenes that have taken place across the United States since the killing of George Floyd.
In Washington, D.C., heavily armed riot police, national guard units and a veritable alphabet soup of federal agencies clashed with peaceful protesters at the behest of a president keen on projecting strength through force. These scenes evoked the well-worn playbook of authoritarian states from across the globe. A Black Hawk helicopter and other aircraft, Humvees and hundreds of armed “troops” spread across the streets of the democratic capital of the world could have been mistaken for scenes of a crackdown in one of the world’s many autocracies.
Indeed, the law and order arguments used to justify state violence could have been taken straight from palaces of just about any despot. Pointing to amorphous security threats to justify sweeping and indiscriminate violence is a routine that international human rights watchers know all too well.