By Robert H. Reid
It was a scene I’d witnessed many times before in my decades as a foreign correspondent with The Associated Press — crowds of protesters armed with posters, banners and righteous indignation.
Suddenly the mood changed. One of the protesters smashed a police car windshield. Cops responded with flash-bang projectiles, tear gas and concentrated pepper spray. Protesters and spectators, including me, scurried away, eyes stinging and watering from the spray.
When I stopped a half block down the street, I found myself next to a correspondent for an Arab language cable channel. She was broadcasting live to her audience 6,000 miles away in a part of the world no stranger to political unrest.
What irony! For more than three decades as a foreign correspondent for AP, I reported on social and political unrest in places as varied as Poland, Egypt, Bosnia, India, and the Philippines — just to name a few.
Now the tables were turned. No longer was I pontificating about someone else’s problems in far-off Khartoum, Cairo, Manila or Tehran. Now, in Washington, D.C., I was one of those “locals” whose home was embroiled in conflict following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
I don’t speak much Arabic so I could only speculate what she might have been saying. I wondered if she understood enough about American history and culture to get it right.
Heaven knows my colleagues and I often got it wrong because of our own outsider’s ignorance, even if we didn’t realize it at the time.
Maybe she was saying something ridiculous like “America’s Christian heritage makes it difficult to challenge authority” based on parts of the New Testament that say things like “whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against God.”
I could hardly blame her if that were what she was reporting. After all, more than one Western commentator has cherry-picked lines from another holy book to conclude that Muslims are incapable of self-government.
Or maybe she was short-handing America’s complex racial history with a glib reference to “ancient tribal rivalries.”
That’s a phrase that has crept into more than one Western media report from Africa, the Middle East or the former Yugoslavia.
After all, the standoff I witnessed May 31 in Washington was playing out in front of the site of the old Wormsley Hotel. That’s where Democrats and Republicans cut a deal in 1877 to end Reconstruction and put an end to civil liberties granted to former slaves after the Civil War.
Maybe 143 years isn’t quite “ancient,” but it does say something about America’s unresolved conflicts.
Who knows? Maybe that Arab correspondent’s report was “spot on,” as the British would say. That’s entirely possible. My experience is that foreigners know far more about the United States than Americans know about most — if not all — other countries.
I’ll never know. She and her camera operator moved on, and I walked home about a mile away.
What I do know was that, after decades of reporting about other people’s troubles, it was strangely humbling to watch someone else airing my own nation’s dirty laundry.