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Ferguson crisis troubles Obama’s careful race stance

Friday, 28 November 2014 00:00 Published in Commentary

Barack Obama’s election as the United States’ first black leader raised hopes that his presidency would serve as a platform for work to bridge the country’s still dangerous racial divides.
But, as his cautious response to clashes between protesters and police in the St Louis suburb of Ferguson shows, he still walks a fine line when the issue of race exacerbates a crisis.
Unrest was triggered when a grand jury declined to prosecute a white police officer who shot dead an unarmed black teenager who he said had attacked him — almost a test case for black distrust of the authorities versus a white fear of urban crime.
“We need to recognize that this is not just an issue for Ferguson, this is an issue for America,” Obama said, as he cautiously addressed a crisis that has triggered coast-to-coast protest marches.
He condemned the looting and arson that erupted after Monday’s decision, but said he understood those who believe law enforcement treats black suspects like 18-year-old Michael Brown harshly.
“Now, it may not be true everywhere, and it’s certainly not true for the vast majority of law enforcement officials, but that’s an impression that folks have and it’s not just made up,” he said.
“It’s rooted in realities that have existed in this country for a long time,” he added, with a nod to the legacy of slavery, segregation and economic exclusion that has shaped African American life.
Distrust of Obama among white voters could have cost him the presidency had it not been for the surge in support among America’s black and brown minorities that carried him to office.
Today, many of those supporters are disappointed at his cautious stance on race, and many have demanded that he make the trip to Ferguson to hear for himself about the problems there.
The White House has been careful not to rule out such a visit, and his black attorney general, Eric Holder, has made the journey, but he will be reluctant to plunge in while temperatures are high.
“It’s a very fine line, but he is managing this line very astutely,” said long-time civil rights activist Julian Bond, president emeritus of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“He has done exactly what he should have done, has said exactly what he should have said,” Bond said. “He has an aversion to being the ‘black president.’ He wants to be president of all Americans.”
Ferguson is the second major racially-charged issue to have challenged Obama’s balanced stance since his 2009 election.
In February 2012 another unarmed black teenager, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, was shot dead by a neighborhood watch volunteer as he came back from buying candy at a store.
While the case against the gunman, George Zimmerman, was ongoing Obama was careful to steer clear of controversy, despite the outrage in the black community.
But when, in July 2013, Zimmerman was cleared of wrongdoing, he spoke out in sympathy for those who felt justice had not been served.
“Thirty-five years ago, I could have been Trayvon Martin,” he said, personally associating the lives of young black men with his own story — and finally inserting himself into the national debate.
“His detractors said that it was a local issue and that the president should not be injecting himself,” said Adolphus Pruitt, head of the NAACP’s branch in St. Louis.
“Now that he is taking a more cautious approach, now people say the opposite. It’s one of those situations: You are damned if you do, you are damned if you don’t.”
Pruitt said he would understand if Obama did not think the time was right for the drama of a presidential visit to Ferguson, but said Brown’s case showed the need for him to lead the debate.
“I don’t have a problem with the president being cautious as relates to injecting himself directly in a single incident,” he said.
“But I do not anticipate him being cautious as it relates to injecting himself in a need for change and dialogue nationwide on the issue.”
The St Louis prosecutor has decided not to prosecute Officer Danner Wilson for shooting Brown, after accepting his grand jury testimony that he acted in self-defense.
Legally, that would appear to conclude the matter in Missouri, but US federal authorities are still investigating whether St Louis authorities have broken civil rights law in policing black communities.
But three months after the shooting, there’s no sign that any action will be taken. If no case is opened, Obama and Holder may have to face another wave of anger, this time directed at them.

