Nemtsov Killing Should Prompt Introspection Alongside Condemnation

Editorial Board

When prominent Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot dead on a Moscow street last Friday, days before he was slated to lead a major anti-government protest, global leaders rallied behind familiar cries. Nemtsov, an ardent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, had been well known since Boris Yeltsin’s presidency for his liberal politics and calls for democratic reform. Just hours before his assassination, Nemtsov gave an interview calling for honest elections and an end to the Kremlin’s “censorship [and] propaganda.”

It was no surprise, then, when world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, called for transparency as Putin announced that he would personally oversee an investigation into Nemtsov’s death. Amnesty International noted that the murder was merely the latest in a series of mysterious political killings that was investigated under the personal supervision of high-level Russian officials; many of Nemtsov’s supporters reportedly blame Putin for planning the assassination in an attempt to instill fear in the country’s political opposition.

While theories abound and answers are few, the pointed remarks from Western politicians appear both warranted and predictable. Nemtsov, a charismatic figure at the forefront of capitalist reform efforts in post-Soviet Russia, maintained an arguably warmer relationship with Western powers than his country’s president. Western sympathy for the opposition figure’s family and supporters, while no doubt largely genuine, also represents a not-so-subtle jab at Putin’s government. Such statements are inherently political; this was made clear by the solidarity march following January’s Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, where world leaders’ attendance came to proclaim the importance of free speech, despite the fact that many have censored journalists in their own countries.

It is natural for world leaders to condemn political violence abroad. However, they must apply their scrutiny evenhandedly, even when suppression occurs within their countries’ own borders. And while high-profile tragedies such as Nemtsov’s assassination and the attacks in Paris certainly warrant U.S. attention and condemnation, so too do more insidious and local instances of political repression and state-sanctioned injustice.

Some of these injustices, occurring every day on American soil, have similar ramifications for democratic participation. Just last month, The Guardian published an exposé on Homan Square, a Chicago Police Department facility reportedly used to detain and interrogate individuals in an environment shrouded in secrecy and devoid of constitutional rights. The “domestic black site” warehouse is allegedly used by special police units for unofficial arrests. Since these arrests are off the record, police don’t have to comply with official procedure, resulting in multiple reports of brutal beatings and illegal interrogation tactics. When not being questioned, detainees are allegedly shackled for prolonged periods of time without access to an attorney. In one case, an arrestee was reported to be as young as 15 years old. Despite the Chicago PD claiming that there are no unusual operations at the Homan Square location, it is an open secret among attorneys in the city that when a client cannot be found in the record, they are at Homan Square, according to Chicago lawyer Julia Bartmes.

Similar infringements of rights have occurred in Ferguson, MO, and have come to light following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. A Justice Department civil rights report released Wednesday, March 4, reported that the Ferguson Police Department and municipal court are guilty of a “pattern and practice” of discrimination against African Americans. The report found that African Americans bear an inordinate share of police targeting: From 2012– 2014, African Americans made up 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of citations and 93 percent of arrests. Meanwhile, just 67 percent of Ferguson’s population is Black.

The Black Lives Matter movement spurred by the killing of Michael Brown has won presidential shout-outs and governmental attention, but few in power have acknowledged the deeper effects that a discriminatory justice system has. In The New Jim Crow, the bestselling book that Cornel West called “the secular bible for a new social movement in early 21st-century America,” Michelle Alexander makes the often-cited claim that mass incarceration — in tandem with discriminatory courts, policies and police practices that infect not only Ferguson but also the rest of the country — has replaced slavery and the Jim Crow laws as a way to systemically disenfranchise Black people in America. While the overt denial of voting rights to Black citizens would never be tolerated today, the disenfranchisement of convicted felons is widely accepted, even when this demographic is disproportionately Black. In a country that so highly values democratic ideals, disenfranchisement is perhaps the strongest tool to silence dissenters.

Disenfranchisement is even more insidious and widespread in the form of discriminatory voting laws. Laws requiring a state-issued ID as a prerequisite for voting, for example, ignore the monetary and time costs involved in obtaining an ID and disproportionately disenfranchise people of color, working-class individuals, college students and elderly citizens, among others. Similarly, in our Oct. 10, 2014 editorial, “Voting Measures Further Disenfranchise Minorities,” we noted Ohio’s Secretary of State Jon Husted’s not-so-subtle attempts to disenfranchise Black voters by eliminating Sunday voting and, consequently, the popular “Souls to the Polls” program that had been successful in increasing turnout among Black voters. Laws that limit access to the ballot box, while passed under the guise of increasing the integrity of elections, are systematically silencing dissent.

The dramatic nature of Nemtsov’s assassination made condemnation a political necessity in order for Western leaders to avoid appearing to implicitly endorse the Kremlin’s actions. However, as there is no such public pressure and the added political consequence to respond similarly in domestic instances, they too often go ignored by politicians. The West’s reaction following Nemtsov’s death, while justified and important, should not imply that the U.S. is free of equally egregious instances of suppression. And Americans, in keeping a critical eye turned on their elected representatives, must not let their silence go unchecked.