On December 6, Protesters gathered in the streets of New York, as well as numerous cities around the United States for the second week in a row, in protest of the grand jury decisions regarding police officers who killed citizens Michael Brown and Eric Garner. That same night in Mexico City, protests were entering their second month. Demonstrators there called for answers from the Mexican government regarding 43 students from a teacher’s college in Ayotiznapa who disappeared in October following a conflict with municipal police.
The Caravel has previously reported on the Ayotiznapa case, which has sparked protests worldwide, as people have demanded accountability from the Mexican government for the lives of the missing students, as well as the corruption and police misconduct that led up to their disappearance. But now, the Ayotiznapa protests have taken on a new significance in light of the ones that have erupted just across Mexico’s border to the north.
The protests in the United States are borne out of a series of incidents that took place earlier in the summer of 2014. On August 9, Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager was shot and killed by a White police officer named Darren Wilson. There was an initial outrage in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, where the shooting took place as citizens reacted to what they felt was an unwarranted and racially motivated killing. Protests were renewed on a much larger scale on November 24, after a grand jury failed to indict Wilson on any charges related to Brown’s death. Only a week later, news came out in the case of Eric Garner, another Black citizen who was killed by a White law enforcement officer. On July 17 in in Staten Island, New York, Garner was unarmed and not acting violently when officer Daniel Pantaleo of the NYPD took him down in an illegal chokehold, which ultimately resulted in cardiac arrest and death. When news emerged on Dec 3rd that Pantaleo would also fail to be indicted for any crime, protests only increased. These incidents have brought back to surface issues of racism and racial inequality in the United States, as well as concerns about the militarization of police forces.
In this last regard especially, the protests in the United States bear much in common with the ones that have been happening in Mexico; both consist of impassioned citizens, marching and chanting in outrage at state-sanctioned violence against unarmed citizens. In both countries, the very officers who are charged with preserving citizen life have been the ones to threaten and take it. And in both countries, the protests have taken a strong foothold in national and international consciousness, and have maintained a longevity that has forced the world — and the respective governments— to watch. These protests have struck a nerve that runs deep in their respective societies, and are indicative of social ills that run much deeper than these individual incidents. For Mexico, these have a lot to do with a long and sullied history of abuse of power by police forces to terrorize the citizenry into compliance with its own— often corrupt— agenda. For years, parts of the Mexican government have had close ties to the illicit world of the illegal drug trade, and ordinary citizens have paid the ultimate price for this involvement.
In the United States, the Ferguson and Garner cases are the most recent links in the nation’s long and shameful legacy of racial inequality that began with slavery hundreds of years ago. Even now, over 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement, American society remains grossly unequal and Black Americans are statistically worse off than White Americans on a number of social indicators.
In this historical context, the citizen outcry in both countries comes into more clarity; for the protesters, these incidents are not isolated, but instead represent the final straw in a long history of oppression and injustice that the government has abided. It is for this reason as well that the protests have the power to hold historical significance much greater than the present moment. Both the United States and Mexico currently sit at critical junctures in their histories; these protesters, as well as the government’s response to them, have the opportunity to change their societies for the better. History has shown time and again the power that citizen uprisings have in charting the trajectory of a nation, and the present situations are no exception.
Already, the Mexican Government has been forced to respond to some degree. Attorney general Jesus Murillo Karam gave a press conference on November 7 detailing the plans for an investigation into the disappearances, and indicated that hopes for the missing students were grim. On December 6, news emerged that Argentine forensic scientists hired to investigate the disappearances have positively identified the remains of at least one student. While the release of this information is an indication of the government’s cooperation on this crisis, there is still much systemic and cultural change necessary to repair society. Most importantly, the close ties between Mexican officials and drug cartel leaders must be severed.
The case is similar in the United States. President Obama has given several statements on the matter, Attorney General Eric Holder is conducting federal investigations into the Ferguson police department as well as others around the country, and the Obama Administration just announced a proposal to allot $75 million in funding for police body cameras for 50,000 officers nationwide in an effort to decrease police misconduct. But similarly, it is a band-aid fix to a much deeper problem. Lasting change will begin with an honest reflection by citizens and policymakers a like about the realities of racism in the US as well as the de facto impunity that police officers currently hold in the court of law.
There is no doubt that the current crises are symptoms of complex problems in US and Mexican societies. But the resulting protests have the potential to be a powerful and central part of the solutions, ultimately because they are taking place in countries that claim to be democracies, and. Mass citizen mobilization is democracy at its purest; it is the people coming together, declaring what they want from the people they elected to govern. Once the critical point comes where the people can no longer be ignored, the government will have no choice but to respond, and progress will result. All indications are that that these critical points for Mexico and the US are swiftly approaching.