As casualties soar, Afghan police taught how to stay alive

Thursday, 27 November 2014 00:00 Published in Commentary

At a training center near Kabul, one overriding lesson is drilled into Afghan police by their French instructors — don’t become yet another unnecessary battlefield casualty.
Every day this year more than a dozen Afghan police and soldiers have died in the fight against Taliban insurgents, with poor tactical awareness a key factor blamed for the devastating toll.
The high casualty rate is one of the biggest concerns for Afghan leaders as the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) coalition ends its 13-year war next month and the national security forces take over the task of thwarting the militants.
In one effort to help reduce fatalities and injuries, France’s elite police unit RAID has been holding week-long training courses focused on improving the survival skills of government forces.
During a mock assault exercise using plastic weapons, one wayward recruit takes a dangerous position opposite a doorway.
“Always think of your own safety, guys!” the exasperated instructor shouts, before reflecting: “They just don’t have basic training, either for shooting weapons or on the tactical level.”
At the invitation of Kabul police chief Zahir Zahir, the RAID team has taught practical exercises and live firing sessions to several groups of 30 police cadets.
“The purpose of this course is to minimize the loss of human lives,” said Eric Petit, a French police commander and expert on international security training.
“This is the top priority of the Afghan police, I understand, but they still have a lot of casualties.”
The Afghan army and police have suffered badly in recent years, with 4,634 killed in combat from January to the beginning of November this year, on top of 4,350 killed during 2013, according to the US military.
Lieutenant General Joseph Anderson, the number two US officer in Afghanistan, recently said the local security forces were increasingly capable but he admitted the casualty rate was “not sustainable in the long term.”
Afghan battlefield tactics are often still based on the 1980s Soviet era, with men sent charging towards danger without assessing the situation or following an assault plan.
The French instructors try to impart the importance of avoiding risks through reconnaissance, discipline and planning.
Lessons include how to storm a house without exposing oneself or colleagues to gunfire, and how to use weapons safely and accurately.
But not all goes to plan as two Afghan policemen try to show off their best routines.
The French instructors use an interpreter to call out “where’s the danger?” and they berate officers who stand in the wrong place with their guns pointing at the floor rather than held up, ready to fire.
“Look, we could easily gun them all down from here,” whispers one instructor observing the scene.
Then the whole scenario is replayed with the police advised how to improve their tactics.
On the firing range, the instructors run through the basic shooting positions and stress the need for strict safety standards.
“Put your weapon in the belt hostler when you are not on at the firing line,” shouts one French trainer as a policeman holds his gun casually by his side.
The weapons being used — Beretta and P38 handguns — are ancient and in bad repair.
One gun gets a bullet jammed in the barrel during the exercise, and ammunition is in short supply.
“Ten rounds each is not enough. It is not worth even wasting money on petrol to drive us out for so little,” said one young Afghan policeman after firing off his bullets.
Another challenge is the risk of so-called “green-on-blue” attacks — when Afghan soldiers or police turn their guns on international troops — a major problem during Nato’s long years fighting alongside Afghan forces.
To prevent any such disaster, a French marksman stands close by, surveying the lesson closely.
“The first week has given mixed results... this is an initial training,” admitted Petit.

Mental scars for Ukrainians trapped under shelling

Thursday, 27 November 2014 00:00 Published in Commentary

Dmitry took a drag from his cigarette and pulled a box of pills from his pocket.
“My sedatives,” he said, tapping the white and blue packaging.
“When it’s calm like now then it’s ok. But when the bombardments start, my heart starts beating fast, I panic and I don’t know what to do.”
A resident of the rebel-held city of Donetsk, the forty-year-old market vendor lives in constant fear of the deadly exchanges of missiles and shells that fly between government forces and pro-Russian rebel fighters close to his neighborhood.
In mid-September, the market where he worked selling sausages was pulverised by a salvo of mortar fire — a clearly traumatising experience for Dmitry.
“I couldn’t sleep, I was too anxious,” he said.
Now every small noise makes him nervy, as a possible prelude to the frenzied dash for cover. Only work and his medication help.
“You need to talk, to interact, otherwise you lose your mind,” he said.
At Donetsk’s main psychiatric hospital, Dr Mikhail Bero has seen hundreds of patients check in as the seven months of fighting that has cost over 4,300 lives takes its toll.
“We receive people who have been profoundly affected, sometimes they are paralysed and can’t move their arms or legs,” said the aging psychiatrist wearing a white coat.
Other patients have attempted suicide or had suicidal thoughts, he said.
“This is a natural result of post-traumatic stress.”
A broom in one hand and a dustpan in the other, Larisa Zinkovskaya battles with the wind as she sweeps up leaves outside a rickety building on the edge of Donetsk.
For the past 11 days she’s been sweeping up here despite the boom of artillery from the frontline not far away.
“I’m afraid of the bombardments but I’ve got used to them,” says the cleaner, 41, her face ruddy with cold.
In July, she said, she lived through the worst experience of her life: half an hour under direct shelling.
“I was here, in this area,” she reminisced. “To begin with I couldn’t move, I was petrified and then someone yelled to run.”
“I hid in in the entrance of a building until it got quieter and my husband came to find me.”
She left for work the following day, her “legs trembling” and her husband by her side.
“At the first sound, we ran to hide,” she said.
Little by little though she managed to get used to the bombardments.
“When it’s calm you should begin to worry,” she says.
Residents in this once-peaceful city have now managed to distinguish between the different noises and can tell how far and from where the shots are coming.

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